Air Pollution in “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution”

The fight against industrial chemicals is far from won. Chemical lobbyists spend tens of millions of dollars convincing legislators to not pass legislation that would protect you.  For example, check out the Green Policy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Learn how to reduce chemical hazards in your own home, and don’t re-elect politicians in bed with the chemical industry.

Below are a few of the air pollution paragraphs from this excellent book:

Markowitz, Gerald, and David Rosner. 2002. Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. University of California Press.

It is a tenet of democracy that citizens should have full access to information so they can make informed decisions about policies that affect their lives. In the case of industrial toxins, such information has been regularly denied to workers and the general public. As a result, factory workers have been assailed by noxious fumes and dangerous chemicals even while beseeching industry for information and protection. Over time these toxins have been vented into the air, spilled into waterways, and dumped onto the land, both legally and illegally, making industrial pollution an issue of widespread public concern. But the general public, like workers before them, has not been given sufficient information to understand the danger that exists all around them. It has taken catastrophes like Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, Times Beach, Missouri, and Bhopal, India, to bring home to people the danger industry poses to their lives and the environment and the public’s need to have free access to information about toxic substances in the environment. Despite all this, industry has continued to hide and obfuscate information it had about the toxic characteristics of some of its products and, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, the Bush administration has further undermined the Freedom of Information Act. As a result, people have been denied information about the toxins they have been ingesting and inhaling every day. page 3


But the crisis at Standard Oil’s plant in Bayway, New Jersey, was different. Very quickly it became clear that more was at stake than the lives of a few workers. Public health officials and the public who read the daily accounts of dying workers understood that the gas that was killing the workers also could kill or harm ordinary citizens breathing air polluted by automobiles or who were pumping gas at the rapidly growing network of filling stations across the country. The horrendous experiences with poison gas in World War I less than a decade earlier had heightened public concern over the new substance, also called a “gas,” that was making headlines in many major cities. With little distinction between the organic lead that was poisoning workers in the Standard Oil plant and the inorganic lead that would be spewing from the exhaust pipes of cars, newspapers fanned the fears that a toxic gas would soon be inhaled by millions of Americans. Industry leaders understood that if they could not contain the developing crisis, millions upon millions of dollars would be at risk. The questions: how to contain it, and what would containment mean?

On the one hand, the gasoline and lead industry had to develop a program to prevent dramatic outbreaks of “loony gas poisoning” within the plant if it were to quell public outrage generated by lurid headlines above photographs of sickened workers being taken to hospitals in straitjackets. On the other hand, industry had to convince the public that, far from being a generalized threat to their health, poisonings by industrial products could be solved, or at least confined behind the walls of a factory. Occupational health issues were exactly that: problems borne by the workforce but no threat to the public at large. This was part of a broader effort on the part of major corporations to improve their public image and undercut the popular suspicion that they were “soulless” entities that were “greedy and ruthless in their pursuit of profits page 22


In the face of overwhelming evidence of lead’s dangers, the lead industry was reluctantly willing by the early 1970s to sacrifice lead in paint. Besides, lead paint was accounting for a smaller and smaller share of the lead market. This was not the case with lead in gasoline, and what had once been a limited crisis over workers and children would emerge as a concern about the health of the entire population. In the 19603, lead researchers began to absorb the implications of the work of such writers as Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and Paul Ehrlich regarding the fragility of the environment and the dangers posed to humans through the introduction of man-made pesticides and other toxins. As growing cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Denver based their transportation systems overwhelmingly on the automobile, the dangers from smog (a term popularized in the 19403 to denote a combination of smoke and fog) brought to public attention the impact of leaded gasoline on air pollution and on the general population.

But even through the 1950s the Lead Industries Association (LIA) insisted that its product presented no problem to the public health. As environmental air pollution gained the attention of state and local governments, the LIA held that attacks on lead were absurd. One paper touted by the LIA claimed, “No theory as to the causation of lead poisoning is too crazy to be brought forward. … A group in Los Angeles had put forward the claim that lead from the exhausts of motor vehicles constituted a menace to the public health.” The LIA mailed out nearly 1,000 copies of the speech because they found it “a most useful means of disseminating sound common sense on this subject.”

