“Corporations are like protean bacteria; you hit them with accountability and they mutate and change their names.” --Doug Anderson
Years ago I was employed by a plastic manufacturing company. Every time I punched my time card at the time clock, I would read the banner above the time clock, “Plastic is the solution to pollution.” I was amused yet annoyed by the irony of such a motto. It was obvious to me that plastic polluted. I saw the pollution created by the manufacturing process. I witnessed some of the workers leave the building covered in a white chemical dust. They were the employees who worked directly with the chemicals in the compound room that created the company’s plastic. None wore any kind of protective clothing. The plastic that was being manufactured was called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and it was implicated in a specific rare liver cancer (angiosarcoma). It is now believed to have a 20-year latency period from time of exposure to cancer diagnosis. PVC is now considered a risk factor for a long list of cancers. Workers who handled the PVC were at the highest risk of a liver cancer called angiosarcoma (45 times more likely than other people to get this kind of cancer). Inhaling PVC particles, skin contact, and ingesting it (for example, drinking water contaminated with PVC) are health risks for all people, not just for workers in the plastic industry.
Every day of the 6 months I worked at that company, I parked my car and walked across a little bridge to the company’s massive brick building. It was winter in New York State and the creek that ran under the bridge was frozen. Giant pipes ran next to the creek and rainbow-colored ice spilled from these pipes into the creek. I figured out much later that the rainbow-colored ice must have been the chemicals used to create the plastics we molded. That creek flowed into the Mohawk River which flowed into the Hudson River. I can hear Pete Seeger singing, “sailing down my dirty stream, still I love it and I’ll keep the dream, that some day though, maybe not this year, My Hudson river, will once again run clear.”
It was the winter of 1973 and I was hired by this company to work on their Ford Torino assembly line. They were hiring women for that particular assembly line. I believe I was paid $2.10 per hour (minimum wage was $1.85/hour) for standing 8-10 hours per day assembling plastic strips to be pressed together, heated, and cooled. I stood in one spot on a cement floor that had a large clock above me. Time stood still as I watched the minute hand inch its way around the clock face. Watching the clock made for long days. I hated that clock and the job. I convinced myself that the job was great, since good-paying jobs for women with little work experience had been hard to find. But the work was repetitive, dangerous at times, and the treatment of women workers was childish. If a woman had to go to the bathroom, she would have to raise her hand for permission. I don’t remember any males having to raise their hands to go to the bathroom.
I got to know some of my co-workers at our two 10-minute breaks during the day and at our 30-minute lunches. I learned rather quickly that the assembly line runs to the sweep of the company minute hand. Most of the other women were older than me, married, and in their 30’s and 40’s. What struck me about these women was their attitude towards life. They had a mental and physical strength that deserved respect. Many spoke of their children and their desire for their children to have a better life than working in some factory job. Some women were setting aside most of the money they earned for their children to go to college. Would their children understand the sacrifices of these women? Does a society respect the sacrifices women make to give their children a better life?
It was over 40 years ago that I worked for the “plastic is the solution to pollution” company. I was there for a half a year but it felt like lifetime. I promised myself that I would never work another assembly line. And I never did work for another assembly line. I have had other bad jobs, but never as bad as that job. After working that very short time, I have an aversion to the smell of plastic.
Writing about my long ago job experience triggered an interest in seeing, if the company still existed. I found an abstract, “Health-hazard evaluation determination report No. 73-123-298, Campbell Plastics, Inc., Schenectady, New York.” https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/nioshtic-2/00074986.html
The evaluation was done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) which was part of the CDC and the US Department of Health. The investigation occurred on 4 dates; and 2 of those dates were, when I was employed by the company. “The survey regarded exposure by inhalation of smoke, fumes, and vapor from work with polyvinyl chloride, toluene, and methyl ketone, and also skin contact with the same agents.” According to the report 40% of the workers had “minor eye and respiratory irritation.” I knew nothing about this investigation. So this paper is a surprise to me. It makes me glad I only worked there for 6 months.
Interestingly, I found another website that stated that the manufacturing plant I once worked for was the site of an EPA Superfund Site. Superfund sites are areas that have been contaminated with hazardous waste that has not been managed properly.
So the “plastic is the solution to pollution” company left a polluted toxic mess that the US Government had to clean up. And we, the people, pay the government through our taxes so that the mess gets cleaned up. Did the company pay anything to clean up their mess? I don’t know. The arrogance of a company that dumped chemicals (known to be toxic and carcinogenic) into waterways and lands in the area, while espousing that plastics was the solution to pollution is beyond belief. The lack of regard for workers is a sad reminder that a company that does not care about the environment probably does not care about the health and well-being of its workers.
Tell a big lie, repeat it often enough and people will believe it. Corporations often tell big and little lies through their company mottos, slogans, and advertisements. Do we question those mottos, slogans or advertisements? Or accept it because we have heard it so many times? Unthinkingly, we may accept what corporations tell us about their products, even when we suspect that it is just propaganda. We want to believe what we are told because it is so much easier to go along with corporate fantasy. When the fantasy we are told to believe in collides with reality, we may reject the reality rather than face the discordant nature of our world.
How many companies or corporations use false or distorted statements to sell their products? The doublespeak or cognitive dissonance created by a plastic company to sell its products and its philanthropy is not uncommon. Companies in the human milk business such as Prolacta, Evolve, Medela, etc use similar tactics.
Are their slogans, mottos, or advertisements supportive of breastfeeding? Or does their financial interest in human milk take precedence over breastfeeding support. Why does Medela consider itself “a long-time champion of breastfeeding?”—stated on their website. Is that a true statement? I consider La Leche League a long-time champion of breastfeeding. Why does Medela use the same sales tactic as the infant formula industry? They say on their website, “Medela’s breast pumps are the number one choice of healthcare professionals and healthcare facilities worldwide, including 80% of US hospitals.” The infant formula industry sells its products based on being the number one choice of pediatricians and hospitals. Who do we believe—the infant formula industry? Medela?
Medela says their products are based on research by world leading lactation experts. Those world leading lactation experts appear to me to be funded by Medela (some are listed inventors to Medela patents) or the Family Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation (a corporate foundation that owns the Larsson Family’s companies, including Medela)
Meanwhile Prolacta Bioscience states that they are a for-profit milk bank. Yet the FDA classifies their products as exempt infant formula—human milk-based infant formula. Do you believe that this company is a milk bank or are they actually a human milk-based infant formula company? Are we feeling some cognitive dissonance?
Evolve, a company that is selling its bifidobacterium to breastfeeding mothers, based on research on human milk states that they are “Pediatrician Recommended,” and “Clinically Proven.” Clinically proven means through the company’s funded research. While selling their product to breastfeeding mothers, they have partnered with RB (Reckitt Benckiser who bought out Mead Johnson) to sell the bacteria to the infant formula industry.
This world of ours is influenced by corporate propaganda. The company paints a picture through words, music and art that often conflicts with what we know of as reality. We read it, hear it and see it so much that we start to believe what the corporation wants us to believe. Sometimes the message is so subtle that we believe what is against our best interests.
Years ago I saw a colorful rainbow of ice sculpted into a frozen creek. I didn’t see the toxins pouring into the earth and the water. I was so entranced by the man-made spectacle of rainbow ice that I never dreamed that I was standing on a toxic time bomb. Despite the company’s slogan, plastic is not the solution to pollution. We now know that plastic is pollution.
Copyright 2020 Valerie W. McClain