09/07/2005 07:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Toxic Stocks: Chemical Companies Are (Still) Poor Corporate Citizens

The chemical industry has just published its annual disclosure of its environmental performance, touting how hard its member companies are working to reduce toxic emissions, improve employee safety, and generally “go above and beyond government requirements and openly communicate their results.”

It may sound good and responsible and noble, but -- surprise! -- they are telling only one side of the story.

According to a different study released at about the same time, chemical companies make “generally poor efforts to record and evaluate substance risks or to develop environmentally sustainable replacement substances.”

It’s been more than two decades since the Hooker Chemical Company used Love Canal, New York as a toxic dumping ground and Union Carbide Corp. killed more than 3,000 people from a gas leak at its Bhopal, India plant, but it’s clear that the global chemical industry still plays by its own rules.

The independent study, by the German investment rating agency oekom research, evaluated 23 chemical companies from nine countries against nearly 200 criteria, assessing how they cope with social challenges and environmental risks. (The complete study costs 3,990 euros.)

According to Oliver Ruedel, an analyst at oekom research and author of the report:

"As a rule, companies provide little or no information about the substances examined and assessed by them. The lack of transparency is just one indication of the fact that the industry is still far from managing chemicals in a way that meets health requirements and is environmentally sustainable.”

For example, Ruedel cited the “mainly critical stance” of the chemical industry toward the EU’s newly enacted European chemical registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals (REACH) program as “further evidence of the industry's limited willingness to show greater commitment toward product responsibility.”

In addition, Ruedel found that “only a small number of pioneering companies” are developing greener substitutes for the approximately 90,000 chemicals currently being produced from crude oil. Imperial Chemical Industries and DuPont were cited as positive examples of companies making products from renewable raw materials. “Their efforts appear particularly well thought through in that the companies are also setting up programs aimed at providing for the sustainable cultivation of crops,” according to oekom.

All told, it’s a pretty poor showing for the industry, which during most of the last decade labored under pathetically low public perception. (At the beginning of the 1990s, the industry's own polls found that only 14% of Americans viewed chemical companies favorably. Only the tobacco industry was less trusted by the public.) These days, the industry seems to be getting more of a free ride by the public, and even by environmentalists. Some of the biggest players of the early days (such as Hooker Chemical) aren’t operating under those names, having either gone out of business or swallowed up by larger firms (as Union Carbide was by Dow Chemical). And other big names of the era (like DuPont and Monsanto) aren’t pure-play chemical companies anymore, having diversified into “life sciences” and other businesses.

So, where are the critics of today? Certainly not the American public, which seems to have swallowed whole the industry’s concept of “Responsible Care” -- the name of the environmental initiative the industry adopted in the late 1980s. And while a succession of studies have revealed our growing chemical body burden -- scientists estimate that everyone alive today carries within her or his body at least 700 contaminants, most of which have not been well studied -- the protests and picketing of the past seem to have moved on to other arenas, like climate change.

“No other companies in the country do more than the members of the American Chemistry Council to collect environmental, health, safety and security data and make that information available to the public,” bragged Jack N. Gerard, president of the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade group, in releasing his group’s report this week. “Going beyond government reporting requirements differentiates ACC members and aims to increase public confidence in our operations.”

But the research shows that, “Responsible Care” notwithstanding, the industry remains neither responsible nor caring.

Maybe it will be the financial markets that helps turn things back around. As summarized by oekom's Ruedel:

From such a complex and risk-laden industry as the chemical industry I expected greater transparency overall in the treatment of information and data. This was an opportunity for the companies not only to enhance their credibility but also to increase confidence in their products. Of the 23 companies looked at, we can recommend only seven for investment to our customers.

Ruedel won’t say which ones, and I’m not about to fork over 3,990 euros.


Late-breaking postscript: According to yet another just-released study:

The amount of toxic chemicals released into the air is inversely related to the release of information on toxic emissions to the public -- in other words, the more available information on toxic emissions is, the less toxic emissions occur.