There has never been a surgeon general’s report on air pollution, and after reading Devra Davis’ new book you can understand why. “The real scientific difficulties of the field [of environmental epidemiology] have been complicated by a stream of disinformation fueled by short-term economic interests of those who stand to profit from keeping matters unresolved,” Davis writes, spicing her central argument that the forces of commerce have consistently downgraded the importance of human life and health below the imperative of making a buck.

It isn’t exactly news that the U.S. government’s job of protecting public health has been compromised by an industrial takeover of the regulatory process. But coming as it does when the current eco-unfriendly administration is trying to make the world safe for unfettered fossil fuel consumption, Davis’ timing is fortuitous. She knits into a quirky whodunit the sorry history of industry’s efforts to hinder knowledge of the role of pollutants in causing early death and debilitation. And her engaging style, surprising for a scientist, has no problem pointing fingers at the culprits — often other scientists for hire.

Davis’ story is driven home in forceful and mesmerizing detail. She was raised in Donora, the Pennsylvania steel town where a killer cloud of toxic fumes in 1948 rolled into homes, schools and hospitals due to an inversion of cold air. Within 24 hours, 18 people were killed by the zinc and steel-making byproducts, and 6000 were made ill. Thousands more suffered chronic illnesses the rest of their lives, including Davis’ relatives and the author herself.

“Can anybody say what role growing up in Donora may have played in my mother’s heart disease and that of her four siblings?” she writes. “Why my beloved Uncle Len suddenly dropped dead at age fifty? Why my brother Stan and I, both of us aging jocks, have developed severe allergies, or why my dad, who began working in the steel mill at age fifteen, contracted bone cancer at age fifty-three?”

With the passion of a victim’s advocate and the dispassion of an accomplished researcher (she’s a visiting professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School, and a senior adviser to the World Health Organization), Davis clears away the cloud of muddle that industry-backed scientists and their public relations cohorts have conjured around the question of how much harm air and chemical pollutants are wreaking on society. She borrows a term from Saul Bellow’s “The Dean’s December” to describe these smokescreens as “zones of incomprehension.”

It took years of follow-up studies before Donora’s “killer fog,” and that of London in 1952 (the source of the book’s title), were grudgingly acknowledged to be caused by industry and not by the weather. Davis carefully unearths the names of long-obscure scientific heroes who stubbornly stuck to their findings about the health effects of leaded gasoline, particulate air pollution, the connection between growth hormones and breast cancer, and the role of pesticides in the declining reproductive abilities of men worldwide.

On almost every page there’s a spicy zinger: “We would do well to remember this speech the next time somebody like Trent Lott holds up a photograph of a Mini Cooper and threatens that if car companies are forced to raise fuel efficiency by 3 miles per gallon, this is what we’ll all be driving. What was nonsense a generation ago is still nonsense today.”

The speech she referred to was given in 1973 by Lee Iacocca, then president of Ford Motor Company, who warned that new federal requirements to reduce automobile emissions by 90 percent from 1970 levels had backed the industry “to the cliff edge of desperation.” In arguing that “We could be just around the corner from a complete shutdown of the U.S. auto industry,” Iacocca ended with a flourish by quoting Sam Goldwyn: “In two words, IM … POSSIBLE!”

But the litany of industrial intransigence in the face of clear evidence that pollutants are not only harmful, but can be drastically reduced while still protecting the bottom line, becomes especially infuriating when Davis turns her pen to the saga of Herbert Needleman. The Harvard toxicologist and psychiatrist figured out that lead exposure could be measured by analyzing baby teeth, which integrated the total amount of lead to which children had been exposed. In 1979, he also showed that high levels of lead exposure correlated with low IQ. The main source of lead in the air was gasoline, and in particular, the Ethyl Corporation.

“The industry’s counterattack was swift and massive,” Davis writes. An industry trade group, the International Lead Zinc Research Organization, hired dozens of scientists to discredit Needleman’s findings. The Environmental Protection Agency formed a review committee, and one member claimed Needleman failed to take into account the IQ effects of bad housekeeping and inept parenting. Needleman was formally accused of scientific misconduct for not controlling for the role of family environment and other issues, which allegedly distorted his results.

It came out later that the scientists who leveled the charge were supported by the lead industries. Hill and Knowlton, a major PR firm, distributed letters to journalists claiming that Needleman’s work had been discredited.

