MOYERS: Now joining us in our studio, NPR's Jacki Lyden.
LYDEN: How can we protect our inheritance when it comes to the environment?
You're about to meet a woman who has spent her entire career researching the effect of the environment on health.
Devra Davis is a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, a senior advisor to the World Health Organization and the author of this book, WHEN SMOKE RAN LIKE WATER, a story that's not only scientific but personal.
Devra Davis, welcome to the show.
When it comes to America, at least, for the last couple, few decades, the air has been getting cleaner.
Why should we care now so much about air pollution?
DAVIS: Well, in fact, the air quality in the United States today is generally better than it has been in the past, but we understand something different about air pollution.
We now understand that current patterns of air pollution endanger public health today in subtler ways than we ever appreciated.
Whether increased rates of asthma, increased problems of health are associated with living in dirtier areas, even though we are much cleaner today than we used to be.
But we also know something else, which is the same things that contribute to local and regional air pollution-- burning of coal and burning of gasoline and burning of diesel fuels-- those same things also produce greenhouse gases.
These are gases that warm the planet over all, things like carbon dioxide and methane and some of them will live for a hundred years in the upper atmosphere making the planet warmer.
LYDEN: And while other contaminants have declined, greenhouse gases are one of the things that are on the increase?
DAVIS: The average American burns the equivalent of two SUVs worth of coal and sends it up into the air every year because of our current patterns of energy use, so greenhouse gases are continuing to grow.
In fact, in the United States today, we are burning 12% more greenhouse gases now than we did in 1990.
LYDEN: I want to get to your personal story, because you're an epidemiologist.
First of all, in your book, you even write about what that means, epi and demos.
DAVIS: Well, an epidemiologist comes from two Greek words: "demos,"
Meaning people; and "epi," meaning upon.
And epidemiologists look for patterns upon the people, how diseases and pollution are related in time and space.
And the field of environmental epidemiology is probably the toughest field we have to do that research in, because we can't control all of the things that go on in the environment broadly, so we've got to look for natural experiments, if you will, catastrophes that happen, explosions or accidents, where we can go back and ask what has gone on and what might explains patterns of health over time and space.
LYDEN: And sadly, you grew up with one of the catastrophes which became an environmental landmark in this country, Donora, Pennsylvania, a town I confess that even though I was once a steel reporter and covered the demise of the steel industry, I had not been to Donora nor heard of it.
It's in the Monongahela Valley.
Tell us about what happened in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 when you were a girl.
DAVIS: Well, when I was a very small child, at the end of October, around the time of Halloween, a massive inversion of cold air settled over the valley and hot fumes were trapped in a kind of sandwich layer with cold air on the bottom, fumes, and a layer of cold on top.
And they couldn't get out of this area where there were steel mills and coke ovens and coal fire furnaces.
And within 12 hours, in one period of 12 hours, 18 people dropped dead in that town.
LYDEN: It's just incredible to think about.
This became known as the killer smog of Donora.
Why don't more people know about it today?
DAVIS: Well, I'll tell you frankly, I didn't know about it at the time.
I had to go away to school, which I did, to Pittsburgh.
I was a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and my family had moved to the town of Pittsburgh from Donora, leaving the town as did half of the residents because the mills had shut down.
And I came home one day and I said to my mother, "Mom, was there another town with the same name as ours?"
She got kind of quiet and said, "Well, why are you asking?"
I said, "well, I read in a book at school that a town with the same name as ours was polluted."
And I actually didn't think at the time that Donora could be the Donora that I grew up in, that I had read about.
And she got kind of quiet and she said, "Well, you know, I guess today they call it pollution, but back then it was just a living."
And so, you see, the town was employed by the mill, and the factories there.
And so people couldn't dare think about the possibility that the same thing that kept them employed might also have affected their health.
LYDEN: Let's look at a clip that we have, Devra, from our member station in Pittsburgh, WQED multimedia.
They made this documentary last year from vintage 1948 footage that was filmed of the killer smog.
[CLIP FROM WQED MULTIMEDIA]
NARRATOR: At first, nobody noticed.
Visibility was just worse than usual.
WOMAN: It was around Halloween time and the kids were all excited.
They were in a parade and you didn't have to make it spooky, it was already spooky because you couldn't see very much.
