Benzene, PCBs, and industrial chemistry: A narrative bibliography


How the Benzene Tree Polluted the World in The Atlantic by Rebecca Altman, is a narrative exploration of the rise of organic chemistry, and the industrialization of the branch of chemistry based on the benzene ring. The piece focuses on the geopolitical forces shaping the production and global distribution of PCBs, a class of industrial chemicals that, though banned, are globally distributed in bodies, landscapes, ad homes, and concentrates near factories, in the Arctic and subarctic, in the food web, and in the deepest parts of the world’s deepest ocean. Though intentional production has been banned, PCBs’ aren’t a problem of the past. They’re present in ways that shape the future. Chemicals like PCBs, as Kathryn Steen has argued, are more than molecules. They get swept up into the wider currents of their day. This is their bibliography.

This list assumes that you’ve read Altman’s piece, and are interested in the research behind it. This kind of bibliography, rare in popular writing formats, can also be read by itself– the sources and the ways they are clustered tell their own shadow story to how the narrative unfolds in How the Benzene Tree Polluted the World. 

Benzene, PCBs, and industrial chemistry: A narrative bibliography

Citation for deep-ocean PCB, PBDE research: initially reported by Jane Qiu. “Man-made pollutants found in Earth’s deepest ocean trenches.” Science 20 June 2016. Available (Last accessed 28 April 2017.) Research article: Jamieson, A. J. et al. Bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the deepest ocean fauna. Nat. Ecol. Evol.1, 0051 (2017). Available here: Finally, see: Alan Jamieson. “How we discovered pollution-poisoned crustaceans in the Mariana Trench.” The Conversation. 14 February 2017, available here: (Last accessed 28 April 2017).

On naturally-occurring organohalogens, see the work of Gordon Gribble at Dartmouth, e.g., (2004). “Amazing Organohalogens: Thousands of Halogens are Made by the Earth and Organisms in our Environment.” American Scientist 92: 342–349. Also, for updates to the inventory of known biogenic organohalogens, see the latest edition: Naturally Occurring Organohalogen Compounds: A Comprehensive Update. (Springer: 2010). Per a 9/2017 email exchange, an updated edition is in the works, which puts the total number of known naturally-occurring organohalogens at 5000.

On benzene in deep space, prebiotic chemistry, see European Science Agency 2001. “ISO Detects Benzene in Space.” Available at: (Last accessed 28 April 2017); also see Melissa G. Trainer (2013). “Atmospheric Prebiotic Chemistry and Organic Hazes.” Current Organic Chemistry  17: 1710-1723.

On evidence of benzene’s assignment as a Group I carcinogen, see the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designation:

On importance of benzene in the petrochemical supply chain see Jeffrey Plotkin “Benzene’s Unusual Supply-Demand Dilemma.” Published 30 November 2015, American Chemical Society. Available at: (Last accessed 15 May 2017).

On all 209 PCBs named carcinogens, see, Lauby-Secretan, Béatrice et al. (The Interactional Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group). (2016.) “Carcinogenicity of Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Polybrominated Biphenyls.” The Lancet 14(4): 287-288.

For history of chemistry, organic chemistry in particular, see, e.g., William H. Brock. (1992). The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry. (Norton); Alan Rocke. (1993). The Quiet Revolution: Hermann Kolbe and the Science of Organic Chemistry (University of California Press) and (2010). Image and Reality: Kekulé, Kopp, and the Scientific Imagination (University of Chicago Press). On the importance of synthesis to chemical knowledge, and on glassware, see: Catherine Jackson. (2014). “Synthetical Experiments and Alkaloid Analogues: Liebig, Hofmann and the Origins of Organic Synthesis,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 44: 319-363; Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite (1995). Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. (Basic Books); Charles Morrow Wilson. (1943). Trees and Test Tubes: The Story of Rubber. (Holt and Company); Pap A. Ndiaye. (2007). Nylon and Bombs: DuPont and the March of Modern America. (Johns Hopkins University Press); Alfred Chandler (2005.) Shaping the Industrial Century: The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of Modern Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industries. (Harvard University Press.)

On the history of chemical production and the chemical industry include Peter Spritz (1988). Petrochemicals: The Rise of an Industry. (John Wiley and Sons); William Haynes American Chemical Industry, Volumes 1-6. (Van Nostrand, 1945-1954); Fred Aftalion. (2001). A History of the International Chemical Industry: From the “Early Days” to 2000. (Chemical Heritage Press.); Martha Moore Trescott (1981). The Rise of the American Electrochemicals Industry, Studies in the American Technological Environment (Greenwood); Ken Geiser (2001). Materials Matter: Toward a Sustainable Materials Policy. (MIT Press); Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (2008). Chemistry: The Impure Science. (Imperial College Press); Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers (1996). A History of Chemistry. (Harvard University Press).

