Merlin Chowkwanyun: What these documents show is that there were active agents, active entities, active people with real intentions who created what you might call a toxic landscape today.
Richard Todd Stafford: That was the voice of Merlin Chowkwanyun, who was interviewed in October 2018 by Tauheeda Yasin in conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University. The Cultural Studies department at George Mason University focuses on interdisciplinary research and doctoral training.
This year’s colloquium series examines “C,apitalism climate change and culture.” The fall 2018 colloquium posed the question “how did we get into this mess”? While the spring 2019 colloquium poses the question. “Where do we go from here?”
Tauheeda Yasin: Hi, I’m Tauheeda Yasin and I’ll be interviewing Merlin Chowkwanyun, Professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health on his work, particularly the construction of ToxicDocs.org, a new data set and website that includes secret memoranda and other documents related to high stakes toxic tort litigation, including documents that shed light on public relations strategies and attacks and regulation that persist in this era of climate change.
Welcome to the show.
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Thank you. I thank you for having me. It’s exciting.
Tauheeda Yasin: Thank you for being here.
Merlin Chowkwanyun: I’ve never been on one of these — I think I was on one once, it was like, it’s 6:00 in the morning or something.
Tauheeda Yasin: Ok,, so this should be better.
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah, I hope.
Tauheeda Yasin: More awake.
So could you just tell our listeners a bit about ToxicDocs and what it is and how the database came about?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Sure.
ToxicDocs is a data set — a database. It’s available. I has a website interface to it than anybody can access for free. So this is not by any means limited to the academic community, even though it was started there. ToxicDocs.org all one word. D-O-C-S for the “Docs” part. It started — it actually had origins both 20 years ago and to year two or three years ago.
So the 20-year origins are with two of my colleagues Jerry Markowitz who teaches at the City University of New York and David Rosner who teaches with me at Columbia. And we’re all environmental health historians David and Jerry in the 1980s started researching lead poisoning and the history of lead poisoning and history of a disease that not many people knew about at that time. It was called silicosis. Silicosis is a disease that minors tend to develop when. It’s very small dust particles accumulate in their lungs and eventually it constricts airflow in one’s lungs and lung function. Pretty nasty, really deadly disease, potentially.
Silicosis, what was interesting about it, is that in the 1930s and early 20th century was a very well-known disease. It was very hotly debated both within the academic medical literature, but also in what we would now call policy circles and so forth. And one of the interesting things about their analysis was they show that this disease, which many people were concerned about, which was very very prominent in all sorts of discussions, sort of disappeared from the public agenda sometime in 20th century. And it was largely because of suppression by mining companies and trade associations to basically take an issue that was really important and shunt it to the margins. And the book kind of tells a story about that.
So what does this have to do with ToxicDocs? Well, one of the things that was really interesting was they produced the book on silicosis and then they discovered that the sales were like bonanzas. I think they would be able to selling really well, for an academic monograph even though it was a pretty you know standard run. And so they’re like wow who is buying this book and and unfortunately for them it wasn’t movie studios or or airport book shops and stuff like that.
It was lawyers in the sour interesting because yeah, it was because a lot of miners. In the South we’re developing silicosis and word filing both individual and also class action lawsuits against against companies. And so they were called because of their expertise on silicosis. Like they literally probably three or four people in the world who actually knew the ins and outs of silicosis and all the details of its rise and fall in the state of the science at various points of time.
They were called to be expert witnesses in some of this tort litigation around silicosis. And they did the same thing for lead poisoning, which the way we’re also studying at the same time. Some of the first lawsuits early lawsuits for lead poisoning were in New York City where they were they were both working at the time.
So what is , how does this lead to ToxicDocs? Well during the lawsuit, there’s something called “the discovery process” and that’s when both parties are required to, if the case goes forward, open up and show what they got. So that means these companies had to open up their archives, and their closets, and you know other kinds of storage facilities and basically show what kinds of documents — show all their documents, which revealed a lot about what they knew about the state of lead in paint and the hazards or what they knew about silicosis, etc. etc. It’s kind of like what happened in the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.
