A Dirty Business

The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment, by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter, Oxford University Press, 223 pages, $27.95

Few people today will recall what happened to the little Pennsylvania town of Donora in the fall of 1948 or what happened afterward, when it appears that two crimes were committed -- one by industry, the other by science acting as an accomplice.

Just days before Harry Truman's surprising presidential electoral victory over Thomas E. Dewey, a cloud of toxic smog settled over Donora, killing 20 people and sickening half the population. The toxic emissions almost certainly came from a nearby zinc plant owned by U.S. Steel, and at first it seemed to be enough of a scandal and tragedy to jolt the Truman administration into action. But then U.S. Steel went to work, commissioning studies by a sympathetic researcher named Robert Kehoe, who used various scientific ploys to guide the inquiry away from the company. Somehow the studies that Kehoe undertook never pinpointed the source of the cloud, and he ended up concluding the event was an "act of God caused by unusual weather conditions." Three years later, Donora received a small settlement of just $256,000 from U.S. Steel.

This story, told in The Polluters, by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter, is remarkable only for the scale of the tragedy and the contemporary attention it received. The relationships among industry, science, and government were typical of the period.

"Industry cannot be expected to make mountain brooks of creeks ... our air cannot everywhere be clear and clean," a University of Florida chemist named Alvin Black told a conference of chemical -- industry employees in 1954. For a half-century, polluting companies had successfully staved off government regulation, lawsuits, and critical scientific analyses; the Manufacturing Chemists Association even claimed at the time that air pollution was "not a serious or critical menace to public health." It all goes to show just how far we've come in the quest to protect the public and the environment from pollution -- or does it?

That's a question sharply posed by a reading of The Polluters, a history of the American struggle for environmental protection before the triumphal 1970s, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act and many other landmark environmental laws. America's outlook on pollution went through a dramatic transformation, beginning around 1962 with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and carrying on through the early 1970s, when under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, the federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency and finally acquired the necessary scientific expertise and legal authority to regulate pollution.

Yet polluters have continued to use the same basic techniques to undermine regulation. Ross and Amter label the most effective strategy "spill, study, and stall": If you don't want to stop polluting, just insist that the science is uncertain and there's no basis for action. Cook up a few questionable studies that reanalyze the data, divert attention to other possible culprits, or call for new research. The tobacco industry didn't invent these gambits; as Ross and Amter show, the chemical industry used the same techniques to fight the regulation of tetraethyl lead in the early 20th century and the regulation of air pollution in the 1940s. The agenda is the same in the current climate debate.

In the story that Ross and Amter tell, polluters didn't just seek to undermine scientific results that could cause them trouble; they also sought to discredit the researchers who became a nuisance. One of them was the German-born toxicologist Wilhelm Hueper, a pioneer in our understanding of environmental cancer and a chief source for Carson's Silent Spring.

Originally employed by DuPont, Hueper proved too dogged in his attempts to study the dangers of the company's own products, and DuPont fired him in 1938. You might think that his new employer, the federal government's National Cancer Institute, would be more hospitable to such inquiries, but in the late 1940s that wasn't the case. Hueper's public calls to arms about environmental cancer risks triggered yet another crackdown from his superiors, especially once he began probing the dangers of hexavalent chromium, used in pigments and paints and now known to be a cause of lung cancer (think Erin Brockovich). His research was shut down within the government on two separate occasions: That's just how it went back then. Dissenting public-health scientists were repeatedly outgunned by industry, and government itself was usually co-opted and on industry's side.

Ross and Amter are certainly not friends of the chemical companies, but they deserve credit for also being able to see things from the industry's standpoint. They particularly focus on DuPont, the Goliath of the industry. Executive Lammot du Pont and his staff did want to do a better job on pollution. Working on the Manhattan Project in Hanford, Washington, from 1942 through 1946, the company diligently disposed of high-level waste. Similarly, in installing a plant on the Guadalupe River in Victoria, Texas, in 1949, the company undertook what Ross and Amter call a "pioneering" survey to learn how wildlife might be affected. Executives at DuPont wanted to care for the environment; they just didn't want to be told how to do it. And they didn't want government taking control of any of their operations.

That frame of mind helps to explain the differences that Ross and Amter bring out between the chemical industry's internal and public positions. Internally, the Manufacturing Chemists Association earnestly sought to improve its members' handling of pollution, while publicly the group denied there was any problem at all.

The Polluters does not always unfold as the most felicitous narrative, but by taking us back to the period before the great environmental awakening, the book provides an invaluable historical perspective. There's no doubt from this saga that we still need strong government regulation: 100 years of experience shows that companies cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. But we can go further. We probably also need more explicit sanctions to prevent science from being cynically used to stall public policy -- the research equivalent of filing frivolous motions in a courtroom. The prostitution of science is much too easy. It happens far too often. And at this point, the evidence is overwhelming that it's a systematic strategy that industry will continue to employ unless there are penalties to be paid.