In this issue of C&EN, Senior Correspondent Lois Ember offers her second comprehensive overview of the status of Responsible Care, the chemical industry's ambitious program to upgrade its health, safety, and environmental performance and so improve its standing with the public (see page 10). Her first was in 1992.
A lot has happened in these past three years. All six of the program's management practice codes - on community awareness and emergency response, pollution prevention, process safety, distribution, employee health and safety, and product stewardship - have been adopted and are now being implemented. According to the program's self-evaluation process, progress is being made under all of them.
Some quantitative measures, such as of toxic releases, show continued improvement. Also there is certainly more industry/public dialogue now - especially at the plant/neighborhood level.
Progress has not been uniform, however. The enthusiasm with which Responsible Care is being implemented varies sharply from company to company. But as Ember points out, whatever the success to date, "The chemical industry in its own self-interest took a courageous first step when it embraced Responsible Care. With the adoption of the program, it opened itself up to continual public scrutiny and judgment - the only major industry in the U.S. to do so."
A lot of this scrutiny is coming from a 16-member public advisory panel appointed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA). An active, outspoken, and very independent group, this panel continues to hammer the industry on two critical issues related to its credibility with the public. One is the need for third-party validation of the industry's performance. The other is the need to ensure that the industry's advocacy and lobbying efforts are in harmony with - and in no way undermine - the spirit of Responsible Care. CMA, which coordinates the Responsible Care program, says it is working on both issues.
Building the industry's credibility is central to any hope of improving its image with the public. And this is an area in which progress has yet to be made. According to CMA studies, Responsible Care may have, at best, stemmed the decline in the public's perception of the chemical industry. But it remains dreadfully low. Chemicals rank ninth out of 10 industries in public esteem, beating out only the tobacco industry.
This finding is in line with results from a poll commissioned by C&EN this April. Conducted by Opinion Research of Princeton, N.J., it solicited the views of a national sample of 1,007 adults living in the continental U.S. Only 18% of respondents said their opinion of the chemical industry improved over the past five years, while 29% reported it worsened.
However, there is some encouraging news from the C&EN poll. For instance, more than 90% of respondents believe that a strong chemical industry is either "very" [56%] or "somewhat" [35%] important to the economic health of the U.S. A total of 71% believe the chemical industry does an excellent or fair job of ensuring that its products are inherently safe or used safely. Although 39% do not believe that chemical makers are socially responsible and good neighbors, 55% believe they are. And the split on whether the chemical industry operates most of its plants in safe and environmentally sound ways is at least a standoff - 45% say yes, 45% no.
The most lopsided, and probably most telling, result from the C&EN poll concerns government regulation of the chemical industry: 35% think it is about right, only 5% think it is too strict, but 53% believe it is not strict enough.
This is something the chemical industry might want to bear in mind as it seeks to build public trust through its enormous investment in Responsible Care. The public may today be sympathetic with the concept of smaller, less intrusive government. But, as the poll warns, if the chemical industry is tempted to exploit this mood to mess with the way it is regulated, it should do so very, very carefully.
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