Given that in the 1960s the press and the public health community were beginning to pay greater attention to chronic disease caused by long-term exposure to environmental toxins, however, it is not surprising thatattention was drawn to the automobile. The burning of leaded gasoline was quickly pinpointed as a major contributor to smog and air pollution in major cities. The gas-guzzling engine that became a hallmark of the 19505 eight-cylinder tail-finned family car depended upon high-octane gas containing ever-increasing amounts of tetraethyl lead. As of the 19203 the U.S. Public Health Service had capped the tetraethyl lead content of gasoline at 3 cubic centimeters per gallon. But in 1958, under pressure from the automobile industry, that level was raised to 5 cc/gallon. This increase, however, was still below what the Ethyl Corporation and automobile industries’ leaders had requested, in part because Surgeon General Leroy Burney and other officials noted that no good environmental lead pollution study had been conducted since the first tetraethyl lead crisis in the 19203 and that without good evidence it was difficult to make sound public policy. pages 108-109


DARKNESS AT NOON After World War II the chemical industry proclaimed for itself a special role in America’s newfound affluence. DuPont announced that the American century was made possible by “Better Things for Better Living… through Chemistry.” For over fifteen years, despite particular environmental crises and increased scientific concern about pollution, Americans were fairly hypnotized by a parade of technological advances and remained largely unaware of the ecological and health costs of progress. Most eagerly incorporated the products of the chemical industry into their lives, never thinking that the synthetic chemicals in these products could possibly pose a danger.

Industry understood during the 1950s that the anxiety most Americans felt about the threat of nuclear war and the reality of fallout from atomic testing had the potential to translate into a fear about the toxicity of chemicals. Americans listened to Civil Defense advertising, watched the building of fallout shelters, and participated in air raid drills and “duck and cover” exercises in schools. The vaguely understood effect of unseen radiation on human health raised the specter of unknown dangers posed by human manipulation of the natural environment. The testing of atomic bombs in the Nevada desert destroyed the immediate environment and threatened children-both immediately downwind and thousands of miles away-as dangerous levels of strontium 90 were found in milk sold in upstate New York supermarkets. At any moment these general fears might cause people to wonder about the possible toxicity of chemicals.

Americans remained largely indifferent to pollution from the chemical industry until a tragedy occurred in 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania. This small factory town near Pittsburgh was enveloped in “a poisonous mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust… from the smokestacks from the local zinc smelter where most of the town worked” as an air inversion turned the street dark at noon. “Twenty residents died and half the town’s population-7,000 people-were hospitalized over the next five days with difficulty breathing.” Donora was home to a number of smelters and steel mills, including the American Steel and Wire Company’s zinc works. For five days, a cloud of toxins sat over the town. It was estimated that the air contained between 1,500 and 5,500 micrograms per cubic meter of sulfur dioxide emissions, whereas today’s Clean Air Act mandates 80 mg/m3 as a maximum average. For a brief moment, Americans were shocked and forced to confront the dangers of air pollution.

The following year, undoubtedly in reaction to Donora, the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association (MCA) formed the Air Pollution Abatement Committee. (The MCA, the major trade association for the chemical industry, was established in 1872; by the second half of the twentieth century it represented one hundred seventy-four U.S. companies, responsible for “more than 90 percent of the production capacity of basic industrial chemicals” in this country.) Dudley A. Irwin, representing the Aluminum Company of America, argued in January 1950 that “the repercussions of the Gauley Tunnel episode on silicosis [America’s worst occupational health disaster, which occurred in the early 19303] probably will be dwarfed by the effects of Donora on air pollution. The Donora incident,” he continued,  “has not only made the public air pollution conscious and unduly apprehensive, but also it has advanced opinion with regard to the imposition of restrictive measures by many years.” The implications of this for the legislative arena were clear: “The politicians have not been slow to sense this changed attitude of the public.”[5] But, as Modern Industry magazine put it, “smart plants are cleaning up their exhaust gases right now-before laws or lawsuits start to pinch.” Decrying the lack of information, Irwin reviewed what was known and not known about the effects of industrial air pollution.

