Public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz have been documenting the history of toxic agents since the 1980s. During their career, they’ve investigated such disturbing topics as lead poisoning in children, asbestos, and PCBs.
Throughout the years, they have accessed and organized millions upon millions of documents, and many of these have been used to support lawsuits against chemical companies. However, this treasure trove of papers became quite difficult for them to sort through as the documents piled up.
In the early 2000s, they finally decided to place the entire collection online for public view. However, the project took some time to get off the ground. With the help of Merlin Chowkwanyun, they placed the papers in a searchable format to provide easy access to anyone who wanted to read them, from students and scholars to journalists and consumers.
You can find the site at ToxicDocs.org. It is a joint presentation from the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
The collection includes internal documents from corporations and trade associations. You’ll find secret internal memos, slides, unpublished scientific studies, reports from expert witnesses, emails and other documents.
On the main page, you’ll get a taste of what you can find in the database. For example, there are notes from a Monsanto meeting that took place in 1969 to figure out how to deal with their toxic PCBs. The documents show that one of their solutions was to “sell the hell out of them.”
They’ve also dug up a historical newsreel that was produced in the 1950s to promote Monsanto’s chemical and plastic products.
You don’t need to sign up for an account to use the site, although doing so will allow you to take advantage of extra features like creating a list of favorites. Creating an account is simply a matter of providing an email address and password.
The site has a very simple interface that was designed with speed in mind, but they’ve also provided a five-minute guide to finding the information that you need quickly. You can type anything you want into the site’s search bar to carry out a basic text search, but the sheer volume of documents means that some topics will require further refinement. For example, in their Advanced Search feature, you can narrow down your results by a range of years, the toxic substance or firm in question, or a particular special selection.
Thumbnails are provided to give you a quick idea of what type of document you are about to pull up, and you can click on individual pages to view bigger versions of them. They’ve also made it easy for people to share links to the documents with others so you can spread the word about corporate dishonesty and dangerous products. Those who sign up for an account can also bookmark documents.
A similar database, The Poison Papers, was also recently launched, although it is smaller in scope and concentrates only on the pesticide and chemical industries. It is now becoming quite clear that consumers are tired of being lied to, and sites like these are finally helping people open their eyes up to all of the deceit that goes on in the name of profit.
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