Review: Publishers Weekly
Journalist Bowker’s riveting, anecdotal look at the damage done by mining and manufacturing companies who denied the harmful effects of asbestos might have been titled “Evil Incorporated.” Focusing largely on a vermiculite mine in bucolic Libby, Montana, Bowker shows a business that put its bottom line over its employees’ health. Interviews with victims of asbestos poisoning and their survivors are interspersed with EPA reports, company memos and other sources, as Bowker charts asbestos’s history, from its identification as a “miracle mineral” to the first signs that it might be dangerous, to the government’s ineffectual policies and various companies’ decisions not to inform its workers of the health risks it posed. As one asbestos plant exec is alleged to have said, it was “the company’s policy to let workers continue on the job until they quit work because of asbestosis or died of other asbestos-related disease.” Worker after worker describes how he was never told that the dust he encountered daily was poisonous: “The asbestos was whitish-gray and my hair was pure white after work. We never wore any protective gear, except the little paper masks they gave us,” said one worker who now has asbestosis. The personal stories make for a sad and gripping read, as Bowker, in classic muckraking style, gives voice to many who suffer from long-term exposure to asbestos and argues for a ban on asbestos products in the U.S.
Review: Physicians for Social Responsibility
This is another book I really liked and ought to be a movie. In fact, if you liked A Civil Action and Erin Brokovich, you’ll want to rush to read Fatal Deception. It’s got similar villains such as the W.R. Grace Company, already well known for its despoilation of Woburn, Massachusetts. Here, W.R. Grace is responsible for mining asbestos in Libby, Montana while keeping secret from its workers, their families, and the town that they have known all along that people are dying from the dust that permeates the town. Fatal Deception also features a cast of unlikely and likeable heroes such as Paul Perorard of the EPA, a shave-headed muscular agent who should be played by Bruce Willis, or Gayla Penefield, a middle-aged woman who could be played by Meryl Streep or Glenn Close. Both of Penefield’s parents were killed by asbestosis. Yet, while other victims in Libby settled out of court in the face of overwhelming odds, Penefield brings and sticks with a seemingly crazy and hopeless lawsuit in order to expose W.R. Grace and to avenge her parents and the hundreds of other townspeople who died horrible deaths as a result of asbestos.
Bowker writes graphically and well and his story-telling ability makes the book sing. But like other compelling books on environmental health issues like Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream or Raising Faith, he uses narrative and human interest stories to also engage the reader in the otherwise mysterious worlds of toxicology and epidemiology and to see how, ultimately, we must understand and engage in politics as well if the public health is to be protected. In swift order, you’ll learn the history of asbestos and its uses, how things like that vermiculite in your potted plant were made in Libby, and why all of the various forms of asbestos are, indeed, lethal. You’ll also learn how asbestos was banned in the 1980s, but that under intense lobbying from industry, the ban was lifted. Thus, much of the public still thinks that asbestos is currently outlawed when it is not and that, after decades of bombardment by industry related scientists and PR flaks, that the science of whether it is really dangerous is not clear. It is.
Again, this book rolls right up into the contemporary White House and the interests of Vice President Dick Cheney in asbestos since it is produced by Halliburton Company where he was CEO for seven years. It concludes on a frankly political note calling for a ban on asbestos and describing a bill by Senator Patty Murray of Washington State to do just that. By the time you become reacquainted with asbestos, and its agonizing medical consequences and painful deaths for those whom Bowker so movingly portrays, you’ll want to join in the campaign.