Next Wednesday (November 20, 2002) winners of the National Book Awards will be announced at a ceremony in New York. Among the five finalists for the non-fiction prize is "When Smoke Ran Like Water," by Dr. Devra Davis, an expert in the spread of infectious diseases. The work chronicles the recent history of air pollution and its impact on public health in the United States and other countries. The story begins in Donora, a small Pennsylvania mill town in the Monongahela River Valley where Ms. Davis grew up.
On October 26, 1948 when Devra Davis was a little girl, so little she doesn't remember the event, the sky turned black. It stayed that way for four days. 18 people died the first day and hundreds more in the following months. Not until she was much older and her family had moved away, did she ask her mother about what had happened in Donora. Devra Davis relates that memory in an excerpt from "When Smoke Ran Like Water."
"But they say people got really sick in Donora. Did people get sick?"
"Well, we used to say, 'That's not coal dust, that's gold dust.' As long as the mills were working, the town was in business. And that's what kept your Zadde [grandfather] and your father employed. Nobody was going to ask if it made a few people ill. People had to eat. I shot her the kind of skeptical look that daughters have been giving mothers since time immemorial.
"Look, today they might call it pollution," she sighed. "Back then it was just a living."
What actually happened was not so hard to explain, if anybody had asked. On that memorable October day a massive cold front blanketed the valley. The hot fumes from the zinc factory smokestacks sank to the ground, darkened the sky and remained until rain finally dispersed the toxic smog. Devra Davis says Donora's dirty secret sets the stage for the rest of her book. "It made me quite aware in a way that I couldn't be just as a scientist alone that the way people live, and where they live, and how they live and how they work has a major impact on their health patterns," she says. "No one in my family thought for years that my grandmother's health problems had anything to do with where she lived. But what we now know and what research has shown us in the United States and all over the world, is that people who live in zones that are a little bit more polluted than other zones have between a 10 and 30 percent higher risk of developing heart disease and of dying from it."
"When Smoke Ran Like Water" documents how toxins, like those in Donora, can cause disastrous consequences over time. For example, author Davis reports that it took more than fifty years to phase out lead a known neurotoxin from gasoline in the United States.
In this case, she says, industry purposely ignored the evidence and often "discredited, dismissed and discouraged" those who developed it. "They ignored the warnings of public health people because our model for understanding human health at the time was limited to a medical approach which was to look at one individual at a time and ask whether the gun was fired that killed that person. Lead doesn't have a gun that is fired, as an example," she says. "Its effects are distributed over large populations in time and space. And, we did not have the tools at hand to show this and the forces of industry at the time were so ignorant and were determined to remain ignorant that they ignored evidence presented of these hazards time and time again."
Leaded gas was introduced in 1923 and available at service stations in the United States until 1995. It is still sold in more than 100 countries around the world.
"When Smoke Ran Like Water" details how breast and other cancers are linked with exposures to avoidable environmental contaminants, how environmental toxins play a role in growing health problems among men, including increased cases of sterility and testicular cancer, and how researchers have labored to sound an alarm.
"We do not wait," she writes, "for bridges to collapse before inspecting them for safety; we do not wait for boats to sink before requiring they carry life jackets." She says, "Our knowledge of the health consequences of both local and global pollution is more detailed and accurate than it has ever been."
Davis: "When we are dealing with risks of this sort, the [U.S.] courts have been very clear. Judge Skelly Wright in Ethyl [Corporation] v EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] in 1976 said that where the risk to public health is so great, it is far better to err on the side of protecting public health than to err on the side of protecting industry. That is the challenge we all face right now."
Skirble: "Are the barriers different now? Do you feel times have changed in the United States in the last thirty years with the rise of the environmental movement?"
Davis: "I think that I am cautiously optimistic. I think that I see tremendous change in the business community now. There are coalitions in business that are advocating for climate policy, instead of fighting and claiming that there is not a problem. I think we see some signs of progress, and the question now is to take the words that are environmental and see if we translate them into deeds."
Encouraged by the public response to "When Smoke Ran Like Water," Devra Davis says, "people are willing to hear about air pollution and its damaging effects."* The public, she says, is also "now in a position to act on more informed choices as a society" to do something about it.
*Quote from interview with Devra Davis by Geoff Kelly at Carnegie Mellon University, November 4, 2002. See pittsburghpulp.com for complete transcript.