What London Fog?

Book cover
When Smoke Ran Like Waterby By Devra DavisBasic Books/HarperCollins. 336p $26

If you like mysteries, read this book. Even if you don’t like mysteries, read itbecause it may save your life.

The world-famous epidemiologist Devra Davis tracks a killer responsible for millions of avoidable ailments like heart disease and cancer. She explains, for example, why women with high levels of pesticide residue in their blood are many times more likely to die of breast cancer, and why there has been a 500-percent increase in breast cancer in the last 40 years. Just as the oil industry fought to keep lead in gasoline, even when it knew lead caused brain damage, Davis says many pollution-induced deaths continue because those responsible cover them up.


Beginning her book with the 1948 smog emergency in her hometown of Donora, Pa., Davis recounts how, in only a month, the smog made half her town ill and caused 70 avoidable deaths. After her own family members were injured, she earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins. She publishes in scientific journals and also takes her message to the public through media like The New York Times and 60 Minutes.

Davis notes that as early as the year 1257, British royal proclamations prohibited various noxious emissions in London. Even then, people knew smog was a killer. Nevertheless, Davis points out, Claude Monet celebrated the pollution-induced colors of foggy London town. Writers too, including Charles Dickens in Bleak House, continue to glamorize the haze. In her second chapter Davis explains that no one should have been surprised that London’s killer fog of 1952 (water vapor and industrial pollutants such as heavy metals) killed 13,000 people. Yet authorities said influenza caused the deaths. Beginning with the London fog, Davis shows how seven centuries of continuing ignorance, denial and greed have induced millions of avoidable fatalities worldwide. Chapters 3 through 5 reveal how and why the coverup continues. Using an article that appeared in 1984 in the medical journal Lancet, Davis shows that a widely used industrial agent, butadiene, caused animal tumors after two years at exposures comparable to those of workers. And in 1986 Johns Hopkins University researchers showed butadiene workers had more than six times the normal number of cancers of blood-forming organs. Yet vested interests kept butadiene from being listed as a human carcinogen until 2001.

The next three chapters reveal how corporations cover up pollution-induced epidemics of female breast cancer, male reproductive problems, global warming and massive deaths in developing nations. The final chapter introduces many heroes, medical scientists who ultimately have won out, but who suffered decades of slander and personal harassment from polluters trying to discredit their public-health studies.

Although When Smoke Ran Like Water reads like a good novel, its scientific notes confirm alarming statistics that for the most part have been carefully buried by those at whom they point. Consider Davis’s analysis of air pollution. She shows how, 35 years ago, experts proved a 50-percent reduction in air pollution would reduce deaths, illnesses and lost workdays by at least $2 billion a year4.5 percent of then-current annual U.S. health costs. Experts later learned, she reports, that every 10-microgram increase in invisible air pollution causes a 5 percent annual increase in all deaths and an 8 percent annual increase in lung cancer. An article in Lancet in 1997 showed that if the world continues to burn highly polluting fossil fuels at the current rate, 8 million avoidable deaths will occur by the year 2020.

Despite such grim statistics, Davis notes that the United States is the only major developed nation that has not signed the Kyoto Accord, the global agreement of approximately 140 nations to limit use of fossil fuels and slow global warming. (In the month Davis’s book was published, the Bush administration dropped many requirements of the 1970 Clean Air Act.)

Pushed by corporate dollars, such pollution policies cause the health toll to mount. Davis shows how many vested interests behave like the cigarette industry, fund disinformation campaigns, lie about their activities and channel huge contributions to lawmakers who regulate them. For example, 600 U.S. firms each give up to $100,000 per year to fight U.S. air-pollution regulations, like those rejected by the Bush administration. She also recounts the abuse heaped on the Harvard epidemiologist Herbert Needleman, who showed that toddlers’ increased blood levels accounted for lower I.Q. scores. Because the lead industry hired dozens of scientists and attorneys to discredit Needleman, he had to spend more than 10 years and thousands of dollars of his own money answering deliberate misrepresentations of his results and fending off legal harassment. He was vindicated, but at a great personal price.

As Davis also shows, when industries cannot deny the effects of their pollution on public health, they typically cover them up. For example, after pollution from a Xerox plant caused a nearby 5-year-old to contract cancer, it paid the victim’s family a $4.65-million settlement that required total secrecy about the cancer’s causes. Dow, Monsanto and other companies use similar tactics. Polluters also claim that cleanup would be too expensive for them, but Davis explains how they ignore health consequences of their pollution. Health costs of innocent victims, she shows, are about 40 times greater than would be the cost of pollution prevention measures. Corporations also lobby against government-funded health studies. That is why there has never been a surgeon general’s report on air pollution, although it kills more than 50,000 U. S. citizens annually. This strategy, says Davis, is to make sure the data won’t exist.

When Smoke Ran Like Water is the best book on public health and environmental pollution of the last 30 years. Davis is a powerful voice calling from the wilderness. Is anybody listening?

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