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Toxic Power

Exploration of the evolving politics of dealing with the hazardous by-products of industrial development

by Saleem H. Ali
December 13, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 50

The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment,
by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter, Oxford University Press, 2010, 240 pages, $27.95 hardcover (ISBN: 9780199739950)
by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter, Oxford University Press, 2010, 240 pages, $27.95 hardcover (ISBN: 9780199739950)

The history of North American industrial development is a tale of innovation and intrigue. The cast of characters in this saga lends itself to grand biographies of industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Eleuthère DuPont. And academic case histories have chronicled specific industrial establishments, such as Anastasia H. Shkilnyk’s classic study of a chloro-alkali plant’s impact on an Ojibwe community titled “A Poison Stronger than Love.” However, none of these earlier works makes the connections between chemical innovation, consumer culture, and the political manipulation of science in the synthetic way that Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter provide in their book, “The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment.

The authors start the book with three important questions: “What is the basis of scientific authority? Is science value-free, or is it shaped by social and economic conditions? How does economic power influence government?” These questions need to be addressed by scientists, engineers, and policymakers in concert, and “The Polluters” provides a nuanced historical context for this conversation in a globalized economy. To this day, most economists continue to refer to pollution as an “externality”—suggesting that the salience of the natural environment cannot be captured by market mechanisms.

This book shows us how this linear logic of economic expediency in the early 20th century defiled not only the environment but also the scientific process itself. For example, when the State of Pennsylvania commissioned a study of coal-mining diseases in 1933, the investigation purposely focused only on a study group composed entirely of active miners, thus excluding the possibility of having respondents who may have been forced to leave their jobs because of illness. Such a flaw in research design would have been recognizable to even a novice scientist at the time.

Contrary to common perception, the perils of pollution were in fact quite widely recognized by politicians even within the mining industry, which often operated in remote, sparsely populated areas. As early as 1907, President Theodore Roo­sevelt mounted a lawsuit against Anaconda Copper in Montana for polluting. However, the influence of industrialists was so great at the time that pollution control did not proceed unless it provided a financial reward. For example, Anaconda Copper finally started to implement pollution abatement in its smelter stacks when the company realized that economically valuable arsenic for use in pesticides—ironically termed “economic poisons”—could be recovered.

According to the authors, “spill, study, and stall” is the succinct way in which polluters operated during much of the early 20th century. Reactive versus proactive policies prevailed, and exhortations of key scientific celebrities such as Lord Kelvin to “err on the side of caution”—the precautionary principle—in issues such as arsenic toxicity were replaced with the doctrine to “err on the side of utility.” While stating this as a dilemma, the authors do not explain the full range of policy implications that may occur by blithely being cautious. Unraveling the policy implications of the precautionary principle is a daunting task, and perhaps this is an area where the book is somewhat deficient.

Credit: Department of Energy
Workers in 1954 operate the front face of an early nuclear reactor that produced plutonium for the growing U.S. stockpile.
Credit: Department of Energy
Workers in 1954 operate the front face of an early nuclear reactor that produced plutonium for the growing U.S. stockpile.

Legal scholars who have examined scientific cases of toxicity are at pains to stress the importance of clear criteria for conducting risk analysis. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discussed this issue in his book “Breaking the Vicious Circle: Toward Effective Risk Regulation.” And Cass R. Sunstein, Harvard University law professor and Obama Administration official, has expounded further in his “Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle.” The example of DDT, which the authors of “The Polluters” provide in one of their chapters, could exemplify this dilemma had they continued to examine the pollutant’s contemporary status. That is, after several decades of opposition to its indoor use, the World Health Organization publicly endorsed using DDT indoors in areas of high malaria prevalence. The costs of the disease outweighed the potential negative impacts of the chemical.

The role of universities in the history of pollution is also examined by the authors and reveals an uneasy partnership between professors and industry as exemplified by characters such as Sheppard T. Powell, a professor of sanitary engineering at Johns Hopkins University who played an instrumental role in the relatively mild water quality regulations that were passed in the 1940s. Powell ultimately left his tenured position for full-time consultancy with industry. Readers of Chemical & Engineering News will find interesting the organizational history of institutions such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the Manufacturing Chemists Association (now the American Chemistry Council) in contrast with the educational origins of the American Chemical Society.

Where industry deserves to be praised, the authors are willing to do so without hesitation. Numerous industrial researchers who stood up for environmental consciousness are mentioned in heroic terms. In particular, the authors devote a chapter to Wilhelm Hueper, who started to work on environmental cancer concerns long before Rachel Carson’s work in the 1960s popularized concerns about the impact of pesticides in this context. His career trajectory, which started at Haskell Laboratory and meandered through industrial appointments, ultimately landed him at the National Cancer Institute. Even at the corporate level, where there was a shift in organizational culture to go beyond minimal legal compliance, positive trends are acknowledged. For example, the environmental management of the Hanford Site by DuPont is highlighted as ahead of its time, and the leadership of corporate executives is duly praised.

Returning to the initial questions with which this book starts, the authors conclude that science is not value-neutral and can be manipulated by political forces without vigilance from peer scientists and policymakers. Industry holds tremendous economic power that can also influence the science of environmental decision making. Thus, we should not assume that the democratic process ensures a level playing field for scientific expertise to be exercised.

Overall, “The Polluters” is a commendable effort to present the history of industrial environmental harm with candor and clarity in a readable, anecdotal form. The lessons of “regulatory capture,” a term from political science that the authors use to describe the bias in policy created by a dominant stakeholder, are important to realize. The influence of value-laden special-interest groups and their implications on scientific progress are also important for us to consider in these times when global environmental issues are gaining political prominence.


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