Monday, January 25, 2016

A chemist speaks out on the DuPont PFOA story

On the other hand, this is probably the wrong
approach. Credit: NYTM
There have been two stunning articles about the history of PFOA pollution in Parkersburg, West Virginia, one from the Huffington Post, another from the New York Times Magazine. Here's a response to the NYTM story from a chemist:
As a chemist and a native Delawarean, I am inspired by the discoveries of the DuPont Experimental Station — birthplace of nylon, neoprene, Kevlar and Tyvek, all a 15-minute walk from my high school. 
Chemistry has revolutionized our lives through drugs to cure our illnesses, batteries to power our smartphones, fertilizers to grow our food and plastics to be formed by our imaginations. Yet with discovery can come unforeseen consequences: thalidomide, algal blooms, DDT, endocrine disruption and ozone depletion. 
Timely safety testing, proper handling and transparency must accompany chemical innovation. Only then can we live up to DuPont’s old slogan: ‘‘Better things for better living through chemistry.’’ Andrew L. Chang, Palo Alto, Calif.
I have more thoughts on the PFOA story, but I haven't quite put them together yet. That said, I find it difficult to disagree with Dr. Chang. Personally speaking, it's very difficult for me to be a chemist and not feel at least partially affected? responsible? tainted? by DuPont's actions. Readers, have you read the articles? Your thoughts? 

52 comments:

  1. I had a lot of emotions reading that NYT piece, and I have to say that I share your sentiments about feeling responsible. In discussing it with my friends we sort of washed our hands of it, saying that the decisions to dispose of waste in that way etc. etc. weren't made by researchers but by businessmen. I don't know that for sure. But, even if it were true, chemistry research is obsessed with performance, and I have no idea how to properly evaluate the industrial scale and/or environmental safety of anything I make (provided I could ever successfully make anything...)

    I guess my feeling is that, while I would like to believe that I would have done better had I been in charge, I probably wouldn't have, and that makes me feel very :|.

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  2. This is kind of why I side-eye chemists and other STEM folk who are dismissive of the public's fear of "chemicals." This is the type of thing they're talking about, yet the scientific community is so quick to dismiss with jokes about dihydrogen monoxide, or "organic" sugar. It's not that synthetic materials are inherently dangerous, it's that the companies producing these chemicals value profit over public safety that's dangerous: Lax or inadequate safety measures, inadequate (secret) lab-rat exposure tests, aggressive cover-ups, and all the money going to PR and legal instead of R&D. That's where the danger lies, and that's where the public's fear (rightly) stems from - even if they don't have the chemistry/business education to know who or what's to blame.

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    1. There is a difference between being aware that "the companies producing these chemicals value profit over public safety" and believing the garbage Food Babe writes. Clearly, the former is something everyone, including scientists, should be wary of.

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    2. Right, but my point is that chem-phobia and (in your example) following questionable sources are a misplaced consequence of this distrust - it fuels the fire. It's important to understand where the uninformed are coming from, and addressing the root of their concerns, instead of dismissing them for not knowing what they're talking about.

      Maybe it's too armchair psychologist for most chemist's taste, but if we just listened to what people are saying - reading between the uneducated lines to get at what they mean, and what reasoning and experience they're backing their claims with - we could start to understand how our work is affecting the people around us. And if it's is for the better or for worse.

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    3. I do see where you're coming from. And I'm far from dismissive of the gap in knowledge between the scientific community and the public at large. It is absolutely our responsibility as scientists to educate the public about both the benefits and dangers that our work can produce.

      The concern that large, for-profit entities could be exploiting the common man is certainly valid, and it goes far beyond the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, with examples pre-dating the turn of the last century (pre-Roosevelt era). That doesn't make all corporations evil (but all corporations, like all people, are capable of doing evil).

      The problem with chemophobia is that it paints all chemicals with the same brush. That makes it very difficult to have a conversation. If the uninformed can't get the distinction between good chemicals (water, air, nutrients) and bad ones (PFOA in this instance), there isn't really a place to start talking. I accept that some portion of the public are never going to get past that point, and I don't bother trying to make them understand reality.

