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When Smoke Ran Like Water

Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution

When Smoke Ran Like WaterBuy the Book: Amazon

Read an excerpt.

In When Smoke Ran Like Water, the world-renowned epidemiologist Devra Davis confronts the public triumphs and private failures of her lifelong battle against environmental pollution. By turns impassioned and analytic, she documents the shocking toll of a public-health disaster—300,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and Europe from the effects of pollution—and asks why we remain silent. She shows how environmental toxins contribute to a broad spectrum of human diseases, including breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and emphysema—all major killers—and in addition how these toxins affect the health and development of the heart and lungs, and even alter human reproductive capacity.But the battle against pollution is not just scientific. For Davis, it’s personal: pollution is what killed many in her family and forced the others, survivors of the 1948 smog emergency in Donora, Pennsylvania, to live out their lives with damaged health. She vividly describes that episode and also makes startling revelations about how the deaths from the London smog of 1952 were falsely attributed to influenza; how the oil companies and auto manufacturers fought for decades to keep lead in gasoline, while knowing it caused brain damage; behind-the-scenes accounts of the battle to recognize breast cancer as a major killer; and many other battles. When Smoke Ran Like Water makes a devastating case that our approaches to public health need to change.

About the Author

Dr. Davis’ bio.


Book review by Professor P. Aarne Vesilind for the Newsletter of Environmental Engineering and Professors December, 2003
P. Aarne Vesilind, R. L. Rooke Professor of Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Bucknell University, wrote a book review on When Smoke Ran Like Water for the Newsletter of Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors.

“The book is a series of carefully interwoven stories about pullution and health, the challenges of enviornmental epidemiology, and the forces arrayed against those who identify environmental hazards, weaving questions, approaches, solutions, and uncertainties throughout the stories.”
— Oncology Times, November 25, 2003

“When Smoke Ran Like Water, rooted in a dramatic childhood experience, is a clarion call for immediate policy reform….”
Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 2003

“When Smoke Ran Like Water is the best book on public health and environmental pollution of the last 30 years. Davis is a powerful voice calling from the wilderness.”
— America: The National Catholic Weekly, April, 2003

“Wake Up and Learn From Your Mistakes, You Idiots!”
— Whole Earth Magazine, Spring, 2003

“Her book — a finalist for a National Book Award — is as fascinating and engrossing as a well-written detective novel, yet as accurate and enlightening as the best scientific literature.”
— Chemical & Engineering News April, 2003

“…this exceptionally well-written book is excellent environmental literature…”
— Environmental Health Perspectives, January, 2003

Best Books 2002
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 27, 2002

The Truth About Smog (PDF)
— Newsweek December 9, 2002

An Interview with Devra Davis
— Sierra Club December 8, 2002

“This is a must read. When Smoke Ran Like Water ranks on my smallest shelf of books that I thrust on friends, colleagues, and strangers alike. Devra Davis mixes passion, personality, and pollution studies in a compelling narrative that takes the non-scientific reader through an introduction to the highlights and history of environmental health. It will leave you wanting to know more and to take action… Davis writes beautiful and pungent prose. And I don’t mean ‘for a scientist.'”
— Physicians for Social Responsibility, Winter, 2003

“Devra Davis reminds us that nobody knew from air pollution back in 1948. Residents of her industrial hometown, Donora, Pennsylvania, considered their grimy curtains and sunless days normal, even reassuring signs of progress. But that October, when Davis was two years old, they witnessed something infinitely more troubling: Noxious fumes from the local steel and zinc plants, trapped for nearly a week under a layer of cold air in the Monongahela Valley, blanketed the town so thickly people could barely see the sidewalk in front of them. The “death” smog killed twenty people and left thousands sick. ”
National Resources Defense Council, Fall, 2003

When Smoke Ran Like Water attacked: “Davis goes to great lengths to describe her more orthodox views on epidemiological methodology with textbook clarity, but when it comes to more controversial matters — precisely when we most need her to be clear and forceful — she glides quickly over her opponents’ objections, pausing only to describe them as flacks for polluting companies. So you will learn nothing here about whether high-dose animal experiments really are good predictors of human health effects, or whether there are minimum doses of pollution (as with most poisons) below which we need not fear health effects. On such questions, Davis in effect asks us to trust her intuitions, intuitions shaped by her own unusual experiences and strongly held beliefs.”
Reason Magazine, March 17, 2003

