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Janette Sherman, physician-activist who warned of toxic chemicals, dies at 89

An undated photo of Janette D. Sherman.
An undated photo of Janette D. Sherman. (Family photo)
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Janette D. Sherman, a physician, toxicologist, author and activist who served as an expert witness or consultant in 5,000 workers’ compensation cases, calling attention to the health hazards of contaminated water, toxic pesticides and deadly chemicals in factories, died Nov. 7 at an assisted-living center in Alexandria, Va. She was 89.

Her daughter Connie Bigelow said she had dementia and Addison’s disease, an adrenal disorder.

Dr. Sherman was an authority on breast cancer, birth defects, waste dumps and nuclear radiation, specializing in illnesses that stemmed from toxic agents found in the home, at the office or on the battlefield. In recent years she had worked with scientists from the former Soviet Union to highlight the enduring health and environmental effects of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

“She was indefatigable,” consumer advocate Ralph Nader said in a phone interview. “Doctors like her have to be very strong characters, because they’re swimming upstream against corporations, politicians and company scientists.”

While plaintiffs in workers’ compensation cases often struggle to locate physicians, he added, Dr. Sherman was seemingly always available — sometimes flying in from the Hawaiian island of Maui, where she lived for several years before settling in Alexandria in the early 1980s.

Dr. Sherman was an oncology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and, after the 1976 passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act, served on an advisory committee for the Environmental Protection Agency. She also consulted for the EPA on pesticides and for the National Cancer Institute on breast cancer, and wrote two books: “Chemical Exposure and Disease” (1988) and “Life’s Delicate Balance” (2000), on breast cancer.

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The daughter of pharmacists, she was one of only six women in her graduating class at medical school. She began focusing on toxicology in the early 1970s while working in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich.

Many of her patients shared the same ailments, in addition to holding the same positions in the auto industry. “She figured out that part of what was happening to them was a result of what they were being exposed to in their jobs,” her daughter said.

Dr. Sherman partnered with Nader’s Health Research Group to release a 1973 study of 498 Detroit autoworkers, finding that “their high rate of heart and lung diseases is at least partly due to dirt, dust, smoke, fumes, chemicals and other occupational hazards,” according to a report by the Washington Star-News. Cigarettes had previously been blamed for the diseases.

She also served as an expert witness in a lawsuit brought by the widows of three Ford Motor Co. mechanics who, before dying of cancer, were exposed to arsenic and other chemicals at a plant in Sterling Heights, Mich. It was difficult to prove that arsenic — a known carcinogen — had caused each man’s death, she noted, adding that it was nonetheless essential that products with arsenic be labeled and that people exposed to the chemical be carefully monitored.

To do otherwise, she told the New York Times, is “to condemn workers to irreversible illness and early death.”

In the late 1970s, Dr. Sherman was enlisted to examine pollution in the Love Canal community of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where contaminants from a chemical dump had seeped into homes, leading President Jimmy Carter to declare environmental emergencies in 1978 and 1980. Families were forced to leave the neighborhood.

“Dr. Sherman wrote a letter to the EPA, saying that the residents of Love Canal should be evacuated, that she was distressed by the way the construction was carried out and by the poor safety precautions that exposed the residents to contaminated air,” local activist Lois Marie Gibbs later wrote. “We released her letter to the press. It created a little more pressure on Albany and a little more of a stir in Washington.”

Some of Dr. Sherman’s more recent work drew skepticism, if not outright hostility, from scientists who questioned her methods and conclusions, including in “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” (2009), published by the New York Academy of Sciences.

The book was written by a team of former Soviet scientists led by Alexey V. Yablokov, with Dr. Sherman as contributing editor. Drawing on Slavic-language research and reporting, they concluded that as of 2004, some 985,000 people had died as a result of the Chernobyl accident — a figure that dwarfed previous estimates, which ranged from fewer than 50 direct deaths to some 50,000 long-term.

“Was it controversial? Very much so,” said Dr. Sherman’s friend and collaborator Joseph Mangano, executive director of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project. “But it remains the most in-depth study of Chernobyl health hazards ever.”

Dr. Sherman’s work with Mangano included a 2010 study of radiation levels in baby teeth, in which they implied that small radiation doses — the result of fallout from nuclear bomb tests — caused “many thousands” of deaths worldwide. Other scientists urged caution in considering those findings, suggesting that there was correlation but not necessarily causation.

Janette Dexter Miller was born in Buffalo on July 10, 1930. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she moved with her mother some 40 miles east, to the town of Warsaw, N.Y.

She studied biology and chemistry at the Western Michigan College of Education (now Western Michigan University) in Kalamazoo, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1952. She married John Bigelow that same year and moved to the San Francisco area, where he served in the Navy and she worked as a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory, now Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

She later studied the effects of radiation at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at Hunters Point, a San Francisco shipyard, where one of her bosses suggested she attend medical school. She did so as a newly divorced single parent while raising two young children, graduating in 1964 from Wayne State.

Her second marriage, to Howard Sherman, also ended in divorce. In 1984 she married Donald Nevinger, an aerospace engineer who worked on the Bell X-2 experimental supersonic rocket plane. They had been high school sweethearts 40 years earlier and reconnected after their previous marriages ended in divorce.

“The interesting thing was that his voice was exactly the same,” Dr. Sherman later told The Washington Post. “He still had the same smile, the same sparkling eyes. Two visits later, he asked me to marry him.”

He died in 2005 of pulmonary fibrosis, apparently caused by asbestos from the brake linings he worked on in his father’s auto shop. Dr. Sherman helped him find experimental treatments before his lungs gave out. “I had the best 17 years of my life,” she told The Post after his death.

In addition to her daughter, of Seattle, Dr. Sherman had a second child from her first marriage, Charles Bigelow of Berryville, Va.; two stepchildren, Kevin Nevinger of San Diego and Donna Kellogg of Palm Desert, Calif.; and five grandchildren.

Dr. Sherman recommended avoiding X-rays when possible, getting rid of plastic food containers, eating organic produce and — if not quite for health reasons — picking up new skills, as when she began taking cello lessons at 56, after having never played an instrument. She also encouraged anyone who would listen to abstain from toxic pesticides and lawn chemicals, which she deemed unnecessary at best.

“To my knowledge,” she sometimes quipped, “nobody has ever died of weeds.”

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