Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner
Building a Toxic Environment
Historical Controversies over the
Past and Future of Public Health
On September 5, 2003, the New York Times business section announced a startling new problem. Silicosis, an occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica sand and considered in the 1940s and 1950s a "disease of the past," was now rivaling asbestosis as the single most important source of toxic tort litigation in the United States. The Times noted that the disease had been a well-documented threat for at least seventy years and the courts were confronting an interesting legal issue (Glater 2003). Liability suits were clearly going to sky-rocket, but since workers' compensation protected employers from liability suits due to exposures on the job, the diseased workers were suing the corporations who manufactured and sold the silica sand and the masks and equipment meant to protect the lungs of the workers.
The Times article illustrates what a crucial role history is playing in these lawsuits. Over the course of the past thirty years we have seen a growing list of substances, circumstances, and events in which the historical record and its interpretation has emerged as an important element. One need only recall the public debates over responsibility for damages caused by silicone implants, tobacco, radiation, and a wide range of environmental disasters in Love Canal, New York, and Times Beach, Missouri, among others, in which historical analysis played an important part in ascribing responsibility for harm. Press attention to environmental hazards has elevated what were once limited liability issues into national concerns.
At the core of the legal and policy debates are questions regarding the honesty and integrity of individual corporations and whole industries that are suspected of having knowingly poisoned workers, consumers, and communities