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.


| August 2012



The Polluters

“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

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.