Disasters Class: Nader, Carson, Bhopal, and the Dalkon Shield
As discussed in class, this phase of the course asks you to start to think critically about multiple historical events in relation to each other. For this blog comment, think about the “disasters” we’ve studied since the midterm–namely the ones we discussed through Nader’s and Carson’s writings, the responses to Bhopal, and the article on the Dalkon Shield.
Write a 600-800 word essay that identifies one similarity shared by all of these disasters, and one difference that emerges. The difference you identify may separate out one disaster from the rest, or it may help you group the disasters into 2 or 3 groups that have salient congruences within each group, and salient differences between the groups. As usual, go for the points of similarity and difference that are less obvious, and therefore more revealing, as you construct your argument. What new insights do your comparisons reveal? Discuss them and how you came to them. Post your essay in a comment by November 3, at 10pm.
Not all disasters are a single event. Some disasters occur over time. It may not even be noticed until it can be seen through the clarity of time passed. Sometimes it is beyond understanding in the moment, but can be seen clearly once reflected upon. It is a total history that when summed up, defines a disaster.
Ralph Nader did not look at one car crash and decide to write a book about vehicle safety. He saw crash after crash, hospitalizations, deaths, and clouds of smog over cities to create a book that would change vehicle safety. It took more than one ecosystem to die off for Rachel Carson to see the damaging effects of DDT. She needed to see fish dying and to hear a silent spring without the voices of birds to build a story to change the way DDT is used. Dalkon Shield was the contraceptive knight in shining armor for women in the 1970s, but no one could see the disaster until 18 women died and 15 years later women avoided IUDs like the plague. The Union Carbide incident was one of the worst industrial disasters the world has ever seen but it was not just the one day in 1984 that brands it. It was the continuing years after the disaster that the city was affected by the symptoms of the mass poisoning. These disasters are not defined by a single moment in time, but instead are defined by the ripple of disasters caused by the continuing affects over time.
While a disaster can be long term, the solution may not be. A band aid can cover a wound but it may take stitches to heal it. Quick fixes are great in the moment but when time passes their flaws are exposed. DDT was an insecticide taken off the market as a direct effect of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” But the fix was only a band aid. DDT is banned in many places all over the world, but remains one of the most economically viable ways to combat malaria. There are many whose aim would be to ban DDT all over the world. But while the ban saves environments wealthier countries, it would destroy lives in malaria ridden areas. While the world wants to put a band aid over DDT, it ignores that the use of DDT saved close to 800,000 per year in India. The controversy of DDT is too complicated to solve with a quick fix, like it has been. It is a disaster still waiting for a long term solution much like the suffering still happening in Bhopal, India.
The government of Bhopal was given $470 million dollars to aid in the suffering of the community after the chemical disaster in 1984. They used it to build clinics and help the immediate needs of the people. While the government did what they could in the moment, the area still suffers from birth defects and susceptibility to cancer. A long term fix such as evacuating the area or filtering the drinking water could have prevented what is now known as Bhopal’s “second” disaster. The government’s solution barely touched the surface of a much deeper problem.
The vehicle safety disaster exposed by Ralph Nader did not suffer this kind of surface solution. Nader’s book was instead a catalyst for change. The government stepped in with the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and created a long term solution. Now, automotive companies broadcast safety ratings and show safety tests of cars colliding, with pride. The government intervention and solution has had lasting effects, very similar to the disaster of IUD’s. The regulation through the FDA of what once was deemed an unsafe technology has led to what now is a global contraceptive solution. It is now seen as a solution to birth control in poor countries and can be sold for pennies. It has come a long way since its demise 40 years ago, but with the FDA’s strict solution of regulation, IUDs have come back stronger than ever. Stiches can heal a cut better than band aids. A disaster can reach deeper than just the surface, and the solution heal even the deepest of wounds.
The following disasters studied span decades, industries, and continents. But these events all do share a common causal nexus of corporate greed and permissive government regulation. The resounding message in all of these events is that the public must ultimately take it upon itself to promote government regulation and prevent corporate abuse.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic, Silent Spring, brought attention to the dangers of pesticides. At the time, there was no regulation of DDT and other chemicals used in the agricultural industry. Carson argued that uncontrolled pesticide use was killing animals and humans, causing damage to the planet. Prior to Silent Spring’s publication, chemical companies had no economic incentive to intervene and there were no government regulations on agricultural chemical usages. The event demonstrates how the industrial sector motivated only by the bottom line and lax governmental regulations can result in environmental disaster.
In his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader singled out the Chevy Corvair, and its dangerous swing-axle suspension as a prime example of the car industry saving money at the expense of safety. Nader argued that engineers had the technology to introduce the features that would exponentially improve car safety, but manufacturers chose to save money instead. Car companies had no economic motivation to implement better safety measures. Permissive government regulations allowed this cost-cutting, and led to unnecessary automotive casualties.
The Dalkon Shield was a contraceptive device introduced in 1970 that caused severe illness, reproductive complications, and even death in women who used it. The major design flaw, the use of a multifilament string, allowed the spread of bacteria that caused serious infections. While Dalkon’s testing showed that wicking of the string could cause bacteria to enter the uterus and cause pelvic infection, they chose profits over safety and pushed the product to market. There were no FDA regulations on medical devices, a major governmental failing contributing to disaster.
The Bhopal Disaster took place at a plant run by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), an Indian subsidiary of the US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). In December 1984, methyl isocyanate gas leaked from one of UCIL’s plants killing thousands and leaving several thousand others with permanent disabilities. The US government and UCC didn’t hold the UCIL plant to a high standard of safety. Without substantial governmental pressure, there was no corporate motivation to raise standards.
