Water Treatment and Mistreatment
Death and Dyes
A Pulitzer Prize was given for a 2015 work of non-fiction about a river in New Jersey. It was no great shakes, either the river or the town, until Ciba-Geigy Corporation began operations in the early 1950s. The company was an enormous success in terms of the bottom line, but began a never-ending nightmare in terms of harmful waste products. They were either dumped directly or meandered through leakage by various underground routes to the Toms. Chemicals undermined the health of fish habitats and tainted drinking water, just for starters. There was nothing wrong with the manufactured dyes that enhanced clothing, including uniforms worn proudly by our Armed Forces. But enter the human element, and in a short while, something like a horror movie commences. The shower is not quite all right. Residents experience peculiar smells. Colored plumes rise at night from the company smoke stack. An explosion at the factory is attributed to human error, as if the man at the switch were hung over, eliminating the coincidental factor of explosive chemicals in use.
But New Jersey is not the only victim of environmental neglect. A Lake Michigan expert, working in both the private and public sectors, held watch over its gradual deterioration for some thirty years. Birds that used to be healthy suffered unrelieved tremors and died from DDTs. They ate fish who were already toxic beyond remedy. Bird eggs leaked. Some species of birds and fish survived better than others, depending upon where they were hatched -- adjacent to an agricultural run-off or not, for instance. But Darwin's survival of the fittest had nothing to do with it. Living creatures cannot co-exist with fatal poisons. Mutagens cannot be relied upon to save the day. If food really came from grocery stores and water out of a wondrous, mysterious tap, how happy we would be, maybe in a special ward somewhere. There are many reasons, however, why individuals should be concerned. If nothing else, they are playing the odds, whether addicted to gambling or not. Certainly, the younger fare better. The elderly weaken and die anyways. But often enough the case is reversed. To acquire cancer in one's prime is no great honor.
Objection #1: Who Cares?
Jesus said it Himself, did He not? That we were so much more valuable than mere birds? Matthew 6:26 states, "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?" Leaving aside hierarchies ranking people, which are always suspect, we have chapter and verse confirmation of superiority to birds. One may well question quoting a rather well-known biblical passage so blatantly out of context. Yet it often enough comes down to an "us" or "them" situation. We can live without certain species, right? Endangered species are ruining local economies. Environmental and ecological books are mostly written by authors predisposed toward the welfare of wildlife, whose well-being conflicts with the needs of farming and industry. The author of Lake Michigan's decline actually used a deformed cormorant he kept alive an extra year to establish his unequivocal position with live audiences.
Of course, Jesus goes on to say, in 6:28, not to be concerned about "raiment". In other words, corporate dye manufacturing lacks a scriptural basis. Believe it or not, some colors were and remain more dangerous than others. A choice few can give cancer to children only months old. Even the worst scoffers of bleeding hearts have little to say, if anything, when it comes to this. The controversy might seem simple to extremists, those against deadly, sickening chemicals, and others, who, while not exactly for them, champion the products they help create. It seems that the U.S. has adopted an in-between course, consisting of regulations, clean-ups, policies, codes, and fines that result in half-measures -- the best, it can be argued, to be hoped for. The Great Lakes situation indicates, moreover, that the greater casualties are not human beings but animals. Eagles fail to reproduce. Bird eggs thin. Mink and otter are seldom seen. A perfect ecosystem, formed over 10-14,000 years, suddenly breaks down into a pale shadow of its former self, plagued by dioxins, furans, biphenyls, and atrizines.
Old School Indigo Dye
Objection #2: Safety Does Not Exist
Further research on behalf of the interested reveals that pure water, in its chemically unadulterated form, is too bitter to taste, and as risky, if not more so, than tainted water. Imbibed, it drains nutrients from the body. In short, the consumer has definite rights, can make demands without apology, but should be aware there is no viable alternative. By now, the truck driver in the Toms River saga who buried drums in a ditch on rented land for $10-$20 bucks a haul is pretty much obsolete. It took a while for citizens to catch on to the fact that infected groundwater will eventually wind up in their own drinking sources. Also, chemical companies are big, profitable, large employers. Among dye manufacturers, their colors fetch handsome amounts of money. Corporate restraint is essential. If only they would police themselves.
