The historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner took notice when, in 2004, a colleague wrote a 41-page report lambasting their work. The two New York professors (Markowitz at the City University of New York and Rosner at Columbia University) had spent decades working together at the intersection of history and public health, and much of their research focused on the consequences of corporate wrongdoing, so attacks weren’t uncommon — or even surprising.
This one, though, was particularly scathing.
Philip Scranton, a historian at Rutgers University, had taken aim at their book “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution” — and at Markowitz in particular. Scranton accused him of everything from “overgeneralization and failure to corroborate” to “selectively appropriat[ing] information,” among a list of other alleged misdeeds.
Rosner and Markowitz’s peers quickly came to their defense, calling Scranton a “hired gun” for the chemical industry. (Scranton had in fact been hired by a group of companies to review two chapters in the book, along with a report Markowitz had prepared for a court case involving job-related chemical exposure.) But Rosner and Markowitz knew there would be more rounds to the stressful, time consuming, and seemingly never-ending fight.
“We didn’t know how to respond,” said Rosner.
One of Rosner’s undergraduate students, Merlin Chowkwanyun, gave them the answer. Why not, he asked, just post all of their source documents — secret company memos, the minutes of internal meetings, industry letters, and more — online and let people decide for themselves? Rosner and Markowitz agreed. Together with Chowkwanyun, they started by creating a website and uploading the maligned chapters of “Deceit and Denial,” with each footnote linked to the original supporting documents in their entirety.
“It was an incredibly liberating moment,” Rosner recalls, adding that Chowkwanyun had “taught two old guys the possibilities of what can be done with the web.”
Since then, Chowkwanyun has expanded that early effort into what is now called ToxicDocs.org, a searchable public archive of the many documents that Rosner and Markowitz have gathered in their research over the years, as well as an ever-expanding host of others. The site officially launched last Friday with an initial 20 million pages of material focused on six toxic substances: asbestos, benzene, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), polyvinyl chloride, and silica, and millions more pages are coming. “There is no other toxic substances database like this,” said Chowkwanyun, who now teaches at Columbia.