The Editors Recommend. “Although her prose relies heavily on statistics and historical accounts of pollution, Davis’s personal narrative ties the story together nicely.”
— Scientific American, March 17, 2003

— Northern Sky News, March 17, 2003

“With industry-friendly scientists now the dominant voice on the federal advisory committees that are charged with examining the links between environmental pollutants and human health, it would seem that Davis and like-minded advocates have a tough challenge ahead. But their work serves as a welcome beacon to those who wish to follow in their tracks.”
Audubon Magazine, March, 2003

“Her book is a series of related stories that are well-researched, well-documented and well-written. This narrative form enables a persuasive inductive method to support Davis’ conclusions….Davis is a remarkable stylist, mixing anecdotes and anecdotal evidence with science. Her dry wit, rather than dour doom-and-gloom ranting, serves well to present some sad truths.”
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 16, 2003

“Much evidence suggests environmental links to some of these illnesses. Take breast cancer, which hits Jewish women in disproportionate numbers. Fewer than one in 20 cases arise in women with genetic defects, says professor Devra Davis, a Council on the Environment and Jewish Life board member. That means most of these cancers are likely due to something in a person’s milieu. But the work of connecting the dots has lagged, says Davis, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution.”
— Washington Jewish Week, February 27, 2003

Dirty Business: Risk and Reason and When Smoke Ran Like Water (PDF)
— The Washington Post, January 19, 2003

Two anti-pollution books converge on 1948 killer fog in Donora, Pa. (PDF)
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 15, 2003

The Washington Post, January 12, 2003

National Resources Defense Council, Winter, 2003, December 29, 2002, December 22, 2002

Killer Air, Killer Book,
— The Globe and Mail, December 7, 2002

The Great Smog (PDF)
— History Today, December, 2002, December, 2002

Muckraker: A scientist dredges up the truth about pollution’s effect on our health (PDF)
— Time Out New York, November 28, 2002

Providence Journal, November 11, 2002

“When Smoke Ran Like Water takes the reader on a grim, yet illuminating tour of diverse communities ravaged by pollution.”
— Providence Journal, November 10, 2002

Community Pipeline, November 9, 2002

Manchester (VT) Journal, November 8, 2002

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 7, 2002

“Recently nominated for this year’s National Book Awards (to be announced Nov. 20), this frightening book by renowned epidemiologist Davis lays out the links between low levels of pollutants – such as workplace solvents, the burning of fossil fuel, smog and pesticides – and diseases such as cancer and asthma. Davis charges that instead of trying to ameliorate the problem, many corporations spend fortunes to cover it up.”
— Newark Star-Ledger, November 3, 2002

“This is an expose on how industrial polluters deceived the public, belittled scientists and academics, and pressured government agencies to stifle regulations. Davis acknowledges that today’s environmental regulations are a tribute to those who fought the polluters and demanded change, but the battle continues. Recommended for all environmental and public health collections.”
— Library Journal November 1, 2002

Washington Jewish Week, October 31, 2002

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 28, 2002

The Voice of the Hill, October 25, 2002 (go to page 12 of this PDF document)

“On Oct. 26, 1948, the small steel town of Donora, Pa., was blanketed by a thick, toxic smog. Within a week, some 20 people had died. Nothing was done to clean up the zinc mill responsible, however, just as little was done in 1952, when a “killer smog” in London caused at least 2,800 deaths in one week. Noted epidemiologist Devra Davis, a Donora native, documents such environmental disasters in this eloquent plea to curb pollution, despite resistance from powerful industries. She argues convincingly that “daily exposure to low levels of pollution can ruin the health of millions.” Though scientific and detailed, her writing rarely feels too technical, and often contains personal touches that give her subject urgency. (316 pp.)” By Amanda Paulson
— Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 2002

