Common Air, Common Ground: Cambridgeport Residents vs. Advent Corporation

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Common Air, Common Ground: Cambridgeport Residents vs. Advent Corporation

by Linda McPhee

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 1, January/February 1979, p. 6–9

It’s six a.m. in Cambridgeport, an integrated, basically blue-collar neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the row of triple deckers on Brookline Street, Gwen Woods and her neighbors awaken simultaneously. At that tender hour, Advent Corporation’s Emily Street plant is already venting styrene fumes into the homes of its neighbors.  

Styrene (vinyl benzene) has a remarkably pungent odor, detectable when diluted to fewer than ten parts per million. It is the odor most people identify as “like plastic” or “like fiberglass”. It irritates the skin, eyes, throat and lungs, and induces nausea. It is linked to blood disorders and liver damage, and is a suspected carcinogen. On Brookline Street people inhale its fumes sixteen hours per day, six days a week

Advent manufactures stereo components, but the product that recently netted them national publicity (on the cover of Time magazine) is the Video Beam television, a luxury item which projects television images onto four-by-six foot screens. The styrene fumes Cambridgeport is so painfully familiar with are byproducts of television screen manufacture in the Emily Street plant.

Fumes were deliberately vented to the outside of the plant in response to worker complaints to OSHA, the federal agency whose jurisdiction includes safety in the workplace. Once beyond factory property, however,  OSHA can enforce no measures to bring relief to residents.

Gwen Woods lives only a few yards from the Emily Street plant. Since 1976, when the fans were installed, she has learned more about styrene than she ever cared to know. She knows, for instance, that styrene is a suspected carcinogen, that styrene oxide is a proven carcinogen, and that public health officials in Rutherford, New Jersey are suggesting a connection between this chemical and over thirty cancer cases identified in an area surrounding a factory there. Like all her neighbors, she knows what it is like to live with a pervasive, constant stink.

The Committee on Advent

Cambridgeport, the area surrounding Advent Corporation’s plant, is a community of about 10,000 people. Bordered by a declining industrial area, and sandwiched between three major universities, the community possesses a unique mixture of poor, working class and professional people, multiracial and multicultural, living shoulder to shoulder in a very densely populated area. Nonetheless, the area maintains a strong sense of itself as a neighborhood. Several small local groups organize residents, and an internal network connects the groups, despite diverse memberships and  goals. In the fight against styrene pollution, the cohesiveness and resourcefulness inherent in this network have been essential.

Throughout the past year, three organizations in particular have worked together on the newly-formed Committee on Advent: The Health Care Policy Council, the Cambridgeport Alliance, and Science for the People.

The Cambridge Health Care Policy Council is a small local committee supported by a federal antipoverty program, which first involved itself in the styrene pollution issue in 1977. The group assisted residents through the established channels of action and complaint. Together they discovered OSHA’s shortcomings and the weakness of city ordinances. Having failed to remedy the situation, they approached the Cambridgeport Alliance.

The Cambridgeport Alliance is a grassroots organization composed of representatives from eight neighborhood groups.1 Members of Alliance organizations are scattered throughout the community — geographically, economically and socially. Through its member organizations, the Alliance increased local awareness of the seriousness of the hazard. Concurrently, Alliance representatives and friends expanded the original committee, both physically and in terms of Expertise.

Members of Science for the People became involved through informal contacts with the Alliance.

The benefits of cooperative action were significant. When the Committee on Advent decided to research the scope of the contamination, Homeowner and Tenant Association members pulled out their tried-and-true canvassing system. When John Desmond, then Regional Director of Air Quality Control, a division of DEQE. told participants in a sit-in in his office that his staff could only test for styrene with their noses, a woman from Science for the People pulled a universal air tester from her purse. When the committee needed information on styrene’s effects on health, the Health Care Policy Council and Science for the People located the expertise needed to investigate.

The combination of talents enabled the group to cut through the technological rhetoric so commonly used to deter people struggling against powerful agencies and corporations. Knowledge and resources kept local people from being deceived and pacified by “bandaid” solutions.

The Massachusetts Division of Environmental Quality Engineering (DEQE) classifies styrene as a “bad smell” on a par with fumes from a chocolate factory — a nuisance, but not a health hazard. This stance
apparently reflects the prevailing tone of environmental protection law throughout the country. which regulates particulate pollution but not vapor.

After realizing that appealing to the conscience and logic of Advent officials was futile. the neighbors brought their complaint to the Cambridge City Council. The Council passed an order demanding that Advent  desist polluting or close down, an order they have no power to enforce.

At DEQE’s regional office, John Desmond suggested that the styrene scent could be masked with another odor. Residents awoke one spring morning to the unimaginable stench of styrene mixed with artificial banana! No health factor could have been considered when this solution was experimented with. 

The Committee on Advent pushed the case from John Desmond’s office to that of Dr. Anthony Cortese, Director of the State Division of Air and Hazardous Materials, then to Evelyn Murphy’s office of Environmental  Affairs via picket lines. State and Federal bureaucracy finally dumped the case on the Attorney General’s office, where an “unofficial” refusal to act on the complaint was passed on to the committee. Jose Allen, Assistant District Attorney for Environmental Affairs was quoted by the Cambridge Chronicle as remarking: “Apparently, they live in a commercial district, and when you live in a commercial district you have to endure certain things you wouldn’t have to endure in a Class A neighborhood.” When the Committee threatened to take action against the Attorney General’s office, the State filed suit against Advent, demanding an  end to the styrene pollution. The Committee is currently investigating ways to participate in that suit.

