Last modified on 29 April 2011, at 15:34

Professionalism/Myron Mehlman and Mobil Corporation

Dr. Myron A. Mehlman, formerly Mobil's Director of Toxicology and Manager of its Environmental Health and Science Laboratory, is a renowned toxicologist with substantial work experience in toxicology for both governmental and commercial employers. He completed his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. He has held faculty positions in biochemistry at Rutgers University and the University of Nebraska. Before joining Mobil he served as Chief of Biochemical Toxicology for the Bureau of Foods, United States Food and Drug Administration, and has held other responsible toxicological positions in the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare and in the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health. Since 1960, Dr. Mehlman has published over 160 articles in the field of toxicology and biochemistry.[1]

HistoryEdit

In 1989 Mobil Oil Corporation appointed Dr. Mehlman to the National Academy of Sciences to represent Mobil in toxicology matters internationally. Dr. Mehlman's represented Mobil's interests before regulatory agencies, trade and scientific associations, and academic institutions. In September 1989, Dr. Mehlman was scheduled to give a talk to corporate managers of Mobil's Japanese subsidiary, concerning the health effects of gasoline inhalation and exposure. During the presentation, a member of the audience informed Dr. Mehlman that the gasoline sold by Mobil’s Japanese subsidiary contained levels of benzene in excess of the regulated limit. Dr. Mehlman warned the managers of the subsidiary that these concentrations of benzene were too high to sell and needed to be reduced immediately. When the Japanese managers objected to his demand, Dr. Mehlman responded with an ultimatum:

“We in [the] United States and at Mobil[,] consider benzene as a very poisonous chemical-dangerous and toxic.   And [these] concentrations are too high.  [T]hey have to be reduced.”… “You reduce it or do not sell it.”

The day he returned to the states, Dr. Mehlman informed his superior that the benzene levels were too high to sell. Immediately, he was placed on probation and investigated for the misuse of company resources. He could not access his lab and all employees were not allowed to answer his phone calls. Mobil later fired him on the grounds he had misused company personnel and supplies to promote his wife’s scientific publishing business (Princeton Scientific)[2].

Dangers of BenzeneEdit

3D Representation of Benzene

Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil and a common additive in gasoline . It is a known carcinogen, and exposure to benzene poses severe health risks. The American Petroleum Institute states that, "it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero." [3]The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies benzene specifically as a potent human carcinogen. The major effects of chronic exposure to benzene are seen in the blood and are known to result in different types of cancer.[4] It was first noted to induce cancer in human in the 1920's. In 1979, the chemical industry recognized the cancer inducing properties of benzene despite historic references to this relation in prior medical literature. The chemical industry tried to discredit earlier animal studies claiming that the results obtained were not relevant to humans. [5]

Myron Mehlman v. Mobil CorporationEdit

Since 2002, all states have provided some protection for whistle blowing, in addition to many federal laws and acts. At the time of this case, only two-thirds of the states had any whistle blowing protection. The Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) is New Jersey's.

In 1997, Dr. Mehlman sued Mobil, claiming protection under CEPA. Mobil denied this and filed a counterclaim against Princeton Scientific Publishing Co., Int. There were two main issues in the court case: 1) Did Mobil have reason to fire Dr. Mehlman, namely for misusing Mobil's resources and personnel? 2) If not, does CEPA's protection apply in this case and cover a statement made in a developed foreign nation?

Mobil argued the first issue stating that Dr. Mehlman was fired for misusing company resources for the benefit of his wife's publishing company, thereby creating a conflict of interest. Mobil alleged Dr. Mehlman used Mobil personnel to edit articles, used Mobil's mail service for Princeton Scientific's books and articles, used the company's postage, hired consultants for personal lawsuits, and even used Mobil grants to support publishing patrons. Dr. Mehlman argued that in the many instances he dealt with Princeton Scientific at work, he acted on Mobil's behalf. As Mobil is a large corporation that does research, they often published articles in Princeton Scientific, explaining Dr. Mehlman's interaction with the publishing company. Dr. Mehlman testified that on many occasions he would get approval from superiors to take such actions, always acting in the best interest of Mobil. On some allegations, such as whether or not Mobil employees were reviewing articles, Dr. Mehlman had no comment. The jury eventually found that Mobil was already interested in firing Dr. Mehlman before these charges were brought up, dismissing them as fair grounds for dismissal, leading to the biggest argument in the case.

