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The “Silent Spring” for American Workers, a Labor Safety Alarm Call

By Jim Morris

Cover art: Louis Roe. Author photo: Maggie Morris.
Cover art: Louis Roe. Author photo: Maggie Morris.

Not long after I became a journalist in 1978—as I was working at a newspaper in Galveston, Texas—I felt the rumblings of what would become a career-long obsession: Explaining the ghastly effects of toxic chemicals on humans—in particular, blue-collar workers. These were the people, mostly men, who did the dirty, dangerous work most of us avoid, in places like Texas City, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana. I detected little sympathy for them when they were burned, gassed, maimed, or soaked with chemicals in the course of their work. This, after all, was what they’d signed up for, right?

As the years passed, I wrote about sandblasters who were slowly suffocating from the lung disease silicosis; auto mechanics with asbestos-induced mesothelioma; and chemical workers whose brains and livers had been wrecked by substances with unpronounceable names. I saw countless documents showing that corporations and their trade associations knew about these toxic hazards; they simply didn’t bother to tell the workers.

In 2013, I made my first trip to Niagara Falls, New York, a crumbling former industrial center, to meet several workers and retirees from the Goodyear chemical plant. At that time, 58 current and former employees of the plant had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, a much higher number than would be expected in the general population. The source of the outbreak was no mystery: All the victims had been exposed to a potent bladder carcinogen called ortho-toluidine, used to make an antioxidant for tires.

As this is being written, in September 2023, the official number of bladder-cancer cases from Goodyear stands at 78. The real number could be higher; retirees aren’t always easy to track. The cancer cluster in Niagara Falls is one of the biggest and best documented in post-war America. It was preventable, but Goodyear and its primary chemical supplier, DuPont, were inexcusably slow to act.

The tragedy isn’t limited to Niagara Falls or the barbaric days before the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970. Cancer and other work-related illnesses still take as many as 120,000 lives annually in this country—more than influenza, pneumonia, and suicide combined in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Thousands of chemicals made and used in the United States haven’t been properly tested for safety—or tested at all. As union membership has declined, workers’ ability to protect themselves against toxic exposures has diminished.

What happens in our workplaces, where exposures tend to be highest, often presages what happens in our society as a whole. My hope is that The Cancer Factory will spark a long-overdue conversation about the hazards that threaten the men and women who make our essential products, build our highways and office towers, and generally keep the US economy running.


About the Author 

Jim Morris is managing editor for environment and workers’ rights at the Center for Public Integrity. A journalist since 1978, Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk Award, the Sidney Hillman Award, 3 National Association of Science Writers Awards, and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards. Morris’s 2014 series “Big Oil, Bad Air,” a collaboration with Inside Climate News and The Weather Channel garnered 10 national awards for its revelations about toxic air emissions from hydraulic fracturing. He helped edit the Center’s first Pulitzer Prize–winning project, “Breathless and Burdened,” a 2013 investigation into the deeply flawed federal black-lung benefits system for coal miners. Follow him on Twitter @JimGMorris.