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Public Health in the National Arena

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

ASARCO, like many major corporations, has exerted its power and presence to mold national policy, especially in the arena of public health science and policy. Early signs that industry intended to set the terms of engagement shape the long story of public health and environmental policy. The book Smelter Smoke profiles ASARCO’s early 20th century influence in shaping cross-national industrial policy and litigation and its imprint on science; long before the advent of environmentalism as we know it today, the captains of industry had determined much of how we think about risk, exposure, public health and acceptable remedy. Over the past century, ASARCO, shoulder to shoulder with other industry titans, has worked to mold our basic knowledge, as well as tilt the onus of legal responsibility away from the responsible parties.

Acclaimed epidemiologist Devra Davis has helped reveal the constrictions on public health science over the past century. In her book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, she described how Dr. Mary Amdur, a scientist on contract with ASARCO in the 1950s, endured strong-arm tactics when she publicly revealed the hazards of smelter emissions and the impact on those who lived in industrial mill towns. In The Secret History of the War on Cancer, Dr. Davis recounts a visit to El Paso in 2003. At the time she believed the long history of public endangerment was past.

"I learned that some environmental solutions, unlike love, are not forever. El Paso’s problems are not nearly as well resolved as I have believed … In March 2005 the inspector general for the US State Department reviewed records on the health of workers at the U.S.-Mexican border and concluded that many of them were sick and unable to get independent medical care in this region …

"Pollutants do not need passports. The residents of El Paso and Juarez know this, because they are joined by more than a century’s worth of leaden soils and plumes that have freely crossed back and forth over the US-Mexican border and left many zones uninhabitable. (Davis, 2007, p. 347)

ASARCO’s impacts on public health science and policy have been felt at both the grassroots and national levels. The company has joined other industrial leaders in pushing for “audit privilege,” which allows a wide margin of self-policing and lack of transparency in environmental policy. ASARCO had very good representation during the George W. Bush years, with James Connaughton, one of its lead attorneys, serving as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. One highlight of the Bush anti public health regime was its effort to pack the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning. Highly regarded public health scientists were pushed aside in favor of Dr. Joyce Tsuji, an employee of the science firm Exponent, which had worked closely with ASARCO to rewrite the diagnosis on lead and children. Dr. Tsuji later withdrew her name. U.S. Representative Ed Markey exposed the corporate science skew in his 2002 report, “Turning Lead into Gold: How the Bush Administration is Poisoning the Lead Advisory Committee at the CDC.”

And what of the residents near old ASARCO sites around the U.S.? What do they know, feel, believe, fear and want? How do they think about their relation with a company that might have served as the key economic engine in their area, while using up people’s health and the environment as a matter of business?

The contortions and distortions of science-by-industry have sorely weakened our capacity to build scientific knowledge, assure just remedy and cultivate public trust in environmental policy. Through our project we have seen glimmers of strong determination in communities which are searching for clarity and answers to the question: “What is happening to us?” It is tragic and frustrating that answers to this seemingly simple question are not easy to come by. While each community has a different story, all are experiencing the trickledown of corporatized science and policy. While citizen researchers in Ruston, Hayden and El Paso are actively seeking information and demanding public attention, many communities have never been informed that their health and future may be impacted by long-term extractive/industrial operations and the corporate reorganization of a rebounding company. We learned that in a rural Tennessee mining region, site of four ASARCO zinc mines listed in the 2005 bankruptcy settlement, neighbors wondered about the mine tailings that are piled in small hillocks in the backcountry; they have very little information with which to evaluate the significance of those droppings left by ASARCO. We read that in Idaho, mining/smelting towns are whiplashed between their pressing health concerns and their sense of exhaustion and frustration over questionable remedies. One day residents seem fed up with the feds, as profiled in an AP news story, “Superfund cleanup in Idaho draws local opposition” (Geranios, 8/13/10), while a few weeks later, headlines remind residents of lingering worries: “Victims of north Idaho lead pollution still suffer physical, emotional ills” (Geranios, 9/5/2010). Regional lawmakers are tired of the Superfund “stigma” and want the EPA to pack up and leave, despite the 300 mine sites that leach metals into the Coeur d’Alene watershed (Kramer, “Idaho lawmakers blast EPA proposal”).

In Colorado fear of the Superfund stigma hasn’t quelled public concern, instead, citizens of Globeville pushed for a class action lawsuit. They won the suit in the 1980s and have continued to actively press for solutions to the contamination in their community. Even though people talk about the exhaustion they feel from their prolonged involvement in the struggle, the harm done and the ongoing need for a just solution can still stir the community (Marcus, “Contempt over contamination: Globeville neighborhood speaks up over blighted abandoned plant”).

East Helena, Montana was the site of one of the oldest ASARCO smelters; it is also where the company illegally incinerated Defense Department-generated hazardous waste. There you can hear a mix of grave concern and determination.