It had a very eerie feeling.
LOFTUS: I was a nurse at the Donora Mill.
NARRATOR: Eileen Loftus was a young woman then, in charge of the nursing staff.
She was called to duty when gasping mill workers crowded the infirmary.
Even at the age of 85, Eileen says she'll never forget walking to the plant through a blinding cloud.
LOFTUS: And I touched the houses as I went along to make sure I was still on the sidewalk.
The hospital was jammed.
They wanted to know if they were going to live, or what, and I says you're going to live if I can help it.
NARRATOR: When the funeral homes ran out of space, bodies were taken to the community center, and emergency workers struggled to keep the death count from rising.
20 funerals, grieving families, national headlines, that's what it took to temporarily shut down the zinc plant.
LYDEN: This is truly an incredible story. The smog lasted for five days, 20 were killed immediately. You documented that many more would die the following month.
And life went on as normal. People didn't know what was happening. The football team played its homecoming game, couldn't even see each other.
DAVIS: Yes. It was... you have to understand that when you grow up in a world, it's normal not to be able to see in the afternoon, it's normal to have the headlights on.
It's normal to have to scrub the walls down to keep them clean that you don't know that there's any other way for it to be.
LYDEN: Tell us what happened in the aftermath of Donora, because it would link directly to the way this country would respond to environmental disasters, indeed to even thinking about the environment as something that could possibly be harmful to us.
DAVIS: What happened of course is the public health authorities came in and did a study.
The study was never finalized.
And it began a tradition with respect to environmental disasters that we still face today, which is it's a lot easier to study a problem than it is to do something about it.
LYDEN: You've written that the people who died in Donora didn't die in vain because eventually what happened there led to laws passed in the '60s about cleaning up the air and then into the 1970 Clean Air Act and the creation indeed of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Could you explain a little bit about the relationship?
DAVIS: We were very fortunate to have a brilliant politician as President in 1970 named Richard Nixon, and President Nixon has never been received his full due for being the environmental President that he really was.
He may not have personally cared much about the environment.
In fact, he used to keep a log burning in the White House fireplace in the summertime and had the air conditioning on because he liked the homey feeling.
But as a politician he understood that there was a growing national and international movement demanding a cleaner environment.
And so what President Nixon did was to help create first by executive order the Environmental Protection Agency and to sign into law legislation mandating clean air actions.
Before that, the federal government's role was basically that of conducting research.
Once President Nixon saw the importance of it, the federal government actually had laws put into place that required actions.
LYDEN: Well, that of course is the debate we have today, how much research to conduct, and when to enact a law.
And some of them have been repealed, certainly the administration is trying to act to repeal some of the Clean Air Act.
They began to do that last November.
What's your opinion about that?
DAVIS: Well, I would say that there is a serious concern now among a number of people including a number of republicans that this administration is making some fundamental mistakes.
It's misjudging the American people.
Recent Gallup polls indicate that a vast majority of Americans consider themselves to be environmentalists.
And this is an issue that cuts across all political parties.
And I think Senator McCain is to be applauded for introducing this bill now with Senator Lieberman that says that there's got to be economy-wide actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to increase our efficiency and to move us off of the burning of fossil fuels.
LYDEN: It's not a precise science, is it? I mean, you write that looking for environmental causation and using epidemiology to do it is a blunt instrument, that it's very difficult for epidemiologists to say that it's this precise cause that affected this individual at this point in time.
And so that the standard of proof is not as clear as you'd expect when it comes to causation.
DAVIS: I think that that's generally true for most of the things that we deal with in the environment.
Think about this.
We really don't have an unexposed control group.
We have one planet right now.
We don't have another one to go to if this one doesn't work right.
And we have lots of evidence now, not just public health evidence, but evidence from climate studies, evidence in meteorology, evidence on air pollution.
We know enough now to know that we have got to become more efficient in our economy, in the way that we use fossil fuels, and we've got to move away from burning carbon to a hydrogen-based economy.
That's very clear.
Governor Pataki has just announced that the state of New York is going to purchase 25% of its energy from alternative sources.
That's the kind of thing that we have to encourage and see more of, but we desperately need federal leadership, as well as leadership from the private sector to make that happen.
LYDEN: Do you think we're getting that?