      They are just looking for a boogeyman, and it's a distraction from the real issue which has much more to do with capable, honest, and fair regulation than it does one industry or another. The EPA should have been able to intervene, but for whatever reason (incompetence, corruption, both?) sat by and let DuPont dump a toxic substance into the water despite having the issue brought to their attention. Not too different from the Flint, MI water situation. Or the 2008 disaster on Wall Street if you substitute the SEC for the EPA.

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    4. People aren't likely to have sufficient knowledge to know what to be rationally afraid and what not to, because we specialize, and detailed knowledge of lots of things takes a long time to acquire, and eliminates learning about other fields in the necessary depth. So, I assume that people focus on what they know and try to find trusted sources for what they don't. The problem comes when the people who know aren't honest with them, as has happened in the past - once that happens, the well of knowledge that would give people the information to distinguish between valid and bogus threats is poisoned; they can't trust the people who do know, and so can't use them to determine who knows and who doesn't. I don't know how to get around this, unfortunately - being open and honest helps, but people have continuing incentives not to (as always) and takes much longer than the attention span for an argument.

      I assume there are some people who are irrational for dumb reasons - they don't know and don't care, and just want their favorite narrative to win. I just imagine that some people might have a more difficult intellectual position, that they don't know and fear it and aren't just being stupid. Perhaps having friends who know stuff and are unlikelier to lie can help, but since there's lots of particular topic of fear, the concentration of people who can perform such a function is low (but non-zero).

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    5. I admit I've been dismissive of the general public's concerns because my perceptions are colored by only having worked in the chemical industry during the last few decades. At a safety-obsessed big company where dumping waste down the sink is strictly forbidden, it's easy to conclude that the public is worried over nothing, and easy to forget that the same super-safe big company was probably dumping waste out back in the old days.

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  3. If I were on the inside, I would have been screaming at the top of my lungs - probably fired for doing so, and I'm totally good with that.

    They couldn't spare anything from the $1B annual profits to incinerate rather than dump the PFOA waste down the drain. Forget personal injury, the responsible parties should be imprisoned. Not gonna happen, I know.

    This is the rotten cherry on top of the s**t sundae that is the DuPont/Dow merger.

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  4. The Dupont Parkersburg plant makes/made a whole lot more than just PFOA, and the effluent described in the article certainly contained quite a concoction. Is there a smoking gun that ties the health problems specifically to PFOA?

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  5. I find it amazing how small the fines were compared to what VW is going to have to pay, or what for example BP had to pay after Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

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  6. I read the article, and was especially appalled by the prior knowledge of DuPont of the effects of PFOA and the efforts of DuPont to squash and gag its opponents.

    But then I asked myself if the NYT knows the background of the current CEO of the ACS. It's hardly possible that I am the first person to ask this question. Are there any possible ramifications?

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    1. I agree. I about choked when I read the response by DuPont's lawyer, who bragged about how "proactive" DuPont was about determining the dangers of PFOA. Sure they were proactive. Then management hid the data and lied, lied, lied.

      Though this whole matter is utter peanuts compared to DuPont's biggest sin - leaded gaasoline. That probably cost our nation trillions due to the loss of IQ and increase in violence that is caused over several generations. I feel sorry for the individuals involved, but I can't see a DuPont death sentence as unjust at the corporate level.

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    2. Good call Generic Chemist. From the wiki page for Thomas M. Connelly Jr.

      "He joined the company in 1977 as a research engineer at the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware.[4] He had assignments in Kentucky and West Virginia before starting his overseas assignments."...

      "He then returned to Wilmington in 1999 and was named vice president and general manager of DuPont Fluoroproducts."...

      "He was promoted to Executive Vice President, the Chief Innovation Officer and a member of the Office of the Chief Executives of DuPont in 2006. In this position, he had responsibility for DuPont’s Applied BioSciences, Nutrition & Health, Performance Polymers and Packaging & Industrial Polymers businesses."

