One widespread form of American suicide that goes unreported on the front pages of our newspapers is holding, a steady job.
Eula Bingham, executive director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), reports that at least 100,000 workers die each year — and three or four times that number are disabled — as a result of occupational disease.
More important, these are not workplace accidents (which occur at the rate of about 2,000 a month) but illnesses attributable to the thousands of new chemicals, untested for safety, that are being introduced into industrial products and processes.
Surveys, covering almost a million workers in 5,000 plants, indicate that one worker in four — about 21 million working men and women -currently may be exposed to hazardous substances which can cause disease or death. And twice that number may have had exposure at some point during their working lives, leaving them subject to disablement.
The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare has reported that two out of five cancer deaths in the next thirty years will be caused by six industrial chemicals alone — asbestos, nickel oxides, arsenic, benzene, chromium, and petroleum fractions.
But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of occupational disease is in the area of human reproduction. Dr. Jeanne Manson, a specialist in reproductive toxicology at the University of Cincinnati, calls it an “overwhelming human health issue.” The nation took notice when the thalidomide scandal erupted many years ago, she notes, but “birth defects are only one part of the problem.”
Others include infertility, miscarriages, early menopause in women, and low sperm-count in men. Dr. Ralph Doughtery, of Florida State University, has found that the sperm count for males declined in a 40-year period from 90 million per cubic centimeter to 60 million, and that sperm now contains traces of such toxic industrial chemicals as PCBs, byproducts of DDT, and Benzene. The consequences for future generations remain a frightening mystery.
The menace of occupational disease is invisible — its victims die one by one, usually years after the disease is spawned, and the cause of death or illness can be easily hidden or denied by management.
The widespread tragedy of occupational disease is one of the most critical issues facing Americans today yet it has been virtually ignored by the mass media. The lack of media coverage on this ongoing and increasing problem qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1979.
The Progressive, November 1979, “Dead on the Job,” by Sidney Lens.