So discovery is awesome. Because it for a historian you’re always looking for documents that you can use to write histories of the past. And it’s very exciting. They unleashed all this new material that environmental health historians like in themselves and themselves and myself to use.
The downside of it was the sheer volume. I mean, we are talking hundreds of thousands of documents and eventually, with the advent of digital storage, DVDs that sometimes contained, you know, a million documents or something like that. I remember when I met David Rosner for the first time I went into his office and there was just stuff flowing — overflowing from from cabinets and and shelves and so forth. And so they kept accumulating all this material from their involvement in this litigation all this discovery material that on one hand was incredibly rich in terms of the content on the other hand was an absolute nightmare to go through because of the sheer volume.
And so ToxicDocs came about because we all sat together and said, “there’s got to be something about this digital era that can facilitate the sorting, categorizing, searching of these documents that isn’t available in this kind of pre-digital era.” And so that’s how ToxicDocs was born. We wanted to develop a database that was useful for, both academics, but also people in the environmental health community, and the general public, journalists, whoever is interested in industrial poisons and how they came to be so pervasive in our modern environment. We wanted to make all this material that was one secret publicly available. And so that’s how it came about.
Tauheeda Yasin: So could you tell us a little bit about the technology behind the database? How were you able to shrink all of those documents — I shouldn’t say shrink, but how were you able to get all of those documents online and digitized?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah.
Tauheeda Yasin: It’s searchable.
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah, you know, I mean the timing is really key. You know, this project could not have been done even when I was going to college between 2001 and 2005 and so there’s been a number of remarkable leaps in technology, but I’ll name three that I think are critical.
One is just scanners are a lot faster. So if we’ve got a stack of papers like say 20,000 papers that have been delivered in dozens of boxes to us, we can actually get that scan pretty quickly nowadays at a hundred or a hundred fifty pages a minute. So scanning technology has really improved.
The second and I think the most important is the advent of something called a high capacity or high performance computing. And I think this is something where there has been, figuratively, at least a quantum leap. So in the old days with with computing, in general, you were basically stuck on your desktop computer. Nowadays though, I can open my desktop computer and harness the power of a 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000, however many computers I need at one time, all from my home laptop. And that’s called “parallel” or “cloud” computing. “Cloud” because the computers are actually not in front of me, physically. “Parallel” because they’re all kind of working together on the same task. So in a way of thinking about it as a metaphor is you know, I’m one Merlin, but imagine if I had 5,000 Merlin’s all working on the same task, that task would get done a lot faster.
So what does this have to do with ToxicDocs and digitizing? Well, the digitization process usually occurs twofold. One is the scanning process itself you get the digital document but once you cut the digital document, all you have is a picture of a document. So the letters and the numbers and all the other characters there don’t mean anything to the computer. The number one is just a line. It’s just a vertical line. So you have to get the computer to recognize that. No, it’s not just a vertical line; it’s the actual number one. And the way you do that is with a technology called “optical character recognition” or “OCR.” OCR — optical character recognition. Very slow process on a desktop computer. It can be 1 or 2 minutes per page and that’s assuming the page is well-scanned and doesn’t have an elaborate layout and things like that. And so with one set of documents that we had — I think was like 250,000 documents — we estimated that on just a single desktop machine with off-the-shelf software, that OCR process would have taken six months.
Tauheeda Yasin: Wow.
Merlin Chowkwanyun: So it’s not it’s not really workable, especially when you factor in that computers crash and so forth. But with this cloud computing parallel computing I was talking about, we can take a mass of documents, feed them in, distribute them over 2000, 3000, 4,000 different servers, and each of those servers will work on a big a little piece of that task and then spit out the OCR document. And so to just give you a comparison task that took six months would only take a day, basically. So they can throw however many documents they want at us and we can get that scanned but also OCR’d very quickly and I think — why would you want to OCR something? Well, you need text. You need actual text that’s “machine-readable.” That is understood as the number one, the letter K the letter Y, and so forth — the word “Merlin” the word “water,” etc. And so in order to search you need you need actual text. And so that’s why we have to do this OCR process.
