Tuck holds panel on implants

by Karen Rose | 11/10/95 6:00am

Colleen Swanson, who suffered severe health problems she believes are directly related to her silicone breast implants, said last night that women need to be warned about the danger of breast implants.

"We don't need breasts to be healthy, and we don't need breasts to be smart, but we do need the right to make informed decisions," said Colleen Swanson, who is the wife of a Dow Corning executive. Dow Corning is the foremost manufacture of silicone breast implants.

Swanson was speaking to a large audience gathered in Cook Auditorium to hear a panel discussion titled "Business Ethics and Communication: The Dow Corning Breast Implant Controversy."

John Little '66, the chief of plastic surgery at the Medlantic Center for Ambulatory Center in Washington, D.C., assured the audience that implants are "absolutely safe." Then Colleen Swanson, who had been sitting in the audience, came before the panelists.

"You cannot tell me you are 100 percent sure that these Dow Corning implants are safe," she said. "I am not a doctor and I am not a scientist. I can only speak from my heart. Do not risk your life with these implants. No one can tell me when the silicone is flowing through my body that it is safe."

Little and four others made up the panel, which discussed the controversy sparked by John Byrne's book "Informed Consent: A Story of Personal Tragedy and Corporate Betrayal Inside the Silicone Breast Implant Crisis."

Byrne's book focused on Colleen Swanson's agonizing health problems, which she and her husband believe result from the Dow Corning silicone she had implanted. Byrne is a senior writer at Business Week.

The program began with clips from several television programs that told Colleen Swanson's story.

Within one year of the surgery, which was performed in 1974, her health rapidly deteriorated. Her symptoms included migraines, extreme fatigue, hair loss, memory loss and rashes on her breast and down her side and arms.

Her implants were removed in 1991 and she was left with two six-inch scars and almost no tissue on one of her breasts.

In 1992 she filed a lawsuit against Dow Corning, which was quietly settled. Her husband, who could not afford to quit, stayed at the company until he could retire in 1993.

Between 10 and 15 studies were conducted by Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Institute, showing the silicone breast implants were safe, despite the occurrence of silicone-related symptoms in many women with implants.

According to a clip from 60 Minutes, Dow Corning was sued for millions and forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allowed the company to stay in business while dodging law suits.

John Swanson, who helped Byrne with his book, said because Dow Corning is not a public company, it was not accountable to the public. He said the company lacks external communication and was not capable of adopting an external policy to deal with the breast implant crisis.

John Swanson said the company's strategy was simply to say as little as they could.

"Silicones are safe, science will lead us out of this, and say no more," he said. "This is the classic case of how not to handle crisis management," he said.

"The perception externally was that the product was causing the problem, and the company should have stepped up to it," he said. "This was not done until too late. Women were not mentioned until it was too late."

Byrne said Dow Corning concealed documents, told women they were crazy and let legal paranoia guide their communication strategy.

"The company didn't express any sympathy for women in pain," Byrne said. "They didn't have to admit the product was bad, but they should have sympathized."

John Nocera, an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor of Fortune magazine, admitted that Dow Corning handled the implant crisis poorly, but said he believes the company has a "moderately defensible case that they have not properly made to this day."

He said although Dow had science on their side, they lacked the trust of the press.

John Swanson attacked Dow Corning for not properly informing the public of health problems resulting from silicone implants. He said that to determine the rupture rate of the breast implants, the company would simply wait for calls from doctors who had removed leaking implants.

He cited a rupture rate ranging between 60 to 70 percent after the implants have been in for 10 or more years.

"This is a long distance from what my wife read," said John Swanson, who accused Dow of "out and out lying."

"Manufacturers have a responsibility to make sure that the products being introduced to the human body are safe, and this was not done," he said.

Little said he agreed the rupture rate was definitely greater than the 1 percent Dow had once maintained, but said he doubted the rupture rate could be greater than 5 percent.

Little warned that people have a tendency to let anecdotal evidence supersede scientific evidence in issues as sensitive as the breast implant controversy.

Little said he bears part of the responsibility as a surgeon. "We should not have trusted the implant manufacturers," he said. "But in all fairness it is easy to look back on the problem with the standards of today."

Despite the crisis, John Swanson said he does not wish to see the company dissolved. "Dow-Corning deserves to be a productive entity that can generate income to pay for its responsibilities," he said.

Richard Shreve, a business ethics professor at Tuck, described the ethical issues the company must face as a result of the controversy.

"There is a dilemma going on within the management of Dow Corning, but I am not convinced there was an intent to mislead the public," he said. "They believed in the science that said they were producing a product that was good for humanity."

Swanson disagreed, saying "Dow Corning did not see any ethical dilemma whatsoever. They though the business was doing the right thing business-wise and otherwise."

Little concluded the discussion, saying that although it is uncertain whether silicone causes disease in women, it is certain that fear, panic and stress do. He said he feared that women who find lumps on their chests will be too scared to go to the doctor.

"One of the worst messages to send out is that implants are dangerous. Breast reconstruction made women with cancer able to face it and tell their doctors," he added.

The panel was moderated by Paul Argenti, an expert in corporate communications and a Professor of Management Communication at the Tuck school.

Despite the diverse composition of the panel, Argenti said, "several key players are missing." These were a representative from Dow Corning, an epidemiologist, a plaintiff attorney and, most importantly, another woman.

Colleen endured 17 years of sickness, unable to pinpoint the problem and never blaming her Dow Corning Silicone breast implants, which she was assured would last a lifetime.

In an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, Chairman and former CEO of Dow Corning Richard Hazelton said Colleen's sickness was not caused by her implants.

Byrne, who is also a senior writer at Business Week, was one of the five panelists along with John Swanson, who helped him write the book.

John Nocera, who is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor of Fortunate magazine, was also part of the panel.

The fifth panelist, Richard Shreve, is a Professor of Business Ethics at the Tuck school.

Argenti began by asking Swanson what corporate communication was like at Dow Corning and how he thought the corporation handled the breast implant controversy.

He added that in the 50 - 1000 operations he performed, he had never seen a case in which silicone gel leaked from the foreign body capsule. He conceded, however, that there might be exceptions.

Byrne explained Dow Corning's reaction, saying that the company was populated mainly by chemists and engineers, "people who think a lot, but don't really feel."