The 80s Almost Killed Me: Toxic Fear in America

This post draws on two lines of work. This fall, I have been introducing students to some (very) basic digital visualization techniques as a means of training them to ask historical questions. I have also been thinking further about the history of toxic fear—and whether a fear of toxic chemicals produced a distinct kind of fear during the Toxic Century. In A New Species of Trouble, Kai Erikson argues that the new, silent toxins of the post-World War II period “scare human beings in new and special ways, … [and] … elicit an uncanny fear in us” (144). I use Erikson as a departure point, and propose that it is time to examine toxic fear through an historical lens.

These two lines of work came together this week in my first year course on the Toxic Century (HIST 1EE3: The Historical Roots of Contemporary Issues). Working in groups of four or five, students have been tasked with identifying an appropriate keyword search, collecting ~500 newspaper articles in digital form, compiling them into a single, text-searchable file, and running them through some web-based reading and analysis tools. Groups were assigned a specific newspaper (for ease, we limited searches to 1950-1980 in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Globe and Mail, all readily available through McMaster University’s subscription to “Proquest Historical Newspapers”). ~500 articles constitutes a fairly small data set, but I am more interested in teaching the method and process than expecting very specific or accurate results.

Their assignment involves developing a series of word clouds in order to chart change and continuity in the Toxic Century’s vocabulary over time to see if their analysis can identify trends in that vocabulary. Each group would create a chronological suite of word clouds (1950s, 1960s, 1970s, for example) in order to “see” the articles they had collected. I recommended that students play with wordle for simple word cloud generation: I find it easy to use and it seems to generate some of the more aesthetically pleasing clusters. To better contextualize and quantify their results, I urged that they run the same material through Voyant-Tools, which offers some more sophisticated options. Building on this collaborative investigation and analysis, students will co-write a short paper on their findings. I should stress that these papers do not mean to offer anything but a bird’s-eye view of a singular primary source. The exercise is less about acquiring any conclusive historical understanding about a particular time or event. Instead, I introduce this process as a method of starting inquiry into a new topic (my third-year “Social History of Truth” class is doing something similar, but with scientific journals).

Which brings me back to toxic fear. To provide a mock example and case study for the class to take them through the assignment, I conducted a search for New York Times articles between 1950-1990 that adhered to the following criteria:

[toxic AND (fear OR anxiety) AND (chemical OR pollution)]

The search parameters were far from perfect, and I had to “weed” out some articles that debated marijuana use. But a cursory scan of article titles suggested there was not too much noise—non-relevant results that would interfere with the data visualization. I added the 1980s, since we had covered Bhopal and Chernobyl already in lecture, and I thought it would be interesting to see if we could “see” American coverage of international crises. But it’s probably just as well that I did. Of the 729 articles that came back, 504 (69%) were from the 1980s. Another 39 were from 1990. Remove “fear OR anxiety” from the search:

[toxic AND (chemical OR pollution)]

and The New York Times yields 5657 articles (of which a still surprisingly high 3535—62%—are from the 1980s. I haven’t done anything yet, but already I was surprised. While some literature engages the Reagan administration’s deregulation as a catalyst for swelling registration in environmental organizations in the 1980s, I had typically associated fear of toxic chemicals with the Age of Ecology writ large. Yes: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring featured in the 1960s findings—and maybe my search parameters were skewed to leave out issues surrounding radioactive fallout. However, if The New York Times is at all representative of American print media, it would seem as though the 1980s was the decade of environmental fear (and toxic issues in general). Casting a wider net would be worthwhile. But even the more conservative Wall Street Journal, which returned only 168 hits for the first search including fear, had 122 of them (73%) come from the 1980s. Remove “fear OR anxiety” and you get 858 from 1240 articles (69%) from the 1980s.

Maybe this is simply media hype and marks a lexical transition in print journalism, but I’m not so sure. I have written about the rise and fall of the environmental jeremiad during the 1960s and 1970s, and argued that the effectiveness of alarmist rhetoric subsided during the 1970s. So it would seem out of place for media hyperbole on environmental fear to crescendo so dramatically in the 1980s. Something to investigate, though. On the one hand, perhaps this is just a sign of mainstream media catching up with a slow burning fire in American political thought. But it’s also possible that these results are not wholly surprising, even if the historical literature’s interest in the Age of Ecology tapers off somewhat after the energy crisis. We talk about the environment crisis as a post-World War II phenomenon, best articulated in Barry Commoner’s social activism, in Rachel Carson’s influence, and in the emergence of a number of public health concerns that emerged in the 1960s. And we typically associate the 1970s as a period of expansive environmental regulation in the United States—and, globally, as a key moment in the rise of contemporary global environmental governance. That’s the environmental crisis and its socio-political response. But we also know that the 1980s was punctuated by a series of intense environmental crises: Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Times Beach, Bhopal, Chernobyl. And perhaps these events prompted a more palpable recognition of interest and fear and anxiety surrounding toxins in the environment. Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised by the abundance of 1980s hits in my search.

