What Were You Expecting?
Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our ChildrenPhilip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff
Random House, 353 pp., $26
The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-BeingNena Baker
North Point Press, 274 pp., $24
For a spell in the early 1990s, my friend Dan lived by the whims of his Gaussmeter, a pocket-size device that measures the force of electromagnetic fields, which are emitted at varying levels by electrical power sources, large and small. Dan wanted to limit his family's exposure to these fields, which science had begun to suspect might be carcinogenic. Furniture was moved, appliances discarded, rooms reassigned. One miserable night, Dan lay in a cold sweat after the meter registered alarming results near the floor in his baby boy's room. In sleepless agitation he hauled himself out of bed, threw a coat over his pajamas, and slipped outside to record measurements up and down the streets of his leafy Brooklyn neighborhood. The readings were through the roof, consistently far higher than any he had recorded elsewhere and attributable to electrical trunk lines running beneath the sidewalks, installed nearly 100 years earlier. This was Dan's eureka moment. He tossed his Gaussmeter in the trash, crept back to bed, and fell into a blameless sleep. Electromagnetic fields are with us. They permeate our lives. Dan would make sure his son did not play peekaboo with cathode ray tubes, and he'd never buy a house adjacent to a power plant, but beyond that, clearly, exposure to electromagnetism was out of his hands.
It was an ambiguous resolution, except for the clear victory of Dan's restored equilibrium. The chestnut that advises us to accept the things we can't change, to change the things we can, and to know the difference can be dangerously seductive. Apathy beckons at precisely the moment it may be most crucial to press on. While reading Poisoned Profits, by Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff, and The Body Toxic, by Nena Baker, two books that enumerate the ways and means by which we find ourselves marinating in a chaotic stew of chemical pollutants, I intermittently had to will myself out of a fatalistic stupor. These books are awash in frightening, unimaginable statistics and asides. Here's a sampling: We produce or import at least 15 trillion pounds of chemicals a year; that's 42 billion pounds a day. Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, discussed the 200 pesticide products in use at the time; today there are 900 active pesticide ingredients formulated into some 18,000 products. Chemical engineers currently whip up some 82,000 industrial chemicals in order to manufacture more than 10 million different consumer products. Many of these chemical components find their way into our air, our water, our food, our skin, our teeth, our bones. By floating or wafting or leaching or decomposing or penetrating or metabolizing, they mess with our bloodstreams, our fatty tissue, our organs, our hormones, our lives. Our children's lives especially, starting in the womb. Talk about sleepless agitation.
My pregnancy and nursing days are over, and I'd be lying if I said I wish I'd had these books around in the run-up to my son's arrival 13 years ago, but selections from both volumes could function as bonus chapters in the pregnancy bible What to Expect When You're Expecting. In addition to leg cramps and morning sickness, you can expect a steady stream of industrial pollutants to cross your placenta and enter your baby's bloodstream (scientists once thought the placenta acted as a shield, but no). You can expect your baby to be born with a chemical body burden at least as great as your own and probably greater. Endocrine disruptors -- DDT, dioxins, phthalates -- mimic hormonal function and are often fat-soluble, so you can expect your toxic load to decrease once your baby starts nursing, as the fats in your otherwise splendidly nutritious milk act as highly efficient vehicles for transferring hormone-altering substances.
As for what to expect in the first year, the second, the third: no reprieve. Babies and toddlers sit and crawl on dusty floors, chew on things, roll in the grass -- all activities that subject them to close encounters with chemicals. Moreover, babies develop and grow, a process that from conception is governed by a hormonal ballet that's choreographed to a fare-thee-well and as such is highly vulnerable to chemical disturbance. Encountered at fleetingly specific gestational and postpartum phases, endocrine disruptors can profoundly affect development, resulting in, say, genital abnormalities in newborns or reduced sperm counts later in life.
Even if someone invented a Gaussmeter-like doohickey to steer us away from concentrations of these pollutants, it would be useless; there's no place to hide. Offending chemicals are everywhere, embedded in beauty and bath products; flame retardants; synthesized scents, fabrics, and building materials; plastic toys and containers; household cleaners; glues and epoxies; stain, water, and grease repellents -- I could fill pages. Even if you're an ascetic who shuns as many of these substances as possible, the residues and byproducts catch up with you in the rain and on the breeze and in the fur of your beloved Fido. You say you live in the Arctic? Ocean currents convey vast quantities of the stuff right to your doorstep; Inuit communities have begun reporting alarming reproductive health problems, most notably a significant drop in the birth of baby boys, which scientists attribute to persistent organic pollutants released by products manufactured and consumed thousands of miles away and often many years ago.