So I would say cloud computing and parallel computing is number two and then the third — kind of arcane and boring — but there have been some big leaps in database technology. And I think they’re probably a little too arcane for for our audience, but just the techniques that are used to actually store data have improved markedly in the past 10 years as well. Before that people were basically using database designs that were conceived in the 1970s and so forth. And so that’s been a lot more robust as well.
Tauheeda Yasin: So what lessons have we learned from ToxicDocs? What kinds of toxic wastes are out there? How much of it is out there? And how might this problem rank amongst our various environmental concerns?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: I think we’re learning a lot from the data set still. So we’ve only been in business since January of 2018. So there’s a lot there that I actually have no — I have no idea what’s in a lot of in a lot of database except in in very broad strokes.
But, there are few things that I think really really stick out at me, even at this early time. One is the role of trade associations and front groups.
We all know, very recently — in the recent news with regard to climate change that there are all sorts of, you know, legitimate sounding, scientific sounding, groups that really are basically in existence just to deny that climate change exists. And they put out artifacts and websites and white papers that have the aesthetic and the appearance of legitimate science. There are footnotes that look real; there are people with PhDs on the by-lines, etc. But, the fundamental upshot of all these materials is to say climate change doesn’t exist or it doesn’t exist because of human activity. And it’s pretty pernicious I think. And I think this work is done a lot to stave off regulation and alter public sentiment and in the least some quarters about the seriousness of climate change.
What’s striking to me is that this is not a new tactic at all. So we have the records of multiple trade associations, who did the exact same thing for things like lead, or asbestos, or polyvinyl chloride, which is very central to plastic production. All these kinds of trade associations who developed very elaborate media strategies who tried to pay off academics to write things that downplay the dangers of products and so forth.
So, I think that’s one thing we’re really learning is this very intricate web of institutions that were designed to really shape a state of both scientific knowledge, but also public knowledge about dangers. I think the second thing we’re learning about is just the scientific history of various chemicals.
So, you know, when I give a lecture to undergraduates or and I tell the history of lead or PCBs. I’ve got a usual timeline and it goes something like this, you know, the world went on and then there was a controversy about lead or pcbs, and eventually they were banned. And, you know, I think in broad strokes, that’s a correct narrative. But what’s wrong with it is it makes it sound like everybody was just kind of sitting passively and then everybody kind of came together and realized that the substance was dangerous and then we took it off the market.
And in fact what we’re seeing in our documents is that scientists both inside corporations, but sometimes outside of them, were asking these questions about toxicity very early on. And often like in the case with silicosis that I was talking about, this was suppressed or marginalized through a myriad of ways, sometimes through those trade groups that I described earlier. So I think that’s another thing we’re learning about through ToxicDocs. And then the third I think is related to both these and it’s just the extent of political lobbying and muscle from these companies against the regulatory edifice.
So we have a document on the front page of our site which is a secret set of board minutes where all the chemical companies convened and they talked openly about the consequences of withholding critical epidemiological evidence about the dangers of polyvinyl chloride production from regulators, and they’re openly discussing, you know, “what are the legal consequences if we suppressed this information” and we have lots of examples of where regulators who in good faith were asking corporations what they knew about the dangers of their products were misled.
You know, when I think about that there’s a real human face to it. When I when I think about all the people who are who are impacted by it — whether it’s children who are being led poisoned to the to this very day from paint that is still peeling off walls, to workers who have very rare forms of liver cancer because they worked in some of these plastic plants.
Tauheeda Yasin: So so could you give our listeners a sense of how far back a lot of these documents go?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah. We’re mainly a 20th century operation. There will be some late 19th century stuff there, but this is mostly a twentieth-century thing, and really all the decades. I would say that some of the hot spots are like the 1930s and the 1940s when there was a lot of labor activity in the United States and a lot of interest in what we would call “occupational health and safety” and certainly a lot in the 1960s and the 1970s with the rise of what we call the modern environmental movement and interest in in ecology and the human consequences of that. So I would say that those two eras are particularly concentrated and when it comes to time and what time spans that our documents cover.
Where do you get
Tauheeda Yasin: many of your documents from?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah, I’m really glad you asked that because there’s some misconceptions about where we get the documents and it’s actually very crystal clear.
