Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Profits At Any Price

TomPaine  September 22, 2003


Almost since the day it took office, the Bush administration has engaged in a furious struggle to protect American chemical, tobacco, pharmaceutical, biotech and oil companies -- not from terrorists, but from regulators.

The enemy is variously the European Union, which wants to test chemicals for safety; the World Health Organization, which wants to curb tobacco advertising, and, um, most of the world, which wants to limit carbon dioxide emissions so the planet does not boil over.

While the current collusion of American government and industry at the expense of the environment and public health is now having a global impact, the process had its roots at the beginning of the 20th century. As Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, a new book by public health historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, makes clear, the history of American 'progress' is inextricably linked to government and industrial cover-ups.

Deceit and Denial is a provocative work, history as investigative reporting. In two exhaustively researched case studies of lead and polyvinyl chloride, Markowitz and Rosner lay out the tangled story of how the companies behind two of the most common, and most deadly, substances of the 20th century manipulated public opinion and suborned government regulators.

The book begins with lead. Jump back to Monday, October 27, 1924, when The New York Times ran a front-page story headlined "Odd Gas Kills One, Makes Four Insane." The article described the mysterious death of Ernest Oelgert, a worker in a Standard Oil laboratory in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Witnesses reported seeing him running around the plant "in terror, shouting that there were 'three coming at me at once.'" Over the next five days four more workers would die and another 35 would come down with severe neurological problems.

The men had been working on an experimental product for what would become leaded gasoline. It was later discovered that other workers had died from lead poisoning in plants controlled by DuPont and General Motors. Standard Oil and the other companies maintained that lead was not dangerous. Federal agencies backed them up. One executive called the development of leaded gasoline "essential in our civilization," and "an apparent gift of God."

What followed were three decades of intensive industry cover-ups of the dangers of lead as the substance entered every sector of American society. The devastation was not limited to workers in plants where lead was used. Children came in contact with the deadly substances everywhere: their toys, the paint on their cribs, and the air they breathed. The effect on children was devasting: lower IQs, aggressive behavior, neurological damage. A two-by-two inch piece of lead paint could kill a child. After the dangers of lead to children became apparent in the 1920s, for "the next thirty years the industry embarked on a program to obscure the relationship between lead, paint, and children's deaths and illnesses," write Markowitz and Rosner.

What is particularly disturbing is the revelation that the rise of industrial pollutants and carcinogens was entwined with the realization of the American Dream. The immigrants who saved and strived to buy a home had also unknowingly moved into a world of lead pipes, lead appliances, and most disastrously, lead paint.

Yet in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of lead paint to children, the lead industry ran decades of relentless advertising campaigns promoting its use in children's rooms and schools.

Remember the Dutch Boy Painter? He was promoting the most toxic of all lead based paints, white lead. "Lead helps to guard your health," ran a Dutch Boy ad in National Geographic in 1923, while another promoting its use in toys said, "Lead takes part in many games."

In addition to its public campaign, the industry used science to further its promotion of lead as safe. The industry controlled the agenda for most of the research on lead by funding institutes at Harvard University and the University of Cincinnati. The industry also promoted the idea that lead poisoning was the child's own fault for chewing on their cribs.

Throughout this time the industry maintained an incestuous relationship with government regulators. The industry's lead advocate, Felix Wormser, went on to join the Eisenhower Interior Department. And the current Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, is a former lobbyist for NL Industries -- formerly the National Lead Company, creator of the Dutch Boy and the number one producer of lead paint.

This is also a story about a few brave public health advocates and government officials who fought the conventional wisdom. Alice Hamilton, one of pioneers of modern public and occupational health, spent much of her career establishing the effects of lead on workers, children and women. In 1908 she pointed out that "lead is a most potent producer of abortion, and it is very rare that a woman lead worker bears a healthy child to term."

Lead remained in widespread use in paint until President Nixon signed a ban into law in 1974. By this time public heath surveys found that more than 600,000 children had lead poisoning.

The second half of the book examines polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which became on the most common types of plastics in the 1950s. It was in everything from hair spray to flooring to liquor bottles. In the 1960s workers in PVC factories developed a degenerative bone condition; a Rolling Stone investigation called the factories "plastic coffins." In the early 1970s the industry conducted secret studies that found PVC was a carcinogen. It was then "the industry moved from denial and obfuscation to outright deception," according to Markowitz and Rosner. Newly revealed documents and notes from meetings show how the industry hid their data from government regulators and concocted elaborate political and public relations strategies to limit the regulation of PVCs. Deceit and Denial is also an intriguing case study of the history of American public health and the conceptualization of disease. "Lead poisoning went grossly under-diagnosed for much of the first half of the twentieth century," they write, because health workers were focusing on their work on bacteria, which had been found to cause such scourges as measles and influenza. The problems with PVCs, meanwhile, went unacknowledged because of the government's reliance on epidemiological studies, which often require decades to produce data.

Deceit and Denial is a devastating tale. It is the history of a disease, the history of industry cover-ups and collusion, and the history of government failure. Sound familiar?

Copyright by Samuel Loewenberg and/or the publication in which it first appeared
Do not reprint without permission