Not going to happen. By the late 1970s, the notorious company finally built a water treatment plant costing $15 million. Nothing might have happened, however, without pressure from the EPA. The company, having its own scientists, not to mention legal team, put in a relatively successful effort to ensure the well-being of its own staff. The building site was scenic, carefully hiding from sight officious, unlined pits and lagoons. It was not until the mid 1990s that Ciba caved in and paid for a massive clean-up costing more than $165 million. The issues it addressed dated back to the early fifties when it first began in the cozy, New Jersey community. Over one hundred industrial chemicals were discovered in the soil. As the author points out, the number, though large, should not shock, given the fact that there are thousands of chemicals currently in use that put ordinary citizens at risk. It is of no little interest to read how Union Carbide treated soil, heating it, and, at the same time, filtering groundwater. Nevertheless, there is no way to know for sure what constitutes safety when it comes to so urgent a matter as a healthy environment. Guidelines and suppositions point the way. It is constantly being refined.
Depopulated Love Canal
Objection #3: That's Life
Lake Michigan's gradual but persistent poisoning is one thing. It's hard for alewives, albatrosses, perch, amphibians gradually disappearing, and cormorants to get lawyers. But New Jersey, I'm guessing, did not appreciate being number one on Jimmy Carter's Superfund list, the first ever. In 1980, it beat out Michigan because of the awful condition of its dumpsites, including Toms River. To be sure, Ciba-Geigy used benzidine, epichlorohydrin, anthraquinone, trichloroethylene, and naphthalene -- all known carcinogens. It is also a fact that cancer clusters generally surround chemical plants. Clusters were a subject of study during outbreaks of cholera in London. But what about smoking habits? Or, if not, proximity to the Garden State Parkway? Even health nuts are vulnerable to cancer. Plus, employment is a voluntary matter. No one is forced to work inside a chemical company. Over time, innocent residents, offended by second-class citizenship, might have moved. I am only playing devil's advocate. Further, home buyers had not been hoodwinked by realtors, as was the case with Love Canal, whose houses were built atop death-dealing landfills.
For certain, the author did not set out to write Das Kapital for the 21st century. Yet one cannot help but wonder if Marx might not have been deeply pleased by an additional indictment to the cumulative miseries of Capital. For him, the focus had been on the mistreatment of workers. Today, no one treats workers better than corporations. Union bigshots might disagree. But they demand dues without providing major medical and an assortment of other perks. Understandably, animal activists cannot be placated, especially in the wake of horrendous spills from BP and Exxon. In foreign lands, we are relatively helpless. It is difficult to run into anybody who favors chopping down every single tree in the Amazon Jungle, but great progress has been made in this selfsame direction. Can we live without flora and fauna? We are in the process of finding out. For the most part, the sad story of Toms River simply unfolds, a tangled mess, difficult to comprehend, and impossible to either mend or make amends for.
The Carcinogenic World
It won the Pulitzer Prize, but the book on Toms River is not just well written. It is also overwritten. In the age of information, however, it is considered a virtue to load a book with so many facts that they give the impression of an infallible conclusion. It need not even be stated. It is just sort of understood. Thus, for the human being, at least toward the middle section, it all comes down to cancer. Here are a handful of facts. By the late 1980s, drinking fountains within the company compound contained warnings. Due to litigation, Ciba-Geigy is more worried about brain and nervous system cancers than others. It is not clear why since there are literally dozens of cancers. The wife of a local physician speaks at a public hearing of over forty children who contracted cancer. Ten are dead. Welcomed with gusto in the early fifties, the Swiss Company now sees the writing on the wall. Besides, luck is no longer on its side. Medical waste has washed ashore. It has nothing to do with the company, which, nevertheless, empties its own wastewater into the ocean (unhindered by the heroic but bungled efforts of Greenpeace). People are people. They used to, but no longer, cheer for the production of chemicals anymore.