So we get the documents from the law firms that my colleagues, david Rosner and Jerry Markowitz, have have developed very strong relationships with over the years. So thing about discovery is the material that comes out of it is public record, but it’s not like they move this public record to a beautiful room in you know, Washington DC area where we are now and anybody can make an appointment to go see it. The only people who a ctually possess the material are the two sides in a particular case and because David and Jerry have built up a lot of goodwill, through their scholarship, and through their expert witnessing they have access to those documents.
I mentioned that there’s often a misconception about where we where we might get our documents. I think this is largely because of the Edward Snowden and Wikileaks stuff. So we actually have a very hard and fast policy of not accepting leaks. We do not. So, somebody calls me up and they say, you know, “I used to work at Dupont and I got five DVDs full of stuff and you got to see it” and, I say “no.” The reason I say “no” is that there are cases where leaked documents turned out to be forgeries, they were designed to embarrass the operation and so forth, so, you know that that above all is one reason for not accepting leaked documents. Second, we are an aboveboard academic operation at heart and we’re not interested in potentially breaking laws. And third we got enough material from discovery. So we don’t need to be meeting people and you know parking lots for an envelope handoff and so forth. We got plenty to do. So no leaked documents.
Tauheeda Yasin: Okay. So you’re also working on a book about environmental hazards and the development of medical care after World War 2 specifically in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Appalachia, and New York. Could you tell us a little bit about that book?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah. Absolutely. I’m a historian a public health. That is my day job. And the approach for this book, and the reason why those case studies were picked, and those regions were picked, stemmed from a problem that I noticed in a lot of the public health literature and particularly some of the seminal classics in the history of health policy.
There is a book that many people read about in the 1980s — I’m not sure if people read it so much these days— but it was a book called — by Paul Starr — called the Social Transformation of American Medicine. And it’s this terrific history of the development of American medical profession, debates over health insurance, the rise of hospitals, and so on and so forth. Like everything you could possibly want to know about this realm of quote-unquote health policy is in this book.
There were other fantastic books that focused on things like the development of hospitals specifically, like Rosemary Stevens’s In Sickness and In Wealth, and so these books really had a big impact on me.
But what was missing was I thought kind of the human dimension on the ground. So how were these big developments that these folks write about experienced by your median resident living in Eastern Kentucky or in Cleveland or in Los Angeles?
I’m of the belief that,— as someone who teaches in a public health school and sees what students do afterwards, and also in touch with people working in health departments and nonprofit organizations, and so on and so forth every day— that public health ultimately, I think, is an on-the-ground local endeavor. So you can set agendas from on high here at the Department of Human Health and Services and the CDC in Atlanta. You can do these kind of broad overviews and statistical analyses of population patterns and so forth. But when you’re actually implementing programs, or running hospitals, or trying to contend with environmental health dangers, that happens on the ground, it’s a local affair.
And so I really kind of wanted to write a history that kept in mind big macro level, national trends, but that also looked at it from the perspective of people who were living in regions and real kind of places where you can trace the impact of a particular place’s culture and local politics and history on how public health is actually enacted and implemented day-to-day. And so that’s the reason why I picked that approach and that angle.
And I picked those four the locales because in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Eastern Kentucky — Appalachia, and and New York City, medical care is hugely controversial. These these four regions have been sites of amazing innovation in medical care. But also some real controversial decisions in medical care.
So those were four great cases for medical care and then they are also good cases for environmental health. So, for example, I have a chapter on the advent of strip mining in Central Appalachia. So this is when. You know bulldozers and tractors, come through and cut down forests and then mine for coal and it usually has a very very serious ecological footprint to it.
I’ve got a chapter on the Los Angeles gas and oil industry and how that contributed to smog in the 1950s and so forth. So but the thing that unifies them all is this kind of local, this local dimension, and the argument that the local politics of these four regions really shape how public health differs respectively in all those places.
Tauheeda Yasin: So could you perhaps give us a bit of what the research process has look like for for the book in terms of pulling out those local stories or local?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah. Yeah, it’s tough, yeah — development of stories, yeah.
