Pulling Back the Curtain on Industrial Toxins
The scene is a conference room in the St. Louis headquarters of the chemical giant Monsanto, the summer of 1969. A special task force meets to discuss the company’s response to growing concerns over the health risks of one of its biggest profit centers, polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs. We could go out of business, someone says. Another option: “sell the hell out of them.”
This scenario isn’t a scene from a movie script, but a real-life meeting memorialized in hand-written minutes hidden for decades in company archives. Made public through legal proceedings, these documents, along with millions like them, are now available on ToxicDocs.org, an online dataset of corporate materials related to environmental threats, developed and maintained by the Center for History and Ethics at the Mailman School.
“This enormous stash of material represents the unvarnished opinions and inside dealings of the companies that make some of the most toxic products,” says David Rosner, professor of Sociomedical Sciences and one of the project’s principals. “By and large, existing corporate archives are curated by the companies to cast themselves in a favorable light. ToxicDocs tells the whole story.”
When companies like Monsanto were forced to release their documents, it was in the form of a “data dump”—boxes and boxes of papers that made any kind of research highly labor intensive.
“Learning from them was like searching for a needle in a haystack,” says Merlin Chowkwanyun, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences and part of the ToxicDocs team with Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and adjunct professor in Sociomedical Sciences at Mailman. “As researchers, we are always excited to have access to a high volume of data. The challenge was to make it useful, and not just to ourselves but to other researchers, journalists, and the public at large.”
Emerging from beta testing in January, ToxicDocs has already attracted significant notice, winning praise from the likes of legendary activist Erin Brockovich and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the latter who contributed to a special issue of the Journal of Public Health Policy dedicated to the site.
Currently, the ToxicDocs team is working with journalists to plumb the digital archive for investigative stories dealing with toxins such as asbestos, lead, PCBs, silica dust, and vinyl chloride.
“The information available through ToxicDocs tells people who have been directly affected by these toxins that they’re not crazy—these issues are real,” says Rosner. In the case of Monsanto, after the 1969 meeting, the company went ahead with their plan for PCBs to “sell out the hell out of them”; over the next year and a half, it moved more of the product than it ever had before, only stopping after public pressure led to a PCB ban in 1977. On the same token, Rosner says, the archive also guards against conspiracy theories like chemtrails that claim the government or industry is willfully and maliciously poisoning the population.
The team also continues to conduct their own scholarly investigations into the material. In 2016, Rosner and Markowitz published an article in the American Journal of Public Health examining documents from the Asbestos Information Association of North America, an industry trade group that, in their words, sought to “counteract the growing public attention to, and government regulation of, asbestos as a serious threat to workers and consumers.”
Under the Hood
Over the last 25 years, Rosner and Markowitz, historians and co-authors on several books on industrial pollution, have testified as expert witnesses in more than 30 cases on behalf of individuals exposed to industrial toxins. Industry documents made public as part of the discovery make up a large portion of those available on ToxicDocs.
Chowkwanyun led the effort to digitize and index the papers. He harnessed the Open Science Grid, a consortium of academic supercomputers which allowed for the rapid rendering of 20 million pages so that they were machine-readable and searchable by keyword. On a desktop computer, this would have taken the better part of a year, if not longer. He also worked closely with Alex Farrill, a classmate from Columbia College who is part of the ToxicDocs team, to leverage new database technology that vastly improves search speed.
Down the line, ToxicDocs is developing more tools to attack the documents. One will allow users to identify patterns across clusters of documents, such as common phrases and recurring names of people and entities. This “relationship miner” will also feature a graphical representation that illustrates the strength of connections between keywords. More tools will distinguish between document types—such as memos between executives, unpublished scientific studies, public relations campaign plans, letters to policymakers, and classified meeting minutes—and show the rise and fall of certain terms over time.
“A single document by itself doesn’t tell the whole story,” says Chowkwanyun. “ToxicDocs connects the dots. This larger dataset paints a much bigger picture.”