Battling a Common Foe : TOXIC NATION: The Fight to Save Our Communities From Chemical Contamination, <i> By Fred Setterberg and Lonny Shavelson (Wiley: $22.95; 289 pp.)</i>

<i> Dick Russell is a widely-published writer on environmental issues. Susan Dewan is a widely unpublished writer on environmental issues</i>

For all the stories about pollution that have managed to break through into the media, Americans still know very little about the real extent of the poisoning of their own country by the technology to which they have looked since the end of World War II to provide them a better life: the petrochemical industry.

The U.S. Government now estimates that 16,000 landfills have been the recipients of industrial and agricultural hazardous waste, and the Environmental Protection Agency states that eventually these wastes will all breach their linings and penetrate the soil. Thirty percent of the landfills already leak, and pesticides have contaminated water supplies in 23 states. According to the chemicals industry’s own reports, 22 billion pounds of chemicals are released into the air, water and soil each year --85 pounds of toxic waste for every American. The congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimates the real figures to be considerably higher.

Where are all these pounds of poisons going? How are they affecting our lives and our health? And how will they affect our future?

“Toxic Nation” chronicles the struggles of small towns, farming communities and ordinary people whose lives are at risk from the tide of chemicals saturating the nation. For three years authors Fred Setterberg and Lonny Shavelson crisscrossed the country, visiting communities in crisis. “Toxic Nation” takes us on a journey where, as political analyst William Greider is quoted here, “behind the empty shell of formal politics, the nation is alive and well, with democratic energies. People are still pursuing the universal impulse for self-expression. Disconnected from power they are searching to find it.”


The world that disconnection has wrought can be seen in these pages. At its molten core are communities like Spencerville, Ohio, fighting a proposed dump-site; McFarland, Calif., trying to deal with cancer clusters of children; and a California mountain town, Glen Avon, which in 1977-1978 was flooded by several million gallons of chemicals that poured down from the Stringfellow Acid Pits in the foothills during heavy rains. There are more than 7,000 grass roots anti-toxics groups that have formed to fight for social justice and protect the health of their families and communities. Their approaches are as varied as their situations.

But it is not just the people’s personal stories that are being told here. If it were, this would be a heart-breaking and inspiring book to experience. However, a surfeit of subjects is woven into the narrative: the history of organic chemistry and the petrochemical industry, a romanticized history of women’s involvements in social movements in America, and many dips into the scientific/medical point of view and its limits.

It is as if the authors’ vision is clouded by an inner uncertainty, obscuring a larger picture. Perhaps the attempt was to be objective. But that is extraordinarily difficult when describing the lives and deaths of children from cancer and the tremendous suffering of their parents. Or the countless adults who have fallen outside the reach of statisticians and epidemiologists--but fallen to environmentally induced cancer nonetheless. It is just as difficult to be objective about the despair these people feel as they discover the source of their innumerable health problems and the fact that there is no one accountable--not the corporations who manufacture and dump the waste, not the government whose wheels are certainly greased by the petrochemical industry and not the scientific or medical establishments.

“Toxic Nation” does touch upon “environmental racism,” described as “an ugly concept based on the fact that the majority of the nation’s toxic chemical wastes are dumped in African-American, Hispanic and Native American communities.” They cite the example of Emelle, Ala., where blacks and whites had to break down racial barriers to fight a common battle against Chemical Waste Management and its dump-site, the largest in the world.


Yet somehow blatant “environmental racism” is not seen in the story of McFarland, Calif., a predominantly Mexican-American community in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world’s richest farm belts where most residents work in fields of cotton, kiwi, grapes and almonds, or in occupations financially tied to these crops .

Interspersing McFarland’s saga throughout the book seems to increase the authors’ difficulty in seeing the larger picture. In a town where the Anglo minority retained control of most public offices such as the city council, the water board (all-important in farm communities) and the public school administration, the American version of apartheid should have been seen against the backdrop of agribusiness and its chemical dependency.

Cesar Chavez, the founder and president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), gave his life to the struggle for improved working conditions for farm laborers and was one of the first people to draw national attention to the health effects of pesticide use. In “Toxic Nation,” his motives and tactics appear in a strangely biased light, as if the UFW had no other intentions than to use the people of McFarland for its fund-raising campaigns. The authors overlook the fact that Chavez understood the crucial importance of taking McFarland’s dramatic and terrible situation to illustrate a national picture of pesticide abuse--including the manipulation of government-funded health studies, the close links between agribusiness and Republican administrations, and efforts by these forces to undermine all environmental programs (especially those that would empower ordinary citizens). The untold story of McFarland would have exposed the very forces that are still trying to deny the link between cancer and chemicals.

In spite of such inconsistencies, “Toxic Nation” is an important book, the first attempt to fathom the causes and consequences of the extent of chemical contamination in America. Some of these consequences are the lives that have been irrevocably altered as they were snatched from the cradle of what is called “normal life” by destructive forces beyond their imagining. As the grass-roots antitoxins movement grows, a political and moral isolation is abandoned for a renewed sense of the nation as a real community. The burden of proof has fallen to mothers and fathers--working men and women in towns like McFarland, Casmalia, Delano and Fowler, Calif.; Yellow Creek, Ky.; High Lonesome, Tex., and Emelle, Ala. Here, in desperate circumstances, Americans have come to participate as citizens with a burgeoning voice that speaks directly to our future.