When Smoke Ran like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle against Pollution

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The National Book Award Finalist from a leading public-health expert, this is the unknown story of how environmental pollution has affected our health-past, present, and future.

In When Smoke Ran Like Water, the world-renowned epidemiologist Devra Davis confronts the public triumphs and private failures of her lifelong battle against environmental pollution. She documents the shocking toll of a public-health disaster-300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and Europe from the effects ...

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The National Book Award Finalist from a leading public-health expert, this is the unknown story of how environmental pollution has affected our health-past, present, and future.

In When Smoke Ran Like Water, the world-renowned epidemiologist Devra Davis confronts the public triumphs and private failures of her lifelong battle against environmental pollution. She documents the shocking toll of a public-health disaster-300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and Europe from the effects of pollution-and asks why we remain silent. For Davis, the issue is personal: Pollution is what killed many in her family and forced some of the others, survivors of the 1948 smog emergency in Donora, Pennsylvania, to live out their lives with impaired health. She describes that episode and also makes startling revelations about how the deaths from the London smog of 1952 were falsely attributed to influenza; how the oil companies and auto manufacturers fought for decades to keep lead in gasoline, while knowing it caused brain damage; and many other battles. When Smoke Ran Like Water makes a devastating case for change.

Author Biography: Devra Davis's work as a leading epidemiologist and researcher on the environmental causes of breast cancer and chronic disease has made her a nationally known figure. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and an M.P.H. from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Formerly a Scholar in Residence at the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the National Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board under President Clinton, she is now a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Finalist for the 2002 National Book Award, Nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

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Nominated for the 2002 National Book Award in Nonfiction, Devra Davis's work presents challenging and disturbing stories of how industry and government have conspired to conceal the true effects of pollution on public health.
Publishers Weekly
Davis, one of the world's leading epidemiologists and researchers on environmentally linked illness, writes about her lifelong battle against environmental pollution in strong prose, underlined with some horrifying stories. With a special emphasis on air pollution and its long-term effects, Davis anecdotally talks about some of the most infamous smogs and fogs of all time, including the Donora Fog (October 26, 1948) that left a small zinc-factory town in Pennsylvania blanketed in a thick, toxic fog for over a week. "Within days, nearly half the town would fall ill" and within one 24-hour period 18 people had died. She argues that these incidents are underreported because the industries responsible for the pollutants are often powerful corporations or the major employer in these small towns. Research into the long-term effects of pollution, such as breast and testicular cancer, reveals that people in the Northeast (including Long Island and Connecticut) and in California have a higher incidence of serious illnesses. Most importantly, Davis brings to the fore the long-lasting effects of growing up and living in a polluted atmosphere, clearly demonstrating that "people living in areas with the dirtiest air had the highest risk of dying." She sounds the warning bell loud and clear: the threat to public health is real. This is an enlightening, engrossing read (with an intro by Gaynor, a leading oncologist at the Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York City), which should be on the shelf of anyone who cares about the environment and wants to learn more about policy, health and politics; Davis weaves all of these together with grace. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Epidemiologist Davis documents the struggle to force the auto, oil, coal, and chemical industries to come to terms with the environmental consequences of their unregulated release of toxic substances into our air and water-in particular high cancer rates, heart and lung diseases, infertility, brain damage, and death. She sets the stage by describing the perpetual health problems and deaths in her home town of Donora, PA, caused by toxins from coal, steel, and zinc processing. Her accounts of the devastating black smog that blanketed the town for several days in 1948 and other black smogs in Liege, London, and Los Angeles reveal the global nature of the problem. This is an expos on how industrial polluters deceived the public, belittled scientists and academics, and pressured government agencies to stifle regulations. Davis acknowledges that today's environmental regulations are a tribute to those who fought the polluters and demanded change, but the battle continues. Recommended for all environmental and public health collections; for additonal coverage of this issue, see also Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner's Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and Sandra Steingraber's Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment.-Irwin Weintraub, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465015214
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/5/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Devra Davis

Devra Davis, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and Professor of Epidemiology, Graduate School of Public Health. She was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in 1994 and also served as Scholar in Residence at the National Academy of Science. She works in Pittsburgh, and lives in Washington, D.C. She is married to Richard D. Morgenstern and has two children and two grandchildren.

Good To Know

Davis was fired from her first job as a summer camp counselor in New England. Recalls Davis, "I had taught the campers 'marching' songs, some of which I had learned from my drill sergeant father, like 'Dirty Lil' and 'Sound Off' and others which were anti-war ditties, such as 'I Ain't a Marching Anymore,' and 'The Cat Came Back.' I got canned because the camp director made me out to be someone who would not always fall in line. Who knew?"

Davis on her family ties: "I am very proud of my big-talking, big-walking siblings and my own grand, noisy Langer, Davis, Morgenstern, Tuckfelt, Goldenberg family, where, as in Garrison Keillor's famous town, all the children are above average, all the women are strong and all the men are good looking. My daughter Lea just graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in the two things you are not supposed to argue about in polite company -- Politics and Religion -- and is teaching in a very modern Orthodox Jewish pre-school in Northern California that includes several gay parents. My son, Aaron, is a former United States Marine and is en route to becoming a real chef, so he is both strong and secure. My husband, Richard Morgenstern, regularly traipses around Asia getting governments to reduce their use of filthy, sickening fuels. The entire lot of us likes to work just a bit outside the box."

