Database of Documents on New Commercial Products and Chemicals

Three researchers, David Rosner, Gerald Markowitz and Merlin Chowkwanyun, have accumulated millions of corporate and trade association documents related to the introduction of new products and chemicals into workplaces and commerce[i].  The documents have been put online as a database known as ToxicDocs, which is free and available for anyone in the world to access. This dataset and website is said to ‘contain millions of pages of previously secret documents about toxic substances. They include secret internal memoranda, emails, slides, board minutes, unpublished scientific studies, and expert witness reports -- among other kinds of documents -- that emerged in recent toxic tort litigation’. The objective of the database is to allow users to identify “what firms knew (or did not know) about the dangers of toxic substances in their products – and when”.

Rosner and Markowitz’s interest began in the 1980s when they discovered a collection of documents at the United States National Archives that detailed the history of the fuel additive tetraethyl lead and its introduction into petrol in the 1920s. The researchers published their findings, and were invited to meet with a lawyer in Boston, who had collected a large number of documents about childhood lead poisoning resulting from exposure to lead-based paint.  Historical research became critical to debates over responsibility for harm.  Rosner and Markowitz are public health historians, who had until this point been dependent on public sources such as newspapers, personal and corporate archives and government records.  However, the legal mechanism known as discovery, where plaintiffs and defendants are required to exchange relevant information and documents, allowed corporate documents to be considered as well.

The researchers researched and wrote about occupational and environmental diseases, and their analyses and documents helped to shape many lawsuits.  New documents continued to be sent to them, and they received thousands of documents related to silicosis, polychlorinated biphenyls and asbestos.

According to the creators of the database, the documents demonstrate the role of public relations firms hired by corporations to promote their products and protect the industry.  Uncertainties in science were used to cast doubt on dangers, and trade associations and corporations tried to influence scientific research.

The researchers sorted and analysed every document by hand, so the number of documents that they could process was limited.  However, this changed in the early 2000s, when Rosner and Markoitz were approached by Chowkwanyun, a college student at the time.  He explored a method by which all the documents related to publications by the authors could be made public, so that other historians and scholars were able to access the sources themselves, and evaluate the accuracy and truthfulness of the researchers’ analyses.  It was from the idea of sharing primary sources that ToxicDocs emerged.

Toxic Docs allows documents to be analysed using software that recognizes the lettering on printed documents.  The database allows users to retrieve documents quickly, and to search by organization, country or substance.  Search results appear as thumbnail images of the document.  The database will soon feature tools such as a document classification tool, which can sort documents by type, and a name recognition tool, which will allow users to look for frequently occurring names and relationships.

The objective of ToxicDocs is to allow users to identify what firms knew about the dangers of toxic substances in their products, and when.  One can also reconstruct the status of scientific knowledge about the risk of a toxic substance to human health.  The creators of the database hope that ToxicDocs will, “become useful to community health advocates who will now have a strong evidentiary base for raising questions about industrial firms’ behavior in their communities”.  Much of the data is from the United States. 

The database is available at www.toxicdocs.org

 

[i]  Rosner, D., Markowitz, G. & Chowkwanyun, M. ToxicDocs (www.ToxicDocs.org): from history buried in stacks of paper to open, searchable archives online. J Public Health Pol 39, 4–11 (2018). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057%2Fs41271-017-0106-8 (Accessed 29 January 2018)