Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin/Women and Children First: On the Front Line of the Chlorine War

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This article was first published as "Women and Children First: On the Front Line of the Chlorine War"in PR Watch, Volume 3, No. 2, Second Quarter 1996. It original article was authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

"The battleground for chlorine will be women's issues," reveals a recently-leaked document from the notorious MBD "public affairs" firm that specializes in targeting and defeating citizen groups.

The document, an example of cynical disregard for human safety that defies parody, is one of several confidential memos delivered to Greenpeace by an anonymous corporate whistleblower. The documents provide a revealing peek behind the scenes at the secretive activities of Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin (MBD) and its advice to the chemical industry "as to how best to counter . . . activists' claims of the evils associated with dioxin as a weapon against chlorine chemistry."

There is nothing accidental about MBD's use of terms like "battleground" and "weapon." Although company president Jack Mongoven does not have a background of military service, he is an enthusiastic student of strategy who can cite from memory the ideas of military theorists such as Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz.

As a PR counselor, Mongoven specializes in intelligence-gathering, sending his staff to monitor activist groups and providing classified reports on their activities to his clients, for whom MBD develops sophisticated strategies to defeat environmentalists and other enemies of corporate privilege.

Military terminology recurs throughout MBD's 1994 reports to the Chlorine Chemistry Council (CCC), which warn ominously that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Ralph Nader's Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) are preparing for "protracted battle . . . PIRG's Green Corps is collaborating with NRDC's Clean Water Network (CWN) on a project to recruit and train activists in an anti-chlorine campaign . . . initially targeting the pulp and paper industry."

According to MBD, "The move by CWN to bring Green Corps into a more active role in the anti-chlorine battle appears to be part of an overall strategy devised by the network's participants to broaden the anti-chlorine attack by recruiting and training enthusiastic young activists to carry the anti-chlorine banner on several fronts. . . . [CWN will] expand its assault by using its constituent groups and other NRDC resources to press attacks on other areas of chlorine chemistry--product-by-product, step-by-step, application-by-application."

This domino theory serves MBD's interests as much as, if not more than, the interests of its corporate clients. MBD knows perfectly well that it is drumming up more business for itself when it uses alarmist rhetoric to paint a sinister picture of the environmental movement.

"All of MBD's suggestions are billable hours," observes Charlotte Brody of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. "The more ideas they come up with, the more money they make."

MBD's memos hint darkly at a nefarious conspiracy masterminded by Greenpeace, noting that although PIRG says it "has no formal affiliation with Greenpeace, . . . there is a long-standing close association and history of cooperation between NRDC, U.S. PIRG, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace on a variety of issues."

According to MBD, this cooperation adds up to "a grand strategy . . . to give Greenpeace a strong lead on the issues but to use various groups--some of which are more acceptable to the mainstream--to appear to lead specific issues, thus giving the overall campaign the appearance of a widespread, generally accepted grassroots uprising against chlorine chemistry."

Sexual Perversions

The world trade in chemicals includes 15,000 synthetic chlorinated compounds, including DDT, dioxin, PCBs, and other pesticides. Chlorinated compounds have raised particular concern because they persist in the environment rather than breaking down, and because they have a record of causing health and environmental problems.

One of the most recent and alarming discoveries has been the evidence that synthetic chemicals can actually mimic and disrupt natural body hormones. A growing body of scientific research implicates these "endocrine disruptors"--half of which are chlorinated compounds--in a range of alarming developmental abnormalities ranging from undeveloped and deformed penises in Florida alligators to same-sex matings among seagulls, dying dolphins in the Mediterranean, and declining fertility in Arctic seals and polar bears. In humans, a series of worldwide studies have shown an alarming decrease in male sperm counts, which have plummeted since 1938 to half the level then considered normal.

MBD's memos to the Chlorine Chemistry Council show that it is aware of these concerns. The memos cite, and do not attempt to refute, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 1994 reassessment of dioxin.

According to MBD, the EPA report "indicated that there is no safe level of dioxin exposure and that any dose no matter how low can result in health damage. New findings on the mechanism of dioxin toxicity show that tiny doses of dioxin disrupt the action of the body's natural hormones and other biochemicals, leading to complex and severe effects including cancer, feminization of males and reduced sperm counts, endometriosis and reproductive impairment in females, birth defects, impaired intellectual development in children, and impaired immune defense against infectious disease."

Rather than concern for these "complex and severe effects," however, MBD is worried about defending the chlorine industry's image.