Nevertheless, I spent yesterday afternoon focusing my efforts on the 1980s. This was quick and lazy work, and I only gave the files the most cursory of scrubs (and not satisfactorily: eliminating “New York Times” from the word clouds, for example, had the unhappy effect of problematizing: “Times Beach.” And I made the mistake of clearing “the” out of the text before I put it into Voyant. This produced “there” and “their,” which are prominent in some of the clouds (wordle automatically leaves out smaller words). As it happened, I had roughly 100 articles for every two years. I’ll spare you the detailed, more quantified analysis rendered in Voyant Tools. Here’s what each wordle-generated word cloud looked like.


NYT 1980-1981 Cloud


NYT 1982-1983 Cloud


NYT 1984-1985 Cloud


NYT 1986-1987 Cloud

It’s entirely likely certain that I’m working with too small a data set and too narrow a timeframe. But even here, I think there are opportunities for students to interpret and inquire. Dioxin features in 1982-1983 as a result of the Times Beach crisis; Bhopal and Union Carbide are (tragically) prominent in the 1984-1985 cloud. More useful for the undergraduate classroom is the opportunity to compare general topics, such as waste, water, air, etc. One can do a little of that with a preliminary eye- or smell-test with the clouds above. But this is where Voyant becomes a much more effective tool. It is possible to quantify and contextualize reference terms and compare their chronologies through the text. For instance, my New York Times articles for 1982-1983 contained almost 120,000 words (16,439 unique words). “Toxic” was present 270 times, “waste” 250 times, “health” 196 times, and “chemical” 180 times. All well and good.

But we can use Voyant to dig deeper and examine trends in the usage. For example, “dioxin” occurred 174 times. According to Google Books’ ngram generator, interest in dioxin increased through the 1980s and 1990s:

Screenshot 2014-10-31 11.11.56

Back to Voyant, the chronology of dioxin references in my text from 1982-1983 looks like this:

Screenshot 2014-10-31 11.05.11

The two spikes correlate with the discovery of dioxin and then the town’s evacuation. Which is to say that dioxin’s featuring in the 1982-1983 word cloud has a lot to do with Times Beach emerging as a national story. I’m learning with my students to become more proficient with Voyant, but it’s neat to play with. Voyant makes it possible to fiddle with the number of segments and analyze relative (rather than raw) frequencies. It is also possible to compare trends in terms:

Screenshot 2014-10-31 11.05.45

That example is probably not instructive: since “chemical” was one of my search terms—and seems to experience mild spikes along with “dioxin”—I’m not sure what I’m learning here. And neither method shown here organizes the newspaper articles into an accurate chronology. The chronology is dictated by the raw number of articles and not divided into month-by-month sections, which might yield a different perspective. To wit:

Screenshot 2014-10-31 11.26.54

Breaking the trend analysis into 25 segments (roughly one point for each month), it’s apparent that dioxin features too early (the story broke in December 1982). So the dumping large amounts of data into a reader does not necessarily return complete information for the historian. I could conduct a raw count of articles by month, of course, to determine the extent to which Times Beach dominated other issues during this two-year sample (it did). The wordle cloud also hints at some of those issues—Bhopal, above in 1984-1985, for example—but it does not indicate whether “dioxin” or “Bhopal” was used repeatedly within a small subset of articles or whether their prevalence is the result of a larger number of articles (or both).

But, still: too small and narrow a data set (though, arguably, this is a pragmatic start for in-class use at the undergraduate level). The work above could be bolstered with a range of newspapers that cover the United States. Having eliminated “New” and “York,” there are no references to city and state, though “Jersey” is present, and suggests regional coverage/emphasis of toxic issues. Perhaps midwestern newspapers such as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch or Chicago Tribune would return a greater number of relative hits (and emphasis) on Times Beach, Missouri, for example. And while adding to the raw data would be interesting, separating it geographically might also turn up some interesting variations in emphasis. Could we compare west coast reporting against east coast reporting, and what differences might be present? Of course, none of this precludes actually reading stuff! But it’s an interesting departure point that generates new and different questions. My less period-specific reading indicates that toxic fear exists and that it is galvanized by uncertainty and/or a lack of information. If that holds true under further and deeper scrutiny, what does that tell us about the 1980s if fear and anxiety increased? One knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that mass deregulation in the Reagan 1980s prompted less understanding and control over environmental problems. But Love Canal and Three Mile Island definitely fit into this story and they predate the Reagan administration. Perhaps this is a Superfund story—and the very idea of Superfund was enough to generate more toxic fear? Or, simply, the proliferation of crises prompted a distinct wave of environmental angst and fear.

