Frustration. That is the best way to describe the experience of reading The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment. Page after page reveals the history of industries spewing toxins into our air, water, and soil and a government more apt to look the other way. Presenting the conflict through the lens of individual action and human cost, authors Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter provide an engaging and unsettling account of U.S. pollution.
Turning to the first page of The Polluters, the reader is presented with an image that will haunt the pages of the book: the funeral procession of a victim of the Donora (Pennsylvania) Smog. The burial takes place as smoke from the offending factory rises along the horizon.
The authors chronicle decades of U.S. pollution, thoroughly debunking the idea that global warming and polluted, noxious rivers are scourges only of recent years. The authors focus on the source, industry, and the actions polluters repeatedly took in order to protect their bottom-line over the public well-being. The following examples appear in the book’s list of pollution events:
In the early 1900s, lead arsenate was a popular pesticide. In 1925, an English family was poisoned by arsenic in American apples. Britain threatened to ban American fruit, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture began inspecting exported apples. The level of arsenic allowed in domestic apples was higher than those exported, because enforcing the international standard would “ruin western apple growers,” the authors said, adding that this fact that was not revealed to American apple eaters. Enforceable regulations on lead and arsenic were not passed until 1950.
DDT, a pesticide that came into use during WWII, was released for use by the public. The chemical was known to cause cancer in lab tests. A report by the National Institutes of Health was released the year before, revealing the effects of the chemical on nerve cells, brains, muscles, kidneys and livers. But, the Industrial Hygiene Division “trumpeted the safety of DDT,” and it was permitted to enter the market. Regulations at that time permitted any poison to enter the market, provided it was properly labeled.
Dense smog from Donora’s steel and zinc plants turned daylight into a toxic twilight. Twenty people died, 44 were hospitalized. The Industrial Hygiene Division released the official investigation on the incident, blaming the smog on an atmospheric freak. The authors point out, however, that the Division specifically favored scientists known to support industry positions. A health survey stating that a slightly higher concentration of toxins would have left the town “almost devoid of life” was denied funding and ignored in the final report.
An electrochemical company dumped hazardous chemical wastes in Love Canal (New York). The company then covered up the dump and donated the land to build a school, leading to the 1978 evacuation of over 700 families whose homes were built near the contaminated dump. Congress enacted the Superfund law, which required companies that irresponsibly dumped their wastes to take responsibility for the cleanup of the toxins, even if the dumping occurred years before.
Spill, Study, Stall
In a cycle the authors label “spill, study, stall,” polluters call for more scientific research in order to stall regulations while they continue to poison the environment. The authors pull the curtain back on industries that continually ignored warnings from scientists, manipulated data, paid off researchers, and used economic power to de-tooth every federal, state, or local attempt to regulate contamination. The list seems unending. Industries guilty of pouring arsenic, Freon, cadmium, and lead into our environment did so until disaster struck.
As the authors point out, little progress has been made toward breaking this cycle. Viewed through the lens of recent months — months filled with news of the BP oil well gushing oil into the Gulf, toy recalls due to cadmium and lead paint, and the failure of yet another climate bill — the book paints a dreary picture of the future.
Villains and Heroes
Despite the tone of frustration arising from the continual failure to control pollution, the authors maintain an engaging prose and humanize the often abstract issue of pollution. The Polluters presents a parade of individuals involved in the history of pollution and regulation. Some are villainized, such as scientific researcher Royd Sayers, whose work, the authors suggest, obscured the dangers of pollution and paid for his three luxurious homes. Others are celebrated, such as Rachel Carson, whose book, Silent Spring, inspired a wave of public outrage against polluters.
The final chapter suggests a slight improvement, including the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in the 1970s. But we are still far from the ideal. This year, yet another climate bill failed to limit the greenhouse gases heating up our earth. The failures of regulation extend from the pages of history and reach into today’s newspapers.
The book closes with a quotation from a 1954 speech by Kenneth Banks, the vice president of a chemical manufacturer and one of the industry “good guys.” Banks asked his audience over fifty years ago:
Are we going to recognize and put forth the effort to meet the challenge of altered environment? … The greatest technology we can achieve will do us little good if it causes us to live on a rubbish heap.
I closed the book with those words ringing in my ears. The history of pollution shows the cozy relationship between polluters and those who should protect the public. Protecting industry before the environment is an entrenched routine. That much is made clear through the pages of this book.
A Guideline for Change
But the book also documents the repeated statements made by scientists free of the influence of industry: We have the technology to fix this. It is a question of application, not ability. The only questions remaining are: Is our generation willing to break from the cycle and demand better regulation? Will we demand protection for out environment before pollution turns it into a “rubbish heap”?
This book traces the history of industrial pollution, but its message is meant for the future. It lays out a simple guideline for change: independent research and well-informed regulations that acknowledge the importance of our environment. The Polluters is a provocative read, tailor-made for anyone interested in pollution but reluctant to slog through chemical equations and technical jargon.
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