The topic of air pollution hung over the heads of an audience of about 50 people as Devra Davis, environmental health expert and author of ‘When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution,’ delivered a lecture at UC Irvine’s Beckman Center on March 30.
Davis’ lecture, sponsored by the Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine, presented evidence suggesting a connection between pollutants in the environment and serious diseases such as breast cancer, a topic which she has studied at great length throughout her professional career. She has written more than 170 articles for various publications, as well as served as a Senior Adviser to the World Health Organization and acted as a presidential appointee to the National Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
Davis’ experience with pollution dates back to her childhood in Donora, P.A., which Davis describes as ‘a town that was so polluted nobody ever talked about it.’ During her childhood, Davis, like most town residents, didn’t pay any attention to the pollution since it was so common.
‘When you grow up in a degraded environment, you don’t think that there’s anything unusual about it,’ Davis said. ‘The desperate clinging to whatever was familiar kept the town going for a long time.’
Although the town’s steel plants caused persistent pollution, residents were hesitant to complain because these plants and the jobs they brought with them were Donora’s main livelihood.
‘Smoke meant jobs,’ Davis said. ‘People would come into town and ask my grandfather, ‘What’s that smell?’ He would say, ‘It smells like money.”
In October of 1948, the smoke hanging over Donora came to signify something other than prosperity, as the town was chocked in a thick black cloud, killing 20 people and making thousands more seriously ill.
‘When cold air settles over a valley, the hot air hits another layer above it and it gets smacked right back down to the ground,’ Davis explained. ‘The smoke couldn’t go up. It couldn’t dissipate. It was unfortunately a recipe for disaster.’
Davis related the story of Donora to a similar catastrophe in London in 1952, when cool air from the English Channel hung over the city cloaking all of London and its eight million residents in smog and killing about 12,000 people.
Particularly distressing to Davis was the lack of governmental response to both disasters.
‘In the case of Donora, in the case of London, it proved to be a lot easier to study the smog than to do something about it,’ Davis said.
The deaths in London were officially attributed to influenza, but Davis suspects otherwise.
‘Although we can’t interview those people that died in London … there was a lot more carbon monoxide and metals [in their lungs] that looked like diesel exhaust.’
While such mass suffocations are rare, Davis suggests that we can use their lessons to examine our day-to-day living.
‘A little bit of pollution over a long period of time may sicken millions,’ Davis said. ‘You can destroy your brain or stop your heart by inhaling large doses of chemicals from markers or correctional fluids in a short time. Imagine what happens when you work in an office for 40 years.’
Although indisputable proof is elusive, Davis related many stories which seem to indicate ties between environmental health and the health of an area’s inhabitants.
‘The cancer risk of adopted children parallels that of their adopted parents, not their biological parents,’ said Davis. ‘Fewer than half of identical twins develop the same type of cancer.
Davis suggested that toxins could have negative effects on humans as well as animals.
‘Polar bears have been found with enough toxins in their fat to qualify them for burial in a toxic waste dump,’ Davis said. ‘These polar bears are being born hermaphrodites one out of 100 times.’
Davis acknowledged that although it may seem impossible for one person to make a difference, she explained that voting is the most important action a person can take.
‘The government has a duty to assess the full economic and environmental costs of any actions,’ Davis said. ‘The upcoming 2004 presidential election will be one of the most important elections in American history. The right to know may disappear before our eyes.’
Davis also indicated that President Bush was not fully considering the ramifications of studies such as the ones she cited, and incorporating such findings into his policies.