Customer Reviews: The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment
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on December 12, 2010
There are also several academic case histories of particular industrial establishments across the country. However, none of these earlier works make the connections between chemical innovation, consumer culture and the political manipulation of science, in a synthetic way that Ross and Amter provide in The Polluters. The authors start the book with three important questions: "What is the basis of scientific authority? Is science value-free or is it shaped by social and economic conditions? How does economic power influence government?"

These questions need to be addressed by scientists, engineers and policy-makers in concert and The Polluters provides a nuanced historical context for this conversation in a globalized economy. To this day most economists continue to refer to pollution as an "externality" - suggesting that the salience of the natural environment cannot be captured by market mechanisms. This book shows us how this linear logic of economic expediency in the early twentieth century defiled not only the environment but also the scientific process itself.

Where industry deserves to be praised, the authors are willing to do so without hesitation. Numerous industrial researchers who stood up for environmental consciousness are mentioned in heroic terms. In particular the authors devote a chapter to Wilhelm Hueper who started to work on environmental cancer concerns long before Rachel Carson's work popularized concerns about the impact of pesticides in this context. His career trajectory, which started at Haskell Labs and meandered through industrial appointments, ultimately landed him at the National Cancer Institute. Even at the corporate level, where there was a shift in compliance culture, positive trends are acknowledged. For example, the environmental management of the Hanford site by Dupont is highlighted as ahead of its times and the leadership of corporate executives is duly praised.

Overall, The Polluters, is a commendable effort to present the history of industrial environmental harm with candor and clarity in a readable anecdotal form. The lessons of "regulatory capture" by industry and other special interest groups and its implications on scientific progress are important for us to consider in these times when global environmental issues are gaining political prominence.
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on August 15, 2010
Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter have written a fascinating and eye-opening history of the companies, institutions, and policies that have created our chemically altered environment over the last century.

If Earth Day or the Love Canal tragedy were the events that brought the environmental crisis into your consciousness, then you owe it to yourself to read The Polluters. Even more so, if it was Global Warming or the BP oil spill.

Killer smog in LA and mass zinc poisoning in Denora, Pennsylvania are two dramatic events, just after WWII, covered by Ross and Amter. But there is also the story of DDT and leaded gasoline. The coverups by companies and the obfuscations of industry-influenced scientific groups are constants in the story.

Government has rarely been an effective regulator. The chemical industry in pursuing its own pecuniary interests has promoted and exploited an ideology of market fundamentalism, which has helped to negate and undermine efforts at regulation.

The Polluters is free of academic jargon and is written in a lively style.
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on September 2, 2010
The Polluters in an engrossing tale of the men (n.b., all the women seem to have been on the side of good in this story) who battled the regulators and won the right to poison the environment from the early 1900s through to the 1970s. Rather than treating the chemical industry giants as monolithic entities Ross & Amter dig deeper to uncover the men behind the corporate facades who were largely responsible for the callous actions of these companies. This is a book that tells a timeless tale of special interests and the power they wield in the hallowed halls of government. The mantra of "more research was needed to understand the problem" can easily be found in current arguments about global warming and the more recently debated existence of underwater oil plumes in the gulf. The Polluters is a riveting narrative and at the end you are left wanting more, knowing the main characters in this tale are real and the story of our chemically altered environment is one that is continually unfolding.
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on October 9, 2010
The Polluters is a great tour through the development of industry and the environmental regulation that eventually accompanied it. Although the book is meticulously researched with references to many reports, newspaper articles, and hearings, it never gets bogged down in the details. It is a quick read at under 200 pages as the authors jump around different time periods, industries, and pollutants. Highlights include something of a history of DuPont, the story of Donora, PA, and the fight over whether arsenic was safe to use on apples or other food. But the real takeaway the authors demonstrate is the repeated story of industry's response to the threat of regulation, often reflexively opposing it and calling for more research. The comparisons to the fight over greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is apparent and briefly explored by the authors.

There are successes however, including environmental legislation of the 1970s that created the EPA and established regimes for clean air and clean water, the Montreal Protocol of the 1980s which banned CFCs, and efforts in Los Angeles and St. Louis to limit smog.