“A leading epimediologist casts her unsparing eye on the 300,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and Europe that she says are caused by pollution, and calls for basic changes in approaches to the public’s health.”
— Seattle Times, September 8, 2002

Academia Magazine, a publication of YBP Library Services, has selected When Smoke Ran Like Water to the YBP Core 1000 list, a list we believe identifies the 1000 essential titles for academic libraries.
— Academia Magazine online September, 2002

Report: Pollution Killing Thousands
— CBS News August 16, 2001

“In the tradition of Rachel Carson, who exposed the harm done by DDT 40 years ago, epidemiologist Devra Davis is a hero with a nose for trouble. Her book, When Smoke Ran Like Water, is a testament to 20 years on the trail of environmental hazards, from the incidence of testicular cancer in the “clean rooms” of computer manufacturers to the still unknown causes of the breast cancer epidemic, to everyday hazards of breathing city air…. The beauty of this book is its ability to describe the business of epidemiology while keeping the human stories of the victims of pollution at the forefront.”
— United Kingdom Reviews, New Scientist, December 9, 2002

“A complete, concise and detailed presentation – that should be force-fed to politicians and industrialists alike, this is a superb volume. Bravo Ms Davis!”
— Ealing & Acton Gazette/New London Independent/Westminster Independent, December 6 , 2002

“Attention turns to car fumes on anniversary of 1952 disaster… Devra Davis – in her book When Smoke Ran Like Water – blames Harold Macmillan, then minister for housing, for suppressing the truth about dirty coal.”
— The Guardian, November 30, 2002

“Davis is convinced that the great smog in reality killed 12,000 people during the winter of 1952-53.”
— New Scientist, November 30, 2002

“As a scientist, Devra has never been afraid to stick her neck out and talk about environmental pollution, a distinctly ‘unsexy’ topic that at best is ignored and at worst has drawn threats from companies wanting to cover up unsavoury facts.”
— The Glasgow Herald, November 27, 2002
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“…a sizzling and detailed account of what many of us have long suspected, by one of the foremost analysts in public health today. If you want to learn why it has been so difficult to learn more about the ways that the environment affects our health, you must read this book…a real page turner.”
— Phil Lee, M.D….Chancellor Emeritus University of California, San Francisco, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health, federal government

“Devra captures our imaginations and makes us see things differently”
— Andrew Weill, M.D., author of seven major best selling health titles.

“Vibrant…The book reads like a mystery – and Davis, an accomplished scientist and writer, will engage you at every turn…”
— Lester Breslow, Dean Emeritus, UCLA, School of Public Health

“…Rich in anecdotes and vivid illustrations of the impacts that human actions, especially industrialization and fossil fuel combustion, can have on humans, human settlements, and human ecology. Readers are carried along by these stories, told by a first rate thinker in public health today.”
— John M.Last, Professor Emeritus Epidemiology, University of Ottowa

“She is gifted, brilliant and beautiful. With its gripping portrayal of the people behind the numbers, this book grabs you by the heart and soul.”
— Elihu Richter, M.D., Chief of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Hadassah Medical Center, Hebrew University

“A really important work that should be read by everyone concerned about the future of this planet.”
— Honorable Judith Kaye, Chief Judge, New York State Appellate Court

“Following in the tradition of the great science writers, from Aristotle to Steven Jay Gould, Davis has produced a sizzling rendering….This is simply the best book on the environment since Silent Spring….I honestly could not put it down.”
— John Topping, President, Climate Institute

“Finally, a scientist who speaks to all of us and gives clear answers about what we know, what we need to find out, and what we can do now!”
— Hon. Barbara S. Boxer, U.S. Senator, California

“With prose that is haunting, humorous and riveting, Devra Davis provides a serious message that needs to be widely heard.”
— Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, President of Bullitt Foundation

“A tremendously exciting style…combining the right amounts of technical juice and soul.”
— Joby Warrick, Pulitzer Price nominated Washington Post science writer

“Lyrical and powerful, with enough cliffhangers to keep the pages turning….”
— Natalie Angier, Pulitzer Prize winning science writer