Like Willy Wonka's glorious chocolate factory, the Dow Chemical Co. dominates the lives and landscape of its home town -- a sprawling, mysterious complex of pipes and chimneys that commands the unswerving loyalty of its workers.

Herbert Henry Dow, as irrepressibly inventive and eccentric as Willy Wonka himself, earned the nickname "Crazy Dow" when he began experiments to extract bromine from vast salt beds underneath Midland, Mich., in 1890. Undaunted by explosions and financial losses, Dow founded a multinational corporation that brought prosperity to a dying lumber village. Through Dow's thriving company town, however, runs not a river of chocolate, but the murky, dioxin-laden waters of the Tittabawassee.

Cathy Trost's history of Dow Chemical's origins and phenomenal growth is a fascinating study of the political and social ramifications of unfettered industrial expansion.

During the first half of the 20th century, the age of organic chemistry freed the chemical industry from its medieval sorcerer's apprenticeship in alchemy and magic. Intoxicated as much by the thrill of discovery as by the lure of limitless profits, the chemical barons disdained caution in their race to claim new products. If chemical plant workers or neighbors suffered, they generally recognized it as the price of prosperity.

The price the public must pay is another matter. Using Dow Chemical as representative of the industry, Cathy Trost explores the reaction of dedicated executives and company scientists to the disturbing possibility that their products could kill or deform babies, cause cancer or sterility and leave future generations a legacy of mutant genes. "Elements of Risk" focuses on bitterly contested lawsuits linking two Dow products to cancer deaths and other suffering.

In 1969, residents of Globe, Ariz., charged that spraying of Dow's dioxin-contaminated herbicide 2,4,5-T (an ingredient of Agent Orange) caused cancers, death, and illness in exposed residents. The other cases involved Michael Trout's fatal cancer and sterility among his coworkers at a California plant that processed Dow's nematode killer, DBCP.

The sterilized DBCP workers won a $4.9 million damage award, and Dow settled Trout's cancer suit out of court. In March 1981, Dow settled the Globe suit and entered negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at settlement of 2,4,5-T regulatory actions.

The lawsuits provide a dramatic structure for airing the views of both Dow and the victims. Trost scrupulously gives both sides "equal time" in extensive interviews and quotes. In dispassionate, journalistic style, she presents opposing sides of a complex, unresolved issue, leaving the reader to judge the merits. Unfortunately, Trost neglects stronger evidence through her nearly exclusive focus on these particular lawsuits. Because the settlements relieved both sides from the burden of proving their claims, the resulting babble of voices -- Dow's soothing and authoritative, the victims' often shrill with anxiety and frustration -- offers little enlightenment.

In 1979, EPA banned DBCP. Despite decades of research demonstrating DBCP's potency in causing cancer, birth defects and mutations, the workers' sterility was the deciding factor, with only halfhearted industry opposition. As one lawyer quipped to Trost, "This was a male corporate reaction to a chemical that gets men."

The herbicide 2,4,5-T and its contaminant dioxin have an equally long history of research indicating serious hazards, but lack a dramatic "body count" such as that provided by the DBCP workers. Despite cancers, birth defects and multigenerational reproductive effects in its own laboratory animals, Dow continues to maintain that dioxin causes no more than a skin rash in humans. EPA's 1979 emergency suspension of 2,4,5-T only intensified Dow's vehement defense.

Trost's final chapter builds toward a crescendo of Dow rhetoric denouncing public hysteria over dioxin. After more than two years of closed-door negotiations between Dow and EPA, the stage is set, the actors primed, the publicity campaign in full swing for the triumphant return of 2,4,5-T to the market. Abruptly and inexplicably, Trost's last three sentences report Dow's October 1983 announcement that it was abandoning 2,4,5-T.

The striking inconsistency between Dow's capitulation and its previous behavior shrieks for explanation, but here the book falls short of its promise. Trost focuses on the Globe lawsuit at the expense of other significant events that likely contributed to Dow's sudden about-face: the impending Agent Orange veterans' lawsuit; EPA's suit over pollution in Midland; a series of four lawsuits in the Northwest, all relating to 2,4,5-T and other herbicides; and, finally, the abrupt resignation of EPA acting administrator John W. Hernandez, who left under a cloud of controversy.

During two years of closed-door negotiations with Dow, begun in 1981, EPA officials successfully suppressed one of their own major 2,4,5-T studies. The study, done in the area surrounding Alsea, Ore., linked human injury with alarming levels of dioxin in domestic water supplies. (Traces of the chemical were even found in tissues of a baby born without a brain in the western Oregon study area.) Evidence of this suppression surfaced during proceedings last August in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals immediately before Dow abandoned 2,4,5-T. That suggests more substantial reasons for Dow's behavior than the "public anxiety about dioxin" cited in the final sentence of the book.

Such omissions undermine the book's value as a source on information about 2,4,5-T and dioxin -- subjects of intense national concern -- and leave the reader with the impression that Dow's full-scale retreat was prompted solely by unfounded public hysteria.

If "Elements of Risk" fails to fulfil the promise of its subtitle, it is nevertheless an informative study of corporate behavior, dramatizing the conflict between corporate and individual rights. Perhaps unwittingly, however, the "threat to America" best illustrated by Trost is the power of industry to manipulate public information.