While the industry had argued throughout the twentieth century that if you could protect the worker, the public was safe, Irwin wasn’t so sure. Industrial workers “are usually healthy individuals, while the general population includes those who are infirm or chronically ill.” Furthermore, in the factory, workers were “usually exposed to a single contaminant while city air is a mixture of many contaminants, some of which may act synergistically.” Finally, workers were only exposed to toxins “on a part time basis in contrast to the full-time exposure of ordinary citizens.” Even so, Irwin was unwilling to acknowledge that “ordinary air pollution has any significant adverse effect on the health of the general population.”

The MCA developed a program that incorporated its view of nature and the environment as another resource at the disposal of industry. In its “Basic Principles of Legislation,” the association laid out its vision in 1950: “the atmosphere should be regarded as a useful natural resource.” According to the MCA, nature “should be utilizable for dispersion of wastes within its capacity to do so without harm to the surroundings.” Rather than envisioning the atmosphere as a national resource to be protected for the people as a whole, it was simply considered a local resource. Therefore, “air pollution is a local problem,” and the state should only interfere “to enable a particular locality to take action.” This reasoning was part of the industry’s efforts to prepare for fights over threats to its sovereignty. Of particular concern was the U.S. southwest, where the chemical industry had experienced “unprecedented growth.”[9] Similarly, the rapid growth of Los Angeles and its dependence on the automobile raised new worries about smog and its long-term effects on American health and therefore new worries for industry. Smog, in the words of one trade journal, “ceased to be a joke to industrialists.”

Throughout the 19503 the MCA developed a keen awareness of the air pollution issue, closely monitoring national and state legislation. When New Jersey considered a bill to put the state Air Pollution Control Commission in the Department of Health, the MCA’s Air Pollution Abatement Committee sought to have the legislation altered to place it in the Department of Law and Public Safety. Understanding that health was a potent political issue, the MCA sought to depict air pollution as “a nuisance problem and not a health problem.”

When the MCA became concerned about federal air pollution legislation, it met with the Public Health Service “to impress upon the officials that we feel control of air pollution is largely a local matter.” If the purpose of legislation was the “collection of information,” then the MCA would have no objection, but there was to be no federal regulation.  Arguing that there was “no basis for the fear that health is endangered by air pollution” and that air pollution was only “a nuisance,” the MCA believed that the industry should begin a determined program as an “investment in good will.”

In 1956 the MCA participated in a federal-state study of air pollution in Louisville, Kentucky. The industry needed to be on top of information about pollution if it were going to be prepared to counter challenges to its control. Monitoring the study for the MCA were technical personnel from the B. F. Goodrich Chemical Company, the same plant that would, in less than two decades, become the site of the first cancer deaths linked to the plastics industry. It was clear to the study organizers that emissions from the plant were escaping into the general population; the study was designed to identify the frequency and types of emissions that were escaping. As part of the project, “several school children in Louisville’s West End,” a predominantly poor, African American community, were given “sniff-kits,” which were “small bottled samples of many materials used in Rubbertown processes.” The children were taught how to use the kits to identify odors they noticed in the air.

The MCAs state affiliates were less attentive to the looming issues of environmental and air pollution than the national organization. When the MCA approached the Louisiana Chemical Association (LCA), whose state was emerging as a center of the petrochemical industry, about holding a workshop session on air pollution abatement, the LCA declined: “they felt no pressing need for technical assistance on air pollution problems at present.” Even the Air Pollution Abatement Committee believed that such attitudes were “all too typical of the ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ philosophy, likely to lead to frantic ‘too little and too late’ efforts when the pressure for action mounts.”