The book's characters are a mixed bag of industry figures and scientists who often put their heads in the sand and those who saw what pollution was doing to our ecosystem and public health. With the exception of Rachel Carson, I do not think I had heard of any of these interesting figures before.
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on October 7, 2015
A little bit depressing and infuriating in the first half, but gets better towards the second half. A great chronicle of events leading up to the creation of Earth Day in 1970 and the strong wave of environmental movement we have today.
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on August 7, 2011
It is hard to believe that this important subject can be made so interesting and enjoyable to read. I expected a dry history and instead got a well documented story of greed at the expense of the health of you and me (the public). The story of how private companies were able to badly pollute the environment and to thwart any effort to curtail their actions for many many years. That a corporation would be profit driven is not news. What was new to me was how much government worked to support private enterprise at the expense of the public's health. Who would've thought that the "Public Health Service" worked for many of its years as if it were a branch of the chemical industry's trade association. The only public aspect of the PHS was the part where the public paid PHS's salaries.

As someone who has been reading on environmental issues for 30+ years much of the material in the book was actually new to me. I hope the large environmental periodicals (Sierra etc) from time to time excerpt parts of this book as much of the pre-1970 Earth Day era history of the chemical industry and the regulatory capture of various government entities resulting in huge amounts of very toxic pollution being released into the environment is truly not known by the average environmentalist or the public today. The degree of greed and regulatory capture by the industry is truly breathtaking and must never be allowed to happen again. The health of every one of us is truly at risk.
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on October 30, 2013
Fantastic overview of how we got to where we are and the historical underpinnings of pollution politics but it stops at Love Canal and fails to pull everything forward into a current review and analysis of what I call 'the history of now'.

A similar book (although different topic) is The World According to Monsanto and it does take this historical context and pull it forward to its modern impact. I wish this book would have done the same. It leaves 1980+ as an exercise to the reader.

But for what it is its must have reading for anyone interested in the politics of pollution and. More broadly how industry co-opts the regulatory process (for good and bad).
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on July 12, 2013
This book points out a large number of major (and egregious) pollution incidents that have occurred in our fine land over the years and from sea to shining sea. Very sad-- but good to know. Watch who you trust in government and business....
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on May 17, 2012
This is a book that your reading will likely make us all better off. It is a very informative history of the attempts of aggressive businesses to make money supplying people with products clearly in demand, of unwanted contamination of the environment, damage to many peoples' health and even of numerous deaths as collateral damage from the manufacture of these products, of the difficulties executives and managers of the companies making and selling the products had finding and facing the truth about the effects they were having as they made decisions in a highly competitive economy where expensive attempts in the interests of protecting the public would place a business at a disadvantage in competition with companies having no interest in protecting the public, of the attempts by some political leaders at various times to find the facts and protect the public in the face of obstinately principled opposition by powerful wealthy people to governmental interference of any kind to regulate what businesses could do to the environment and to the people living in it, and of occasional progress at protection of the public that usually came too late to save many victims only after particularly severe episodes of sicknesses and deaths that grabbed headlines briefly. As I understood the facts reported in the book, many influential leaders in the chemical industry, similar to those in the banking industry, seem to have believed strongly in only "self-regulation" by their own industry for protection of the public even as the powerful among them who appeared to have some interest in learning the facts about the effects they were having and to protect people actually seemed incapable of doing so as they competed with the rest for profit without the intervention of governmental regulations that would have forced their competition to also spend to protect people. You will, of course, draw your own conclusions from the facts reported in this impressive book, but why doesn't it make sense to think that some essential amount of government support of research that individual companies may not find it in their financial interests to do, followed by some governmental regulation to protect us from sources of danger thereby discovered would actually improve the results of capitalistic investment and competition rather than undermining it? In any case, why don't we deserve protection from sources of danger originating in our own neighborhoods and supported by our own purchases of products just as much as we deserve protection from sources of danger originating abroad on which we invest so much governmental effort and expenditure?
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on May 3, 2012
There is an astounding amount of detail in this book and surely, there must have been a massive amount of research done by the author. This book is very informative, however, this book is not very interesting to read unless one is working on a thesis.
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