Tales of poisons and public health.
By Keith Kloor
and Denia: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution
Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle
Remember those early, heady days of the Bush administration? In quick succession, George W. pulled the United States out of the Kyoto global-warming treaty, reneged on his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, and suspended strict new standards for arsenic in drinking water. The last action especially cheered the mining industry, whose operations often release arsenic and other toxic-metal runoff into groundwater. President Bill Clinton had instituted the tough new arsenic rules late in his second term, after the National Academy of Sciences determined in a 1999 report that high levels of arsenic in water cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer. Public outrage over President Bush's action forced the administration to quickly relent and keep the existing arsenic rules intact.
Since then the White House has advanced a stealthier attack on environmental regulations (see "Read the Fine Print," in "Field Notes"). Of particular concern to public health experts is the administration's recent stacking of federal advisory committees with scientists and consultants connected to industry. Many of President Bush's recent appointees to two environmental committees that help set guidelines on acceptable levels of exposure to lead, pesticides, and other contaminants have long-standing ties to chemical and petroleum companies.
That such scientists are now in a position to influence federal policy on environmental-health issues will come as no surprise to those who read Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner. As the authors lay out in two extensively researched case studies, the lead and plastics industries have long manipulated government regulatory levers and public opinion like master puppeteers.
Consider the disturbing history of lead-based products in Americawhich Markowitz and Rosner masterfully reconstructbeginning with the promotion of Ethyl gasoline and Dutch Boy paint during the first half of the 20th century. Despite early and accumulating evidence of the toxicity of lead and lead additives, advertisements relentlessly hyped them as healthy and integral to the country's economic and social well-being. Gasoline ads went so far as to equate lead with vitamins, portraying children in cars eating fruits and vegetables. Another ad for lead touted its variety of uses in the home, including in water pipes and freshly painted walls, and featured the tag line "Lead helps to guard your health."
In the 1920s, when workers in lead factories began dying from lead poisoning (one front-page New York Times headline: "Odd gas kills one, makes four insane"), industry downplayed the incidents and ratcheted up its marketing campaign to assuage public fears.
When pediatricians started reporting incidents of lead poisoning in children (from ingesting peeling, lead-laced paint, for instance) in the 1930s, the industry brushed them off and quashed calls for regulation by coaxing government overseers to sign off on company-sponsored research that demonstrated lead's safety.
Since the 1960s more and more doctors have been documenting lead paint's damaging effects on childrenincluding neurological impairmentonly to watch industry-paid scientists challenge their findings. Markowitz and Rosner, historians at New York City's John Jay College and Columbia University, respectively, liken the story of lead to that of a "guerrilla war fought by small groups of doctors and a few public-health officialsagainst the giant lead corporations."
Of course, such behavior is no longer so shocking or even revelatory. Many environmentalists know that Rachel Carson endured vicious and slanderous attacks after revealing the dangers of pesticides in the early 1960s. And before that the chemical industry ran magazine advertisements with dancing vegetables singing "DDT is good for me-e-e!"
Eventually, after the growing body of evidence became too damning to ignore, lead was phased out of paint, in 1978, and out of gasoline, starting in the mid-1980s. In the years that followed, public health researchers noted a nationwide decrease in lead levels in children's blood. (People had stopped breathing leaded gas fumes.)
The book's other featured case study chronicles an outright cover-up by the chemical industry during the mid-1960s, when companies hid their own research showing that vinyl chloride, a crucial component of plastic, had possible cancer-causing properties and was linked to a degenerative bone disease in workers. Although this sorry episodeand to a lesser extent, lead's snake-oil historyhas been previously reported, Deceit and Denial is so muscularly researched that it reads like a scholarly criminal indictment. The authors have marshaled an impressive body of evidencefrom archival materials to legal documentsin depicting industry's disregard for worker safety and public health. Their exhaustively detailed account is at times numbing, but in the end it adds up to a tawdry history "strikingly similar to that of the asbestos and tobacco industries."
For Devra Davis, a scientist and public health advocate who has often crossed swords with industry, environmental pollution is a personal matter. She hails from Donora, Pennsylvania, a small factory town that made national headlines during one week in 1948, when 20 residents died and 7,000 peoplehalf the town's populationwere hospitalized with breathing ailments. Gases from Donora's zinc smelters and steel mills got trapped in the town's air, forming what was then referred to as a dense and mysterious "killer" fog.
In When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, Davis revisits the tragedy and describes the toll it took on her family members, many of whose lives were thereafter plagued with heart diseaseeven after moving out of Donora. She connects the plight of her family, and other Donora residents, with that of the 60,000 to 120,000 Americans who she asserts are killed every year by air pollution. And this, she is quick to note, is after pollution levels "have dropped dramaticallynearly fiftyfoldfrom the days when most urban areas could be smelled before they could be seen."
Still, as Davis observes, "environmental contamination is never listed as the cause of death on anyone's death certificate," so pollution remains largely an invisible, unacknowledged killer. "The National Center for Health Statistics can tell us how many mothers have anemia, diabetes, or hypertension," she writes. "It cannot tell us how many of them live within one mile of a hazardous waste dump, drink water whose contaminants exceed recommended limits, or regularly breathe dirty air."
Davis's lifelong missionas recounted in her book (a 2002 nonfiction National Book Award nominee)has been to reorder the way society measures pollution and its effects on human health, so that the links are better identified. Her own research as an epidemiologist has helped pave the way. But she is the first to admit that a new public health paradigm will be no easy feat, since science proceeds cautiously, shying away from pronouncements of certainty (which industry, on the other hand, has used to great advantage).
Nonetheless, when it comes to industrial pollution, Davis, like Markowitz and Rosner, calls for proactive regulations that err on the side of caution. Davis, in particular, asks: Why does society wait for dead bodies or sick people to count before banning dangerous chemicals or severely limiting the amount of toxic emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes? After all, she reasons, "we do not wait for buildings or bridges to collapse before reinforcing them or inspecting them for safety."
With industry-friendly scientists now the dominant voice on the federal advisory committees that are charged with examining the links between environmental pollutants and human health, it would seem that Davis and like-minded advocates have a tough challenge ahead. But their work serves as a welcome beacon to those who wish to follow in their tracks.
OF THE WILD
in the Internet Age: Threats and Opportunities
Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World
© 2003 NASI
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