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Paul Brodeur, environmental writer who exposed dangers of asbestos, dies at 92

Mr. Brodeur, an award-winning writer who sounded the alarm 48 years ago about threats to the ozone layer, died Aug. 2 in Cape Cod Hospital.Bill Ravanesi

A few years before Paul Brodeur began publishing groundbreaking New Yorker magazine articles about environmental hazards and the dangers of asbestos, he was already writing powerful fiction, including a short story drawn from his own heartbreaking experience.

Stopping on the way home in 1964 after a weekend at their Connecticut cottage, Mr. Brodeur and his wife, Malabar, were in a store when their au pair rushed in carrying their 28-month-old son, Alan, who was choking on a piece of food. They tried to save him, in horror and ultimately in vain.

In the week of the year anniversary of Alan’s death, The New Yorker published Mr. Brodeur’s devastating short story “Hydrography.” As Paul and Malabar had done, the story’s fictional couple spread the ashes of their lost child in a rural stream:


“Now, kneeling on a flat rock where the brook spilled into a deep pond, he opened the canister and poured its meager contents into the swift current. For a moment, there was a small, white stain in the dark water of the pool — a stain that, even as it spread, dissolved and disappeared. The rose she tossed upon the water was borne lightly along, cresting with absurd buoyance as it tumbled over the rocks. Lost from sight, it reappeared; an instant later, it was gone.”

Mr. Brodeur, an award-winning writer who sounded the alarm 48 years ago about threats to the ozone layer, died Aug. 2 in Cape Cod Hospital.

He was 92, had grown up in Greater Boston, and lived for several months each year in North Truro, where he indulged his love of fishing, and where his reporting on microwave radiation influenced Cape Cod governmental debates and decisions.

“Paul, an investigative reporter, can be credited for saving thousands of lives,” Richard Lemen, a former assistant US surgeon general, wrote in a tribute on the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization website.


In 1968, The New Yorker published Mr. Brodeur’s article “The Magic Mineral,” an asbestos expose he called “a major turning point in my professional life.”

With that and numerous subsequent pieces about dangers in and out of the workplace, Mr. Brodeur spurred public awareness of catastrophic environmental hazards, prompted more stringent laws and regulations, and provided fodder for uncounted thousands of lawsuits that bankrupted major corporations.

Armed with years of research, Mr. Brodeur could be fiercely opinionated on the page and while speaking in public forums.

He also could let silence roar a reply. In his 1997 memoir, “Secrets: A Writer in the Cold War,” he recalled that executives at Johns-Manville, a major asbestos manufacturer, invited him to the company’s offices in 1968 for a meeting.

Rather than present their view for Mr. Brodeur’s follow-up New Yorker articles, one executive offered him a public relations job at Johns-Manville with an annual salary that would more than triple his New Yorker earnings.

“I looked straight ahead and pretended I hadn’t heard him,” Mr. Brodeur wrote.

Over the years, his reporting earned honors including a National Magazine Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

Mr. Brodeur turned his New Yorker magazine reporting into nonfiction books, including controversial volumes on subjects such as the dangers posed by power-line electromagnetic fields and microwave radiation.

Among his books were “Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial,” “The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and the Cover-Up,” “The Great Power-Line Cover-Up,” and “Expendable Americans: The Incredible Story of how Tens of Thousands of American Men and Women Die Each Year of Preventable Industrial Disease.”


That bibliography overshadowed Mr. Brodeur’s fiction writing and obscured the detail that his first New Yorker piece was a short story, “The Sick Fox,” published in 1957 when he was 26. His 1970 novel “The Stunt Man” was adapted into a 1980 film starring Peter O’Toole that was nominated for three Academy Awards.

“Paul had great range as a writer,” said Alec Wilkinson, a writer who was first a fishing buddy of Mr. Brodeur’s on the Cape, and later a New Yorker colleague.

“He exposed subjects in a firebrand sort of way and brought issues to center stage,” Wilkinson said, adding that his friend’s writing “served as a moral rebuke to society and what it was willing to accept as standards for humane treatment of the environment, of individuals, of ethical practice.”

Born in Boston on May 16, 1931, Paul Adrian Brodeur Jr. grew up in Arlington and spent time at his family’s Duxbury cottage each summer.

His father, Dr. Paul Brodeur Sr., was an orthodontist and sculptor who for many years didn’t tell young Paul that he had a son from a previous marriage called Adrian Paul Brodeur.

Mr. Brodeur’s mother, formerly Sarah Marjorie Smith, was a child education instructor.


The oldest of three siblings from his parents’ marriage, Mr. Brodeur attended Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was a reporter and editor for the school newspaper, and graduated from Harvard College in 1953.

He was stationed in Germany while serving in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps and sold “The Sick Fox” to The New Yorker while living and writing in Paris afterward. That led to him joining the magazine’s staff, initially as a Talk of the Town writer.

In 1960, Mr. Brodeur married Malabar Schleiter. They had two children — Stephen of Boston, who is president and chief executive of the venture capital firm Bluefish Capital, and Adrienne of Cambridge, a best-selling memoirist and novelist.

“Our family will remember him, above all, as a storyteller,” Adrienne and Stephen wrote. “Our father always said exactly what was on his mind and was cleared-eyed about what mattered in life — having a garden, fly-fishing, and being surrounded by people who enjoyed art, books, conversation, and food.”

Mr. Brodeur’s first marriage and a second, to Margaret Staats, ended in divorce. His third wife, bookstore owner Milane Christiansen, died in 2013.

The family will hold a private gathering to honor the life and work of Mr. Brodeur, who also leaves his sister, Valjeanne Paxton of Switzerland, and three grandchildren. His younger brother, David, died in 2019.

“He was an amazing guy, a great character amongst many other things,” said Jim Gilbert of Wellfleet, a former magazine editor and publisher who now writes a column for the Provincetown Independent.


“Whatever he did, he was aggressively passionate about. He was sort of this very ferocious human being,” Gilbert said of his friend and mentor, who also “was a great raconteur and wonderful to have drinks or share meals with because he always had a great story — or 12.”

Mr. Brodeur brought a novelist’s imagination to his fact-laden environmental writing and an investigative reporter’s zeal for detail to fiction.

In 1993, 36 years after breaking in as a New Yorker fiction writer, Mr. Bordeur’s last byline for the magazine was “Legacy,” a tribute to the impact of Rachel Carson, whose monumental environmental work “Silent Spring” about the dangers of DDT was published in the magazine in 1962.

Though he made no mention of having, figuratively speaking, taken the investigative baton from Carson with his first asbestos article six years later, he quoted her hope in “Silent Spring” that officials one day will “have the courage and integrity to declare that the public welfare is more important than dollars.”

Mr. Brodeur’s own hope for the future of environmental writing he helped pioneer could be seen, perhaps, in his piece’s final words: “Rachel Carson lives.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at