Philip Shabecoff served for 14 years as chief environmental correspondent for the New York Times, a job he left in the 1990s to found and publish Greenwire, an online environmental news digest. His wife and coauthor, Alice Shabecoff, onetime director of the National Consumers League, is a freelance journalist. They cast their book as a crime story and tell it in the voice of a prosecuting attorney, assigning chapter titles that correspond to stages of an investigation and trial ("Inquest," "Indictment," and so on). The formulaic approach may not seem promising; indeed, I sat down to read with a raised eyebrow. But soon enough, as I waded in and encountered the range, depth, and persuasiveness of their material, it occurred to me that the authors may have seized on the sturdy procedural form as the only structure sound enough to bear the weight of their vast and impassioned analysis.
The book vibrates with controlled rage, brought on by oblivious or willful polluters and the harm they inflict upon children and their communities as well as by the regulatory agencies that seem to oversee nothing so much as the capacity of chemical manufacturers to stay in business. One might reasonably expect the Toxic Substances Control Act -- implemented in 1976, in the wake of the havoc caused by PCBs and DDT -- to, well, control toxic substances. Hardly. The Shabecoffs explain: "The TSCA was and is weak, and an exception immediately rent a huge hole in the law. The sixty-two thousand industrial chemicals in use when the law passed were 'grandfathered' -- that is, allowed to stay in commerce, exempt en masse from any testing." Yet it is these chemicals that constitute the preponderance -- some 80 percent -- of the chemicals we use today.
Indeed, says Nena Baker in her more freewheeling volume, "The EPA [which administers the TSCA] has not attempted to ban a toxic chemical since 1989." Moreover, explains Baker, an investigative reporter whose probe into Nike's Indonesian factories led to improved working conditions, the EPA is dependent on chemical risk information volunteered by manufacturers, who have little incentive to disclose compromising data about their own products. Beyond that, various confidentiality statutes are invoked to keep nosy regulators at bay. In the end, she says: "The agency lacks the statutory power to request data on a chemical prior to proving it causes harm. And it can't make that kind of risk calculation without the data it is seeking."
Baker devotes large sections of her narrative to the accumulating scientific consensus on the dangers of endocrine disruptors and other "chemicals of concern." Increasingly, the paradigm first posited by Paracelsus that "the dose makes the poison" no longer suffices. Baker says: "Scientific discoveries that some contaminants alter gene behavior at extremely low doses and that high-dose experiments do not predict low-dose effects have rendered risk assessments woefully inadequate tools for prescribing public policy."
In the movie Thank You for Smoking, a scathingly hilarious take on the tobacco lobby and its shameless manipulations, the vice president and chief spokesman for the fictitious pro-tobacco Academy of Tobacco Studies explains to his bookish, skeptical, preadolescent son, "I don't have to be right. I only have to prove that you could be wrong. That makes me right." Twisted, unassailable logic -- until it unravels.
The paradigm exported by the United States and observed for decades by chemical markets around the globe, in which proving a substance's potential to cause harm fell to the consumer, has been turned on its head by landmark legislation approved by the European Parliament. Chemical lobbyists in the United States pulled out all the stops trying to quash it, but in December 2006, the parliament mandated that chemical companies doing business in the European Union must prove that their products are harmless or lose access to Europe's nearly 500 million consumers and $11 trillion market. At almost exactly the same time, Canada enacted a similar plan. Last year, California ushered in a Safe Cosmetics Act, which requires manufacturers to supply health-related information about a product's ingredients and authorizes the state to investigate when it sees fit.
Beyond that, chemistry has spawned a vigorous, if young, green movement, in which alternatives-that's right, safe chemicals; the term doesn't have to be an oxymoron-are being researched, manufactured, and rolled into products that grab more space on store shelves every day. Meanwhile scientists are using biomonitoring technologies, which detect, identify, and measure chemical pollutants in blood and tissue, to determine which substances tend to accumulate in our bodies, and of those, which pose health threats.
I don't think I'd wrap up either of these books and present it as a gift at a baby shower. But I would urge an expectant mother to seek them out herself. Baker includes a chapter on ways to minimize, if not eliminate, exposure to some of the more worrisome toxins; she also supplies a comprehensive guide to resources and activist organizations. Even the Shabecoffs, after delivering their thunderous courtroom summation, acknowledge the ways in which the steps we've only just begun to take could eventually lead to a revolution. For all the staggeringly bad news in these books, the authors make it clear that they know the difference: we can change things, and we must.