Welcome to Toxic Docs


Welcome to Toxic Docs, the world's largest repository of once-secret documents about toxic substances, past and present.

This dataset has been two years in the making. On this blog, we'll be introducing you to the interface, the technology behind it, and most importantly, the content itself.

Every week, you can look here for at least one featured document from our collection. We'll also post academic scholarship and journalism written with our collection, plus thematically related news stories.

What's Here Now?

We're sitting on millions of pages of documents that have emerged from the vaults of the world's largest multinational chemical firms, most still in business today. These documents include secret board room minutes, internal scientific studies, memos between employees, discussions of public relations and political lobbying strategies, among many more.

If you remember the infamous 1990s tobacco hearings and trials, you might remember that it was documents of this sort that eventually sealed the case against cigarette giants. For more than a decade, UCSF's Truth Tobacco Industry Documents has made millions of documents from this litigation available to the public. It's been a boon to researchers and advocates worldwide and continues to be a major public service.

But Toxic Docs has a different focus: major industrial poisons, specifically benzene, PCBs, polyvinyl chloride, silica, asbestos, and of particular timeliness now, lead. To keep the site manageable, we'll be adding parcels of documents every couple weeks, with accompanying blog posts and mailing list newsletters alerting you to the additions.

Our documents include:

  • the largest collection of documents ever assembled on Monsanto and PCBs

  • the largest collection of documents ever assembled on asbestos

  • more than 75,000 document on lead poisoning, to be added in the next couple months.

  • hundreds of thousands of documents on polyvinyl chloride

  • new documents on benzene in China and attempts to obfuscate its environmental health risks

  • records of the Asbestos Information Association (AIA), and in a few weeks, the Lead Industries Association (LIA), two of the most powerful trade associations and proponents of asbestos and lead-based products

We'll be adding more stuff -- documents, videos, and oral histories -- over the next few years.


Scenes from Flint (2016)

Uh, Who Are You?

We're a group of data scientists, academics, and researchers based principally at Columbia University and City University of New York. Toxic Docs is subsidized by a number of grants, and its institutional home is at the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

Where Did We Get All This?

We don't meet people in parking lots for DVD hand-offs or accept leaked material.

Rather, these documents emerged in toxic substances litigation. An inherent problem with these cases are 'data dumps,' where overwhelming amounts of material are unleashed and impossible to read manually -- at least one-by-one -- by hand.

Our document retrieval system allows you to search through a dogpile and get results back within just seconds.

Here's one example of a document you might find. This is a page from a secret memo where chemical industry executives are discussing data on the health risks of polyvinyl chloride and how much of it they ought to present to regulators. They worry that strategy up to that point might be construed as "evidence of an illegal conspiracy by industry."

You can read the entire document by clicking here.

We'll be using this blog actively, so check back here often!
--Team Toxic Docs