Takeaway conclusions: we need to do more work that investigates environmental history in the 1980s. As I note evermore grey on my chin in the mornings, I’m reminded that the 1980s are receding in the rearview mirror, and it’s time we put that decade under the microscope. In American and global contexts, we know the basic story, but that narrative needs to be picked apart and complicated. Some good literature exists in environmental justice scholarship—and we should continue to expand on that—but we have little more to work with. The 1980s constitute a fascinating decade for environmental regulation agencies the world over. After the growth and (relative) successes of the 1970s, what happened in the 1980s? There’s also a distinct dearth of historical work on dioxin (Agent Orange and Vietnam notwithstanding).

I should emphasize that the above discussion of data visualization is (1) a teaching experiment, and (2) not a quantum shift in historical research. So far, I like the assignment and am drawn to the possibilities associated with coaxing first-year students into collaborative research and discovery (which can be tricky in a big survey course). But I don’t yet know what the results will be. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that digital scholarship will transplant traditional archival research. But I do think visualization has helped me to shift my focus from a broader timeframe to a more concentrated examination of the 1980s—and to ask questions about how and why fear and anxiety proliferated during that decade.

Edit: On further analysis, I suspect the problem above is that “toxic” is the limiting term. A non-discriminatory search for “fear” in The New York Times finds only a modest increase in the word’s frequency:

"Fear" in NYT database (not exclusively fear surrounding environmental issues). Out of a total 127,092 hits, 39,382 are from the 1980s (the righthand column). Or 31%.
“Fear” in NYT database (not exclusively fear surrounding environmental issues). Out of a total 127,092 hits, 39,382 are from the 1980s (the righthand column). Or 31%.

Compare with “toxic”:

"Toxic" on its own produced 9,475 hits; 6,265 (or 66%) were from the 1980s.
“Toxic” on its own produced 9,475 hits; 6,265 (or 66%) were from the 1980s.

Could “toxic” be the problem? According to the ngram (which doesn’t relate to the NYT searches in any tangible way), “toxic” increased steadily through the 1970s:

Screenshot 2014-10-31 13.17.06

Removing “toxic” from the search parameters raises some interesting perspectives, though. Searching for “pollution” AND “fear” changes the frequency of newspaper articles quite markedly.

"fear" AND "pollution." Almost 50% of the returns are from the 1970s.
“fear” AND “pollution.” Almost 50% of the 2,301 returns are from the 1970s.

But try again with “fear” AND “chemical,” and the trend indicates growth into the 1980s:

"Fear" AND "chemical." 4,522 results, of which 1,927 are from the 1980s. But the findings are trending towards the 1980s again.
“Fear” AND “chemical.” 4,522 results, of which 1,927 are from the 1980s. But the findings are trending towards the 1980s again.

Does this make us less scared of pollution and more frightened by toxic chemicals? Or is this simply a shift in language? Or do our responses to environmental problems concentrate more specifically around toxic chemicals by the 1980s? And does this constitute some kind of evolution worth exploring in greater depth?

6 thoughts on “The 80s Almost Killed Me: Toxic Fear in America

  1. Very cool. I might have to borrow that assignment for my science and society class when we talk about plastic and pollution.

  2. Thanks, Hank! I’ve used it to good effect a few times in a less ambitious manner. I think it’s possible to cover a lot of ground—and get students doing more research collection and analysis than through traditional means. Within the confines of the academic semester, I think this offers some potential.

  3. I love the idea of word clouds in the classroom, and fun to see your mind working through this on the page. I’d offer, too, at least in the US, dioxin, just after Times Beach, dioxin was “discovered” by US EPA as effluent downriver from pulp and paper mills. I’m thinking this was c. 1985. This history was documented by/for Greenpeace in a report called Bodies of Evidence, if interested.

  4. For give me: I was relying on memory, which I shouldn’t. It’s just too foggy these days. This is the report: Carol van Strum and Paul Merrell, NO MARGIN OF SAFETY: A PRELIMINARY REPORT ON DIOXIN POLLUTION AND THE NEED FOR EMERGENCY ACTION IN THE PULP AND PAPER INDUSTRY (Washington, D.C.: Greenpeace USA, 1987). See footnotes 14 and 15 on pg. V-7.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s