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    3. Looks like he was at least directly involved at least in the decision to continue making PFOA after 3M decided to phase it out and build a new plant, all the while knowing it was dangerous. As well as having underlings come up with bogus threshold levels of 150 ppb as safe and strong-arm the FDA after the first settlement in 2002. If there is anyone that you can point to and say: "It wasn't a faceless chemical company, but it was this guy right here", then this photogenic cartoon villain would be it.

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  7. I wonder who the people are behind all these decisions. The articles only ever name the 'good guys' or those who raised concerns at Dupont but were ignored. There are some names on the memos provided... but can't track them down on the Internets. Who is this A.C. Huston who offers to buy the waterworks to hide the pollution? Or the executive meeting in 1984 with Besperka, Bennett, Riddick, Gleason, Hegenbarth, Serenbetz, Raines, Kennedy, von Schriltz, and Ingalls, who first decided to hide everything at that meeting? I'm guessing most of them are now dead, but it would be cool to know their story, if a reporter ever tracked them down. I'm a sucker for stuff like that, even if it's cheap self-justifications and reminiscing from some old guy on his death bed at the ye olde' retirement estate in Ft. Lauderdale.

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  8. Is the current DuPont restructuring part of a plan to minimize financial liability for PFOA problems?

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    1. No, because DuPont had alread spun off its fluoropolymer business and some other units as the designed-to-go-bankrupt-and-screw-creditors "Chemours". This was announced in 2013 and was completed last July. So liability for this mess now lies with them, for the most part.



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    2. Except that that didn't help Kerr-McGee avoid asbestos liability. If it's clear that they didn't give them the appropriate resources to survive (or that they were dumb enough to have somewhere that they were intended as a sacrificial pig), they might still get tagged, anyway (or, since the opponent is the government, might get tagged anyway).

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    3. Liability doesn't disappear when things are spun off, but it makes it a lot more complicated and creates even more delays, which of course the perpetrators want.

      Which legal fiction is "responsible" for this mess? Chemours or DowDupont? And who will be responsible next year, when DowDupont splits in three? And if Chemours cannot pay its fair share, what then? Resolving this is a mess, and that is exactly as intended.

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    4. No, I was just saying that whatever companies are left standing (and their shareholders and employees) will probably take the blame eventually. The executives and the people who organized this probably won't.

      I wonder why people will choose to invest in companies in the long term if all it gets them is the costs imposed by management to cover policies profitable in the short term.

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  9. This message was sent to DD employees in response to the NYT Magazine story. It was met with total disgust by the employees – at least all those I work with.

    From:Bulk Mail [Bulk.Mail@dupont.com]
    Sent:Wednesday, January 06, 2016 7:26 PM
    Subject:An Important Message from DuPont General Counsel Stacy Fox