Specific to US organic chemical industry during and immediately after WWI see, e.g., Kathryn Steen’s (2014) The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry, War and Politics, 1910-1930. (University of North Carolina Press); A. Cressy Morrison. (1937). Man in a Chemical World (Charles Scribner’s Sons); Andrew Ede. 2002. “The Natural Defense of a Scientific People: The Public Debate Over Chemical Warfare in Post-WWI America.” Bull.  Hist. Chem. Vol 27 (2); 128-135; Adams, Rodger (1918) “The Manufacture of Organic Chemicals at the University of Illinois.” Science. March 8, 1918; John F. Queeny. (1917).“The Coal Tar Industry,” The Pharmaceutical Era Vol 1(1): 5-8; Ellwood Hendrick. “Why We Need Chemistry in Our American Industries: Says That Unless There Is Close Co-operation Between Scientists and Manufacturers of This Nation, We Shall Be Handicapped After War.” New York Times. September 24, 1916, p. 89. Also, Hendrick’s 1917. Symposium Speech. “America’s Case in Chemistry.” Reprinted in the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry 11 (10): 978; A.H. Hooker. 1919. “Future Possibilities of Electrolytic Chlorine.” Chemical Engineering and the Works Chemist: A Monthly Journal of Chemical Technology. IX (92): 37-8.

On chemicals as patriots, see John F. Queeny. (1917).“The Coal Tar Industry,” The Pharmaceutical Era Vol 1(1): 5-8; A. H. Hooker. 1919. “Future Possibilities of Chlorine.” Chemical Engineering and the Works Chemist.  IX (92): 37-8.

On coal-tar dye industry, see Simon Garfield’s (2000). Mauve: How One Many Invented a Color that Changed the World. (WW Norton and Company); William Henry Perkin. (1896) “Hoffman Memorial Lecture: The Origin of the Coal-Tar Colour Industry an the Contributions of Hofmann and his Pupils.” Journal of the Chemical Society 69: 595-626. Sharon Bertsch McGrawyne. (2001.) Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World. (McGraw Hill); Also see: Dan Fagin (2013). Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. (Bantam Books).

My accounts of PCB history relied on Ellen Griffith Spears (2014) Baptized by PCBs (University of North Carolina Press); Edward Griffith and Carolyn Green Satterfield. (1999) The Triumphs and Troubles of Theodore Swann. (Black Belt Press); Dan J. Forrestal. (1977). Faith, Hope and $5000: The Story of Monsanto. (Simon and Schuster); Also Soren Jensen, “The PCB Story” Ambio  1(4): 123-131; Robert Risebrough and Virginia Brodine. (1970.) “More Letters in the Wind” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development  12( 1): 16-26. Also, see film, Mysterious Poison: The History of PCBs. Films Media Group, 2006. Accessed 22 June 2017. Excellent interview footage with David Carpenter, Theo Colborn and Soren Jensen.

On delay between invention of DDT molecule, and its application as a pesticide, see biography of Paul Müller, Novel Laureate, profiled here: (Last accessed 28 April 2017.)

On measurement of PCBs and other persistent organic pollutants in tree bark, see the work of Ron Hites, Amina Salamova & colleagues at Indiana University; also Mark A. Hermanson, Richard Hann and Glenn W. Johnson. (2016) “PCBs in Tree Bark Near a Former Manufacturing and Incineration Facilities in Sauget, Ill, US.” Environ. Sci. Techno 50 (12): 6207-6215; MH Hermanson et al. (2007). “PCBs in Tree Bark Near a Former Manufacturing Plant in Anniston, AL.” Chemosphere 68 (1), 191-198.

On connection to Indian Refining (Texaco) and Eastman Kodak, see Swann Research, Inc., et al., v Dow Chemical, Co. District Court, E.D. Michigan N.D. October 18, 1935. Documents resulting from suit Swann brought against Dow Chemical over infringement of its di/biphenyl patent in 1935 named the Indian Refining Co (of Illinois) — acquired (in 1931) by TEXACO — as the company that first proposed to Swann an interest in industrial quantities of di/biphenyl. As described in court documents, Indian Refining approached Swann personally, and specified that their subsequent business relationship was built on a personal connection. Mentions di/phenyl sold by Eastman Kodak in small quantities. For more on their earliest forays into organics production, and the role of Eastman Kodak in this, see Kathryn Steen’s (2014) The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry, War and Politics, 1910-1930. (University of North Carolina Press); A. Cressy Morrison (1937). Man in a Chemical World (Charles Scribner’s Sons); William Haynes American Chemical Industry, Volumes 5: The Chemical Companies to 1948. (Van Nostrand, 1949):138-141.

