Air pollution: a pervasive problem that's often invisible

The Toxic Cloud: The Poisoning of America's Air, by Michael H. Brown. New York: Harper & Row. 287 pp. plus index. $18.95. The graphic images in this book are not pretty; at times, they can seem downright scary. They tell of the sickness and danger that some scientists believe come from invisible pollutants in the air.

Michael H. Brown was the reporter for the Niagara Gazette who broke the Love Canal story in 1978. His book ``Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals'' grew out of that event. Now he's trying to alert us to atmospheric pollution.

Clearly Brown feels deeply about his subject. His interviews with citizens fighting polluters, often at great cost to themselves, are moving. But sometimes the human drama is so emphasized that the facts are overshadowed. One longs for a less adversarial approach.

Nevertheless, Brown makes some important points. He notes that the victims of industrial toxins are very often the poor who can't afford housing in better areas or who can't move away when industry moves nearby. His description of the medical effects of exposure to toxins - especially among children - is explicit and heart-rending.

Although the book's scope is nationwide, it focuses on heavily polluted areas in Michigan, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, and New Jersey. A detailed explanation of wind currents tells how pollutants are carried far beyond their point of origin, mixing with other airborne chemicals en route. Invisible, they land in areas that outwardly appear pristine.

Brown interviewed executives in polluting industries as well as government officials assigned to monitor conditions. He notes that certain companies have made serious efforts to control or decrease dangerous industrial byproducts, but many have not. In fact, some companies are not above trickery to avoid being caught.

One method is to tell the government inspector who telephones to find out if a reported toxic cloud is from the plant that it must be from one a short distance away. By the time the inspector calls there, the actual polluter will have managed to clean up the site or stop the emission.

Another problem is that since these companies provide many jobs, people are sometimes reluctant to go against a major employer. Campaign contributions and other benefits from companies may keep public officials from being diligent about enforcing antipollution statutes.

But industry is not the only source of pollutants. Although some progress has been made in designing ``cleaner'' wood stoves, about 15 percent of the very fine particulates in US air are, according to one report, the result of the roughly 12 million wood stoves nationwide.

Even the air of homes without wood stoves may contain toxic chemicals. Brown notes, ``When tested by government scientists, one house had 350 detectable chemicals in the air. The average home contains 45 aerosol cans.'' Metal soap pads, liquid detergents, furniture wax, and cosmetics are all potential sources of hazardous chemicals such as benzene or formaldehyde.

Brown points out that these chemicals are byproducts of the appetite for plastics, pesticides, and other conveniences of modern life. He says, ``In the end, however, the solution must be pronounced at a philosophical level.... Our laziness and selfishness, our uncaring, threaten to unravel us all.''

The price of that unraveling, as depicted in this book, could be a hefty one.

Rosalie E. Dunbar reviews books on energy and the environment for the Monitor.

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