Who's Poisoning America: Corporate Polluters and Their Victims in the Chemical Age, edited by Ralph Nader, Ronald Brownstein, and John Richard, San Francisco, Calif.: Sierra Club Books, 1981, 320 pp., $12.95.
Mother always said, "Don't judge a book by its cover," but one look at the title and subtitle of Who's Poisoning America, and you can pretty well guess the contents. The title sums up the basic tenets of a distinct and extremely vocal group of environmentalists:
• America is being poisoned.
• Big business is responsible and cares not what it does.
• Little people (like you and me) are the victims.
• This is a relatively new phenomenon, a product of our "chemical age."
• New and complex chemicals are the poisons and must be eliminated.
In a sense, it seems futile to write yet another negative review of this type of book. The primary audience of Who's Poisoning America is ready-made of individuals who sincerely believe everything that the title implies and are likely to view any objections to the book as evidence of corporate conspiracy or, at the very least, poor judgment. Anyone really interested in reading this book has already given an affirmative answer to a preliminary question that for many remains debatable: Is America being poisoned?
Like the title, the book itself is loaded with the buzz words and buzz phrases of the movement. One is treated to a barrage of emotional environmentalist rhetoric on "chemical violence," "corporate criminals," "lethal sewers of industry," and a "swarm of carcinogens," not to mention the inevitable "epidemic of cancer." In this highly charged language, even plants are described as dying a "twisted, tortured death."
But setting aside for the moment the obvious, and to me distasteful, bias in Who's Poisoning America, the book does consider topics and incidents that are important and need to be addressed. In separate chapters, authors examine such issues as the safe use and disposal of toxic chemicals, occupational health, the problem of radioactive waste disposal, and victim compensation. These topics are considered through reviews of the Michigan PBB accident, PCBs in the Hudson River, the use of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, Love Canal, and the inadequate protection of Kepone workers in a Hopewell, Virginia, pesticide plant, to name a few.
Undeniably, there have been instances in which unequivocal harm has been done to workers or the environment. For a number of the situations discussed in Who's Poisoning America, however, there is no clear-cut evidence of adverse effects.
It is depressing that, in their relentless insistence on portraying the worst of all possible worlds, the authors of this book have felt compelled to inflate any suggestions of adverse effects, however remote, while simultaneously suppressing any suggestions that effects may have been minimal or nonexistent. Thus, in the eyes of the authors of this book, the unsubstantiated anecdotal accounts of individuals convinced they are experiencing toxic effects are no less credible than scientifically rigorous epidemiological or toxicological studies.
Even more worrisome is the apparent willingness of the authors to use half-facts, innuendo, and misstatement to support their views. The introductory chapter, written by Ronald Brownstein, is rife with examples of this tactic.
In the course of bolstering his contention that chemicals in the air and water are killing us all, Brownstein pooh-poohs the proven contributions of cigarette smoking and certain other lifestyle factors to the cancer rate, designating this scientific viewpoint as "defense maneuvers" of "business officials and lobbyists." Oddly, in the final chapter of the book, Ralph Nader emphasizes that "changes in lifestyle can reduce exposure to some carcinogens." His prime example? Cigarette smoking.
Brownstein's obfuscation extends still further. He cites the increasing cancer rates of the last century but never notes the influence of the changing age structure of our society on these rates. With increasing life expectancies, Americans are living longer, and cancer is primarily a disease of old age. Hence, it doesn't necessarily tell us much that the incidence of cancer per 1,000 members of the population is increasing.
According to Brownstein's figures, cancer death rates tripled from 1900 to 1930, before any of the alleged culprit chemicals were being produced, compared to only a little more than a doubling of cancer death rates in the 45 years from 1930 to 1975. Yet, according to Brownstein, "the introduction of new chemical products into the environment since World War II parallels the increased cancer rates since then." This statement is meaningless, but it is nevertheless pregnant with the suggestion of a causal association.
To this sort of intellectual dishonesty, add what appears to be a deliberate sin of omission. In June 1980 a group of distinguished scientists headed by Dr. Lewis Thomas was appointed by New York Governor Hugh L. Carey to review the scientific evidence regarding the health effects of exposure to hazardous wastes in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls. These scientists, commonly called a "blue ribbon panel" by the media, submitted their report on Love Canal in October 1980. The panel's report is the most thorough and scientific consideration of the Love Canal situation to date, yet in the Love Canal chapter of Who's Poisoning America the only reference to this important and well-respected study is the following unreferenced sentence: "But then another report to the New York government in fall 1980 criticized the Picciano study."
The Picciano study, which supposedly showed chromosome damage in Love Canal residents, was not the only study "criticized" by the panel, but Who's Poisoning America contains no mention of the strong reservations expressed by Dr. Thomas and the other panel members regarding the adequacy of virtually all the research on Love Canal health effects that they reviewed. According to the panel: "There has been no demonstration of acute health effects linked to exposure to hazardous wastes at the Love Canal site. The panel has also concluded that chronic effects of hazardous wastes exposure at Love Canal have neither been established or ruled out as yet, in a scientifically rigorous manner." No doubt this calm and rational statement, though not absolutely ruling out the possibility of adverse effects on health, was too optimistic for inclusion in Who's Poisoning America.
Ultimately, it is this sort of deception that causes this book to forfeit the right to the respect that should otherwise be accorded any honest though differing viewpoint. Differences in interpretation of data are as integral to science as manipulation and suppression of information are inimical to it.
The same single-mindedness of purpose that impels the authors to be less than honest in the presentation of their view is also apparent in their obsession with assigning blame to industry. As the title makes clear, culpability is the raison d'être of this book. Who's Poisoning America clearly displays an "us-them" mentality that allows for no ambiguity about responsibility for the incidents discussed; only Big Business can be faulted.
Actually, reading the book, it frequently appears that the situations portrayed occurred through a confluence of inappropriate action by industry, government, and individuals. The constant exoneration of responsible government agencies is amusingly transparent and eventually unflattering, as it suggests the sort of perpetual excuse granted only to the particularly inept.
In the end, Who's Poisoning America is little more than a cult book. It will no doubt reinforce the convictions of present believers and may convince a few individuals who are teetering on the edge of receptivity. But for an open-minded, perceptive reader, the misstatements and omissions of fact, and the straight-jacket of anti-industrial bias, will eventually work against acceptance of the viewpoint expressed.
Elizabeth Whelan is executive director of the New York-based American Council on Science and Health and the author of Preventing Cancer.