    Dear Colleagues,

    Earlier today, The New York Times Magazine published online an in-depth profile on the plaintiffs’ attorney who is suing DuPont in the PFOA litigation.
    With the first personal injury cases now underway, plaintiffs’ attorneys have been actively generating media stories, even though the issues around PFOA are decades old. As is typical in similar instances, the media find plaintiffs’ attorneys to be highly productive sources of sensational and emotional stories, often resulting in biased and misleading articles in publications interested in this kind of material. I updated you last year on some of these articles.
    In terms of this article, while we provided several on-the-record statements and background materials to the reporter to provide some balance and context, the article is highly biased and unbalanced and contains numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterizations. Because this is a profile of the plaintiffs’ attorney, the article only includes his perspective and fails to reflect information we provided regarding our responsible use and handling of the chemical.
    Contrary to the article’s portrayal, DuPont always acted responsibly based on the health and environmental information that was available to the industry and regulators about PFOA at the time of its usage. Therefore, we want you to know the facts about PFOA and DuPont’s responsible handling of this issue.
    • PFOA was a processing aid used to produce many industrial and consumer products for over 60 years and it was widely used by many companies, including DuPont.
    • The knowledge base around the chemical, its environmental footprint and its health profile has evolved during this time period. Regulators, including the U.S. EPA, have been learning along with us about the environmental and health impacts of PFOA.
    • In the past 10-15 years, independent studies have shown PFOA to be present in low levels in people's blood. As a result of these findings we have worked with regulators, scientists, our employees and residents in our plant communities to assess and address the health and safety concerns.
    • While federal and state environmental authorities never established regulations on the use, handling, emissions or disposal of PFOA, DuPont dedicated significant resources to its own, ongoing studies of PFOA, and set its own extremely conservative exposure guidelines to guard against any harm.
    • In 2004, DuPont reached a settlement to resolve a class action lawsuit involving PFOA that included medical monitoring for local residents and water filtration systems in six area water districts to ensure that PFOA is filtered out of the drinking water. We continue to fulfill our obligations regarding these programs.
    • Even before studies regarding potential health effects were complete, DuPont, along with other companies, voluntarily created a global stewardship program to reduce emissions and to phase out the manufacture and use of PFOA.
    • DuPont completed phasing out all uses of PFOA in 2013. DuPont worked closely with regulatory agencies as it developed the replacement materials, providing them with health, safety and environmental data.
    It is important to note that litigation in this matter continues. Allegations will be made by plaintiffs’ attorneys and reported in the media, however, we will address these issues in court.
    While it is never easy to see DuPont misportrayed in the media, we ask that you remember that much of what is being reported about DuPont’s handling of PFOA is inaccurate and misleading. As a result, please do not allow these lawsuits to become a distraction to you or your business.
    Thank you for staying focused on our Core Values and delivering on our commitments.
    Sincerely,
    Stacy Fox

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    1. "Regulators, including the U.S. EPA, have been learning as slowly as we could manage about the environmental and health impacts of PFOA."

      Fixed.

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  10. About 12-13 years ago, DuPont was in discussions with the Weinberg Group in Washington, DC, on how to handle the PFOA mess. This firm is one of those Public Relations/Damage Control places, who spin stories to make their clients appear 'less bad'. Their most famous clients have been tobacco companies.
    A copy of a letter from the Weinberg Group to DuPont surfaced during EPA discussion with the former; in the letter, a strategy is laid out to use 'junk science' to minimize the concerns around PFOA.
    Here's a discussion of the letter:
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/images/6/67/Weinberg.pdf
    Let's just say that DuPont doesn't come off as the grand environmental steward that they paint themselves to be.

    My former work site (now shuttered) has soil contaminated with PFOA, and the site sits right by a river. DuPont has been ordered to clean the site up.

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  11. Hi Uncle Sam,

    Thanks, I really did mean it as an open question... what do I know about organofluorine chemistry? Recently, DuPont posted an advertisement for a organofluorine chemist, and so my guess is that they are still active in this business. Bearing in mind my ignorance about the relation between PFOA and tetrafluorethylene polymer, last night I checked out Wikipedia on this.

    My observation was that the process which converts PFOA to the actual precursor to tetrafluorethylene actually had a really shitty yield. There was some mention of side products' structures. Maybe they are in the effluent which was discharged into the rivers and landfill? Last night, I checked the interactive map for PFOA content in groundwater where I grew up: it was shockingly high, although it wasn't clear where the samples were taken from

    If this the background of Thomas J. Connelly is in fact correct and relevant, it is interesting that he should be appointed as CEO of the ACS. Maybe some of those documents which that lawyer sequestered would shed some light on his tentative roll in that all.

    The number of people who have either had serious health problems or prematurely died as a result of PFOA exposure is two orders of magnitude greater than in the Harran/Sheri Sangji incident.

