Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Consumers

The Consumers
by Gerry Boudreau (story) and Jun Lofamia (art)
from Creepy No. 136 (March 1982)

This grim tale of global cooling and environmental disaster is ably illustrated by the Filippino artist Jun Lofamia, who primarily did work for comics and magazines in the Philippines. During the 70s and 80s he provided illustrations for US publishers like Warren and DC. In 2014 Lofamia provided cover art for the IDW series Black Dynamite.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Poison that Fell from the Sky

Book Review: 'The Poison that Fell from the Sky' by John G. Fuller

At 12:37 in the afternoon of Saturday, July 10, 1977, people living in the vicinity of the town of Meda, Italy, heard a muffled explosion coming from the grounds of the ICMESA chemical plant.  

A cloud of white smoke rose into the air above the plant, and in the ensuing hours, drifted over Meda and the nearby towns of Seveso, Desion, and Cesano Maderno. At least 1,000 acres - much of it consisting of small farms and residential areas - was contaminated by the cloud.

The residents of the affected areas described seeing a 'fog' that left a wet residue where it touched and had a bitter, acrid odor. Within hours of the passage of the cloud, the residents noticed that the vegetation began to display patterns of yellow spotting.

After the cloud dissipated, the residents of Seveso and the other affected towns shrugged and resumed eating lunch, and harvesting the fruits, vegetables, and livestock that many families raised to supplement their diets.

But before nightfall, many residents who had been in the path of the cloud began to notice health problems, including the emergence of sores and lesions on their skin. Other residents noticed small animals dying from the effects of the cloud; some even saw birds literally dropping from the sky.

A day after the explosion at the plant and the formation of the toxic cloud, the director of the ICMESA plant asked the mayor of Seveso to convey a warning to the town's residents: they should not eat any fruit from their trees. 

As the week began, more and more residents began to complain of illness associated with the passage of the cloud. On Friday, July 16, a two year-old baby was hospitalized with weeping sores all over his body.

As the residents of Seveso - and then an entire region of Lombardy, Italy - were about to learn, they were the victims of the greatest toxic disaster ever to strike Europe.....

In 'The Poison the Fell from the Sky' (first published in hardback in 1977; this 163 pp, Berkley Books paperback was released in January 1979) John G. Fuller provides firsthand reportorial coverage of the accident (he was in France in 1976, and was assigned by The Reader's Digest to investigate the Seveso disaster). 

Fuller toured the Seveso region later in the Summer and early Fall of 1976, and spoke with many of the victims, ICMESA / Roche officials, journalists, and public health officials.

Fuller - an accomplished writer, whose other nonfiction books include Fever, a 70s classic about the investigation of an outbreak of a deadly viral disease - communicates the atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that fell over much of Italy due to the disaster.

An unavoidable drawback of the book is that, being written comparatively early in aftermath of the disaster, it cannot provide an analysis of the long-term complications of the disaster. But Fuller does include a final chapter that examines the disturbing history of toxic disasters up to 1976 and highlights how the negligence of the chemical industry was often a key trigger for these disasters.

Summing up, 'The Poison that Fell from the Sky' remains a worthy account of the Seveso disaster. It's worth getting if you see it on the shelves of your used bookstore.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Mighty Samson: The Pollution People

Mighty Samson
'The Pollution People'
Gold Key / Whitman, December 1974

In keeping with the 'Toxic 70s' theme for this month of January 2017, here's a story featuring Samson, a superhero appearing in his own series with Gold Key / Whitman in the early 70s. In this issue, Samson wanders a postapocalyptic landscape, where mutants created by pollution harbor enmity towards those who corrupted the Earth.

Gold Key was not a participant in the Comics Code Authority, which meant their comics could have 'violent' content - such as the shedding of monster blood in this comic - that was prohibited in books from Marvel and DC.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review: The Poisoning of Michigan

Book Review: 'The Poisoning of Michigan' by Joyce Egginton

On September 20, 1973, Rick Halbert, a dairy farmer in Battle Creek, Michigan, concluded that his cows were sick.

The animals in Halbert's 400-head herd were not eating; they seemed lethargic and were not providing as much milk as they normally did.

Halbert suspected that the latest shipment of feed he was giving to his cattle, called Dairy Ration 402, might be responsible. He contacted the Michigan Farm Bureau feed mill in Battle Creek and asked if they had mistakenly substituted the magnesium oxide supplement in Dairy Ration 402 with another element, such as molybdenum or manganese.The feed mill assured him that they had not.

As Fall turned to Winter, Halbert grew increasingly desperate as his dairy herd was ravaged by illness. The animals suffered from mange, skin lesions, diarrhea, and neurological disorders. Calving season was a disaster; many calves died in utero, and the cows were too sick to expel the aborted calves.

Halbert's veterinarian tested the animals for a variety of diseases, suspecting poisoning from mycotoxins in the grain fed the animals. But the results were negative.

Facing financial ruin, Halbert - who had a degree in chemical engineering, a body of training few dairymen possessed - barraged the state agricultural laboratory and Michigan State University with requests to test the Dairy Ration 402 feed for contaminants, particularly pesticides. But sophisticated chemical tests performed on the feed were negative.

Then, in April 1974, a chemist at the USA laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, identified reproducible peaks of a chemical contaminant in samples of Dairy Ration 402. The peaks were not associated with pesticides, which explained why they had not been detected by routine screens for the presence of those chemicals. 

But when George Fries, the USDA chemist, revealed what the peaks were, Rick Halbert - and soon every farmer in Michigan - and then every resident of Michigan - realized that the disaster was just starting.....

'The Poisoning of Michigan' (363 pp, Michigan State University Press, 2009) is a very readable, often dramatic account of one of the greatest toxic disasters in the modern history of the USA, one with consequences that plague many of that state's residents even today.

[ 'Poisoning' first was published in hardback in 1980; this 2009 trade paperback features an Afterward by Devra Lee Davis, Maryann Donovan, and Arlene Blum that updates the story of the disaster. ]

As Egginton makes clear, the disaster was aided and abetted by indifferent bureaucrats, scientists, and politicians, who tried to sweep the scope of the contamination under the rug, 'only to see it come out the other side'.

I don't remember hearing about the disaster back in '73 and '74, but the news media was obviously much more localized back then and events in Michigan would not have received much coverage in the major newspapers in New York State. 

I do vaguely remember advertising for the 1981 TV movie Bitter Harvest, which starred Ron Howard (who played Richie Cunningham in Happy Days), as a Michigan farmer who confronts the toxic disaster.

With the passing of the decades, the disaster in Michigan has faded from the public consciousness. But 'The Poisoning of Michigan' is well worth getting, both as a documentary of a major 70s toxic disaster, and as an engrossing book in its own right.