Issue Date: January 14, 2008
ACS Role In Ethics
Gordon Freeman wrote that he was penalized by his university for allotting 4% of his lecture time to a discussion of ethics (C&EN, Nov. 12, 2007, page 8). I hope that it is an unusual situation that will become less common in the future. His letter evokes the question of how actively ACS deals with ethics in the chemical professions.
I was reminded of the ACS role in promoting ethical behavior in the use of chemistry by a passage in Bill Bryson's book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (Broadway Books, 2005). In it, he describes the perils of lead and how exposure to lead substantially increased with the commercialization of tetraethyl lead additives to gasoline. This exposure began with the formation of Ethyl Gasoline Corp. by DuPont, General Motors, and the Standard Oil Corp. of New Jersey to manufacture and market "ethyl."
Bryson notes that, as workers began showing signs of lead exposure, Ethyl Corp. "embarked on a policy of calm but unyielding denial that would serve it well for decades." He later describes how Clair Patterson, who tied ambient lead concentrations to the lead additives in gasoline, "suddenly found research funding withdrawn or difficult to acquire. The American Petroleum Institute cancelled a research contract with him, as did the United States Public Health Service, a supposedly neutral government institution."
Most professional organizations have a code of ethics requiring that the good of the public be a first priority of its members. I would be very interested in knowing, from historians of ACS, how our organization reacted to the formation of Ethyl Corp. and the health impacts to its workers as well as to the advisability of putting so much of a known neurotoxin into the environment. I would like to believe that ACS would react today with appropriate warnings (to government, industry, the public) if it understood the actions of industry to imperil society.
Where an industrial or individual member of ACS is known to be causing environmental harm or harm to workers' safety and health, the society should act in a public way to censure such behavior. Such action befits an international professional society dedicated to the public good.
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