Gerald Markowitz Shines A Light On Corporate Bad Behavior

Gerald Markowitz Shines A Light On Corporate Bad Behavior

Gerald Markowitz Shines A Light On Corporate Bad Behavior

Distinguished Professor of History Gerald Markowitz, Ph.D., and his longtime writing partner David Rosner, Ph.D., a Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University, have been researching industrial pollution and contaminants since the early 1970s. Their first jointly authored book, Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease in Twentieth-Century America, explored historical evidence of the lung disease silicosis, which is hardening of the lungs due to inhaling dust found in sand or rock. Thanks to Deadly Dust, Markowitz and Rosner came to the attention of lawyers, bringing workplace safety lawsuits on behalf of construction workers suffering from silicosis, launching a long career of research and expert testimony on occupational disease and toxic substances.

In the early 2010s, the duo began investigating asbestos and asbestos-related diseases. Their work uncovered hundreds of articles on the dangers of asbestos, now a watchword for poisons that can lurk in our homes, dating from 1898 to the present. Markowitz and Rosner also referred to corporate records and documents made public through court discovery. A more recent project called ToxicDocs is an open-source, online database of more than 15 million pages of documents related to silica, lead, vinyl chloride, and asbestos that were previously not easily accessible.

In June, Markowitz’s expertise was featured in an article for the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), detailing a representative episode in the history of the struggle between industry and regulators. In the article, “Nondetected: The Politics of Measurement of Asbestos in Talc, 1971-1976,” Markowitz and his coauthors describe the years-long interval between the talc industry’s acknowledgement that asbestos is toxic, their taking action to protect consumers, and the subsequent conflict between the Conflict, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over regulating appropriate methods for detecting asbestos contamination in consumer talc products and setting safety standards.

The focus of the article, said Markowitz, “was that the cosmetic industry, very consciously used this concept of ‘non-detected,’ which we as consumers think of as ‘no asbestos in the talc,’ but ‘non-detected’ could mean enough asbestos in the talc to cause disease. And that’s what the industry understood, but consumers did not.” The CTFA’s 1970s victory in lowering detection standards and advocating for self-regulation is still bearing fruit; recent lawsuits against talcum powder manufacturers allege the household product causes cancer due to asbestos contamination. As recently as 2018, courts awarded plaintiffs record damages of close to $4.7 billion in a case against manufacturers, capturing public attention.

We sat down with Markowitz to talk about his work researching industrial poisons and about corporate responsibility to the consumer in today’s world.

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz
David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

Why do you believe that talc product manufacturers continued to accept a lower standard for asbestos eradication, despite known health dangers, not to mention the risks of litigation?

When manufacturers developed this idea in the 1970s, their basic argument was that there should be as little federal regulation as possible. The CTFA was able to lobby the FDA that the technologies they were proposing were not able to be completely accurate, would give too many false positives, would take a long time to do, and would be costly. So, they proposed their own method, and they were able to eventually convince the FDA that it should not be federal but industry regulation. But what the CTFA privately admits is that their method, which is not as demanding as the FDA’s proposed method, was not necessarily accurate and was not consistent. To a certain extent, they were really able to forestall regulation by claiming that they could do as good a job of detecting asbestos in talc products, even though they themselves admitted that they could not. And by the very nature of their method, they were going to uncover much less asbestos than the FDA’s method was capable of uncovering. They had not seen the protection of the public as more important than the selling of their product. And that’s the disturbing part of this story.

“They had not seen the protection of the public as more important than the selling of their product. And that’s the disturbing part of this story.” —Gerald Markowitz

Do you think there’s something special about the current moment that made this article of particular relevance?

I think it was the variety of ways that deregulation has had an impact on the health and welfare of people in the United States and other parts of the world. To the extent that these articles could help to call attention to that happening, they are important. The advantage of history is that we are able to really see the process unfold in a way that we don’t necessarily have in observing regulatory of anti-regulatory actions taking place at the moment we’re living in. That level of detail is instructive in terms of being able to understand how similar things could be happening today.

Pieces accompanying your article in the AJPH, suggest that corporate influence is getting stronger, to the detriment of consumer and public health. The current administration has loosened or degraded regulatory standards for a variety of products. Should we expect more legal battles down the line?

Yes, absolutely. Since the 1970s there has been a sustained effort by many businesses to oppose regulation, and you get the classic statement by Ronald Reagan, when he said that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem.” The legacy of the push for deregulation as a means of stimulating the economy and freeing business to innovate and all of those kinds of ideas, is going to bring a variety of problems, not only in consumer products but in environmental damage. It’s going to be the workers, consumers, and people living in communities where toxic substances are going to be released that are going to be suffering those consequences, and the unfortunate thing is that it’s only going to be remedied in retrospect. And, to add one other element, we know that the burden, especially of environmental pollution, toxic waste, and global warming, is going to affect poor communities and communities of color to a much greater extent than richer communities. At a College emphasizing social justice, this becomes an even more vital issue.

“We know that the burden, especially of environmental pollution, toxic waste, global warming, is going to affect poor communities and communities of color to a much greater extent than richer communities. At a College emphasizing social justice, this becomes an even more vital issue.”—Gerald Markowitz

Are there other consumer products, known to include dangerous adulterants that are similarly being underregulated?

Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make certain plastics since the 1960s, is one example; a lot of household cleaners and flame retardants. We’ve discovered that flame retardants are extremely dangerous to people, and that people have them in their bodies. Formaldehyde is another one; there was a scandal about unsafe levels of formaldehyde in temporary housing given to people after Hurricane Katrina.

There are lots of things we have clues about, but the real scandal is that chemicals are being produced that have never been tested and we’re using them in very large quantities. In the United States we have this philosophy, innocent until proven guilty. It’s the same philosophy with chemicals, they are innocent until proven guilty. The Europeans have a different system, chemicals can’t be introduced until they’re proven safe. It’s a basic difference in philosophy, companies need to prove that something is safe before they can experiment on us and ensure it doesn’t cause cancer. But in the United States they say that if it does cause cancer, we’ll take it off the market, but that’s very difficult to prove and you’ve done the damage already.

“There are lots of things we have clues about, but the real scandal is that chemicals are being produced that have never been tested and we’re using them in very large quantities.”—Gerald Markowitz

Do you think it remains true in cases of corporate wrongdoing that nothing is done until the public finds out all the information?

There is this wonderful act called the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The fundamental principle behind the act was that if you shine the light of publicity and information and people have it, then they have the ability to act in their own interests. One contribution that historians can make is using historical records, we can cast a light on activities and attitudes and actions that permit people to see what is going on and demand change.