Last week, The Center for Public Integrity announced that it was joining with Columbia University and City University of New York to make public some 20,000 pages of benzene documents — the inaugural collection in Exposed: Decades of denial on poisons, an archive of previously secret oil and chemical industry memoranda, emails, letters, presentations and meeting minutes. Hundreds of thousands of additional documents on different chemicals will be added in 2015 and beyond. To find out more about Exposed, Corporations and Health Watch director Nicholas Freudenberg interviewed one of its founders, Gerald Markowitz, CUNY Distinguished Professor of History and Public Health.
CHW: What led you and your colleagues to create this new resource for scholars, journalists and activists?
GM: Over the past 20 to 25 years David Rosner (Ronald Lauterstein Professor of History at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health) and I have been using the private records of corporations that have been obtained through discovery procedures in legal cases. These include hundreds of thousands of documents from the chemical industry, the lead industry, the silica industry among others, which we have used in our books and articles. For many years we have worked with Merlin Chowkwanyun, currently a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who will be an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia next year. In addition to his extraordinary talents as a scholar, Chowkwanyun is knowledgeable about how to make masses of documents available and searchable for researchers. Together we realized that these documents could be used to tell multiple stories and thus they could be a tremendous resource for scholars, journalists, students and activists.
CHW: How do you think a resource like this can contribute to a better understanding of the impact of corporations on health?
GM: These are internal corporate documents that often hold information found nowhere else. This is an opportunity for people to understand not only the effects of corporate actions on health, but also the thinking within corporations about how and why they take the actions they do. It also provides us with the opportunity to examine secret studies that corporations have conducted on a variety of products and substances as well as their attempts to influence government activities and public perceptions of their products.
CHW: Why did you decide to partner with the Center on Public Integrity, an investigative journalism organization?
GM: It is crucial that information that is in these documents gets to as broad a public and scholarly community as possible. CPI has a rich and distinguished history of examining and analyzing a wide range of public health, occupational and environmental issues and has been very successful in getting its stories into the public arena.
CHW: How can students in public health, history and other disciplines use this resource?
GM: This resource is open to the public and we hope that it will provide the basis of many masters theses, PhD dissertations, and articles.
CHW: What future do you see for this database? Are you hoping that it will include documents from other industries?
GM: We are just at the beginning of developing this database. As time goes on we will be expanding and refining the search engine so that users will be able to make use of it in many creative and productive ways. In addition, although right now we only have the benzene documents on line, in the coming months we will be adding a wide range of other industry documents, including those of the chemical industry, the asbestos industry, the silica industry and the lead industry among others.
See the following CPI reports based on documents in Exposed:
Benzene and worker cancers: ‘An American tragedy’
Internal documents reveal industry ‘pattern of behavior’ on toxic chemicals
New battlefront for petrochemical industry: benzene and childhood leukemia