Paul Brodeur: Journalist Who Exposed Asbestos Hazards

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Paul Brodeur, journalist who exposed asbestos hazards, dies at 92”:

Paul Brodeur, who wrote evocative, richly detailed short stories and novels but was best-known for his crusading environmental journalism in the pages of the New Yorker, notably in articles that helped expose the health hazards of asbestos and the danger that industrial chemicals posed to the ozone layer, died at a hospital in Hyannis, Mass.

After the death in 1964 of Rachel Carson, whose environmental classic “Silent Spring” was serialized in the New Yorker, Mr. Brodeur took up the mantle of environmental writing at the magazine, delving into public health issues and occupational hazards in multipart investigative articles that intertwined history, science and muckraking journalism.

He turned his reporting into nine books — including works on toxic chemicals, microwave radiation and Native American land rights — while also writing fiction on the side, demonstrating what Washington Post reviewer S.K. Oberbeck once described as “a jeweler’s eye for life’s tricky facets and buried fissures.”

Mr. Brodeur’s first long article for the New Yorker, a 1968 piece called “The Magic Mineral,” was a journalistic tour de force, detailing the history of asbestos — a fire-resistant building material used in air-conditioning systems, brake pads and thousands of other products — and highlighting the link between cancer and asbestos workers, many of whom died of mesothelioma.

While researchers had linked asbestos to disease as far back as the early 20th century, Mr. Brodeur’s article brought national attention to the issue, spurring asbestos activism and regulations, according to Barry Castleman, a chemical engineer and the author of a public health history of the hazardous minerals.

“This was the first widespread public awareness of asbestos air pollution as a danger to the general public,” Castleman said in a tribute for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.

Mr. Brodeur continued to report on asbestos for the next 15 years, chronicling its use in building insulation, the dangers it posed even as a dust brought home on people’s clothes, and the efforts of industry officials and their allies to keep the substance on the market. He said he once had lunch with a Navy doctor who downplayed the health risks, insisting that regardless of any adverse effects, asbestos was crucial to the development of submarines that were essential to the Cold War battle against the Soviet Union.

“Just remember,” the physician told him, “you can get chest disease from digging in your garden.”

In 1974, Mr. Brodeur won a National Magazine Award for a five-part series that examined the shutdown and cleanup of a Pittsburgh Corning asbestos plant in Tyler, Tex. Some 875 workers were exposed to the substance, and around 260 were statistically expected to develop cancer. Mr. Brodeur found that waste from the factory had made its way across the city, with some asbestos-laced bags going to a nursery that used them to package plants, even as local politicians praised the factory’s economic benefits.

“I think we are all willing to have little bit of crud in our lungs, and a full stomach rather than a whole lot of clean air and nothing to eat. And I don’t want a bunch of environmentalists and communists telling me what’s good for my life and family,” he quoted a Texas legislator from Tyler as saying.

A federal ban was imposed on many asbestos products in 1989, although the substance has not been entirely outlawed in the United States.

Mr. Brodeur next focused on chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, manufactured chemicals that were widely used in aerosol sprays and air conditioners, among other products. His 1975 report on the subject was among the first to highlight the role that the gases played in depleting the ozone layer. He went on to detail research suggesting that a hole in the ozone could threaten to alter weather patterns, damage crops and elevate skin cancer rates, a year before the production of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals was phased out as part of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty.

While Mr. Brodeur was widely hailed for his reporting on asbestos and the ozone layer, some scientists said he was unnecessarily alarmist, even conspiratorial, in raising concern about potential health effects caused by power lines, cellphones and other household devices.

Mr. Brodeur published a pair of controversial 1976 articles about possible risks surrounding the use of microwave radiation, and went on to suggest that microwave ovens, television transmitters and CB radios could emit potentially lethal amounts of radiation. He later pointed to a study that found a possible association between childhood cancer and proximity to power lines. Researchers have not established that link, although Mr. Brodeur continued to highlight possible health hazards over the years, noting that a body of the World Health Organization classified the electromagnetic fields from cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic.”

As he told it, his work was united by an attempt to penetrate a veil of official secrecy that permeated government and industry across the decades of the Cold War. His fascination with secrecy stemmed in part from a discovery he made as a college senior, when he learned from a chaperone at a school dance that he had an older half brother from his father’s earlier marriage, never spoken of by his parents, who shared Mr. Brodeur’s first and middle names, only in reverse.

At times, Mr. Brodeur wrote in a 1997 memoir, “Secrets,” he thought of himself “as a kind of literary entomologist — one who overturns rocks in the dank garden of the private enterprise system … and describes what he sees crawling out from underneath.” But in fact, he continued, his professional identity was more straightforward: He was “simply a writer who worked for a magazine during a time in which its editors believed that public health issues should be written about at length and in depth.”

Paul Adrian Brodeur Jr. was born in Boston on May 16, 1931, and grew up in nearby Arlington, Mass. His father was an orthodontist and sculptor, and his mother was a teacher.

Mr. Brodeur graduated in 1949 from private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and received a bachelor’s degree in 1953 from Harvard University. After serving in West Germany with the Army Counter Intelligence Corps, he spent a year in Paris, where he wrote his first piece for the New Yorker, an acid-dipped short story called “The Sick Fox,” inspired by his experiences with military bureaucracy.

The story ran in 1957, when he was 26. The next year, he joined the magazine’s staff, initially writing short Talk of the Town and Comment pieces while contributing occasional short stories. He adapted “The Sick Fox” into a 1962 novel of the same name, and in 1970 published “The Stunt Man,” a fatalistic novel about an Army deserter who finds refuge as a movie stunt man. The book was adapted into an Oscar-nominated 1980 film starring Peter O’Toole.

While Mr. Brodeur remained committed to investigative reporting, he turned to fiction in moments of tragedy, including after his 2-year-old son, Alan, died in 1965 after choking on a piece of food. The next year, the New Yorker published Mr. Brodeur’s story “Hydrography,” in which he wrote of a couple who spread their late son’s ashes in a country stream, just as Mr. Brodeur and his wife, the former Malabar Schleiter, did in the brook behind their Connecticut cottage.

The story, included in Mr. Brodeur’s 1972 collection, “Downstream,” described how the boy’s father would lie awake at night, picturing a map of Connecticut while imagining the creek’s descent across the land:

“Trickles became brooks, brooks became streams, streams widened into rivers. The rivers flowed into the sea. His brain was awash with currents that coursed through the wrinkled contours of vast watersheds. Whole continents drained through his head. Everything emptied into the sea. The sea was empty. He began again.”

Mr. Brodeur married Schleiter, a journalist and cookbook author, in 1960. They had three children: Alan, Stephen and Adrienne. The marriage ended in divorce, as did Mr. Brodeur’s second marriage to Margaret Staats. In the early 1990s, he married Milane Christiansen, who ran a bookstore near San Diego. They were still married, but separated, when she died in 2013.

Mr. Brodeur retired in the mid-1990s, after Tina Brown took over as editor of the New Yorker. He spent much of his time on the northern tip of Cape Cod, where he built a modernist, art-filled home and searched the waters for bluefish and striper.

“He was never happier than when he was fishing,” his daughter said in a phone interview. Mr. Brodeur, she added, was practically self-sustaining during the summer months, dining on fish, clams and the occasional lobster, along with produce from his garden.

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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