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When Smoke Ran Like Water

Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution

When Smoke Ran Like Water

Devra Davis, When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, Basic Books, 2002, 316 pp.

This is a must read.  When Smoke Ran Like Water ranks on my smallest shelf of books that I thrust on friends, colleagues, and strangers alike. Devra Davis mixes passion, personality, and pollution studies in a compelling narrative that takes the non-scientific reader through an introduction to the highlights and history of environmental health. It will leave you wanting to know more and to take action. Like Sandra Steingraber, in Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer, another of my favorites, Davis writes beautiful and pungent prose.  And I don’t mean “for a scientist.”

Davis is everywhere present in this story which stretches from her childhood in Donora, Pennsylvania and its incredible killer smog of 1948, in which 20 people died and thousands more were sickened, to a recent world tour of Mexico, China and elsewhere where she presented findings from her Lancet study outlining the world’s failure to stop some 8,000,000 preventable deaths from air pollution. Hers is an urgent and eloquent plea to confront the holocaust that is global pollution and the rising catastrophe of global climate change. It is this mix of the personal, the political, and the scientific that makes Davis so powerful and at times controversial. She refuses to simply call for more and greater research or to restrict herself to the staid pages of medical and scientific journals.

Davis’ technique leaps out at the reader from the opening words of the Preface in which she tells of her elation and frustration in the 1980s when, working for the National Academy of Sciences, she quickly concocted a study with a borrowed scientific device to measure pollution on long-aircraft flights. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii had appropriated half a million dollars to find out why he was getting sick on his flights to Washington. Davis jumped on an overseas plane with her piezobalance and quickly concluded that all passengers were being exposed to second-hand smoke particles which were affecting, among many others, the Senator's lungs. But the NAS had its procedures to follow and a large grant to spend so it took four more years for an “official” study to come to the same conclusion that led eventually to a smoking ban on airplanes.

This opening Davis story, with its impatience, brilliance, and deep concern to save lives,  to make a difference despite bureaucracy, is linked with reflections on her ethical upbringing in a Jewish household amidst Holocaust survivors. Central to understanding Devra Davis’ role as a scientist, writer, and speaker is the Talmudic instruction she quotes that “whoever saves a single life, it is as if she has saved the entire world.”

This restless energy and moral passion, unscientific if you will, pulses through the book and there is much to enjoy and admire here. Her inquiry into her hometown reveals that there had been warnings of the toxic effects from the local zinc mill in Danora since at least 1915 and that, in retrospect, if someone had looked carefully at the data as Davis did in the 1990s, the deaths and illnesses in Danora can be mapped and matched exactly to the toxic plume from the mill. She has heroes, too, starting with the 17th Century British scientist, John Evelyn, who recommended, based on environmental health research, that after the great fire of 1664 had leveled much of London, an industrial zone away from the population be created. Evelyn’s warnings about pollution and advanced urban planning were mostly ignored, as were other prophetic scientific voices until the deadly London smog of 1952, with its 4,000 immediate deaths, rang a global alarm bell about air pollution. Davis also admires women like Mary Amdur, a modern environmental health pioneer who stood up to Asarco, the chemical company which had been funding and wanted to bury her environmental health research. And she has kind words for contemporaries like Carlos Santos-Bergoa, the Mexican physician who helped convince his government to finally take action against the health effects of massive air pollution in Mexico City after years of cover-up, denial, and threats.

For Davis, the simple statistic that for every increase in the concentration of pollutants of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air there is a corresponding increase of  between .6 and 2.4% excess human deaths tells an ethical story that demands action. Epidemiology cannot prove that pollution in Donora led to the early death of her athletic Uncle Len, or her beloved Bubbe, or her mother’s multiple by-pass operations and heart attacks. But it can show that thousands more deaths than the 20 first recorded in 1948 followed the exposure of Donora’s citizens. The weight of the evidence in When Smoke Ran Like Water scientific, anecdotal, and ethical -- means precautionary and preventive measures against air pollution and global climate change must be taken. And the history of delays, denials, and dirty tricks by industry, and the needless, bureaucratic calls for more and more research and little or no action that bristle throughout this fine book are simply not acceptable.

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