A Long History of Chemical Pollution

For many years, major players in the chemical industry were aware of the damage they were doing to public health and the environment. Discover a long American history of chemical pollution and the unveiling of some tricks they still use today.
By Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter
August 2012
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“The Polluters” by Benjamin Ross & Steven Amter is a detailed history of chemical pollution that is chock full of the case studies and political events that led us to today’s chemically altered environment.
Cover Courtesy Oxford University Press


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The Polluters (Oxford University Press, 2010) is an unflinching story of the onslaught of chemical pollution and the chemical industry's unwillingness to face the devastating effects. The research by Benjamin Ross and Steve Amter reveals new documents that show industries knew of toxic hazards long before they were public, and reveals the political conflicts in which economic interests prevailed over environmental ones. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices.” 

"Uncontrolled one, born in Hell 
Will you drown our house entire 
In the flood already streaming 
Out every door and windowsill? 
Corrupted broom that will not heed, 
Be lifeless stick again, I plead!"
—J. W. von Goethe, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice 

Donora, Pennsylvania, buried its dead on Election Day. On Tuesday morning, November 2, 1948, the sun shone brightly on a gritty mill town that just two days earlier had emerged from a siege of poisonous smoke. For four days, stagnant air had trapped smelter fumes in the steep-sided valley where houses nestled alongside factory buildings. As the air grew thick with smoky fog, it took an effort just to breathe, and many sought refuge on higher ground. On Sunday, when the air at last cleared, nearly half the population was ill and 20 victims lay dead or dying. The homes of the dead were clustered around the zinc works, one of two metal plants that sustained the community.

Since Saturday, the town had been sending urgent calls for help to Washington. The appeals were rebuffed. On Tuesday morning, an official of the Public Health Service repeated the refusal, telling newspapers that the disaster had been nothing more than an “atmospheric freak.”

Wednesday morning brought astonishing news about the election. Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, the overwhelming favorite, was defeated by President Truman, and the Democrats took control of Congress. By that afternoon, the Public Health Service made a sudden U-turn and agreed to investigate the disaster. On Thursday morning federal scientists started to arrive in Donora.

Seven months later, on June 7, 1949, Governor Earl Warren of California stood before a news conference in Sacramento. He was there to denounce water pollution legislation that the state Assembly had just passed and sent to the Senate. The bill, he charged, would put the polluters in charge of the pollution control setup. The director of the state health department stood beside him, warning of a plague of bad water that he likened to the smog in Los Angeles. In the days that followed, a compromise was negotiated. When the law was enacted two weeks later, the most objectionable clauses were gone.

As these events faded from the headlines, the friends of clean air and clean water were to all appearances the victors. But once the spotlight of public attention turned elsewhere, their hard-won gains proved phantom. The polluters had at their disposal a battery of weapons—political, economic, and scientific—forged by the chemical industry and its allies. In struggle after struggle over the preceding decades, business interests had preserved for themselves the freedom to foul their surroundings. The weapons that had won these battles were deployed again in Donora and Sacramento, and they once more proved their worth. The Donora investigation was sidetracked; the Public Health Service failed to answer—or even ask—the central questions about the causes of the catastrophe. The new California law enshrined manufacturers’ right to discharge waste, creating toothless Water Pollution Control Boards with powers so circumscribed that they had little choice but to ratify what industry decided to do.

What was the origin of the armament unsheathed in Donora and Sacramento? Under what conditions and for what purposes was it forged? Was it employed as its creators intended, or did it escape their control like the broom conjured by the sorcerer’s apprentice? These are vital questions for understanding today’s environmental dilemmas—and beyond that, they evoke some of the most fundamental problems in social thought. How does economic power influence government? What is the basis of scientific authority? Is science value-free, or is it shaped by social and economic conditions? For more than a century, thinkers and scholars have debated such questions.

Political writers of all schools recognize that private economic interests can turn government policies to their advantage. Opinions differ mightily, however, in their understanding of how that happens and in their prescriptions for improvement. What a libertarian describes as rent seeking is called regulatory capture by a pluralist; a Marxist explains it by way of economic determinism.

Debates over such basic questions of political theory will surely long continue, but one can at least hope for more empirical investigation and less falling back on abstract reasoning. This book will perhaps contribute toward that end. Early struggles over environmental control offer a striking case study in the relationship between business and government. Politics, pollution, and science came together in a way that foreshadowed the technological complexity of today’s governance. The story opens a window into the broader issues of political power and scientific knowledge even as it illuminates current environmental conflicts.

Wastes were a problem from the earliest days of chemical manufacturing. But the American chemical industry of the nineteenth century lagged far behind its European competitors, and the emissions from its factories drew little notice beyond their immediate surroundings. The First World War brought a sudden change, with larger plants and new synthetic chemicals that bore little resemblance to the original raw materials. Effluents quickly grew in volume and diversified in content. As pollution worsened and new problems emerged in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, scientists and the public increasingly saw the need for control and demanded action.

Leaders of the industry recognized the need for cleanup, but they were allergic to government oversight. Chemical companies insisted on doing things themselves, at their own pace, with their own means, and they gathered their forces for the fight to keep the government out. An armament of methods was developed to fend off outside pressure. One of the industry’s common tactics can be summed up as “spill, study, and stall.” When outside pressure to do something about pollution became strong, a study of the problem would be launched as an alternative to expensive action. The study would be carried out by the polluters themselves or, if it was feared that a blatantly self-serving study would lack credibility, under their influence.

