The United States as a nation was not yet thirty years old when French immigrant E.I. du Pont de Nemours founded his gun powder factory on the banks of Brandywine Creek near Wilmington, Delaware. Today, DuPont is the second largest chemical company in the world.
Du Pont was a chemist whose royalist family had defended King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. The family’s father had narrowly escaped execution by the guillotine in 1797; later, rebels raided and destroyed their printing shop, and the family was imprisoned for a time. They fled to the U.S. in 1799.
Du Pont started his factory in 1802. By the time of the Civil War, the factory was the largest supplier of gunpowder to the U.S. military.
Today, the company is known for a multitude of synthetic materials such as neoprene, a type of artificial rubber used for diving suits, Orlon™, a synthetic replacement for wool, Mylar™, used for everything from audio tape to decorative balloons, and Kevlar™, the material of bullet-proof flak jackets and high-end brake shoes.
“The Miracles of Science”?
The products that have come out of Du Pont laboratories over the past century may have been miraculous, but many of them have come at a cost to human health and the environment.
DuPont has a checkered past when it comes to corporate citizenship. While current CEO Charles Holliday claims that his company “will never compromise our core values – safety and environmental excellence, integrity, high ethical standards and treating people fairly and with respect,” Curtis Moore, former counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, states that “the company has consistently treated the long-term interests of humanity as largely irrelevant.” In fact, there are very few toxic chemicals in which the DuPont Corporation has not had a major role in developing.
In addition, the record shows that DuPont historically has very little concern for its employees’ health and well-being. In 1999, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) levied a $70,000 fine on the company for failing to record 117 occupational injuries and illnesses during 1997 and 1998, as well as recording other incidents in an improper manner.
The corporate conspiracy to suppress information on the health effects of asbestos is well documented on several websites as well as investigative reporter Michael Bowker’s book, Fatal Deception. The discovery of the “Sumner Simpson Papers” in 1977 proved that asbestos manufacturers deliberately conspired to withhold evidence of the connection between asbestos and respiratory disease such as asbestosis, a scaring of the lungs, or mesothelioma, a rare but deadly form of asbestos cancer.
DuPont was not a manufacturer of asbestos, but such products were used in its facilities. Moreover, the company’s own internal documents prove that its management was well aware of the dangers of asbestos, and chose to hide this information. A memo between Dupont’s company doctors dated 25 October 1966 says:
“We have on record that [blacked out name], a 36 year old employee of your plant expired sometime in 1964 from mesothelioma of the pleura.
Please do a careful investigation and let me know if this individual was ever exposed to asbestos in our employ, how long he was, in what type of work, or any other information that may be available. If at all possible, try to ascertain whether there is any information that this individual worked as a roofer, pipe coverer or any other type of asbestos exposure prior to joining Du Pont. This inquiry is for our own edification only, as no one outside of the Company has raised the question.
We are hopeful you will keep this information most confidential, and let me have your reply as soon as possible. Thank you for your cooperation.”
(As an aside, malignant mesothelioma of the pleura, or pleural mesothelioma, is the most common form of this disease, affecting upwards of 65% of those who are diagnosed with mesothelioma)
As late as 1980, DuPont was attempting to evade responsibility by suppression of the truth. In November of that year, DuPont sent a letter to a physician requesting that he remove the word “asbestos” from a rubber stamp used to mark X-rays.
DuPont was among those corporations that have actively pushed for legislation that would deny asbestos victims the right to sue. Such a bill was proposed by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), but the bill died in committee at the end of the 109th Congress.