It was a lot of fun. I got to spend a lot of time in all four of these places. I think the most fun for me unexpectedly was actually in Eastern Kentucky. Just kind of getting to see some really cool small towns where I was in local libraries. A lot of it is archival research. So I know historians have all sorts of opinions on other kinds of evidence, but you know, I like to see paper and uh, I like a paper trail, and I guess that kind of connects to ToxicDocs as well.
So I was just kind of looking everywhere I could to find paper that would allow me to write about controversies around medical care or environmental health hazards. I’ll give you one example, because sometimes the paper trail wasn’t exactly easy. So in the 1960s there were riots all over the United States. Mostly in major cities, but also in some smaller municipalities as well. There were riots in Los Angeles and Cleveland to in 65 and 1966. One of the responses that I found really curious and interesting by policymakers when they convene together to assess the reasons why people rioted and what solutions they would enact as a result was they all said we’re going to build more healthcare infrastructure.
And so I think “that’s your plan?” That the riots were this kind of really contributing factor in what you might call community health reform during this period. So that was in some ways a really interesting finding. What was not as fun was actually finding the material to write about this new infrastructure.
So in Los Angeles, there was a new I knew there was a new Health Center and it still exists today in Watts. It’s it was kind of a healthcare facility with outpatient and inpatient care. And I want to write about it. I saw a little journal article from that time about it, but that’s it. And I was like, how am I going to write about this thing?
I call this center up and you know, they got million things to do, and I’m not a high priority, and I didn’t take offense at all and they never would call me back or when they always promise to, you know and I get I get it. So what I end up having to do was actually track down the to medical director of that Watts facility. He now lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, but I called him up and I said, you know, “do you have anything from this time?” And lo and behold he had like a lot of stuff that he had preserved from the time it allowed me to write when I thought was a really nice tight account of how that health center came to be and some of the early struggles.
I also got in touch with, he’s now, I guess in his 80s, but as a medical professor at USC — University of Southern California — who was also involved in some of the early stewardship of that Center. And he also had and maintained some papers as well. So. It was kind of a scavenger hunt but sometimes, sometimes it’s what you got to do, especially when you’re writing about facilities like this that maybe don’t have huge budgets to have a nice archive and so forth. And there were other more traditional sources to you know, libraries that had preserved material related to these things and you know well-funded, well sorted in archives, so it was kind of a mix of different sources in different places.
Tauheeda Yasin: Just to wrap up. So how would you like people to use ToxicDocs and how do you see ToxicDocs being used in the next 5-10 years or so?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah. I mean the I think there are two things. I’d like to see one is I’d like scholars like myself and not just me and David and Jerry, but anybody interested in the history of environmental health hazards who wants to know about how they came out they came to assume the importance and centrality that they did, what dangers were known and when, and so on and so forth, to use this to use this very kind of hard to get until now material to write that kind of history. And I think that’s really important too because. Again, I was mentioning the standard potted plant narrative that sometimes I tell when I have to very quickly convey what PCBs or or lead are and I think that’s it’s over simplified and sometimes fundamentally wrong. Because what these documents show is that there were active agents, active entities, active people with real intentions who created what you might call a toxic landscape today.
And I think the big up shot and lesson of that is it didn’t necessarily have to be this way and if we can register that lesson, and if we can register what these folks did, and how what they did might have been avoided, maybe when it comes to 21st century toxic substances, we won’t be facing this again, when you know some other scholar is talking and doing a podcast in a hundred years.
Where I’d like to see the the project go in the next five years or so — there’s some mechanical technical parts. So I want to continue developing data science and or seeing how data science can be used to examine and analyze a traditionally qualitative sources, I think there’s all sorts of interesting things. And I know it’s a cultural studies student this might interest you in particular.
You know, how can we use the computer and all these new things that are they’re being developed to analyze text in novel ways? So I’d like to see some methodological innovation from us on that front that we might be able to share with others whether they’re studying this this particular topic or not.