The prohibited cost per pound of di/phenyl at the time is discussed in Spears (2014) and here, by one of Swann’s employees: C H Penning. 1930. “Diphenyl and Diphenyl Derivatives.” Journal of Chemical Education. 7(10): 2373-5. Also, see: The Anniston Star. Friday, May 23, 1930. P. 13 “Swann’s Report Discusses the New Use of Diphenyl.”

On history of halowaxes, see: William Haynes American Chemical Industry, Volumes III. (Van Nostrand, 1945): 385; Ellen Griffith Spears (2014). Baptized by PCBs (University of North Carolina Press); Edward Griffith and Carolyn Green Satterfield. (1999) The Triumphs and Troubles of Theodore Swann. (Black Belt Press); Wiebe E.Bijker (1995). Of Bicyles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. (MIT Press): 171-172.

On development of endocrine disruption hypothesis, see Sheldon Krimsky Hormonal Chaos : The Scientific and Social Origins of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis. (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000; also Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and J. Peterson Myers. Our Stolen Future.  (Dutton, 1996). On carbon and biology, see review, development of science in Sandra Steingraber (2010). Living Downstream, 2nd Edition. (De Capo Press).

Estimates of global PCB production, see figures compiled by the United Nation Environment Program, such as UNEP. “Consolidated Assessment of Efforts Made Toward the Elimination of PCBs.” January 2016. Available here: (Last accessed 28 April 2017.)

On Michigan and polybrominated biphenyls, PBBs, see Joyce Egginton (1980/2009). The Poisoning of Michigan. (Michigan State University Press) and Edward C. Lorenz (2012) Civic Empowerment in an Age of Corporate Greed (Michigan  State University Press.) For continuing coverage see Michigan Public Radio. On the history of regrettable flame retardant substitutions and the history of PBDEs, see Alissa Cordner (2016). Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies and Environmental Health. (Columbia University Press). Also Joseph Allen (2016). “Stop Playing Whack-A-Mole with Hazardous Chemicals.” Washington Post. December 15, 2016.

On US mass versus maximum production, e.g., see Robert Gottlieb (2002) Environmentalism Unbound. (MIT Press): p. 36-7. Also Herbert Hoover’s 1921 remarks before a gathering of the then new society of organic chemical manufacturers. An excerpt published in: “Is Our Dyestuff Industry Built on a Solid Foundation?” The Industrial Digest. 1(21). August 19, 1922. See pages: 1406-7.

On the history of chemicals policy, and general environmental law and policy, e.g., see Carl Cranor (1997). Regulating Toxic Substances: A Philosophy of Science and the Law. (Oxford University Press), and also his Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants (Harvard University Press: 2011); Robert Gottlieb. (2005). Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. (Island Press); Ken Geiser (2015). Chemicals Without Harm. (MIT Press); David Downie and Terry Fenge, editors. (2003). Northern Lights Against POPs: Combatting Toxic Threats in the Arctic (McGill-Queen’s Press); Henrik Selin (2010). Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals: Challenges of Multilevel Management. (MIT Presss.)

On the significance of PCBs and persistent organic pollution for indigenous communities in the Arctic and subarctic regions, see Marla Cone (2005) Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic (New York: Grove Press) and David Downie and Terry Fenge, ed. (2003) Northern Lights Against POPS: Combatting Toxic Threats in the Arctic (Published for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference Canada by McGill-Queen’s University Press). Or consult ongoing working by the Artic Monitoring and Assessment Program (, Alaska Community Action of Toxics (, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (

For details about first 12 chemicals listed to the United Nations Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001), see: Re: more chemicals and chemical classes have been added to the treaty since, including some commercial formulations of PBDEs, see: (Last accessed 27 April 2017). Another formulation of PBDEs, called “deca,” was voted for inclusion in 2017, as of press time, this press release served as my source: International POPs Elimination Network. 2017. “Loopholes for DecaBDE and SCCPs Undercut Treaty Additions.” Available at: (Last accessed 9 May 2017).

On summary of research about inadvertent PCB production, see Elizabeth Grossman (2013) “Nonlegacy PCBs: Pigment Manufacturing By-Products Get a Second Look.” Environmental Health Perspectives. 121 (3): A86- A93; also Dingfei Hu and Keri C. Hornbuckle (2010). “Inadvertent Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Commercial Paint Pigments.” Environmental Science & Technology 2010 44 (8): 2822-2827.


A full bibliography can be found on Altman’s website.