But just think. It is a carcinogenic world. Without having read Toms River, I would not have known that dinosaur bones had been found with tumors. There are a number of books on the history of devastating diseases, many of which have been eradicated. Obviously, cancer goes back a long ways. It is enough for those whose faith is shaky to wonder. In the beginning, God said time and again, His creation "was good". But was it? All of it? Even if it was, let's say, prior to the Fall, from then on diseases have almost always threatened populations. After the Industrial Revolution, which more or less brings us up to date, cleanliness becomes a fantasy. People flock to gyms, horde expensive bottled water, and spend extra to eat organic. But they take their chances, too. Acid rain, insecticides, and higher toxicological levels in water and air cannot be escaped.
Lessons From Detroit
The more one inquires into the subject of the water, the greater is the feeling of regret. Who wants to learn the insider's phrase "from toilet to tap" to explain what water treatment plants accomplish? It was not until 1822 that Louis Pasteur, the father of microbiology, was born. Long before, before even Francois Rabelais (d.1553), and his giant, Gargantua, dinosaurs urinated huge quantities -- talk about bathrooms! We live in Jurassic Park, so many millions of years later. It is not all spit and polish. The story of Ciba-Geigy in New Jersey is riveting. After a certain point, however, interest crumbles as litigations result in expensive testing, cleaning, payments (often tax dollars), and various sums awarded to or withheld from families of the deceased or ex-employees lying on their deathbeds. Everyone is worried, though worry has, by now, become a way of life.
The acclaimed story of Toms River is an education. Be prepared for more science than ordinary as well as chemicals whose spellings are longer than the alphabet. At some point, following the re-introduction of Jan Schlichtmann, the attorney made famous in A Civil Action (1998), things become less personal. How does a group of several hundred rats and mice react to a very rare chemical that might well have doomed Toms River more than all other carcinogens put together? By the way, Ciba-Geigy has been doing quite well on the stock exchange. Since a 1996 merger with Sandoz, the new company, Novartis, sells at $75 a share. Its market cap is over 180 billion. Even if you do not invest, the impressive statistics yield a sense of financial stability. It has a pharmaceutical branch, too. It develops, to be fair and balanced, drugs that make ill people better. To sum up, however, one must side with the cynics: we live in a sick world for which there is no cure other than you know what.
Like a deus-ex-machina, China enters the picture in 2010. By this time, legal battles have dragged on beyond human endurance. One would think that certain facts were indisputable, as well as statistics. Vat dye and maintenance workers acquire lung cancer with greater frequency. Vat, azo, and plastic workers die more often than the norm from nervous system tumors. There is a link between chemical work and bladder cancer. In court, however, nothing is taken either lightly or for granted. Lawyers thought that styrene acrylonitrile trimer was an ace-in-the-hole. It was unique to Toms River. The tumor count in Fischer rats chemically shot up with it was nine times the expectation. But then, the Board of Scientific Counselors argued, nonetheless, for "no evidence of carcinogenicity". It pointed out that cancer cluster studies also prove, in addition to everything else, that there is such a thing as bad luck.
As to the above, by 2010, China gallantly hosted BASF, the German competitor of Ciba, which shrank in terms of the manufacture of chemicals. BASF had forty factories in China producing aniline dye. China has overtaken the entire world in the production of chemicals, all chemicals. Doctors have observed that toxic exposure in China is higher than anywhere else on earth. But no matter. China is hardly to blame. In fact, it has generously offered a rather suicidal solution to the problem going forward into the future. The human comedy continues. We cannot live with chemicals. We cannot live without them.