"One of the most significant recent developments in the anti-chlorine campaign is the National Wildlife Federation's (NWF) publication of Fertility on the Brink, which attributes fertility and reproductive problems to exposure to chlorine-based chemicals," warns Jack Mongoven in a September 7, 1994 memo. He goes on to complain that "NWF uses the issue of fertility as a vehicle to play on the emotions of the public and its concern for future generations."

Worse yet, he adds, "Anti-chlorine activists are also using children and their need for protection to compel stricter regulation of toxic substances. This tactic is very effective because children-based appeals touch the public's protective nature for a vulnerable group. . . . The tactic also is effective in appealing to an additional segment of the public which has yet to be activated in the debate, particularly parents. . . . The tone of the debate will focus on the needs of children and insist that all safeguards be taken to ensure their safety in development. For most substances, the tolerances of babies and children, which includes fetal development, are obviously much lower than in the general adult population. Thus, 'environmental policies based on health standards that address the special needs of children' would reduce all exposure standards to the lowest possible levels."

Baby Killers

This attitude toward children's health has characterized Jack Mongoven's career in public relations since its beginning in 1981, when he was hired by the Nestlé corporation to defend its infant formula marketing practices in the Third World. Activists organized a boycott of Nestlé products, charging that the company's marketing tactics were aimed at disrupting women's natural breast-feeding, killing children by exposing them to infant formula mixed with contaminated water.

Mongoven and a former Pentagon staffer named Rafael Pagan organized the Nestlé response, which developed dossiers on the churches and other groups leading the boycott coalition. Nestlé used this information to play on divisions and rivalries within the coalition, using strategic, minimal "reforms" to talk wavering "moderates" into abandoning the boycott.

This strategy has become MBD's standard method for neutralizing activist groups on behalf of a variety of corporate clients. In its analysis of the dioxin opposition, the New York-based environmental group INFORM emerges as a "moderate" group worth targeting for possible cooptation.

INFORM "has a solid history of working with corporations, citizen groups, major environmental organizations and governments at all levels," states a May 1994 MBD document. "Although it is a relatively small organization with a small budget, it is very well regarded by mainline environmental organizations, government agencies and industry. Some of the more radical grassroots environmentalists think it is too friendly with industry. . . . It also receives support from corporations and government agencies."

MBD also recommends a standard, highly deceptive PR strategy known in the trade as the "third party technique": setting up front groups which appear to be independent "third parties" in the debate while in reality they mouth the client's desired message. As one example of this strategy, the May 1994 MBD memo advises the chlorine industry to "highlight the need for some established criteria on risk assessment" and "establish third-party entities devoted to developing these standards in the near future."

In response to evidence of chlorine-related health problems in children, MBD states, "It is especially important to begin a program directed to pediatric groups throughout the country and to counter activist claims."

Under a section titled "Prevent Medical Associations from Joining Anti-Chlorine Movement," the document advises industry to "Create a panel of eminent physicians and invite them to review data regarding chlorine as a health risk and as a key chemical in pharmaceuticals and medical devices. . . . Stimulate peer-reviewed articles for publication in the JAMA on the role of chlorine chemistry in treating disease. . . . Convince through carefully crafted meetings of industry representatives (in pharmaceuticals) with organizations devoted to specific illnesses, e.g., arthritis, cystic fibrosis, etc., that the cure for their specific disease may well come through chlorine chemistry and ask them to pass resolutions endorsing chlorine chemistry and communicate their resolutions to medical societies."

Breast Beating

MBD expresses particular alarm at the appointment of Dr. Devra Lee Davis, an epidemiologist and expert on the relationship between environmental contamination and breast cancer, to direct the Clinton Administration's policy governing breast cancer.

"As a member of the Administration, Davis has unlimited access to the media while her position at the [Department of] Health and Human Services helps validate her 'junk science,'" the memo argues.

"Davis is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at each of the upcoming . . . breast cancer conferences . . . sponsored by Women's Economic and Development Organization (WEDO)," warns the MBD memo. "Each conference is expected to emphasize a regional interest. . . . Topics include 'Environment and Breast Cancer,' 'Organochlorines, Pesticides and Breast Cancer' and 'Environmental Justice.' "

In response, MBD advises the Chlorine Chemistry Council to shadow and undermine the WEDO conferences. Prior to the 1994 WEDO conference in Dayton, Ohio, for example, MBD recommended that the CCC use another of its PR firms, Ketchum Public Relations, to schedule "editorial board meetings in Dayton prior to . . . Davis' speech," and "enlist legitimate scientists in the Dayton area who would be willing to ask pointed questions at the conference."

These tactics were apparently successful in containing the "Devra crisis." Davis's supposedly "unlimited access" failed to generate even a ripple of media coverage, and pressure from industry contributed to her ouster from the Administration in October 1995.

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