"Undoubtedly, there will be lingering emotions with the closure, demolition and outright erasure of ASARCO’s fingerprints here. One can’t remove the significant impact ASARCO had on the people of this region and the entire town of East Helena. It’s time to turn the page and, thankfully, it appears the crew whose responsibility it is to ensure a healthy environment in the wake of ASARCO’s degradation are committed to the integrity of the cleanup work. Generations of East Helenans devoted their lives to ASARCO, and in return, they and their descendants deserve the very best. (“New era in cleanup commendable”)

Much of Eastern Omaha, Nebraska, is designated a federal Superfund site, with ASARCO identified as a key polluter, particularly because lead contamination from the plant put children’s health at risk. The soil at nearly 6000 properties has been replaced, as the city contends with a massive cleanup operation. ASARCO agreed to pay $200 million as part of a settlement, but refused to admit culpability. The company is now pushing a lawsuit against EPA. ASARCO hopes to demonstrate that EPA inappropriately handled files and memos. If the company wins, they will be able to collect millions of dollars from other businesses accused of pollution in Omaha.

In the 90-100 communities that reportedly have been impacted by ASARCO, there are wide ranges of experiences and a labyrinth of stories, strategies and solutions. It’s not clear that most of these communities know much about each other, connect and trade resources and ideas, or see that their destinies and their health might be linked. But this is starting to change, as we see community advocates in El Paso begin to network with national organizations like the Coalition for Health, Environment and Justice and build connections with people in Corpus Christi, Texas who have similar stories to tell about the corporate abuse of health and environment.

What does all this mean for the public’s health and for public health practice? What does it mean for practitioners of public health on the ground, in communities? There are, of course, the notable public health scientists who need and deserve our support, from Dr. Landrigan, who first tracked the impacts of lead on children in El Paso, to Dr. Davis who insists that public health history and contemporary practice involve an honest appraisal of industry’s strong hand. There are also the courageous local practitioners like Joe Piñon in El Paso, a lone and persistent voice for half a century. And there are today’s practitioners in city and county health departments who stay focused on long-term efforts to minimize the hazards and help piece together the puzzle of persistent pollution.

Equally important are community members on the ground who take on the mantle of public-health-advocates, workers’ health defenders or environmental justice activists. They have started to see what is only barely acknowledged, that as workers and residents in and around industrial operations, they bear risks that need to be exposed, and deserve remedies they should have a role in designing. Labor/neighbor collaborative organizing projects, community-based research, popular education, street science and risk mapping are some of the methods communities are using to assert and develop their capacity to deal with both the systemic shocks and the slow erosion that endangers our health. The ASARCO story (along with the stories of corporations like BP, Exxon, and Union Carbide, among others) is vitally important because it teaches us how communities, workers and neighbors — in connection with public health practitioners — can create knowledge that communities desperately need, and through their work, lay the foundation for a more vigilant dedication to public health.

For a more detailed profile of how different communities have fared with Superfund, including Arizona, Texas and Washington, and to read about the impact of ASARCO’s bankruptcy, see the Center for Health, Environment and Justice 2009 report on the status of Superfund.

Additional information about ASARCO’s bankruptcy can be found at this website on the bankruptcy page.


“Administration Gives Panel on Childhood Lead Poisoning an Industry Tilt,” OMB Watch, October 15, 2002.

Byron, Eve. “Extent of selenium plume still unknown,” Independent Record (Helena MT), February 25, 2010

Calkins, Laurel. “Grupo Mexico Claims EPA Lied to Judge, Hid Evidence in Lead Pollution Case,” Dec 17, 2010.

“Contaminated Globeville May Get Second Chance: Multi-Jurisdictional Agreement Moving Forward,” 7-News, Denver, March 23, 2011

Davis, Devra. When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, Cambridge: Basic Books, 2002.

Davis, Devra. The Secret History of the War on Cancer, NY: Basic Books, 2007.

Geranios, Nicholas. “Superfund cleanup in Idaho draws local opposition.” AP release, August 13, 2010.

Geranios, Nicholas. “Victims of north Idaho lead pollution still suffer physical, emotional ills,” Missoulian, September 3, 2010.

Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development, January 2001.’s-way.html (documents, training modules, community resources on lead and other toxicants impacting children’s health)

Hazmaps. Regional information, by toxic contaminant. Superfund designations.

“Lead Astray: Bush Administration stymies added protection,” Environmental Working Group.

Marcus, Peter. “Contempt over contamination: Globeville neighborhood speaks up over blighted abandoned plant,” The Denver Daily News, March 28, 2011

“New Era in Cleanup Commendable,” Independent Record (Helena MT), November 23, 2010 Superfund: In the Eye of the Storm, Center for Health, Environmental Justice, March 2009. Our project contributed the sections on Corporate Bankruptcy (pgs. 21-22), profile of Arizona (pgs. 32-33) and Washington (pgs. 78-79, prepared by Virginia Carpio).

On July 10, 2009 Lois Gibbs, CHEJ founder and director, provided testimony to Congress, noting the Asarco story. “Congressional Briefing Looks at Benefit of Refinancing Superfund.”

The Toll of Superfund Neglect: Toxic Waste Dumps and Communities at Risk, Rena Steinzor & Margaret Clune. A joint project of the Center for American Progress and the Center for Progressive Reform. June 15, 2006. An important analysis of the financial and public health deficits of the current Superfund situation.

ToxFacts. Basic information, Frequently Asked Questions. Lead, arsenic, other metals.

ToxTown. Some basic public orientation to toxics, local sources, contaminants, government resources and remedies.

“Toxic Waste and Superfund: Cleaning Up Severe Environmental Hazards.” A collection of reports and statements.

Wirth, J. Smelter Smoke in North America: The Politics of Transborder Pollution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000.


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