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    1. "...the process which converts PFOA to the actual precursor to tetrafluorethylene actually had a really shitty yield." That is not correct. PFOA, n-C8F15CO2H, is not a precursor to tetrafluoroethylene (TFE). PolyTFE, pTFE, is made by the emulsion polymerization of TFE in water. PFOA was used as the surfactant/emulsifier for that emulsion polymerization process. Some of the PFOA in the environment comes from this process. PFOA is also generated by the degradation of fluorotelomers, molecules of the type F(CF2CF2)nCH2CH2X (n>4). Those molecules were also manufactured by Dupont, some of them at Parkersburg. The fluorotelomers went into a variety of applications and have been replaced with the shorter chain F(CF2CF2)3CH2CH2X analogues.

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    2. So what makes the shorter chain ones less bad? The fact that they disappear faster from the environment due to being more volatile? I don't think volatility would really matter that much once they were in the body though, so you would still want a really low concentration in waste water. I think I made a Wittig salt out of one of those bromides (for the X) before. Lovely crystalline material and the 19FNMR looks good. Too bad the Wittig coupling is shit though. Maybe they should have just burned all that shit like 3M told them to.

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    3. Hi Anon 5:13 PM,

      Ops you got me. Like I said, I'm not an organofluorine chemist and may have read the Wikipedia article too fast. But your description explains where all of the PFOA-containing sludge came from, right?

      Uncle Sam's question leads to several other ones:
      How much PFOA is used in the polymerization process?
      Is there some sort of (commercial?) advantage of using PFOA over other emulsifiers?
      Is the item, e.g., cookware, treated by a solution of TFE, water and PFOA?

      Just curious, thanks.

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    4. Uncle Sam - The shorter chains are supposed to be "less bad". Reduced tox problems, reduced lifetime in the environment, and significantly reduced propensity to build up in and linger in animal tissue. https://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/88/8805cover.html

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    5. Generic Chemist:
      How much PFOA is used in the polymerization process? I don't know and I'm not sure how much WAS used. That is probably proprietary information. PFOA is no longer used in this process in the US, by agreement with the EPA. I believe it is still used in, for example, China.
      Is there some sort of (commercial?) advantage of using PFOA over other emulsifiers? Yes. PFOA works by far better than any other surfactant. The surfactant has to help form TFE micelles in water. In addition, it is a free radical polymerization and the surfactant can not have abstractable C-H bonds that will terminate chain growth. PFOA satisfied these criteria better than any other options.
      Is the item, e.g., cookware, treated by a solution of TFE, water and PFOA? I do not know the details of that process, perhaps it is in Kirk-Othmer or someplace similar. I'm certain that the pTFE is separated, washed, and then dried to a dry powder before use or shipment thus removing unreacted TFE, the water, and the PFOA. There may be trace PFOA left in the raw pTFE (= Teflon) but it is significantly less than what was present during the polymerization.

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  12. As a PhD organic chemist that grew up in Parkersburg I am at a loss for words after reading the articles. We used to row past the plant during long crew practices in high school. There is something that I cant quite articulate about the whole situation that makes me sad down to my bones. The roots run deep for a plant like that in a place like Parkersburg. It was impossible to not know someone that worked there and several of the "nicer" housing developments had high concentrations of Dupont engineers. Local tradesmen were also well-supported with work at the plant. Because of my background, I have traditionally played the role of chemical/pharmaceutical industry defender when the topic has come up in discussions with folks back home. Now I'm not really sure what to say.

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    1. I've pretty much stopped bothering with defending them. I was OK with paying high prices for prescription drugs back when the money was used to develop new ones, but Pfizer and the other remaining pharma companies aren't exactly doing that today.

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    2. Just today, the BBC covered a treaty which addressed the companies which relocate their HQs overseas to tax havens (e.g., Ireland, Luxembourg, etc.), instead of where their products are actually sold. Think of Pfizer, Starbucks or Google. The BBC coverage showed photos of the assembled EU trade ministers but also stated that 31 countries are participating. There are 28 countries in the EU. Hopefully those in North America make up the difference.

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    3. Forcing companies to pay according to the tax code in their largest market would be quite a boon for the US - at least in the pharma industry. Might be complicated, but what about paying according the their revenue in each individual country. You get a tax break in Ireland... for sales in Ireland. Of course pharma companies are going to hate it, but it seems like the most fair way to approach it. You profit in a given country, you are taxed on that profit according to its rules.

