Free, searchable, online database of information about the dangers of toxic substances in products and the environment
A necessary tool for consumers, researchers, attorneys, clinicians, nonprofit organizations, journalists, policymakers and others working to minimize the adverse effects of toxic chemicals in our world.
Free online access to millions of documents on chemical toxicity made possible through ToxicDocs
Millions of pages of internal corporate and trade association documents relating to the introduction of new products and chemicals into the workplace and commerce have been compiled into a free searchable online database called ToxicDocs.
Historians of public health, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, first became interested in documenting the history of toxic agents in the 1980s. Their career has since seen them investigate thousands of documents on issues such as lead poisoning in children, the carcinogenic properties of vinyl chloride, silicosis, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and asbestos.
Over the years they have gained access to, analyzed, and categorized millions of pages of documents, many of which have contributed to lawsuits against the chemical industry. Collecting so many documents has been both a blessing and a curse. While they opened up new sources and interesting questions about corporate history, searching through these documents by hand became a physical challenge.
Then in the early 2000s, Merlin Chowkwanyun had the idea to put the collections of documents online in a searchable format to make them available to students, scholars, and others interested in environmental and occupational health issues. The idea finally kicked into full gear a couple years ago. What emerged was the online database ToxicDocs.
The special section “ToxicDocs: Opening a new era of evidence for policies to protect public health” provides a valuable overview of the significance of this database. In addition to a special editorial on the history of ToxicDocs, there are seven commentaries addressing the potential impact and use for the database.
As a result of a legal mechanism called discovery, the authors accumulated millions of internal corporate and trade association documents related to the introduction of new products and chemicals into workplaces and commerce. What did these private entities discuss among themselves and with their experts?
The plethora of documents, both a blessing and a curse, opened new sources and interesting questions about corporate and regulatory histories. But they also posed an almost insurmountable challenge to historians.
Thus emerged ToxicDocs, possible only with a technological innovation known as “Big Data.” That refers to the sheer volume of new digital data and to the computational power to analyze them. Users will be able to identify what firms knew (or did not know) about the dangers of toxic substances in their products—and when. The database opens many areas to inquiry including environmental studies, business history, government regulation, and public policy. ToxicDocs will remain a resource free and open to all, anywhere in the world.
Journal Reference: David Rosner, Gerald Markowitz, Merlin Chowkwanyun. ToxicDocs (www.ToxicDocs.org): from history buried in stacks of paper to open, searchable archives online. Journal of Public Health Policy, 2018; 39 (1): 4
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