CONTROVERSY IS sure to follow the report two weeks ago that drinking water throughout the country is contaminated with traces of hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical made famous by Erin Brockovich. Questions will be raised about the accuracy of the measurements, and even more about whether small amounts are dangerous. These are questions that have to be taken seriously—it’s not easy to measure very low concentrations of this material, and the toxicity of industrial chemicals is a perennial subject of contention.
But things are not always what they seem in these debates. The appearance of scientific uncertainty can be used to ward off regulation of toxic substances, so money and influence are applied to create artificial disagreement. There is by now a long history of such fabrications—as one tobacco executive famously declared, “Doubt is our product.”
On the chromium issue, environmentalists point to a 1997 Chinese study that minimized the toxicity of that chemical. After evidence emerged that consultants working for American corporations had influenced its findings, the paper was retracted by the journal where it had been published. But that was only one example of the slanting of chromium science. The story goes much farther back—and it takes an astonishing twist that leads behind the curtains of history’s center stage.
News of a connection between chromium and cancer first emerged in the 1930s. Mutual Chemical Company, the largest American producer of the metal, was concerned, but its Baltimore plant manager counseled the avoidance of controversy. Lung cancer among employees, he advised confidentially in 1938, occurred at “many times the incidence in the general public.”
Little was done about the problem during the Second World War—chromium was an essential war material. But with peace came compensation claims from workers afflicted by lung cancer. The company lawyer turned to Dr. Anthony Lanza, an industrial disease specialist who was busy at the time concealing the cancer dangers of asbestos. For the chromium industry, an asbestos-style cover-up was not an option; too much had already been published. Lanza recommended a company-sponsored study, with the results to be made public. Dr. Willard Machle, who had worked for many years at an industry-sponsored industrial health center, was brought in to lead the research.
Machle discovered, of course, what the company already knew. He reported in August 1948 that chromium workers had a rate of lung cancer twenty-five times higher than the general public. By then, Mutual was building a new, much cleaner plant, but the chromium manufacturers still sought to keep the advance of scientific knowledge under control. They lobbied the Public Health Service to limit the scope of one study, and used threats of cuts in appropriations to shut down the research of another scientist at the National Cancer Institute.
By now Machle was out of the chromium picture, but his career then took a most surprising turn. Four months after publication of his consulting report, he was hired as Assistant Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He headed up a new Office of Scientific Intelligence, whose job it was to figure out how quickly the Soviet Union would build an atomic bomb.
Machle is described by an official history as having a “distinct flair for intrigue and behind-the-scenes activity,” a trait that must have been distinct indeed to make him stand out at the CIA. His tenure was a stormy one. The Soviets soon exploded a bomb, in advance of predictions by several years, but he succeeded in deflecting blame for the error. He battled with military intelligence, winning for the CIA the job of spying on the invention of new weapons systems.
Turf battles abounded within his own agency too. Frustrated with a mission limited to the analysis of information collected by others, he sought to take control of the undercover agents who gathered scientific secrets. For this purpose he undertook extensive travels in Europe, details of which have been deleted from the declassified CIA histories. We are told, however, that he organized sub rosa attempts to uncover secrets that the agency’s spies were unwilling to tell the analysts. These maneuvers were soon detected and, accused of spying on another part of his own organization, Machle was summarily fired in February 1950.
The CIA has often been accused of straying from an original mission of impartially judging the facts, and instead telling its political masters what they want to hear. But Machle’s sudden switch from chromium to atomic espionage makes one wonder about that original mission. Why was an industrial medicine man put in charge of nuclear espionage? Why was this crucial fact-finding job assigned to a specialist in avoiding the discovery of unpleasant truths? And what, for that matter, does the CIA connection tell us about toxic chemicals? Often cited as a pioneer of chromium research, Machle turns out to be much less, and much more, than a dispassionate scientist.
Willard Machle died in 1976. His story ends with a final literary touch. Machle’s obituary portrays a man devoted to the cultivation of orchids—and says not a word about the CIA.
Benjamin Ross is author of The Polluters: The Making of Our Chemically Altered Environment (Oxford University Press, 2010). He is an environmental consultant in Washington and has been an expert for community groups in lawsuits over cleanup of chromium manufacturing sites.
Image: Dr. Willard Machle (National Library of Medicine)