Like many parents of young children, I don't read books cover-to-cover much anymore. So it was with great pleasure that I read even the appendices in Nena Baker's new book, The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our health's and Well-being.
Baker spent four years researching this book and you can tell. It's chock full of chemical history and the politics that surround it, including tidbits like Teflon's beginnings as a coating for the valves and gaskets in the atom bomb. Her emphasis is endocrine disruptors and she digs deep into five problem areas: the common pesticide atrazine, cosmetics, flame retardants, plastics and perfluorinated chemicals. In each case she not only confronts the major issues head-on, she tells a readable story and even throws in some manageable chemistry. No easy task.
She also wraps her arms around the reason we are all afraid to buy most anything:
The vast majority of [the 10,000 widely used chemicals] have not been tested for potential toxic effects because the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 does not require it. And the news gets shockingly worse: the EPA cannot take any regulatory action regarding a suspected harmful substance until it has evidence that it poses an "unreasonable" risk of injury to human health or the environment.
The barriers to action are so high that, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accounting Office, the EPA has given up trying to regulate chemicals and instead relies on the chemical industry to act voluntarily when concerns arise.
Now that makes me sleep soundly at night - you? But as Baker so reasonably says (and perhaps the reason reviewers are calling her 'balanced'), 'it's not that chemicals are bad per se, and it would be preposterous for even the most ardent environmentalist to suggest such a notion. It's that costly societal problems often arise because we know so little about so many chemicals.' Exactly.
Good thing she covers how we're going to change this, 'cause that's what I'm after. It's high time to move beyond what one researcher calls the chemical du jour approach, where we're fighting s-l-o-w-l-y to ban one bad actor after another: lead, phthalates, BPA, and the list (and time, effort, money) goes on. And that is just where the Kid Safe Chemicals Act comes in. Let's test chemicals before they hit the market, not after they start causing trouble.
If you're more personal than political, Baker's got a terrific section that briefly describes the uses and adverse health effects of the five major chemicals she covers, including common exposure pathways and steps for avoiding them (Appendix 1). Happily for us laypeople, Baker has a knack for translating carbon chains and the like into understandable lingo. But her closing sentence needs no translating: We are the body toxic, and we can no longer afford our ignorance.