DAVIS: I think that there's a change about to happen.
I think that I'm encouraged by the republican governors of Massachusetts and New York, and the activities that they are committed to with respect to this issue.
I think it's clear that there's bipartisan support at this point.
And we can't rely on voluntary action. That simply isn't going to work.
The problem the administration is making is that they assume everybody is as nice as Laura Bush.
LYDEN: And why is Laura Bush sort of a vanguard player here, other than the fact that she's of course the first lady?
DAVIS: Well, not only is she the first lady, but she had the vision four years ago when she was planning the Crawford Texas ranch of the Bush family to see that that ranch uses passive solar design, recycled waste water, and uses warm water from the earth to heat the floor in the winter.
So it's pretty much green in a lot of its design, and I think that that's a wonderful thing, that she had the vision to do.
And I think that that's the sort of thing we need to see institutionalized because we cannot rely solely on the good motives of a few people.
LYDEN: Are we playing with our health?
You've looked at environmental causes, for instance, as to whether or not they're associated with breast cancer.
Do you think that our alarm factor is about where it should be?
DAVIS: No, I think that there's good reason to think that a large portion of some cancer today is due to the environment.
In the case of breast cancer, we know that only one in ten women who get the disease is born with a defect in her gene.
That means that women get breast cancer because of something that happens to them after they're born.
They're born with healthy genes, and then something happens to give them the disease.
Now some of that is due to agents in the environment broadly conceived that affect the amount of hormones in a woman's lifetime and the way her body processes these.
LYDEN: Can I just ask you about the Long Island breast cancer study which was disputed last summer?
Some of the activists who had commissioned that study, a multi-million dollar study done by the National Cancer Institute and also the CDC, wasn't really able to determine whether or not there was environmental cause to breast cancer, and yet we do know that breast cancer is a lot more common than it was a century ago.
DAVIS: Well, certainly, and some of the reasons why breast cancer is more common has to do with changes in our population.
Women are having children later in life.
But that cannot explain the increased rate of breast cancer that we're seeing today where women born in the 1940s are getting twice as much breast cancer as their grandmothers did, and we don't really know why.
But one of the things that we do know about that Long Island study is that it only looked at a small number of possible causes.
It looked at some pesticides that had been banned 30 years ago and found no difference in women with breast cancer compared to those without it.
But it did not look at some plastics, at some solvents, at some fuels which we know cause breast tumors to grow in male rats when we study them in the laboratory.
These things... If they can grow a breast tumor in a male rat, we have reason to think that they are playing a role for women.
The problem is epidemiology is a very crude tool, and it can...
It's best suited to studying things that we can measure in the body.
You don't measure residues of plastics or fuels or solvents 30 years later.
We don't know why women in Marin County have such high rates of breast cancer, but we know the microelectronics industry and its heavy use of solvents has women workers with increased rates of breast cancers.
So we have a lot of unresolved questions on this, but I would point out it was very interesting to see how quickly people said, "Oh, well, there's nothing in the environment here that's going on."
In fact, that's a vast exaggeration of that study.
What that study looked at was some pesticides that had long been banned and some things that you could measure in tissue, but it didn't look at a number of things that you can't easily measure in tissue.
And it also compared women on Long Island with breast cancer to women on Long Island without the disease.
If you want to find out whether Long Island has anything to do with it, you might want to compare these women with people elsewhere.
LYDEN: I just want to ask you before we finish, do you go back to Donora very often now?
Do you know, have you met some of the people?
I know you mention a number of people in your book, but do you stay in touch with those folks?
DAVIS: I am in touch with a few of them, including a young woman who was one of my close friends in grade school.
And it's... a lot of really good people are still in Donora, but it's a shell of what it used to be because the mills are totally shut down.
The only growth industry in the area at this point really are old age homes and small businesses have developed there.
But you know what's really interesting is it's green.
It's literally green.
And when I was a kid growing up we used to be able to slide down the hills, because on some of the hills no grass grew at all.
There was grass in some areas, but in the areas where the plumes would come in, there would be none, and it made great sliding boards for all of us.
LYDEN: And now the grass is growing, the flowers are there.
Devra Davis, it's been great having you on the show.
Thank you very much.
DAVIS: Thank you.