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


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, ...

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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.

Finalist for the 2002 National Book Award, Nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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: 9780465015221
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 12/23/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 316
  • Sales rank: 256,362
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.80 (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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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2004

    Easy to read and very informative!

    A fascinating and detailed account about what happened in Donora is the perfect lead-in to the rest of the book. I think this book would be eye-opening for the average reader and for someone with a deep understanding of the health effects of air pollution. She discusses many different aspects of environmental health issues and how politicians and corporations have stalled many important public health discoveries. Truly fascinating and very real!

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