While all of these ‘disasters’ share a common theme of corporate greed and government apathy, what differentiates them are the varying public responses they garnered.
Silent Spring and Unsafe at Any Speed were used as tools to stir up public debate and discontent. Many corporations feared that the strong public response would force the government to better regulate these industries, which would in turn decrease their profits. Companies went so far as to blackmail and harass both Nader and Carlson. Despite corporate abuse, the public outcry for change yielded revolutionary policies in the areas of environmental and automotive safety. When public perception played a hand, the government had no choice but to act.
The Dalkon Corporation intentionally put out a product that it knew was dangerous. At the time, the FDA screened drugs very carefully but had a much lower regulatory standard for medical devices like the Dalkon Shield. After many women fell ill, the government created new legislation to protect consumers. The 1976 Medical Device Amendments Act required testing and FDA approval of medical devices before reaching market. The serious complications caused by the Dalkon Shield created a large public outcry that led to swift government action.
Unlike the other disasters, those affected by the Bhopal tragedy were located in India. After the incident the UCC and UCIL reached a settlement with the Indian government in 1989 for the amount of $470 million. The Union Carbide Company (UCC) denied allegations of being at fault of the incident, arguing that the disaster was due to sabotage by a worker. UCC also insisted that it did everything it could to help remedy the situation for the people of Bhopal. UCC’s deft handling of the story in the US and control of public perception allowed UCC to escape the incident relatively unscathed.
Synthesizing the above incidents, it becomes clear that the government is the ultimate protector of public well-being, as corporations fueled by greed and a lower bottom line cannot be counted on to self-regulate. The different outcomes in these cases are a telling sign that the government will only regulate when there is substantial political pressure to do so. There is a valuable silver lining in all of these cases however: the voice of the public, if loud enough, can penetrate even the thickest walls of the government-industrial complex, and champion change for the better.
Following the end of World War Two, the planet was jettisoned into a new age of technological advancement. The impossible had already been accomplished in the form of the planes, submarines, humans in space, and the atomic bomb. Scientific knowledge was expanding at a rate never seen before, and the consequences of these new technologies could never be anticipated. The widespread use of these new technologies, including DDT, IUD’s, modern automobiles, and chemical manufacturing, caused incredible damage to human life and our environment as a result of inadequate considerations of both scale and the effects of prolonged use. As corporations and the scientific community pressed onward, the world was left with a question: how fast can industry move and remain safe?
Clearly it would be impossible for government entities to control the growth of developing technologies, but when left to their own devices these advancements have lasting impact on the safety of citizens and their environment. The similarities between each of these technological improvements can be enlightening, while their differences allude to greater consequences for society.
Carson’s writings in Silent Springs told a tale of the unintended consequences of overusing a beneficial chemical. While there are no arguments to the efficacy of DDT, the use has been halted and outright banned in some countries because of the tendency for overuse that plagued countries which dispersed the pesticide over large areas of land. This resulted in the death of untold numbers of fish and other non-harmful species in the sprayed areas, as well as health problems for humans living in the area, but it was not the use of DDT itself that was the issue. Rather, a lack of knowledge regarding safe quantities and application procedure was at fault, but small tests could never reveal the eventual results of widespread use.
In lab settings, control is of utmost importance, and when a product is to be tested on humans, everything from the experiment to the person is meticulously selected. IUD’s such as the Dalkon Shield fell victim to this testing procedure, as it eventually became apparent that prolonged use by a person who had come in contact with Chlamydia began to have serious side effects. Without entrance in to the population as a whole, these issues would not have been found. Problems arising from public use are notoriously hard to catch: once the consequences present themselves, it is too late to prevent complications from arising.
Automobiles are a paragon of the issue of scale: every car in an area increases the risk for every other, issues tend to take years to develop, and the pollution they cause builds up as their numbers increase. Just as with the spraying of DDT and public use of IUDs, the larger, societal issues only develop with ubiquity. Governmental bodies cannot keep up with and industry that races ahead in constant competition. Even as issues become apparent to manufacturers, new models are created, and the issues with the old versions are hidden from the public until it is too late. However, older cars stay active on the roads for years, leading to break failure and the death of many motorists. Even with advanced testing from groups such as the Cars Consumer Union, these “latent” problems are never exposed until much later in the car’s life.
It is incorrect to assert that the issues with these cars all fall under the consequences of scale, however. In many cases, defects were known and well-documented by manufacturers. The cost of recalls and systematic production changes caused automobile manufacturers to ignore problems that could cost lives, or downplay live-threatening complications to owners. While many problems may be the results of the unforeseeable scale of car use in the middle of the twentieth century, these manufacturers and the economic system that forced them to conceal issues for progress.
The Bhopal incident had echoes of a broader problem of economics as well. The Union Carbide plant was built because of an overestimation of demand in India. The company found few sales and little reason to stay in the area, and upon moving out they abandoned dangerous chemicals. The leak that followed was a catastrophic chemical disaster for the area, which still influences deaths to this day. Unlike the previously discussed disasters, the Bhopal contamination was the result of the direct opposite of the unanticipated ubiquity of other technologies. However, it shares a deeper cause with automobile malfunctions, as the economics of chemical removal and responsible practices caused Union Carbide to abandon, rather than deal with, their failed plant.
The general advancement of society in the middle of the twentieth century caused new products to reach greater usage than could ever be anticipated. DDT, IUD and automobile manufacturers all underestimated the volume and length of time that people would put them to use, while the same system that caused the ubiquity of these products incentivized others to compete ruthlessly. Regulation and safety procedures could not keep up with the expanding technologies, leading to death and destruction of innocents.