According to Davis, "The town I grew up in was famous in the way that Jack the Ripper and the Son of Sam were famous, so of course nobody ever talked about it. Only when I went away to college did I ever hear that a town called Donora had been badly polluted. I was really shocked and believed that there just had to be another Donora somewhere. There was not."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Devra Lee Davis
    2. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C. and Jackson, Wyoming
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 7, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.S., M.A., University of Pittsburgh, 1967; Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1972; M.P.H., Johns Hopkins University, 1982

Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Preface xi
Part 1 Ancient History 1
1 Where I Come From 5
2 The Phantom Epidemic 31
3 How to Become a Statistic 55
4 How the Game Is Played 89
Part 2 The Best of Intentions 123
5 Zones of Incomprehension 125
6 The New Sisterhood of Breast Cancer 159
7 Save the Males 193
Part 3 The View from Outside 223
8 Earthquakes and Spouting Bowls 225
9 A Grand Experiment 247
10 Defiant Figures 273
Acknowledgments 283
Notes 287
Index 305
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2003

    To understand the battle for the air you breathe . . .

    The headline in my newspaper paper reads, 'EPA drops clean-air action against plants.' It goes on to say that after weakening the Clean Air Act as it applies to future power plant expansions, the Bush administration has now dropped enforcement actions already in progress against dozens of coal powered plants suspected of illegally spewing thousands of tons of pollution into the air. The headline makes it clear why we need more people like Devra Davis and more books like When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution. Davis is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an adviser to the World Health Organization, and an original researcher into the impacts of air pollution on health worldwide. When Smoke Ran Like Water is her personal take on how letting businesses dump toxins into the air people breathe and the water they drink has resulted in illness-racked lives and hundreds of thousands of deaths throughout history. The story gets personal when she describes the clot of industrial pollution that settled over her hometown of Donora, Pennsylvania on October 26, 1948, sickening half the town and killing eighteen people outright. Like the deadly smogs that killed 12,000 people in London in 1952, the Donora deaths were swept under the carpet by officials. Keeping the factories running was deemed far more important than those 'extra' deaths. The really shocking point Davis makes, however, is that such dramatic events represent just a tiny fraction of the illness, disability, and premature death caused by the long-term impact of chronic air pollution. Although the physician-philosopher Maimonaides described the health effects of breathing polluted air 800 years ago, it was not until the 1970s that epidemiologists convincingly proved that even low levels of pollution cause measurable increases in the incidence of illness and premature deaths. By now they can pin it down to a deadly equation¿whenever air pollution increases by so many millionths of a gram per cubic meter of air, there will be so many premature deaths. The numbers are staggering¿Davis reports that air pollution has caused one million early deaths in the United States since 1980, and in China causes an estimated one million early deaths each year. Equally chilling is her description of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals that contaminate our air and water, with impacts on human reproduction and development that are only beginning to be understood. Davis also details how major corporations have fought¿and, as the headlines show, continue to fight--to be allowed to pollute. They have blocked legitimate research, funded biased research, and used every tactic including intimidating researchers to keep the public from understanding the impact of pollution. They've smeared even the most careful and reputable research, published in leading, peer-reviewed scientific journals, as 'junk science,' and continue to lobby, with increasing success, for the right to continue to pump thousands of tons of dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere. Davis, of course, provides far more scientific and historical details, and tells many fascinating stories, as she traces the battle over the air we breathe up to the present. The book is vividly written and involving from the first page to the last. If you care about the health of children, older people, and future generations; or simply want to know what's really going on in the wars between those who want to pollute our environment and those who want to protect it, When Smoke Ran Like Water is the place to start. Robert Adler, Ph.D., author of Medical Firsts: From Hippocrates to the Human Genome (Wiley & Sons March 2004).

