Sunday, January 23, 2005

First, Kill The Historians

Writing in the Nation magazine, University of California, Irvine Professor Jon Wiener takes up the case of historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner who are being harassed by the chemical industry for their book Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.

I wrote about this last November when the Chronicle of Higher Education first broke the story. The most unbelievable part is not that the chemical companies trumping up charges of "unethical conduct" against Markowitz and Rosner, but that they're also harassing the experts who peer reviewed their book.

In an unprecedented move, attorneys for Dow, Monsanto, Goodrich, Goodyear, Union Carbide and others have subpoenaed and deposed five academics who recommended that the University of California Press publish the book Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner. The companies have also recruited their own historian to argue that Markowitz and Rosner have engaged in unethical conduct. Markowitz is a professor of history at the CUNY Grad Center; Rosner is a professor of history and public health at Columbia University and director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia's School of Public Health.

The reasons for the companies' actions are not hard to find: They face potentially massive liability claims on the order of the tobacco litigation if cancer is linked to vinyl chloride-based consumer products such as hairspray. The stakes are high also for publishers of controversial books, and for historians who write them, because when authors are charged with ethical violations and manuscript readers are subpoenaed, that has a chilling effect. The stakes are highest for the public, because this dispute centers on access to information about cancer-causing chemicals in consumer products.
The book deals with a number of issues, but the chapters of most concern to the companies are those that extensively document how the chemical industry spent years covering up and lying about the hazards of vinyl chloride, a widely used chemical known to cause cancer. Most of the documents that Rosner and Markowitz uncovered came as a product of the discovery process in a case handled by a local attorney, Billy Baggett Jr., who was working with the widow of a former chemical plant worker who had died of angiosarcoma of the liver -- a rare cancer linked to vinyl chloride exposure. (The documents can be viewed here.)

I have spent a great deal of my career attempting to build coalitions between environmentalists and workers. One of the arguments we always used to encourage environmental organizations to support worker struggles was the fact that most environmental pollutants start out in the workplace before they hit the general public. And the health effects are generally first seen in workers, society's canaries. The case of vinyl chloride was a prime example. In fact, the companies were perfectly willing to admit that vinyl chloride was an occupational hazard; what really scared them was the possible effect on the general public:

The question about the chemical companies and the health risks of vinyl chloride is the classic one: What did they know, and when did they know it? Rosner and Markowitz used the Baggett materials to show that in 1973 the industry learned that vinyl chloride monomer caused cancer in animals--even at low levels of exposure. Since vinyl chloride was the basis for hairspray, Saran Wrap, car upholstery, shower curtains, floor coverings and hundreds of other consumer products, the implications for public health were massive. Yet the companies failed to disclose that information about cancer to the public and to the federal regulatory agencies.

The bigger issue for the companies stems from the role of vinyl chloride monomer as a propellant in aerosols in the 1950s and '60s. In 1974 the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency asked for the recall of hairsprays (along with insecticides and other aerosols) that were still on the shelves with vinyl chloride monomer as the propellant--one hundred products in all. No one has studied whether people who worked in beauty parlors, or women who used hairspray, have had higher rates of cancer. But the industry started worrying in the early 1970s that the liability problem could be bigger than that for workers in chemical plants. The problem was "essentially unlimited liability to the entire US population," as one chemical company supervisor wrote in a 1973 memo. Hairspray was a particular concern.
And what's the point of going after peer reviewers?

Blanche Wiesen Cook, Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, former vice president for research of the AHA, award-winning biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt and one of the historians who were deposed, called it "harassment to silence independent research" and an effort to create "a chilling effect on folks who tell the truth."
And being deposed by industry hired guns is no tea party:

Markowitz's deposition lasted five and a half days. He said, "You face fifteen or sixteen lawyers, none of whom like you, and all of whom are trying to trick you." Cook's deposition took only an hour, but it was "an hour of battering and legal tricks, and the goal was to trip you up and get you confused," she said. "They kept asking me how long I had known Gerry Markowitz. I said, 'Are you asking if I had an affair?' They said, 'No, why are you asking that?' I said, 'Where I come from, that's the implication of your question.' They said, 'Where do you come from?'" This seems pretty far from the question of vinyl chloride and cancer
Weiner points out that companies are going after historians for a good reason:

Rosner and Markowitz are part of a larger trend in which historians are appearing in court more often as expert witnesses. One reason is the growing number of cases in which companies are being accused of wrongdoing based on evidence that workers and consumers are suffering illness and disability because they were exposed to asbestos, lead, silica or other chemicals. In every case, the exposure began decades ago, and thus in every case, the central legal question is a historical one: When did the companies first learn of the health dangers posed by their products? At what point in the past can they be held responsible?
Finally, I've written recently about the current campaign by the Bush administration, Congressional Republicans and American industry to push "tort reform" through Congress. "Tort reform" would essentially remove from chemical, drug companies and other companies the threat of any serious penalty for producing dangerous products -- even when they lied and hid the evidence. Such "reform" is particularly dangerous because those same companies and politicians are dismantling our regulatory agencies at the same time they're threatening citizen's right to sue.

The harassment of Markowitz and Rosner is also
a consequence of the failure of governmental regulatory agencies to act. Now, in an era of Republican domination, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, originally created to protect the health of workers and the public, tend to be industry-dominated. As a result, the courts have become, in the words of Rosner and Markowitz, "one of the last venues where workers and communities might find some form of justice."
This case reminds me of the aftermath of the ergonomics hearings in 2000. OSHA hired expert witnesses to support its proposal, just as the agency had done for previous standards during Republican and Democratic administrations. Republicans in Congress, at industry urging, suddenly got it into their heads that this was somehow unetical and sent threataning letters to the witnesses demanding documents, e-mail, notes and any other material related to their testimony. The purpose, of course, was not to gain any useful information (which they did not), but to harass the witnesses, making it less likely that OSHA would be able to attract experts in the future.

On a personal note, I'm just about to finish Deceit and Denial and I highly recommend it. It documents not just the lies behind vinyl chloride, but also the same lies behind the hazards of lead. It's fascinating history and reads more like a John Grisham novel than an actual historical work. Unfortunately, it's all too real, and it's not ancient history; OSHA's vinyl chloride hearings took place only thirty years ago, and as shown by the current events, the industry has not left its dirty tricks behind. There are undoubtedly some juicy stories for future historians being written as we speak.