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A pollution whodunit


Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- DESPITE (or is it because of?) his lifelong work in fields directly related to environment, Eisenbud is not likely to be a mascot for most of today's environmentalists. About the green movement's persistent anti-technology tone -- especially in its initial period -- he notes that it has often been technology that has played a crucial role in identifying environmental problems.

This could easily have been the story of the transformation of an expert at dissecting fish heads and chicken hearts to a scientist determinedly pursuing the effects of pollution. But although Eisenbud's account is personalised, his focus is really on the impact of chemical pollution and nuclear radiation on human health from the '30s Great Depression to the late '80s. It is virtually a history of the environmental impact of human activities. In parts where he describes the process of discovering scientific truths, it is as absorbing as a whodunnit.

In more or less chronological order, Eisenbud, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Russia, takes us through his professional career, beginning as a safety engineer in an insurance company in Philadelphia in 1936, working on industrial hygiene during World War II, and then in the US Atomic Energy Commission (1947-59). For the next 25 years, he worked on the effects of radiology. For 2 years, he was the Environmental Protection Administrator in New York.

Eisenbud provides an engrossing account of the state of industrial safety and hygiene in the late '30s and '40s. Interesting case studies from civilian industry (anthrax in tanneries, silicosis in a chocolate factory) preceded his involvement in the war industry. He narrates the problem of asbestosis in shipbuilding, fluorosis in cattle due to gases from aluminium production, disabling dermatitis due to cashewnuts, and the poisonous effects of mercury. The solutions -- or at least palliatives -- provided indicate how a good scientific effort can contribute positively.

In the Health and Safety Laboratory of the AEC, pioneering work was done in a number of areas. Eisenbud's own work in the beryllium industry resulted in the first standard adopted for controlling air pollution from industrial sources, 2 decades before such standards were established for other air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, lead and carbon monoxide.

In fact, the story begins with the scientists of the US Public Health Service denying that beryllium is toxic (based on their experimental studies with animals), despite a number of reported cases. What follows is a classic case of systematic scientific methodology, using clues and deductive logic a la Sherlock Holmes.

The uranium production process was another field of work for Eisenbud's team at AEC. Bureaucratic squabbles prevented the states from implementing their legal responsibility for mine safety, leading to some cases of lung cancer from radium exposure.

Eisenbud details some of the pioneering and painstaking work done by him and his team in the '50s, in sharp contrast with the shortcuts used by some other US agencies. Eisenbud believed that radioactive fallout effects "were being underestimated by both the Department of Defense and the AEC". In its obsession with secrecy, the Department put many people -- especially unknowing Pacific islanders and Japanese fishermen -- at great risk, and was responsible for many cases of cancer, if not death.

The incident involving a Japanese fishing vessel, Fukuryu Maru, whose crew of 23 was affected by nuclear fallout, throws light on the thoroughness of Eisenbud's team, as also the deviousness of international power politics. While the US did try to provide assistance, it made blatantly false statements about the location of the ship and the causes of skin lesions. For Eisenbud, who resorted to ingenious methods of collecting data, it established that "we were correct in our belief that massive fallout covering large areas of land would be a consequence of nuclear war".

Eisenbud notes that the earlier belief about "a threshold radiation dose...below which there would be no effects from exposure" has not been verified by laboratory work. Therefore, "there is no safe dose of radiation". But commenting on the Three Mile Island nuclear station mishap, he turns around and says that the radioactivity released was "almost entirely contained within the power plant buildings. The highest exposure to any resident near the plant was less than that received from natural sources of radiation in one year." Many might disagree with this, but not many would cavil against the thoroughness of the book.

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