Multinational Monitor

APR 2003
VOL 24 No. 4


Chemical Trespass: The Chemical Body Burden and theThreat to Public Health
by Stacy Malkan

The Legacy of Lead: Pervasive Poisoning, Suspect Science and the Industry Effort to Escape Liability
by Wendy Johnson

Mercury and Bush’s Not-So-Clear Skies: The Administration Plan for More Coal Plant Mercury Emissions Over a Longer Period
by Zach Corrigan


Fighting for Asbestos Justice in Brazil
an interview with Fernanda Giannasi


Letter to the Editor

Behind the Lines

Tony Mazzocchi, Environmental Health and Justice Crusader

The Front
Southern Solidarity

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Response to the Columbia Shuttle Disaster

Book Review
The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

Names In the News


Book Review

The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution
By Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner
Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002
408 pages; $34.95

Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos ó
Why It is Still Legal and Still Killing Us

By Michael Bowker
Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 2003
323 pages; $24.95

Reviewed by Robert Weissman

Deceit and Denial offers a devastating account of the history of cover-ups of massive harms to public health by the lead and vinyl industries. Drawing on internal industry documents obtained in the course of lawsuits against the industries, the book paints a shocking picture of corporate indifference to human life.

Lead paint was outlawed in the United States in 1978. The process of banning leaded gas began the same year; leaded gas was completely phased out in the United States by 1996. Markowitz and Rosner show that industry knew of the terrible public health injuries inflicted by lead more than 70 years before the federal government finally acted to ban the use of lead in paint and gas [on the health harms of lead, see "The Legacy of Lead," in this issue].

The U.S. Congress considered a ban on white lead used for paint in 1910. In 1913, pioneering occupational physician Alice Hamilton documented the dangers to interior painters from using lead paint, and called for its ban from interior work. By 1919, an industry trade journal called attention to viable alternatives to lead pigments, such as zinc oxide. By the late 1920s, there were a variety of alternatives to lead paint, marketed as "nonpoisonous" in contrast to hazardous lead pigments.

In the 1920s, a new and eventually much larger-scale use of lead emerged: as an anti-knock additive to gasoline. Tetraethyl lead was the invention of General Motors and produced by contract by DuPont and Standard Oil of New Jersey (which later became Exxon). In 1924, GM and DuPont created a joint venture, Ethyl Gasoline, to produce and market the substance.

Workers at a Standard Oil of New Jersey plant making ethyl soon showed severe neurological evidence of lead poisoning. They began hallucinating, and many died. The plant became known as the "House of Butterflies," for the workers' frequent hallucinations of insects. The workers' extreme conditions became front page stories in the New York Times and other major media, and New York and Philadelphia moved to ban leaded gas.

The lead products industries faced a crisis. A combination of accumulated scientific information and high-profile incidents showed the dangers of lead to humans, and the particular hazards of the key uses in paint and gasoline.

The industry response, Deceit and Denial shows, was despicable, and continued for decades. First, the lead product companies moved to cast doubt on the science surrounding lead poisoning. Both the leaded gas and paint companies hired their own researchers, and challenged the findings of independent scientists on the nature of the harms of lead and lead products.

Heavily funded by industry, University of Cincinnati Professor Robert Kehoe for decades was the most prominent researcher in the field. He had the greatest resources and access to industry information. Through numerous testimonies and interventions, he deflected regulatory efforts. In Ethyl's commissioned history, a company official said Kehoe "bought us time."

Key scientists who discovered the harms of lead, and tried to advocate for lead controls or bans, faced enormous pressure. Herbert Needleman, a physician who did breakthrough research on the effect of lead on children beginning in the 1970s and on through today, was subjected to concerted attacks in the early 1980s by industry-allied scientists who charged him with scientific misconduct. It took years for Needleman to clear his name and for his work to receive credit.

Second, to shift blame in the cases of high-profile, acute lead poisoning in leaded gas factories, the auto and oil companies said workers were responsible for the ills befalling them. "The essential thing necessary to safely handle [tetraethyl lead] was careful discipline of our men," said Thomas Midgely, the inventor of the product at GM. Tetraethyl lead "becomes dangerous due to carelessness of the men in handling it."

Third, the companies aggressively advertised and marketed their product, including for use by children. In 1918, National Lead's trade magazine, Dutch Boy Painter, described an advertising campaign ó which would last decades ó to "cater to children" while convincing the general population that lead "helps to guard your health." The lead paint companies advertised their white paint with images of purity and sanitary beneficence, including for use in hospitals. National Lead advertised toys and sporting equipment with lead. National Lead used the Dutch Boy ó a child ó to market its paints: the figure of the Dutch Boy, the company said, "is the guarantee of exceptional purity."

