Phil Shabecoff was a mentor for many environmental journalists for a long time. His three decades of reporting at the New York Times, nearly half of it as the paper’s primary environment reporter, brought many Times readers their first information about acid rain, global warming, and countless other environmental threats, or environmental solutions.
Recently Shabecoff co-authored a book with his wife, Alice, on a threat with no real solution in sight. Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Childrenties together multiple stories of birth defects, cancer and leukemia clusters, skyrocketing rates of childhood asthma, and more.
The Shabecoffs put all players under the microscope: Victims, mothers of victims, environmental investigators and environmental apologists. Their theme, and mission, is to seek justice for the victims of chemical contamination.
The book begins with the heartbreaking tale of Dickson, Tennessee, whose landfill was contaminated with the carcinogen trichloroethylene by a car-parts company that blew town, declared bankruptcy, and changed hands often enough to not get caught. They left behind a legacy of poisoned well water and a rash of children born with cleft palates and other deformities. It continues with a tragic travelogue through Port Arthur, Texas and Toms River, New Jersey, and through a menu of toxic threats: Plastic-softening phthalates in cosmetics and teething rings, solvents like TCE in groundwater, dioxins, and long-banned substances like DDT in breast milk. And literally hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals measurable in the bloodstreams of fetuses and infants.
Poisoned Profits is a strong effort at explaining the sources of contamination in our world, and how kids’ systems may be more vulnerable to much of it. The authors don’t skimp on offering dissenting views, though the list of sources for the book is a veritable list of Enemy Scientists to the Chemical Industry.
The authors are merciless in laying out a case that we are likely poisoning ourselves, and give a compelling read on the longstanding callousness of some of the biggest names in American industry: Dow, Union Carbide, DuPont, and more.
The book also takes aim at apologists. The American Chemistry Council is the recent, less black-hat-ish name for what used to be known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association. They assure us that phthalates, the object of widespread research into their possible role in hormone disruption, “make everyday life more convenient, colorful, and fun.” That is, of course, if the research suggesting possibly linking phthalate ingestion to genital shrinkage and undescended testicles isn’t true.
Throughout the book, however, a recurring theme suggests why justice is never done: Environmental illness, and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt are just not a good match. A Harvard physician studying the apparent rise and possible causes of autism says skeptics are nearly in “pathological denial.” But she also acknowledges that there’s “neither consensus nor certainty about an autism epidemic.” Others in the book cite the same gray area. In our system, where there’s doubt, no one’s going to prison. And just like the skeptics who raise specious concerns about the overwhelming evidence that we’ve got a problem with climate change, it’s easy to raise enough doubt over the sources of toxic contamination, or the cause of a community’s outbreak of cleft-palate children, that even the most callously criminal toxic dumpers have a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card.
Despite well-written chapters titled “Perpetrators,” “Co-Conspirators,” and “Scene of the Crime”, skilled writers and reporters like the Shabecoffs can make the collar, but getting the conviction isn’t so easy.
Real justice for environmental crimes is being put to the test right now. In Missoula, Montana, the W.R. Grace Company and seven of its executives are standing criminal trial for their role in allegedly contaminating an entire town. Grace operated a vermiculite mine and mill in Libby Montana from 1963 to 1990. Vermiculite is used in insulation, fire retardant, and is used by gardeners as a soil conditioner. It’s often found where asbestos is found, and the mining and milling operations in Libby left the town, and its lungs, covered with the stuff. Grace is accused of covering up knowledge of the health risks for years. The EPA has been in Superfund mode in Libby for a decade, spending more than $120 million and tangling with the company over cleanup liability. Grace denies the charges, and says it’s been pitching in millions for the health expenses of the victims in Libby.
If you’ve heard the “Grace” name before in connection to toxic justice, it’s probably from A Civil Action, the book and John Travolta movie detailing contamination in Woburn, MA by Grace and other companies. Five children’s deaths were linked to the contamination, which is also referenced in Poisoned Profits. After years of litigation, Grace paid $8 million in penalties, plus a $10,000 EPA fine. No one went to prison. The Libby trial is supposed to run into the summertime.
The Shabecoffs’ book follows, by a few years, another extraordinary work by a now-former newspaper reporter. Marla Cone, who covered the environment for years for the Los Angeles Times, parlayed a Pew Foundation Fellowship into the book Silent Snow. Cone spent months traveling through the Arctic, a region that produces precious few pollutants, but has a unique and tragic capacity to absorb everyone else’s. Wind and water currents conspire to bring heavy metals, PCBs, and other contaminants to the pristine north, where few plants and weak, frozen soils are of little help in absorbing them. The whales, seals, polar bears, and humans of the north end up as receptacles for vast amounts of toxins -- far higher in the Arctic than in the industrial cities where the pollutants are made and discharged.
Top this off with the fact that the Arctic way of life is literally melting away, and you’ve found a vast community of people with even less hope for environmental justice than the children and families in Poisoned Profits.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)