CEPA's purpose is to "“To protect and encourage employees to report illegal or unethical workplace activities and to discourage public and private sector employers from engaging in such conduct.”[6] It does this by protecting employees from repercussion if they sufficiently show they reported an unethical act, then consequentially had adverse actions taken upon them.

The initial jury sided with Dr. Mehlman and awarded him $3.5 million in compensatory damages as well as $3.5 million in punitive damages. However, the initial trial judge disagreed. CEPA's intent is to stop companies from doing something that "goes against the mandate to protect the public health."[2] Since Japan is well developed and can regulate itself, the judge did not want to allow CEPA to protect a statement aimed at a capable foreign entity. In order to not set a bad precedent, he took away the compensatory damages. Both Dr. Mehlman and Mobil wanted an additional $3.5 million, so they both appealed the decision.

In the Appellate Division of New Jersey's Supreme court, Dr. Mehlman argued that CEPA's intention was not to make lawyers out of conscientious employees, but rather encourage people to speak up when they see something wrong. The court agreed stating "Mehlman identified a clear mandate of public policy which he reasonably believed that Mobil had violated when he objected in September 1989 to the distribution in Japan of gasoline with an excessive benzene content by Mobil's subsidiary MSKK." This reinstated the initial jury's decision, giving Dr. Mehlman a total of $7 million.

Ethical ConsiderationsEdit

Mobil's StanceEdit

Mobil expects its employees to abide by certain ethical guidelines. These guidelines are intended to ensure honest and trustworthy practices. The company's Code of Ethics says, "Even where the law is permissive, the Corporation chooses the course of highest integrity." It further states, "the Corporation cares how results are obtained, not just that they are obtained."[7] These two statements emphasize Mobil's commitment to honest work and avoiding shortcuts. Employee integrity is encouraged within the company. "The Corporation's directors and officers support, and expect the Corporation's employees to support any employee who passes up an opportunity or advantage that would sacrifice ethical standards." This explicitly sates that employees must always uphold ethical standards in their work. This directly contradicts Mobil's reaction to Dr. Mehlman's actions in Japan, where he warned managers of the hazard of escalated levels of benzene in the gasoline. One other notable excerpt emphasizes that, "safety procedures are not to be compromised to achieve other goals." This last ideal again contradicts Mobil's actions against Dr. Mehlman. Dr. Mehlman's decision was based purely on safety concerns. He wanted to ensure that the Japanese subsidiary's employees would not suffer from high levels of benzene exposure. Mobil's supposed ethical stance did not lead their actions in this case. [7]

Mehlman's StanceEdit

Gauging Mehlman's opinions and ethical beliefs were difficult to obtain because unlike other facts surrounding the case, they were not found in a case summary. Mehlman was interviewed by Joy Horowitz, in her novel Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School. In the interview Mehlman claimed that the current accepted levels of benzene in the U.S. are too high. Working with Eula Bingham, former director of OSHA, he has been campaigning to lower the standard. Mehlman cites a 1984 study to back his efforts, in which a scientific review panel in California concluded that there were no safe levels to establish thresholds for benzene exposure. He also notes that the last study focusing upon exposure threshold levels was conducted in 1987 and since then no real effort has been taken by the government to research the topic more closely. From this time in the late 1980's, the American Public Health Association has urged Congress to provide the necessary funding for an OSHA study that is up to date. Within the scientific community there is no longer a question whether benzene is capable of causing cancer and other illnesses. The main opposition to his efforts arises from defense attorneys of chemical industry firms that aim to stall progress by injecting uncertainty in findings in court cases. He states that debates are manufactured and do not cite the facts that need debating. The ability of defense attorneys to interject question into debates remains to be the main problem of establishing restrictions on benzene levels. When asked about the possible reasons why an individual would allow such high levels of benzene, Mehlman replied that the individual must be influenced by external parties or economic factors. As inferred from Mehlman's interview, levels need to be decreased and special interests are currently in the way of creating restrictions on accepted levels.[8]

SummaryEdit

This case study is an illustration true professionalism. Myron Mehlman placed his career in jeopardy by reporting Mobil's blatant violation of national regulations. Dr. Mehlman's actions place him amongst a large contingent of fellow whistleblowers. Whistleblower protection laws (e.g. CEPA) encourage employees to voice their concerns by eliminating the fear of repercussions. However, these laws may encourage employees to abuse their power due to the settlement fees awarded to the whistleblower by the courts.

ReferencesEdit