Finally, to the extent they conceded some risk of public health impacts from lead exposure, the companies described this as the inevitable cost of doing business and the drive of progress. "Our continued development of motor fuels is essential in our civilization," said Frank Howard, the first vice president of Ethyl. "What is our duty under the circumstances? Should we say, ëNo, we will not use a material that is a certain means of saving petroleum?' Because some animals die and some do not die in some experiments, shall we give this thing up entirely?"

This argument related to a broader industry framework of risk assessment and abatement. The industry downplayed the risks while touting the benefits of lead with evangelical fervor. Together, the conclusion was that the risks were worth accepting. To the extent there might be problems, industry contended, these concerns could and should be addressed through controls on the use of the product.

Against this risk assessment framework stood a competing public health paradigm, articulated first by Alice Hamilton and colleagues, and then later, in the 1960s onward, by environmental health experts who identified as part of a social movement. Not only did this framework assess the risks and benefits differently, it relied on a totally different set of presumptions. Uncertainty about the hazards of lead, or other substances, suggested that humans should not be exposed to them until they were proven safe. Lives should not simply be sacrificed as the statistical cost of doing business. Given this different approach to risk, lead products and similarly hazardous substances should be banned, not simply subjected to regulatory controls.

Eventually, and millions of lead-affected lives later, this perspective prevailed.

In the second part of the book, Markowitz and Rosner, depressingly, tell a very similar story, this time about vinyl.

They show again an industry dealing with a product that is very hazardous in the manufacturing phase, and which also poses health risks to consumers. As in the lead case, the chemical industry was, early on, forced to confront high-profile cases of worker exposures and death, as well as deaths and illnesses from accidental air pollution emissions, including a heavily publicized incident in Pennsylvania in 1948.

Deceit and Denial shows how the chemical industry's trade association, first the Manufacturing Chemists Association (MCA, later called the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and recently the American Chemistry Council) employed virtually the exact same techniques as the lead industries to shunt aside political and regulatory threats.

For example, industry affiliated research was deployed to counter evidence gathered by independent public health experts, with truth subordinated to corporate purposes. A 1971 MCA memo said guiding principles for its research were: "the need to be able to reassure the public that polyvinyl chloride entails no risk to the user;" the need to reassure workers that "management was concerned for, and diligent in seeking, the information necessary to protect their health;" and that the research had to develop "data useful in defense of the industry against invalid claims for injury for alleged occupational or community exposure."

The industry also showed an extreme penchant for secrecy, and suppressing information showing the health hazards of PVC, documented in great detail by Markowitz and Rosner.

Even more than the lead industries, the chemical companies have been faced with strong social movements ó from labor, especially the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), now merged into the Paper, Allied and Chemical Employees (PACE) union, environmental groups, and sympathetic public health experts. Deceit and Denial traces these movements' efforts to impose controls on the chemical industry, and the industry's response.

It highlights how these movements insisted on a different paradigm for assessing risk, and weighing health costs against economic benefits. Grassroots activists, including from very poor areas in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, developed and elaborated variants of the Precautionary Principle ó the concept that in addressing health and environmental risk, society should err on the side of caution, requiring some proof of safety before permitting workers to be exposed to substances or those substances to be released into the environment.

Deceit and Denial is a carefully written and detailed yet quite accessible investigation into a nefarious history of industrial pollution. It is gripping and leaves the reader outraged.

Fatal Deception reads like the third part of Deceit and Denial.

It tells a frighteningly similar story about yet another industrial pollutant, asbestos.

Asbestos continues to take an enormous toll on the health of people in the United States. The medical costs of treating people with asbestos-related cancer over the next 25 years are expected to reach $500 billion. This figure does not include the costs of treating those with asbestosis. Millions of people in the United States will have died from asbestos-related disease by that time.

Worldwide, the UN estimates 100,000 people die annually from asbestos-related disease.

Asbestos has tremendous industrial benefits ó it is fireproof, waterproof and corrosion proof, extremely strong, and able to be woven into a wide variety of products ó which earned it the name of the "magic mineral." But asbestos fibers break off easily, are small and easily breathable, and can become lodged in the lungs and other organs, giving rise to terrible disease. Author Michael Bowker reminds readers of how incredibly painful are asbestos deaths, with wrenching testimonies from dying victims describing each breath as like 10,000 razor blades cutting into their lungs.

