In November 2002, a small group of scientists gathered at the University of Kansas with one clear mission. The topic at hand: an industrial chemical called n-propyl bromide, or nPB. Their goal, according to the conference agenda and meeting notes, was to design a “research program needed to establish nPB as a safe product.”
“It was clear almost from the beginning that the meeting was not about science,” said Kim Boekelheide, an attendee of the conference and a pathology professor from Brown University. Three days after the conference, Boekelheide wrote a letter to the Kansas researchers asking that his name “not be used in any documents prepared or submitted regarding this activity.”
In the decade after that fateful meeting, nPB grew vastly more popular. In furniture factories throughout the South, this chemical is the glue that bonds foam cushions in most office chairs and home couches. At local dry cleaners, it removes spots from delicate fabrics without getting them wet. Car mechanics use it for degreasing engine parts. The army uses it to waterproof bullets. Spray cans are sold online for household use.
Indeed, the scientists, convened in Kansas by EnviroTech, an Illinois-based company that markets products made from nPB, helped drive the 15-fold increase in nPB’s use from 1998 to 2012, primarily by pushing back against tighter oversight by regulators. The two scientists who played the biggest role in organizing the conference, Karl Rozman and John Doull, had already managed to get an EnviroTech advertising pamphlet published in a peer-reviewed journal, without disclosing who had funded the research. Rozman and Doull were outfitted with a $50,000 budget for the one-day event, and were also paid over $100,000 by EnviroTech to produce research suggesting that concerns about nPB’s health impacts were overblown.
But as nPB found its way into more and more American workplaces, it became clear that something was truly wrong. Across the U.S., factory workers began showing up in local hospitals and emergency rooms, unable to walk and with no feeling in their arms or legs except for sporadic shooting pain or a pins-and-needles sensation. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of people exposed to nPB have been sickened [PDF], many of them left permanently disabled after breathing in the chemical’s fumes, federal records show.
The chemical, it turns out, is a potent neurotoxin that eats away at nerve endings.