Orion columnist Sandra Steingraber has written that “it’s no longer possible to distinguish the hand of nature from the hand of industrial pollution.” A few years ago, when McKay Jenkins discovered a tumor the size of a baseball in his abdomen, researchers questioned him about his exposure to toxic chemicals. He began to investigate. What he found became the basis for his new book, What’s Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World, published in April by Random House.
On the way home from Harry Potter summer camp last week, my daughter, who is seven, asked me again about pesticides. She has been worrying about mortality recently, and for some reason pesticides have come to represent something distinctly ominous to her. She’s heard stories about the harm these chemicals do to pets, and to birds, and to children, and can’t understand why so many of our neighbors would post yard signs boasting of their use. What could I tell her? We’ve never used pesticides at our house, but even she can see that there’s no escaping them.
The next day, the EPA formally listed formaldehyde as a carcinogen, which was a bummer, since carpenters were busy installing bookshelves in our living room that were almost certainly glued together with a formaldehyde-based adhesive. That same afternoon, the guys painting the bookshelves gently mocked my wife for requesting paint made without “volatile organic compounds,” which can be both neurotoxic and carcinogenic. This low-VOC stuff won’t last as long, the painters said. You’ll be sorry in the long run. We said we’d take our chances.
The day after that, sitting in a dentist’s chair, I learned that the old fillings that were falling apart in my mouth were almost certainly made with Bisphenol A, a plastics compound known to interfere with the endocrine system. My new dentist looked sheepish telling me this, and assured me her high-efficiency vacuum would keep the stuff (as well as the mercury from other old fillings) from going down my throat.
These are not idle worries. One of our dearest family friends, himself a cancer surgeon, has just been diagnosed with Stage Four stomach cancer. He’s in his mid-40s. It’s not just my daughter who has been worrying about death lately. Grief is in the air.
After spending three years researching the health and environmental problems caused by toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products, I can’t say that I’ve figured everything out. Navigating a world in which virtually everything is made from synthetic materials remains deeply frustrating. So many of the things we come into contact with are made with chemicals we can’t pronounce, whose origin we are not allowed to see, and whose impact on our health is maddeningly unclear. When we go looking for information about the products we use, we often come up empty. What information we can get our hands on is often impossible to understand. And at every turn, industry is there to muddy the waters, and government regulators are there looking compromised at best.
So what are we supposed to do? Can we shop our way out of this problem? Will nontoxic products somehow make their way into the cultural mainstream, as organic food has managed to do? Or does government need to clamp down on a powerful industry, as it did to Big Tobacco, in order to protect the public health?
I’ve come to see the toxic chemical question as a little like cigarettes, and a little like climate change. You can quit smoking, and instantly change your health for the better. You can throw away your non-stick frying pans, and reduce your exposure to Teflon chemicals, which have been linked to birth defects. You can quit going to the dry cleaner, and reduce your exposure to the carcinogenic solvent perchloroethylene. You can throw out your kids’ bath toys (and their skin lotion, and your air fresheners and dozens of other products), and lower your contact with phthalates, which are known to interfere with human hormones. Armed with information, you can, on your own, reduce your exposure to dangerous chemicals. Just like giving up cigarettes.
But just as small-scale, personal changes are not enough to solve the climate crisis (driving a Prius, while surely better than driving an SUV, is not going to solve global warming), addressing the toxic chemical problem requires change and regulation on a greater scale. If you allow industry to make products like children’s pajamas, mattresses, and computers with flame retardants, you find these chemicals showing up not just in food but in women’s breast tissue. If you import all your products from China, you wind up (as we did a couple of summers ago) with tens of millions of children’s toys painted with lead paint. You may not use pesticides, but if summer rains wash your neighbor’s herbicides into your organic garden, you’ll not only find them in your yard but in the dust on your windowsill. If those same rains slosh an entire quadrant of the country’s lawn chemicals into one body of water—as they do in the mid-Atlantic, to the Chesapeake Bay—you turn one of the country’s most fertile estuaries into a gargantuan dead zone. If that same quadrant of the country flushes enormous quantities of petrochemicals (from road and parking lots); agricultural chemicals (from farms); and prescription drugs (like Viagra and antidepressants), you can measure those same chemicals coming straight through the municipal water supply into your tap. Just last month, scientists in Europe reported finding more than twenty synthetic chemicals, including everything from painkillers to human growth hormones, in a simple glass of milk.
So making smart choices for ourselves is not enough. We’re not just talking about personal health, after all, we’re talking about public and ecological health. Reducing our saturation with synthetic chemicals will require a national conversation, one broad and honest enough to look consumer culture—and industrial production—squarely in the face. Part of this is underway: the U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would strengthen the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, which has not been updated in nearly forty years. And given decades of federal inaction, a handful of states—notably California, Washington, Maryland, and Maine—are beginning to tackle chemical regulation themselves. Perhaps one day, consumer protection laws will be commonsensical enough that when my daughter asks me about the dangers of toxic chemicals, I can give her a satisfying answer.