In 1960, as the MCAs Medical Advisory Committee considered what kind of public face to present, it was clear that its members understood that the field of environmental health had come to encompass both the  environment of the factory as well as the outside world, into which companies were pouring pollutants. Pollution, particularly smokestack emissions and groundwater contamination, were real problems that industry was “doing an improved job” of addressing. The industry’s dilemma was that emphasizing such claims would simply call attention to what had not been done to protect the environment in the past.

Monsanto’s representative, Dr. R. Emmet Kelly, said, “If we claim we are keeping pollution down to low enough levels, we will be asked how we know such levels are low enough.” Unfortunately, he candidly admitted, “there is bound to be pollution.” H. H. Golz, American Cyanamid’s representative, agreed that “it is difficult to prove that certain levels of pollution are not harmful to people. Absence of evidence of harm was not acceptable” in the contemporary social climate. The Enjay Chemical Company’s representative pointed out that “so long as people die from unknown causes, pollution will be blamed.” One way of proving that industry acted responsibly outside the plant, according to Union Carbide’s representative, was to “show what a good job we are doing in industry to prevent the exposure of workers” inside the factory. But this, in turn, would pose other dilemmas. As DuPont’s spokesman noted, critics would “tell us we protect our workers by pumping the pollutants out into the atmosphere and thereby exposing the general public.” Golz worried that any statements made by General J. E. Hull, the MCA’s president, could be used as an excuse to increase government regulation of the chemical industry and that any admission of responsibility for “a public health problem” should be accompanied by a “go-slow policy by government.”  Pages 140-144


The American Petroleum Institute (API), the trade association of the portion of the chemical industry that was primarily concerned with petroleum refining, directly addressed the growing fear that the industry’s air pollution was linked to serious diseases. Seeking a way to reconceptualize the health issue as one of annoyance and nuisance, John C. Ruddock, a former lead researcher and the chair of the API’s Sub Committee on Atmospheric Pollutants, argued repeatedly that with the exception of Donora, London, and Meuse, Belgium (where air inversions resulted in many deaths), no one had been able to prove “aggravation of such diseases as asthma, tuberculosis, bronchitis, etc., nor does air pollution particularly affect the aged or very young.” He agreed that air pollution should be reduced. And he was “sympathetic with all those who do not like ‘smog.’ As true Americans, we do not like our rights infringed upon, whether it is the inability to see as far as we desire, or whether it is the discomfort and eye-smarting that occurs with air pollution.” Certainly, there were many “poisonous and noxious fumes” in polluted air. But, they were dangerous only when they exceeded “a certain density and are either inspired or ingested.” The API members assured themselves as well as the government that whatever the claims about the effects of air pollution, “we have found no single case, nor have we found any pathological effect attributable to atmospheric pollutants per se.” page 145



In early 1962, coinciding with the impending publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the MCA’s Public Relations Advisory Committee expressed a sense of “urgency of the situation confronting us.” There was a “steadily intensifying assault on the right of business management to manage.” While this assault came in part from organized labor, management believed that the more general impetus came from the federal government, which was pursuing “this line because it is the public’s desire that it do so.” The committee recommended a campaign to “educate,” “inform” and “persuade” the American public about what industry was doing for them. They believed that without such a propaganda campaign government would adopt policies that would “result in the constriction and ultimate strangulation of the economic and social systems under which our free institutions have survived and prospered.” They worried that “once the abyss [of government interference] has been reached” it would be too late to change direction.

The MCA introduced into its argument the issue of acceptable risk. “Whether public health officials will admit it or not,” Dr. E. O. Colwell of the Aluminum Company of America told the Air Pollution Abatement Committee, “there is a place for the term ‘calculated risk’ in this human health business.” To the question “What price were we willing to pay for absolutely clean air?” he answered that it was both impractical and unnecessary “to make the air so clean that the most sensitive individuals will be comfortable if such is not economically sound.” He argued that “the public we must satisfy would better risk a few cases of bronchitis or even emphysema than to risk mental and physical ills that would accompany the economic failure of an industry, a community, or a country.” For the industry, as well as Colwell personally, public health could not be the paramount concern of the industry. The economic interests of the chemical industry were synonymous with the interests of the country.[21] The next year industry was pleased that the Clean Air Act encouraged states to initiate air pollution controls, permitting the federal government to act only at the state’s request. Environmental historian Hal Rothman suggests that a “lackluster enforcement record followed,” with “only eleven abatement cases filed between 1965 and 1970.”

