by McKay Jenkins
Random House, 2011
Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
McKay Jenkins new book is the Fast Food Nation of the toxic chemical world, and he’s written an eye-opening, scary, and potentially impactful text. He’s broken the book into chapters with titles including The Body, The Home, The Tap, The Lawn, and The Big Box Store, and this is a clue to the content: Jenkins is educating readers about chemical dangers lurking in the most common of places: your basement, your kitchen, your water, your green lawn, your favorite mall.
Importantly, Jenkins reveals that the chemicals corporations have been developing and selling in past decades—polyvinyl chloride (PVC), petrochemicals (think: thousands of consumer products like plastics, cosmetics, food storage containers) flame retardents, pesticides and herbicides (think: 2,4-D or 2,4-dicholorphenoxyacetic acid)—hundreds of which are unregulated and commonly in use today, have the ability to migrate into our bodies, accumulating in potentially disruptive, carcinogenic, and/or lethal amounts.
Jenkins worries not about the single exposure to a chemical but a lifetime’s accumulation, and his research points out potential links to increases in cancer, autism and other diseases. As Jenkins indicates in his prologue: “most of the tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially have been around…far too short a time for researchers to figure out…what impact they might have on our health.”
Jenkins’s own health scare prompted this book. Doctors cut a benign tumor out of his hip. Prior to surgery, he was asked all kinds of questions about his prior chemical exposure, making him realize that we have only a vague understanding of the links between most toxic chemicals and the health consequences.
The political ramifications are that change only occurs at the corporate level when populations of people get scared about what’s in their or their children’s bodies. Thyroid & hormone disruption, autism, cancer: a sixty year old may shrug, but when a mid-thirties new mother finds out that her breast milk may contain flame retardants, lead, phthalates, or other toxic chemicals, all of which may have the potential to disrupt a child’s hormonal, reproductive or other bodily system, she listens. And can adjust spending habits, spending money on organic or other products free from toxic chemicals. As Jenkins points out, corporations worry less about federal regulations: for many chemicals, regulation is nonexistant, and lobbyists in Washington can deter most changes. But losing consumers and revenue is a different story.
This is a scary book, but not without optimism and suggestions for change. After Sweden prohibited PBDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or flame retardant compounds) in late 1999, levels in Swedish breast milk dropped 30 percent in immediate years following. The book’s appendix is a solid resource of ideas, how-tos, and names or URLs to companies selling healthy non-toxic products. Change is possible, Jenkins tells us.
Jenkins’s research is impressive: the notes alone for the book are a healthy 50+ pages. My only quibble is the text could use an indicator to tell the reader when to refer to a reference in the notes section. None exist in this edition.
It’s a small quibble. If you have any interest in your body, your house, your physical enviroment, and the potential for toxic chemicals moving between the two, get a copy of this book now.