The twisted ethics of trade secrets


It`s time to enjoy another round of that sensational game show that’s so popular from coast to coast: “Twisted Ethics!” Today’s ethical conundrum involves chemical compounds marketed as everything from household cleaners to flame retardant fabrics. The question comes down to this: What’s in that stuff, anyway? Suppose you or a loved one gets deathly ill, causing you and your doctor to suspect chemical poisoning from a consumer product. Naturally, the first thing to do is to contact the manufacturer pronto to learn specifically what chemical ingredients it uses to make the concoction. Under federal law, the corporation has to reveal this essential information. Right?

If you answered “yes,” you’re obviously not a chemical executive, and you’re on the losing side of “Twisted Ethics.”

You see, while the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act requires corporations to register every new chemical ingredient they intend to market, an itty-bitty provision in the law exempts them from having to disclose any information that might hurt their bottom line. The maker of one chemical product containing secret poisons explains that this absurd confidentiality clause “is essential for ensuring the long-term competitiveness of U.S. industry.”

Hmmm. What about ensuring the long-term competitiveness of U.S. consumers fighting to stay alive?

This is not an academic question, for the Environmental Working Group has found that about 17,000 chemicals on the market today are on the secret list. Indeed, the confidentiality loophole requires our government to keep any new ingredient secret unless it can prove in 90 days that disclosure would not harm corporate profits. Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the corporate foot? For information and action steps to help untwist the ethics of this game, go to

Jim Hightower will speak at 7 p.m. on Feb. 4 at the Mercury Café in Denver and at 7 p.m. on Feb. 5 at Boulder Unity Church, with proceeds benefiting KGNU Community Radio. Tickets are $10 for KGNU Listener Members and $15 for the general public. For more information, call KGNU at 303-449-4885. For more information on Jim
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