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in September 1962, sounded a loud alarm over the chemical industry. Carson’s biographer, Linda Lear, has written that industry and others recognized Silent Spring as “a fundamental social critique of a gospel of technological progress.” Some quarters were so threatened by Carson’s book that they felt the need to attack her personally. Ezra Taft Benson, the secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration and later a leading elder of the Mormon Church, is credited with barbed remarks about Carson. He asked “why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics,” suggesting that it was because she was “probably a communist.” But it was the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, the trade association for pesticide manufacturers, and the MCA that led the attack on Carson and her writings, “sending out a steady stream of brochures and bulletins denouncing things that Carson had never said and circulating ‘fact kits’ to members.”

Almost immediately, the MCA began organizing to get a firmer hold on the broad issue of environmental pollution. Recognizing that an attack on Carson was not sufficient to regain public confidence, the board of directors voted to join with the National Agricultural Chemicals Association to wage a public relations campaign that emphasized the “constructive role played by chemicals in the field of environmental health.”[25] As one of the board’s officers stated in a general review of the MCA’s program, the “public relations program on environmental health… is currently concerned with the problems created for the industry by such books as Miss Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring.'” They feared that the public would accept “the implication that the chemical industry has no sense of public responsibility and is motivated solely by a desire for profits.” The MCA set up an Ad Hoc Technical Committee, developed contacts with other trade associations concerned about increasing environmental consciousness, and produced a “large volume of informational material” for consumers, scientists, politicians, and educators.[27] An Ad Hoc Planning Committee on Environmental Health was established in April 1963 to coordinate the defensive and offensive measures to carry out the “proper responsibilities for chemical industry leadership in this increasingly significant area.”  The need to “get going” was essential “in light of mounting pressures for action, with the strong likelihood of a greatly accelerated program with or without industry cooperation.” pages 145-147


Not only were there differences of opinion regarding the extent and nature of the industry’s responsibility, but there also were different opinions about how to handle joint government-industry-sponsored research. Historically, industry had seen government as a partner that provided legitimacy and credibility to industry research conclusions. The debacle of the 1920s tetraethyl lead crisis was a case in point: the government had allowed the industry to control the nature of the research and its timetable. By the 1960s this sort of overt manipulation of the process was less easily achieved. When the MCA embarked on a number of joint research enterprises with the Public Health Service and other government agencies to assess the effect of air pollution on public health in the 1960s, it accepted that it could not gain complete control over the research. Although the MCA was unable to control the release of data resulting from such joint research efforts, it did reach an agreement with the government not to “include ‘interpretation of project findings'” in any such release. While the industry was not given the right of final approval, as it had been in the 1920s, it was still able to stifle adverse interpretations of joint government-industry research.

In 1969 the MCA did finally acknowledge that air pollution was a health problem and not merely a nuisance, but still the industry downplayed the dangers. The association agreed that some people already suffering from respiratory disease could be “adversely affected” by air pollution, but it argued that people in good health, “even though temporarily discomforted,” would quickly recover from acute exposure to chemical pollution “without residual damage.” The MCA posited that it was “unlikely” that air pollution was “a sole or principal cause of any disease entity” and that at worst it could accelerate the death of those previously ill, particularly among older people. But the MCA conceded no clear health risk from long-term exposure, no relationship between allergic asthma and air pollution, and no clear relationship in the United States between bronchitis and air pollution. The association agreed with a statement in a Health, Education, and Welfare Department report that said, “The association between long-term residence in polluted areas and chronic disease morbidity and mortality is somewhat conjectural.”  page 154

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