AN EERIE seething permeates this book, like dry-ice mist seeping under the door in a B-movie. Michael H. Brown, the reporter who broke the Love Canal story, has written an encyclopedia of toxic-waste abuses so vivid, you begin to fear some mutant molecule will drip from the next page. And yet he's done it in remarkable fashion: without hysteria. The account is rational and restrained. It quickens the pulse simply because the subject matter is so horrifying.
Toxic-waste problems seem familiar now. Events like the explosion in mid-April of a chemical dump in Elizabeth, New Jersey, showering New York City with gagging fumes, seem common. But the subject was little-known in 1977 when Brown went to work as a reporter for the Niagara Gazette of Niagara Falls, New York. Brown heard tales of odd slimes oozing into the basements of homeowners around the old industrial ditch. As he uncovered the story, it became clear that Hooker Chemical and Plastics Co. -- the town's biggest employer -- had throughout the 1940s stocked the dtich with thousands of tons of deadly waste chemicals. The chemicals had eaten their way out and were escaping. People near the site were getting sick. The danger was immediate; not only had the town foolishly built a school near the seepage, but the whole cracking vessel was only 300 yards from the Niagara River, a thoroughfare promising to spread the poison to millions.
Eventually -- after denials by Hooker, delays by the government and attempts by the newspaper's own publisher to quash the story -- the facts were printed. Love Canal was declared a national emergency, and the area evacuated.
But that's where Brown's story begins, not ends. The author documents a dizzying succession of similar abuses around the nation, ranging from even larger dumps, through illicit stacks of rusting barrels, to a woman in North Carolina who was hanging out her wash when "she saw a trailer truck stop at a nearby lot and men begin to unload dozens of chemical drums. 'They said they were just leaving it for now,' her husband told me . . . 'They said they would pick it up in the morning. The next morning, there were two or three hundred drums there. They're still there' . . . And nobody knew what was in them."
Brown finds in these incidents sobering evidence of the charge that nearly all the chemical wastes manufactured until recently have been dumped, illegally or carelessly, in a manner that guarantees they will find their way into the environment. Once such chemicals are loose, they cannot be recalled; no amount of machinery or money can extract a few gallons of liquid from miles of earth and rock. Brown explains that pouring benzines, chlorinated hydrocarbons and other durable compounds into the ground isn't "disposing" of them at all, merely postponing the day when there will be hell to pay: "Nature was . . . utterly unprepared for this onslaught of artificial elements. Nowhere in the earth's crust nor in the ocean was there the capability of disassembling these complex new substances strung together by the ingenuity of man . . . . These chemicals . . . ramined permanently available to exact a terrible price for human indifference and greed."
The catalogue of abuses is so long, it borders on the unbelievalbe. So, too, does the record of government inaction. State health officials, Brown says, received reliable reports of chemical barrels rotting on a huge dump in Montague, Michigan. They did not visit the site until seven months later; when they did, they found 20,000 barrels, many of them recent arrivals. In 1976, Ohio officials discovered thousands of barrels of toxins leaking into a drainage ditch in the town of Deerfield. They called for advice from the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA's regional office refused to so much as come and inspect the site; it did, however, send a letter helpfully explaining the Ohio's request for assistance had been poorly worded.
In narrating these curel insults to the earth, Brown tends to dwell on the anguished reactions of those living nearby the sites. While each person's story is of value, once you've read the first few, the rest are pretty much fill-in-the-blank. The constant repetition of fear and frustration serves only to chill the reader.
When the book finally addresses public policy, it shows well that government's refusal to act against industry (or even abandoned dumps) is in some ways more venal than the dumps themselves. Almost four years ago, a law giving EPA control over toxic wastes was passed. The agency still hasn't issued all the regulations needed to give the law, meaning. (Brown might have mentioned, for instance, that while the EPA bureau charged with writing the regulations was defying a court order to produce them, it effectively suspended work for six months to "reorganize."
One reason chemical disposal seldom excited interest before Love Canal was that it is a long-term threat, not an immediate problem like spilling a vial of hydrochloric acid in your lap. Technology has learned to assemble chemicals like dioxin that are so toxic just a few molecules of them can cause illness. Yet the earth is vast; even with such potent agents, it takes decades to spread enough toxins into the air and water for a visible effect to show up. The subtle damage of chemical poisoning is sometimes not immediately clear even to the victim; by the time toxicity is obvious, it's too late.
Brown's most valuable contribution is his elaboration of the extremely subtle nature of the impact on our bodies of these unopposed intruders. In doing so, he finally explains what I call the Fly Corpse Factor. It's this: If we're being force-fed deadly chemicals, why aren't we dropping like flies? Where are the fly corpses? But Brown shows, through repeated examples of persons forced to live near-toxic waste sites, that the human body is not weak, merely delicate. The trace doses of toxins escaping into our environment are seldom enough to kill. What they do, as Brown points out, is slowly to drive the body haywire. That is, to cause cancer.
The author misses a great opportunity by not weaving this thesis through the book. Cancer rates are abnormally high almost everywhere near uncontrolled chemical waste sites; yet the chemicals from the sites, we know, migrate far away. Medical science, for all its effort, has been unable to isolate all the causes of cancer. Many of the most carefully examined victims seem to be acted on by unknown forces. Could it not be, Brown suggests, that a prime cause of the cancer "epidemic" is the proliferation of carcinogenic waste chemicals -- a vast array of toxins so potent they may cause cancer in minute quantities that even the most determined medical analysis would not detect? Can the careless handling of chemical wastes be the missing piece in the cancer puzzle?
The nagging failure of this otherwise sound and admirable work is that Brown writes from outside the fence; he never ventures inside the minds of the chemical industry or those of the legitimate disposal industry which is supposed to manage the problem. Why, for instance, does Hooker have such a dubious record while Dow Chemical appears to behave rather conscientiously? Brown offers no insight. And what goes on at the government-permitted "secure" chemical landfills that firms now use, openly and legally, as the supposedly "safe" alternative Love Canals?
I remember once standing outside the West's largest chemical landfill in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina. Owned by a company called BKK Inc., it receives 500,000 tons of seething fluids every year.
I stood in the baking sun, watching incoming tanker-trucks of chemicals being "inspected." The sole test of the contents was one a supervisor called a "thermal" evaluation. The guard put his hand on the side of the truck; if it was hot, that meant the contents were reacting with each other. Nothing more; the trucks were then waived through.
Near the gate, there was a small "laboratory" for "sampling," almost barren of equipment. A pad of litmus paper -- used in chemistry's easiest, most basic test -- lay dusty from disuse. The supervisor admitted to me that if PCBs or other especially dangerous chemicals were entering the site in trucks labelled as containing something innocuous like "oilfield mud," there would be "No way on earth we could know about it."
Later, I called a former government official who used to oversee such facilities, a man whose opinion I'd come to trust. I described the conditions. "But you don't understand yet," he said sadly. "Compared to the rest, it's a model operation."