Needleman later wrote in the medical journal Pediatrics, “If my case illustrates anything, it shows that the federal investigative process can be rather easily exploited by commercial interests to cloud the consensus about a toxicant’s dangers, can slow the regulatory pace, can damage an investigator’s credibility, and can keep him tied up almost to the exclusion of any scientific output for long stretches of time, while defending himself.” In the end, Needleman’s work was confirmed by many other studies, his reputation was restored, and leaded gasoline — belatedly — was phased out in the United States.

The International Lead Zinc Research Organization is just one of numerous deceptively named industry front groups that Davis indicts as hazardous to human health. Others include the Air Quality Standards Coalition, the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, the Reason Institute and the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy — each in reality dedicated, she says, to the opposite of what its name implies.

For all her blunt condemnations of the way industry is able to buy off scientists and manufacture zones of incomprehension, Davis never lapses into shrillness. Her chapter on air pollution’s role in global climate change slides deftly from clear explanations of why the six billion metric tons (and growing) of carbon released every year into the atmosphere is a problem to references to her own family, followed by a personal anecdote illustrating the almost nutball scrutiny global warming research is subjected to.

As part of a team comprised of scientists from WHO, the World Research Institute, EPA and Harvard, Davis helped create a climate model projecting the release of pollutants and greenhouse gases up to the year 2020. They wanted to estimate how many lives will be lost due to air pollution if there are no reductions in emissions over the next 20 years. “[B]y the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, 8 million avoidable deaths would occur solely from the controllable exposures to particulate air pollution,” the study concluded. The research was published in Lancet, the world’s oldest medical journal, in 1997.

The result? A group calling itself Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation attacked, and continues trying to discredit the findings.

Davis’ broad field of view also encompasses potential solutions to the problem of just slowing down the increase in greenhouse gases. “Compassionate” conservatives will likely dismiss her main proposal, which has to do with using economics to corner the problem.

“Things that contain lots of carbon, such as coal and gasoline, should cost more than things that contain less, like natural gas, solar or wind energy, or fuel cells when they are better developed,” she argues. This would entail “two great liberal evils: subsidies, to encourage the use of cleaner energy sources, and taxes and other penalties, to discourage the use of dirtier ones.”

This is radical thinking, of course, and anathema to the current energy industry; ergo, it will make little headway in public policy. The Bush Administration recently announced its strategy for tackling climate change: Let’s study it to death (or at least until we’re out of office). It’s a tactic Davis tracks through decades of environmental health battles, when people were dying and falling ill while industry stalled for time, and through chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), which damaged the earth’s protective ozone layer, spewed into the stratosphere for far longer than they should have.

“The risks of irrevocable damage to the Earth’s climate are so great,” she concludes, “that waiting for certain proof constitutes a doomsday experiment.”

Neal Matthews is a San Diego-based free-lance writer.

When Smoke Ran Like Water

Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution

Devra Davis

Basic Books, 316 pages, $26

Excerpts from When Smoke Ran Like Water

Coal and diesel fuels are cheaper to use, because the prices we pay for them do not include the costs of the additional health-care expenses, workdays lost, anxiety spent worrying over our children’s asthma or other health problems, and impacts on climate. Every ton of coal burned in Ohio means more children in Canada and the northeast will be stricken with asthma or other lung problems. Every time Mom turns the key in the family’s fat, new gas-guzzling SUV, another child downwind faces an increased threat of wheezing or being wheeled into the emergency room. If we continue to subsidize gasoline, build roads, and encourage people to drive and park their cars in our cities for less than what it costs in services, we are perpetuating a culture that is dependent on pollution.

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[EPA administrator Bob] Fri knew very well he was dealing with some of the most powerful companies in the country. These were the same companies that, with the oil and tire firms, had been convicted of conducting a vast conspiracy to dismantle public transportation across the United States, monopolizing the sales of buses to replace trolleys and ensuring that Americans remained wedded to their cars for decades to come. But Fri knew something else as well: Public opinion was on his side. The car industry had recently engaged in a number of heavy-handed crusades. …

General Motors compounded its lapses in industrial design through efforts to undermine [Ralph] Nader personally. They hired women to lure him into a compromising position. They put private detectives on his trail in hopes of digging up embarrassing information on his personal life. This effort yielded only what Nader’s associates already knew: He doesn’t really have a personal life to speak of. But GM did manage to make itself and its Corvair the butt of many years’ worth of cartoons and jokes about safety and cover-ups.

GRAPHIC: 1 DRAWING | 1 CHART; 1. DAVID MOLLERING / Union-Tribune; 2. Excerpts (BOOKS-4)

LOAD-DATE: December 30, 2002