Research was directed most often toward devising new techniques for cleaning up wastes. The chemical industry placed enormous faith in technological progress. It certainly desired innovative solutions to pollution problems, especially solutions that were profitable or at least inexpensive. On occasion, such discoveries were made. Yet the more immediate—and often sole—consequence of research was to buy time by deflecting the demand for control when technology was already available.

Another type of study tried to clarify whether, or at what levels, a pollutant was harmful. Research of this kind was more dangerous for manufacturers because it posed a great risk. Chemicals might be shown to be highly toxic or even to cause cancer; such discoveries could trigger an irresistible demand for control. The first line of defense against this threat was to stop investigations before they began. Chemicals, the industry maintained, were innocent until proven guilty, so lack of knowledge justified lack of control.

There was a second line of defense against the threat that greater knowledge would bring bad news. When study could not be avoided, friendly researchers would offer a predetermined conclusion. They would cherry-pick data, design experiments to give a desired answer, or sometimes offer reassurances backed by nothing more than the sheer force of assertion. The exercise of political, financial, and public relations muscle would turn this into “authoritative science,” often in the face of criticism from scientists of much greater attainment. During the Republican administrations of the 1920s, the federal government could be called on to provide such studies. With the coming of the New Deal, government was no longer a faithful servant of business. New private-sector institutions, ostensibly neutral scientific bodies but controlled behind the scenes by industry, were created to supply obedient expertise. A series of decisions that would have enormous consequences for public health—about leaded gasoline, black lung, DDT, air and water pollution—were justified by this technique.

As the Second World War approached, and even more once it had passed, the dangers of unchecked industrial pollution were widely sensed. Engineers and managers inside the chemical industry knew far more than the public, and the leaders of major companies like DuPont and Dow understood the need for action. But the extreme laissez-faire political beliefs of the industry’s top management led them to reject federal environmental controls. They insisted that environmental control should be a state and local matter, leaving regulators hobbled by political pressure and the threat that factories could relocate to friendlier jurisdictions. Absent effective outside regulation, the industry would make its own decisions.

In large decentralized organizations, process can be policy. Within chemical companies, responsibility for environmental control fell to specialists who held staff positions. They often lacked the clout to overcome resistance from operating managers, whose incentives were driven by internal profit targets and outside competition. In the profit-driven marketplace, competition pushed all down to the level of the least scrupulous, who had at their disposal the apparatus created to fight off outside interference.

Matters came to a head in the years just after the Second World War. Contamination problems were magnified by an increased scale of production and made less tractable by an avalanche of new synthetic chemicals. Influential scientists and public officials saw a need for federal regulation of air, water, and pesticides. A political and bureaucratic struggle ensued—sometimes in the open, more often behind the scenes—through which the chemical industry preserved for itself the right to determine what would be emitted from its plants. Industry’s victory was codified in federal laws—the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1947, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, and the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955—that belied their reassuring titles by rejecting federal regulation in three major domains of environmental policy.

Techniques had been developed, habits formed, laws passed, institutions created. By now the laws, habits, and institutions had taken on a life of their own. Like the water carrier summoned by the sorcerer’s apprentice in Goethe’s poem, they continued their work even after the intentions of their creators had been fulfilled. The leading corporations that had put the machinery into motion, the DuPonts, Union Carbides, and Standard Oils, watched as the spirit they had raised up sometimes exceeded its intended tasks. The conjurers had the power to break the spell, but the formula of federal regulation was anathema to them. For 20 years more, the chemical industry battled successfully against outside oversight. Engineers’ valiant efforts at control, hobbled by the workings of an unregulated market, were outraced by a tide of pollution.

Despite postwar defeats, the public movement for environmental control never fully disappeared. Concern about the purity of food, stoked through the 1950s by congressional hearings and condemnations of unsafe food, led to incremental tightening of pesticide regulations. In 1962 came Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first serialized in the New Yorker and then a best-selling book. Burning rivers soon vied with smoggy air for the media spotlight, and a liberal Congress turned its attention to pressing environmental problems. Earth Day in 1970 launched a national grass-roots movement. The next decade saw a flood of legislation, creating the national system of environmental regulation that industry had successfully fended off after the Second World War.

But the techniques employed years ago in Donora and Sacramento have never gone out of favor. Discovery of new environmental problems is discouraged, with research that might find them starved of funds. When alarming findings do emerge, well-paid advocates concoct grounds for doubt. Study follows on study as a substitute for action. Sixty years later, these strategies are still in use, protecting polluters who spew out toxic chemicals and globe-warming gases.

Chemical manufacturers loved to talk about the magic of chemistry. Fifty and one hundred years ago, their enterprise was at the farthest frontier of science and industry, breaking new ground as it transmuted wastes into valuable commodities, reinvented familiar materials with new dyes and coatings, conjured up synthetic fibers and plastics. Edward Collins, the New York Times’ financial editor, summarized the industry’s achievements when the American Chemical Society celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1951: “The story of modern chemistry is all the tales of the Arabian Nights retold, each in a multitude of variations, by a modern Scheherazade of infinite imagination.” The cavalcade of chemistry’s advance seemed so miraculous that the image of wizardry became a cliché of popular culture. “Modern chemistry rubs its Aladdin’s lamp, shakes up its test tubes, and, presto!” began a Washington Post account of the industry’s new wonders.

Occult powers, in literature and in life, are not always benign. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was one magical tale that chemical companies chose not to recall. It is a story that had much to teach them.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Polluters, by Benjamin Ross & Steven Amter, published by Oxford University Press, 2010. 


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