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2003

    Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors Newsletter

    WHEN SMOKE RAN LIKE WATER Devra Davis, Basic Books, New York, 2002 Who was your very best professor ever? Of all the perhaps hundreds of professors you had in undergraduate and graduate school, who stands out in your memory as the finest exemplar of the teacher/mentor/scholar? [After you have selected your finest professor, stop reading this review and if this person is still alive, write a short note to him or her. Just say that you are checking in, and describe a few things about your career and accomplishments. Indicate by some story or memorable quote that you remember the professor, and send along your best wishes. Then come back to reading this review] I so often hear that student evaluations of professors are imperfect because the value of a professor changes with time. There are those who believe that the mean guys you hated, the guys who forced you to work hard, will turn out to be your most respected and loved professors in the end. I have always personally disagreed with this assumption. My best (and worst) teachers when I was in school remain my best (and worst) 40 years later. So it did my heart good to realize that there is experimental evidence to back up my observation. One study found that there is no significant change in teacher ratings with time. Students asked 10 and 20 years after graduation to name their best instructors named the same instructors whom they rated highly while they were students. The tough instructors who had poor teaching skills regardless of how difficult their courses were were still rated poorly. In another study, when alumni were asked to describe their former professors, they told stories that illustrated the positive effect the teachers had on their lives. One alumnus, finishing his favorite story about his former professor, ended reflectively -- ¿I miss him¿ he said ¿ thirty years after graduation. ( J. Educational Psychology 42(129-143), and Change, 28(6)). The same thing applies to books. I remember hating some of my texts (Gaylord and Gaylord still holds first place as the worst textbook ever) and loving others. And the ones I love I still have. (Gaylord and Gaylord was ceremonially burned when I finished my last steel design course.) Occasionally I pick up one of my favorites, riffle through the pages, and remember how the text helped me understand the subject. I think this book by Devra Davis is going to be one of those books to which I periodically return, both to enjoy her writing as well as to glean material for lectures. Davis is an environmental scientist and epidemiologist, and has had a distinguished career in and out of governmental service. She been personally involved in many of the significant cases of public protection from environmental pollutants such as the elimination of lead from gasoline. But her most important attribute is that she was born in Donora, Pennsylvania, and spent her childhood in the shadows of the steel mills that lined the Monongahela River. She speaks in the first person about the fateful days in 1948 when an inversion layer capped the valley and the three plants continued to operate at full production. She has great pictures of the Friday night football game when the pollution was so thick the ball disappeared into the haze, and when it was not possible to see across the field. Some of her acquaintances were among the 27 people who died during this disaster which catalyzed the United States into controlling air pollution. And yet, when she was a little girl, nobody talked about the episode. Only when she went to college did she find out that the Donora Episode had occurred. Smoke was jobs and life to these first generation Americans, and they were not about to do anything that would force the steel plants to close, including talk about the week when smoke ran like water. Using the Donora episode as a jumping off point, Davis talks about other environmental problems, including growing concerns with breast cancer and ma

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2003

    Davis is Mesmerizing, This is a Masterpiece!

    Devra Lee Davis has just delivered a knockout punch! I'm still woozy from the read. As Jim Carrey would say, she's "smokiiin!" If you want to know why so many pundits, government officials, media folk, and university types are virtually brain-dead when it comes to understanding environmental health, you simply must read Smoke. One third murder mystery, one third biography and one third muckraking expose of systemic environmental science corruption and oppression, Smoke reveals the intricate details on how ideological hegemony works to keep smoke in our eyes. Read Smoke and you'll witness Devra going undercover on a flight to Paris with a 10-pound scientific particulate-matter-sniffer (pre-911 when no quetions were asked about such devices) to answer Senator Daniel Inouye's question about why he always got sick on the flight from Hawaii to D.C. Her answer: scientifically speaking, there was no "non-smoking section" on our airplanes. It's the plane truth today, but not when she gathered the proof. Yet that discovery was buried for four years until the government felt that more orthodox studies could determine the veracity of the claim. What was the cost in lives resulting from the U.S. goverment's silence? Well let's just say that the airline stewardesses who sued the airlines would have liked to have known this information when Devra found it. There are scores of stories of good women and men -- dedicated scientists -- being bullied, threatened, censored and deprived of a good working life for simply doing their job: telling the truth. . . .the uncomfortable truths concerning what they discovered about our air, water and environment. But by sticking to their guns and standing up to power (the bureaucratic power of governmental sycophants, the ideological power of positivist science, the corporate power of the Fortune 500, and the political power of entrenched interests in love with the status quo), they suffered greatly. Like the old Stephen Still's son, "Step outa line the man comes and takes you away. . ." Remember the film "The Insider" with Russell Crowe and Al Pacino? Crowe played Jeffrey Wigand, the high-level corporate executive who blew the whistle on Brown and Williamson Tobacco and precipitated what became the $236 billion settlement against Big Tobacco. This settlement, the largest class action suit in history, signaled Tobacco's admission to pushing an addictive substance and causing the deaths of a hundred thousand people a year. As a staff scientist, Wigand had first hand knowledge of Brown and Williamson's deceptive and indeed deadly practices. Soon after he voiced a difference of opinion with company policy, he found himself fired for "poor communication skills." For me, the most poignant scene in the movie takes place when Wigand has lost his home, spouse, and family to the enormous pressure of fighting a huge corporation, and 60 Minutes cuts his interview that was scheduled to air across the country. The scene takes place in a hotel room. Crowe hallucinates a wall-sized painting that dissolves into a scene of his lovely children planting a new garden. All of the love he feels for them and all of the loss he has suffered in his pursuit of exposing the tobacco conspiracy takes over the film and we can feel his enormous grief. Well guess what? It turns out that there are hundreds of Wigands engaged in environmental health research. Devra Davis tells the tales of a small platoon of social medicine warriors -- Rudolph Virchow tribesman -- and makes us outraged that such oppression could occur with impunity in the U.S. of A. You thought the accounting industry was bad? It's nothing compared to the Deadly deceptions of the culture of environmental science. Davis's writing is elegant, hard-hitting, breathtaking. "When Smoke Ran Like Water," should set the New York Times charts on fire. I know it will make you look at the world differently. Thank you Devra Davis!

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