Bowker covers some of the territory first charted by authors Paul Brodeur and Barry Castleman. He recounts how early the industry learned of the serious hazards of asbestos, with evidence available of its harms at least by 1900 and extensive evidence available in the 1930s. But growing concerns about asbestos safety were suppressed during World War II, when the U.S. federal government called for its large-scale use as insulation in warships. For decades after, as use of asbestos spread throughout industry, the asbestos companies hid from workers and the public the known dangers of the mineral.

While providing the broad brush story of the asbestos cover-up, Fatal Deception focuses its attention on the town of Libby, Montana, where W.R. Grace operated a vermiculite mine and mill it purchased from the small Zonolite Company in 1963.

Vermiculite is a mineral with many of the same benefits of asbestos. By the time Grace bought the mine, the state of Montana had been concerned for decades about the heavy concentrations of dust it generated. A year before the purchase, the state determined that the dust contained high levels of tremolite asbestos, which is exceedingly dangerous to human health.

For decades after Grace's purchase of Zonolite, that information failed to reach the miners or the residents of Libby.

Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was everywhere in Libby. "We played in the vermiculite piles all the time," resident Gayla Benefield said. "It was like rolling around in heaps of colored popcorn. The men would bring it home from the mine and entertain the family by lighting it up. If you got it hot, it would expand like those little ësnakes' kids have on the Fourth of July." Workers left the mine and Grace's vermiculite mill covered in vermiculite dust, and brought the dust into their homes. Libby's high school running track was made of vermiculite.

Grace's vermiculite also made its way around the United States. It was used for insulation, acoustic sound deadening, cement mixes, brake pads, animal feeds, fertilizers, pesticides and building products. Millions of families placed Zonolite insulation in their attics.

Grace simply concealed from the public the asbestos contamination of its vermiculite. It used asbestos-contaminated vermiculite to replace chrysotile asbestos in Monokote, a fireproof spray used in construction, and then advertised Monokote as "asbestos free," a claim that helped Monokote become the market leader. Monokote was used extensively in the World Trade Center; the September 11 terrorist attack on the Trade Center towers caused asbestos to spread throughout lower Manhattan, to an extent that is uncertain because of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) negligence or malfeasance.

Bowker's account is at its most moving when he tracks the lives of several Libby residents who eventually contracted asbestos-related cancer or asbestosis, or whose family members died from asbestos disease ó and then lays their illness at the feet of W.R. Grace, who he demonstrates knew about and hid dangers from its employees.

Bowker portrays the victims' appropriate sense of betrayal, including the moment in 1979 when a health inspector told miner Bob Wilkins that the tremolite dust he believed was simply waste was actually asbestos.

Wilkins immediately went to confront mine executive Earl Lovick. "For years, you've been telling us that dust is just a nuisance dust. Why the hell didn't you tell us tremolite is asbestos?"

"Hell, Bob, I thought everybody knew that," Lovick replied.

"You know they don't," Wilkins replied. "There isn't a man up there on that hill who knows what tremolite is. But you can bet your ass they are all going to know at the next union meeting."

But that breakthrough did not suddenly change conditions in Libby. The workers did not understand the dangers they faced. Grace operations continued, and workers and residents continued to get sick ó without the town realizing the common cause of so much of the residents' suffering, and the overall extent. Grace quietly settled lawsuits, and the EPA failed to take action to stop the pollution.

A handful of intrepid souls in Libby forced the issue. Not only did they have to deal with the emotional trauma of having loved ones die, or becoming sick themselves (along with the painful and often ultimately fatal resultant disability), they found they faced opposition from many of their neighbors, who objected to their challenge to the company in what was effectively a company town. Channeling their rage, they ploughed ahead nonetheless. A small group of victims and families brought lawsuits that eventually revealed the extent of Grace's duplicity. They pushed hard for EPA involvement, eventually persuading the governor to invoke a special rule to have the town declared a Superfund site.

Unfortunately, the partial resolution at Libby does not constitute a happy ending. Asbestos deaths continue to rise worldwide, Bowker points out, and although use is limited in the United States, the substance has not been banned in the United States. And there is the ongoing death and disease wracking Libby.

"I've tried hard all my life not to have the word ëhate' in my vocabulary," Bob Wilkins, who has asbestosis and lost 70 percent of his lungs, whispers to Bowker at the end of Fatal Deception.

"But we were lied to and cheated out of years of our lives. I don't hate them, but I don't have any respect for them, and maybe, in the end, that's the worst thing you can say about a man."


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