Silicone Blues

2 minute read

It was a textbook case of crisis mismanagement. Hit by hundreds of lawsuits and a federal probe into the safety of its silicone breast implants, Dow Corning spent much of the past year hunkered down in a defensive crouch — stalling investigators, sitting on evidence and minimizing the complaints of women who said the devices caused them pain, disfigurement and serious autoimmune disorders. By the time the Food and Drug Administration called for a ban on the implants last month, Dow Corning’s health and safety problem mushroomed into a public relations disaster.

Now, belatedly, the company that produced most of the 1 million to 2 million implants for American women is attempting to make amends. Having hired former Attorney General Griffin Bell to review its past handling of the safety issue, it moved quickly last week to put forward a new, more open corporate face, replacing intransigent chief executives and releasing hundreds of documents that it had tried for months to keep out of the public eye.

To a large degree, Dow made a virtue of necessity. The FDA had threatened to make the documents public anyway, and some of the most damaging information had already leaked to the press. Still, the firm’s moves last week reflected a new public relations savvy, if not a heightened corporate conscience. First it stopped the hemorrhaging of bad news by putting out all the documents at once. A few hours later, it announced the bold management changes.

Dow Corning’s new chairman, Keith McKennon, a veteran of Dow Chemical’s Agent Orange and dioxin crises, promised to cooperate with the FDA and hinted that the company might even help women who wanted their implants removed and could not afford the surgery. But Dow Corning’s problems are not over. Last week a congressional committee asked for a criminal investigation into the firm’s handling of implants. Among the evidence: a 1980 memo from a Dow Corning salesman complaining that the company’s decision to put “a questionable lot of mammaries on the market . . . has to rank right up there with the Pinto gas tank.”

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