A Cancer Cycle, From Here to China
By DAN FAGIN
Published: January 11, 2013
MORE than one million people in the Chinese city of Handan awoke last week to the alarming news that an essential source of their drinking water, the Zhouzhang River, had been dangerously contaminated by a 39-ton chemical spill in the nearby city of Changzhi. What made the news even more shocking was that the leak, from a factory pipe, had started at least five days earlier but had been kept secret by government officials, who allowed millions of their neighbors to keep drinking.
The people of Handan reacted to these disclosures the same way almost anyone else would. First, they panicked, mobbing stores for bottled water. Then, they were furious, demanding to know why no one had told them they were drinking water laced with a probable carcinogen. If history is any guide, they will never get a satisfactory answer.
For me, reading about Handan prompted a sick feeling of déjà vu. For the last five years I have been writing a history of the chemical industry’s egregious 60-year involvement in the New Jersey shore town of Toms River, which gained unwanted notoriety in the late 1990s thanks to a remarkably well-documented cluster of childhood cancer cases and a long history of often hidden industrial pollution.
When news of the cancer cluster leaked in 1996, there was the predictable townwide panic, including a run on bottled water supplies. After a wrenching five-year investigation, state and federal health officials concluded that the sick children were more likely to have lived in parts of town where exposure to industrial chemicals — via drinking water and polluted air — were highest.
It was, by definition, an association, not a causal relationship, and it was statistically significant only for girls with leukemia. But in the murky world of neighborhood cancer cluster studies, that’s as close to a definitive finding as you’re ever likely to see. That same year, 2001, the families of 69 children with cancer won a multimillion-dollar legal settlement against two chemical companies and the water utility.
As in Toms River, so many things about last week’s debacle in Handan were infuriating, starting with the chemical involved: aniline. That was the compound that launched the synthetic chemical industry in 1856, when a precocious 18-year-old named William Henry Perkin, experimenting in his parents’ London attic, inadvertently discovered that aniline, dissolved in sulfuric acid and mixed with potassium dichromate, made a superb purple dye.
Soon London, Basel, Switzerland, and the Ruhr Valley in Germany were littered with aniline factories, many of which would morph into familiar corporate giants like CIBA, Geigy, Agfa and the German behemoth BASF, the industry leader. In Basel and London, it was said, you could tell which dyes were being made by the color of the nearby canals and rivers, where the factories dumped their waste. Factory bosses would send workers on clandestine midnight runs to the Middle Bridge in Basel to dump barrels of waste into the fast-moving Rhine.
Basel is a border city and the Rhine flows north, so the waste was Germany’s problem — just as last week’s spill was Handan’s problem, not Changzhi’s.
In 1895, a Frankfurt surgeon named Ludwig Wilhelm Carl Rehn began noticing unusual numbers of bladder cancers — he called them “aniline tumors” — among workers in dye plants. Whether aniline was the specific cause was hard to determine, since by then, chemical manufacturers had expanded well beyond aniline and were using dozens of compounds derived from coal and oil to make dyes and many other products. What was obvious was that these synthetic hydrocarbons were leaving a trail of tumors wherever they were manufactured.
The legacy of cancer followed the industry as it spread to America. In the 1950s, at Cincinnati Chemical Works, almost half of the long-term workers who handled a dye compound called benzidine got bladder cancer. Soon after, the Cincinnati factories closed and their Swiss owners transferred manufacturing to a huge new facility in a small town where there would be less scrutiny: Toms River.
Today, there is little left of the vast complex the Swiss operated in Toms River for more than 40 years. Manufacturing ended there in 1996, just as the cluster controversy was heating up. Now, after so many years of painful publicity about cancer and pollution, many residents of Toms River are happy to have moved on, and who can blame them. They are much more likely to be worried about the damage Hurricane Sandy recently inflicted on hundreds of local homes than about any lingering effects from decades-old water and air pollution.
The reality of 21st-century globalism, however, is that none of us can pretend that by pushing the chemical industry out of our communities we have stopped enabling its dangerous practices. The industry jobs that started in Basel, and then migrated to Cincinnati and Toms River, are now in Shanxi Province and other coal-rich areas of China. BASF alone now owns or invests in 45 Chinese ventures. Meanwhile, hundreds of smaller companies like the Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, whose Changzhi factory was the source of last week’s leak, are busy turning coal into aniline and a host of other chemical products.
Business is booming. If you don’t believe me, head over to the Ocean County Mall in Toms River, where you can get a pair of jeans dyed just the right shade of faded blue, thanks to aniline-based indigo dye. They’re made in China, and they’re cheap — if you don’t count the long-term cost.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: