Breast implant nightmare


The Dow Corning Corporation is now learning first-hand a lesson that should have been ingrained in corporate policy. Stonewalling on safety complaints to federal regulators questioning your products' potential hazards is a quick way to the trash heap. That this could happen after Johns Manville Corporation's asbestos debacle, after the Dalkon Shield fiasco bounced the A.H. Robbins Co. into bankruptcy, is astounding.

Irresponsibility in high circles put Dow Corning in this position. Thus, it is a prudent move for the company to replace its top executives. Internal memoranda, finally released after great pressure, make it clear that Dow Corning's managers knew for decades about serious problems involving their breast implants. One memo, written in 1985 by a staff researcher, notified managers that "we have excessive personal and corporate liability exposure" without further testing of the implants' chemical formula, which could affect a large percentage of the 2 million women worldwide who have received implants.

In plain language, that means the company and its individual executives could be sued for a lot of money. Doctors had been making complaints since at least 1971, when a New Orleans patient's breast became irritated after a mastectomy and implant surgery. The implant had ruptured and its fluid, supposed to be of a thick consistency, had oozed out. Failure to address such complaints openly, and to inform doctors and their patients that the stuff in the implants could cause ongoing problems, should subject the managers who ignored the warnings to more than civil liability. Certainly to more than merely being replaced at the helm.

Such insensitivity makes a mockery of President Bush's recent pledge to suspend regulations allegedly impeding American corporations' competitive thrust. It yanks the rug from under the lobbyists for doctors, manufacturers and insurance companies, who claim liability laws unfairly hamstring their clients. Without the pressure of lawsuits, without the Food and Drug Administration's late call for hard data about the safety of Dow Corning's implants, the scandalous memoranda now made public might still be buried in corporate files.

No one knows yet just how much risk there is for the women who have received Dow Corning's implants, and that uncertainty will fuel continued fears. The FDA's demand for a registry of recipients will help doctors track the problems and gauge their severity. And the new Dow Corning chief's apparent willingness to pay for implant removals for women who want them should, if carried through, allay some of the complaints. But getting to this place at all is a disaster. The public, and the estimated 1 million American women who have already received implants, should not be left wondering whether time bombs are ticking in their breasts, dripping destruction.

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