In the meantime, the Committee on Advent is sensitive to Advent’s threat to relocate away from an area which desperately needs blue-collar jobs. Identifying the threat as a ploy designed to prevent cooperation between factory workers and the groups, the Committee has produced informational leaflets in the four languages commonly spoken inside the plant. The workers produce a pro-union newsletter amongst themselves (there is, as yet, no union), which is supportive of the Committee’s efforts. Advent workers and neighbors are beginning to realize that locating the plant in another community, or country (as has been suggested) will not eliminate the problem, only shift it to another community which will face the same dangers. Like the banana scent, OSHA and DEQE solutions are distractions, not cures.

Common Actions: Boycott Advent

Many individuals initially assumed that appeals to the proper governmental department would bring relief and assistance. The long paper chase endured by the group first brought disillusionment, then anger, then militancy. Action became centered around the streets of Cambridgeport rather than the sluggish state boardrooms.

In increasing numbers, neighborhood people began visiting the plant on especially “bad days” to complain en masse and demand relief. The Committee on Advent began organizing pickets of the homes of corporate officers and board members, a tactic borrowed from the tenants’ organization which used it against slumlords. Leaflets explain the picket lines to residents. The Committee is also organizing a boycott of all Advent products, a move which is steadily gaining momentum. 

Words of their determination are being passed to Advent stockholders and local stereophiles: “Don’t buy Advent products, sell your Advent stocks.”

Throughout the building of the Committee on Advent, a process of growth of understanding has been remarkably evident among individuals in the group. In the two year struggle, each new person, without exception, has envisioned success around the corner. Faith in DEQE’s current promise, or the court case, or any particular action, caused each new member to embrace a “wait and see” or “let’s write a letter” argument and initially to express some unease with the group’s developing militancy. But as the collection of broken promises and refusals to act grew, people dropped their passive stances and came to terms with the necessity for direct action. Other members reaffirmed their own transformation and growing awareness that, in the end, the struggle will be won by a community determined to act.

Our Lives, Their Profits: The Necessity for Collective Effort

The widespread pollution of our rivers, lakes, oceans and air is a fact of life familiar to every American. Although this pollution has numerous and well-documented adverse effects on our health and well-being, it is often difficult to link a particular effect (for example, a given case of cancer) with its causes. In the case of the pollution of a section of Cambridgeport with styrene by Advent Corporation, however. the source of the residents’ discomfort and feelings of ill-health was easily identified. This situation has engendered a two and one half year struggle with Advent and the state air pollution regulatory agency (DEQE) that is described in the accompanying article.

The Advent struggle has been very revealing of the nature of our society. To begin with, it has brought into the open the contradictory interests of Advent and of the community out of which it operates: Advent, like all other corporations, serves only its owners by striving to maximize its profits — in all cases at the expense of its employees, in this case,at ours,as unwilling recipients of what air pollution authorities callously call “fugitive emissions.” The fact that Advent produces a luxury item with absolutely no value to the community underscores this point.

Our struggle has also unearthed the unhappy fact that Massachusetts DEQE is more concerned with ensuring a healthy business environment for Advent than a healthy physical environment for Cambridgeport. Such agencies seem to be, in reality, little more than fronts for corporations like Advent: the half-hearted (and, inevitably, relatively cheap) modifications they sometimes require of corporations do not solve the real problems but rather serve to legitimize the anti-people practices of the corporations and the regulatory process itself.

The process of appealing to, and later confronting, DEQE also thoroughly debunked for us the notion that  DEQE bigshots were possessed of unassailable scientific and legal expertise. This paralyzing image was gradually destroyed with the growing realization that the “professional” veneer of this agency actually hides a great deal of incompetence, duplicity and stupidity. Unlike Advent itself, DEQE has not been a powerful enemy.

The successes we have had — principally, the installation of the filter and the initiation of the suit against Advent — are due solely to our own collective efforts. When isolated phone calls and individually registered complaints gave way to coordinated sit-ins, pickets and leafletting, we experienced the power that people can wield when organized and united. Our unity has cut across divisions of age, race and occupation, and has built strong ties of trust and friendship in the community. This can only make us stronger in the future, whether with respect to further struggles around Advent, or in whatever ways we choose to assert our right to control our environment and all other aspects of our lives.

As a result of our long fight with Advent, we have a better understanding of American society and our place in it, are better prepared to work together on any problems which affect us as a community, and have greater confidence in our ability to come to grips with and to control collectively the forces that shape our lives. It is our personal feeling that while we may, after many long and tedious years during which we have received considerable exposure to the stench and the hazards of styrene, finally win, it is all too clear that similar problems will not go away elsewhere and may easily recur here. The only way to really win is to build a movement to take control of the factories and our neighborhoods away from the rich and their front men in the corporations and the government, and put it where it rightfully
belongs: in the hands of the people.

—Peggy and Jim Lester

Linda McPhee is a Cambridgeport resident who has been active in community issues for a number of years. 

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  1. Cambridgeport Child Care, Inc., Woodrow Wilson Tenants Council (public housing), Morse Community School, Webster Community School, Morse PTA, Simplex Steering Committee (a planning group), Cambridgeport Planning Team, Cambridgeport Homeowners and Tenants Association.