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  13. Hi Phil,

    You hit the nail on the head (paying according to their revenue in each individual country). I believe that was the intention of that treaty. When you write "pharma companies", I think that you really meant hedge fund managers and MBAs (feel the Bern).

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    1. True! Lots of people inside the pharma companies aren't greedy asshats, but they are influenced the the greedy asshats you refer to.

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  14. "Lots of people inside the pharma companies aren't greedy asshats"

    Indeed. I'll bet many biopharma employees tell their bosses "please reduce my salary by 25% and put the money toward lower drug prices for patients"....

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    1. Totes bro. Unless you're willing to take a pay cut from a salary that has barely kept up with inflation in the last decade to help the needy, you're a greedy son of a you know what.

      Cutting other people's salaries (or laying them off entirely) so your investors can buy a third yacht, that's just fiduciary responsibility.

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    2. Near as I can tell (https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/careers/salaries/cen-salary-article.pdf), the avg PhD chemist in industry pulls in $126K/yr. I assume even 25% less than that is enough to live comfortably and well better than the average American? OK, you may need to wait an extra year between beemmers (and get a 3 series instead of the 5, shudder....) and maybe cut the winter trip to a week, but you're not in it for the money, you're in it to help people (not like those meany-pants MBAs at evil hedgefunds)!

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    3. I note the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for those who work in the pharmaceutical industry are considerably lower, even if you take into account the B.S./M.S. chemists: http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes192031.htm

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    4. $80-90K, if I'm reading BLS #s correctly, seems low to me (if I recall staring salaries for PhD chemists in btech were in the 75 to 90 range back in the early oughts). To be clear, I have nothing to back up my gut feeling.

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    5. Where pharma employees rank in comparison to the median salary is actually beside the point. BT knows full well that companies should expect to pay well over the median salary to an employee whose qualifications are held by less than 2% of the workforce.

      The expectation that the shareholders should enjoy ever increasing profits while wages stagnate is a double standard.

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    6. No no, pharma workers are not greedy asshats and work just to improve patient health at a cheap price, they're not interested in money like those bad greedy MBA hedge funders.

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    7. False dichomotomy, strawman, conflation - you're a walking textbook for logical fallacies, BT.

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    8. Then, again, at the center of this discussion are just emotions. Logic is applicable only to understanding the consequences of allowing emotions to take full control of our lives.

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    9. Apologies for ad hominem. I should have said, "your arguments read like a textbook of logical fallacies." I actually don't doubt that BT is a reasonably intelligent person.

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    10. Intelligent people often will rationalize, in some fashion, any behavior they do, even if its ethically reprehensible.

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    11. This is why it's important to guard oneself against fallacious logic. To paraphrase Feynman, it's important not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

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    12. Got it, makes sense. It's not greedy when a pharma employee seeks to maximize her/his compensation, but if the MBA hedge funder does the same it is greedy. The logic is impeccable!

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    13. I think we've reached the useful end of this thread.

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    14. I don't think the ACS data is truely representative of industrial salaries, for two reasons

      1: The more money you earn, the more spare change you have to pay for an ACS membership

      2: Many industrial members have their dues covered by their employer. This is probably more like both for higher-ranking and thus paid employees, and for bigger and thus higher paying corporations.

      The bench PhD with the crappy $60k a year job probably isn't an ACS member. The big-firm mid-level manager PhD probably is.


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  15. Dupont is facing 40 trials per year over this. The article is ambiguous as to liability - Dupont vs. Chemours - would be nice to hear from any lawyers here about this question.
    https://finance.yahoo.com/news/dupont-faces-40-trials-over-225446834.html

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  16. One good guidebook for knowing how to behave as an employee of such organizations is Albert Hischmann's "Exit, Voice and Loyalty". You can either resign and fail to have a say (exit), speak up and have a say but run the risk of being fired (voice) or go along and make little difference (loyalty).

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