In "The Polluters," Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter call out chemical industry.

By Seth Shulman
Sunday, September 26, 2010; B06


The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment

By Benjamin Ross

and Steven Amter

Oxford Univ. 223 pp. $27.95

With nearly 5 million barrels of BP's crude having gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for months on end, the summer of 2010 will long be remembered for environmental catastrophe. News of the oil spill came close on the heels of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia -- the nation's worst mining disaster in some four decades. In both cases, most of us couldn't help but wonder how things have gone so terribly wrong. How could corporate safeguards have failed so miserably? How could government regulators have been so feckless? As such questions linger, along comes "The Polluters," a remarkably timely, extensively researched and accessible book offering a fresh perspective as we search for answers.

Most works on U.S. environmental history begin with the watershed publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the federal Clean Water Act of 1963 or perhaps the crescendo of public engagement on the issue that culminated in the first Earth Day in 1970 and the formation that year of the Environmental Protection Agency. But Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter, two scientists with a small environmental consultancy in Washington and an expansive interest in the history of pollution, take a different approach. Intrigued and presumably frustrated in their professional work by the gaps and limitations in current environmental regulation, the two spent the past decade delving into governmental and corporate archives to exhume the roots of today's environmental regulatory framework.

"The Polluters" documents with well-chosen detail how the chemical industry managed for decades -- since before the 1930s administration of Herbert Hoover -- to avoid and forestall federal environmental legislation despite the increasingly glaring need for it. We meet a rogues' gallery of stridently laissez faire industry executives aware of the pollution they are creating but allergic to federal oversight, along with craven and corrupt regulators unable or unwilling to protect the public.

The authors show how companies blocked the discovery of environmental problems associated with their products and practices, and how research that might have found these problems was "starved of funds." When alarming findings did emerge, such as the threat of lung disease from coal dust or the risk of cancer from vinyl chloride, the authors document how "well-paid advocates concoct[ed] grounds for doubt" and "studied" problems to death as a substitute for action.

The authors dredge up this enraging, disheartening and ultimately illuminating history lesson for a reason: The tactics, which they contend came into full bloom by 1950, set the stage for the environmental woes we face today. As they put it, "Sixty years later, these strategies are still in use, protecting polluters who spew out toxic chemicals and globe-warming gases." Written before the BP spill and the West Virginia mining disaster, the book has a historical perspective that resonates powerfully in the face of such recent debacles.

Some parts of the story are wrenchingly familiar. Just as tobacco executives twisted the science and strove to manufacture uncertainty about the dangers of their products even when they were fully aware of them, so did the chemical industry undertake a similar campaign through its main lobbying arm, the Manufacturing Chemists Association (now the Chemical Manufacturers Association). The authors quote the minutes of a 1950 meeting of the industry group where, despite the growing evidence of illness and an acute case in Pennsylvania in which pollution from a zinc smelter had led to the deaths of 20 nearby residents, a plan was explicitly outlined "to prevent the development of public demand for drastic and impractical air pollution and smoke control legislation."

If the tactics sound familiar, the tracing of the roots of this story as far back as the early 20th century will probably surprise many readers. "The Polluters" documents how the coal industry co-opted federal regulators at the Bureau of Mines in the 1920s to avoid rules that would protect miners against the growing scourge of lung disease.

As early as 1924, the authors show, the scientific literature contained studies indicating that "coal dust itself must cause lung disease." Nonetheless, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover explicitly reminded a news conference that his department's Bureau of Mines -- the best hope for federal regulation at the time -- had been "created as a service bureau for the mining industry," according to press accounts from the period. Following Hoover's lead, the government scientists looking into the health threat served the wishes of industry executives, even designing epidemiological studies to include only "active" miners, so that anyone who had gotten sick enough in the mines to keep them from work would be excluded from the statistics.

This book is too well researched and its tone too reasonable for it to be considered a polemic. For one thing, there is plenty of blame to go around. "The Polluters" makes much of the public's and the media's long-standing infatuation with the chemical industry's products. "Modern chemistry rubs its Aladdin's lamp, shakes up its test tubes, and presto!" So said The Washington Post in 1929, as quoted by the authors. Ultimately, "The Polluters" contends that only loud public outcry has ever managed to tip the balance in favor of the kinds of tough environmental laws we desperately need. Alas, as Ross and Amter chronicle, too often the public has either been in the thrall of the latest chemical convenience or has let its outraged calls for a cleaner environment get squelched en route to Capitol Hill. It is, of course, an open question whether we will do the same in the face of the latest environmental insults.

Thankfully, perhaps, this is not an exhaustive history of environmental regulation. The book's brevity (171 pages of text) and broad purview (including fights over issues from pesticide regulation to smog in Los Angeles and elsewhere) leave the authors open to the charge that they have cherrypicked the record to bolster their case. Still, this is little-known history that makes for fascinating reading. It places our past summer of environmental disaster and discontent into its proper perspective, reminding us that our nation's continuing fight for a clean environment has been a long and often dirty one.

Seth Shulman is a journalist and the author, most recently, of "The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret."

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