And I also want to make sure that the the project has a public engagement spirit to it that we’re working with community health advocates and environmental policy folks and that this is not just us writing scholastic histories. I mean, I like reading scholastic histories for their own sake, but I think the stakes are very high for this particular topic and I want to see us engaging real people who are affected by some of the stuff I’ve talked about.
Tauheeda Yasin: Have you seen that it has been able to be used in any current type of problems that are that people are facing in regards to toxic substances?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Yeah. I’m really happy with that. I mean there’s all these reasons to detest social media that we don’t have get into here because we both know all the problems.
Just but I’ve thought it’s actually really cool to see the engagement we’ve had on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. We’ve had people who have been very active. For example in water issues in New York state who have contacted us and said that the material that we have is extremely useful to them.
This kind of moved me too. But someone said, you know, it makes us feel like we’re not crazy for thinking that, one that the risk exists, but two that there were people who don’t behave badly to make it so.d And so that there’s something about that that even though there’s a tragic dimension to a statement like that, it’s also motivating too. So I hope we can see more —forge more connections like that.
I will say one thing that’s very exciting — and I’ll close on this — is, in terms of kind of public engagement and things beyond beyond just an academic audience, we have all the material that was that was revealed as a result of Freedom of Information Act request to the state of Michigan concerning Flint and the lead poisoning catastrophe that occurred there.
And the way the government made this material available, I mean props to them for making available and actually obeying the Freedom of Information law, but a lot of it is not OCR’d. So it’s just pictures of a lot of documents and it’s not easily searchable in an interface like ours. So what we’re going to be doing is taking that Flint material and putting it all online, so that folks from Flint in Michigan can can use it.
Tauheeda Yasin: And I imagine there might be some lessons for current activists or people doing — or currently involved in legislation in terms of learning about what tactics — or what you know, what works in terms of litigation?
Merlin Chowkwanyun: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. There’s, uh you know, that’s we have a lot of documents in there that are explicitly legal and around certain, you know, kind of arcane issues and environmental health law, but certainly yeah.
Tauheeda Yasin: Thank you so much for sharing your research with us.
Merlin Chowkwanyun: No problem. Thank you.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thanks again for listening to this interview with Merlin Chowkwanyun, which is a production of the Cultural Studies Colloquium hosted by the George Mason University Cultural Studies Department with support from the Department of Communications, the Global Affairs program, the Department of History and Art History, the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative, the Department of Philosophy, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government. The Women’s and Gender Studies program, and University Life.
This interview was conducted by Tauheeda Yasin, a candidate for the PHD in Cultural Studies. Production and audio engineering were completed by Adam Proctor. Initial editing was also completed by Adam Proctor, with remaining editing completed by me, Richard Todd Stafford.The colloquium Series has been organized by Professor Roger Lancaster.
Learn more about the Cultural Studies Program at GMU.
Browse the ToxicDocs.org website
Read more on Merlin Chowkwanyun’s personal page.
References in this podcast
Chowkwanyun, Merlin. “Cleveland Versus the Clinic: The 1960s Riots and Community Health Reform.” American journal of public health 108, no. 11 (2018): 1494-1502.
Markowitz, Gerald, and David Rosner. Lead Wars: The politics of science and the fate of America’s children. Univ of California Press, 2014.
Markowitz, Gerald, and David Rosner. Deceit and denial: The deadly politics of industrial pollution. Univ of California Press, 2013.
Chowkwanyun, Merlin. “The New Left and Public Health The Health Policy Advisory Center, Community Organizing, and the Big Business of Health, 1967–1975.” American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 2 (2011): 238-249.
Rosner, David, and Gerald Markowitz. Deadly dust: Silicosis and the politics of occupational disease in twentieth-century America. Princeton University Press, 1994.
Stevens, Rosemary. In sickness and in wealth: American hospitals in the twentieth century. John Hopkins Univeristy Press, 1989.
Starr, Paul. The social transformation of american medicine: The rise of a sovereign profession and the making of a vast industry.Basic Books, 1982
Interview : Tauheeda Yasin
Music: Kevin MacLeod “Acid Trumpet,” used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Production and audio engineering: Adam Proctor
Editing, post-production, and transcription: Richard Todd Stafford
Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster