Reviewed by Amy Hay (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley)
Published on H-Environment (January, 2018)
Commissioned by David T. Benac (Western Michigan University)
The title of Paul David Blanc's book, Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, misleads the reader. The real focus, and culprit, of Blanc's history is carbon disulfide, an organic solvent used in the manufacturing process to make viscose rayon and cellophane (and early on used to vulcanize rubber), a solvent highly toxic to human beings. The chemical joins a long list of industrial contaminants and toxics that include arsenic, lead, aniline dyes, asbestos, polyvinyl chlorides, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), and many more, that poisoned the modern industrial workers who were exposed to them. As Blanc notes in his introduction, viscose rayon manufacturing, born at the beginning of the twentieth century, became one of the first multinational industries, spanning the globe in numerous corporate configurations. While the end product was safe for consumers, workers suffered a host of nervous system illnesses, including peripheral nerve damage, permanent eye damage, and insanity. Later epidemiological studies showed that the chemical also caused an increased risk of strokes and heart disease. Despite an extensive literature on these known effects, the establishment of real toxicity standards within the industry remained virtually nonexistent. Blanc explores why this happened in six chapters organized both chronologically and thematically.
The book starts with the discovery, and eventual understanding, of carbon disulfide and its commercial uses. A rare organic solvent unrelated to water, carbon disulfide was first recognized in 1796, although wrongly identified as a sulfur alcohol. While the chemical was initially ignored, this changed once it was realized that the chemical acted as a chemical solvent, which at that point only included water, alcohol, and turpentine. The definitive application happened when it was discovered that the chemical could rearrange cellulose fibers derived from everyday plant sources into solution to create a new synthetic fabric—what eventually became known as rayon. (Some minor changes in the manufacturing process later produced a cellulose film, trademarked as cellophane, the ubiquitous wrapping material of the twentieth century.)
Even as the chemical industry geared up to produce this new "fake silk," the occupational health hazard to workers was well known. Subsequent chapters examine the dominance of two corporations in the making of viscose rayon, Courtaulds in England and DuPont in the United States, but with a whole host of national companies working with, or against, these titans of industry. Blanc includes the stories of the workers damaged by exposure to carbon disulfide. The laborers experiencing madness and those used as slave labor during World War II represent the most striking of these accounts. Here, Blanc deserves to be commended in uncovering and highlighting the horrific incidents of the real, and unrecognized, price of fake silk. And these cases become all the more compelling given their absence in the records of health inspectors or presence in political debates or policies.
The book suffers, however, from its dizzying listing of all the corporate incarnations that have produced viscose rayon and cellophane. Early on Blanc warns that he will name names and he does, but to what purpose? The exhausting litany overwhelms instead of enlightens readers' understanding of why a chemical that produces signature medical conditions goes almost completely unregulated. Instead of scores of snapshots of companies, perhaps a few representative case studies might have worked better.
And while it seems contradictory to ask for more in a work that already examines so much, the failure to put carbon disulfide and the chemical industry into a broader, comparative context with other histories of toxic chemicals or public health poses a major problem. For example, Philip Drinker, an industrial hygiene engineer, served as a consultant for the American Viscose Corporation (AVC) and validated AVC's claims of negligible exposure. The story of Drinker's brother Cecil, founder of Harvard's school of industrial hygiene and assistant dean of public health, would be worthy of comparison: hired by the U.S. Radium Corporation, the company whose young women workers became known as "radium girls" for the radium poisoning they received as they painted watch dials, Cecil Drinker refused to release his studies without U.S. Radium's permission. He and many other public health officials and industrial engineers (like his brother) worried more about their corporate employers than workers. There is long history of industry refusing to replace toxic materials until acceptable, in other words, affordable, substitutes were available. Carbon disulfide's distinctive chemical usefulness might provide one reason for its continued use despite its lethal outcomes. Or did it matter that rayon production was so closely intertwined with national interests? In the case of viscose rayon, examining it with less breadth and in more depth might have allowed Blanc's extensive and often impressive research to explain the ways viscose rayon conformed to standard stories, and when it did not.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Amy Hay. Review of Blanc, Paul David, Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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