As the West Exports Its Factories, it Also Sends Abroad Health Risks
More than 1 million people in the Chinese city
of Handan awoke last week to the alarming news that an essential source of
their drinking water, the Zhouzhang River, had been dangerously contaminated by
a 39-ton chemical spill in the nearby city of Changzhi. What made the news even
more shocking was that the leak, from a factory pipe, had started at least five
days earlier but had been kept secret by government officials, who allowed
millions of their neighbors to keep drinking.
The people of Handan reacted to these disclosures the same way almost anyone
else would. First, they panicked, mobbing stores for bottled water. Then, they
were furious, demanding to know why no one had told them they were drinking
water laced with a probable carcinogen. If history is any guide, they will
never get a satisfactory answer.
For me, reading about Handan prompted a sick feeling of deja vu. For the past
five years I have been writing a history of the chemical industry’s egregious
60-year involvement in the New Jersey shore town of Toms River, which gained
unwanted notoriety in the late 1990s thanks to a remarkably well-documented
cluster of childhood cancer cases and a long history of often hidden industrial
When news of the cancer cluster leaked in 1996, there was the predictable
townwide panic, including a run on bottled water supplies. After a wrenching
five-year investigation, state and federal health officials concluded that the
sick children were more likely to have lived in parts of town where exposure to
industrial chemicals — via drinking water and polluted air — were highest.
It was, by definition, an association, not a causal relationship, and it was
statistically significant only for girls with leukemia. But in the murky world
of neighborhood cancer cluster studies, that’s as close to a definitive finding
as you’re ever likely to see. That same year, 2001, the families of 69 children
with cancer won a multimillion-dollar legal settlement against two chemical
companies and the water utility.
As in Toms River, so many things about last week’s debacle in Handan were
infuriating, starting with the chemical involved: aniline. That was the
compound that launched the synthetic chemical industry in 1856, when a
precocious 18-year-old named William Henry Perkin, experimenting in his
parents’ London attic, inadvertently discovered that aniline, dissolved in
sulfuric acid and mixed with potassium dichloride, made a superb purple dye.
Soon London, Basel, Switzerland and the Ruhr Valley in Germany were littered
with aniline factories, many of which would morph into familiar corporate
giants like CIBA, Geigy, Agfa and the German behemoth BASF, the industry
leader. In Basel and London, it was said, you could tell which dyes were being
made by the color of the nearby canals and rivers, where the factories dumped
their waste. Factory bosses would send workers on clandestine midnight runs to
the Middle Bridge in Basel to dump barrels of waste into the fast-moving Rhine.
Basel is a border city and the Rhine flows north, so the waste was Germany’s
problem — just as last week’s spill was Handan’s problem, not Changzhi’s.
In 1895, a Frankfurt surgeon named Ludwig Wilhelm Carl Rehn began noticing
unusual numbers of bladder cancers among workers in dye plants. He called them
“aniline tumors.” Whether aniline was the specific cause was hard to determine,
since by then, chemical manufacturers had expanded well beyond aniline and were
using dozens of compounds derived from coal and oil to make dyes and many other
products. What was obvious was that these synthetic hydrocarbons were leaving a
trail of tumors wherever they were manufactured.
The legacy of cancer followed the industry as it spread to America. In the
1950s, at Cincinnati Chemical Works, almost half of the long-term workers who
handled a dye compound called benzidine got bladder cancer. Soon after, the
Cincinnati factories closed and their Swiss owners transferred manufacturing to
a huge new facility in a small town where there would be less scrutiny: Toms
Today, there is little left of the vast complex the Swiss operated in Toms
River for more than 40 years. Manufacturing ended there in 1996, just as the
cluster controversy was heating up. Now, after so many years of painful
publicity about cancer and pollution, many residents of Toms River are happy to
have moved on, and who can blame them. They are much more likely to be worried
about the damage Hurricane Sandy recently inflicted on hundreds of local homes
than about any lingering effects from decades-old water and air pollution.
The reality of 21st-century globalism, however, is that none of us can pretend
that by pushing the chemical industry out of our communities we have stopped
enabling its dangerous practices. The industry jobs that started in Basel and
then migrated to Cincinnati and Toms River, are now in Shanxi Province and
other coal-rich areas of China.
Business is booming. If you don’t believe me, head over to the Ocean County
Mall in Toms River, where you can get a pair of jeans dyed just the right shade
of faded blue, thanks to aniline-based indigo dye. They’re made in China, and
they’re cheap — if you don’t count the long-term cost. The New York Times
Dan Fagin is a professor of science journalism at New York University and
writer of the book “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.”