What’s Gotten Into Us?

ONE IN THREE WOMEN will die of cancer. So will one in two men. But when McKay Jenkins finds out that a tumor the size of an orange is growing in his abdomen, he’s surprised. Addicted to running, cycling, and organic gardening, this nonsmoking journalism professor and father of two young children never suspected that he was at risk. Before his surgery, two researchers ask Jenkins some unexpected questions. Has he ever been exposed to toxic chemicals in his lifetime? Not necessarily industrial chemicals, but chemicals found in consumer products like plastics, dry cleaning, paint, solvents, varnishes, foam furniture, or weed killers? His cancer scare provides a sort of awakening for Jenkins. “I went from being a passive observer of other people’s suffering to feeling an intimate desire to prevent suffering,” he writes. “I wanted to know if there were root causes.” What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World documents his efforts to understand what it means to live in a synthetic world.

Ninety-nine percent of the chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health. The EPA has a full set of toxicity information for only 7 percent of the eighty thousand chemicals in use. This is due in no small part to the power of the largely unregulated $637-billion-a-year U.S. chemical industry, which specializes in what one activist quoted by Jenkins calls “manufacturing uncertainty” about whether its chemicals are unsafe. Companies would have you believe that they have your health in mind and that toxic chemicals are also found in nature. It’s not as if they “need to convince you that a compound is safe for you to use it. All they need to do is make you doubt whether it is unsafe, and you’ll keep on buying,” says Jenkins. As a result, we’ve all become human guinea pigs. Forty-two billion pounds of synthetic chemicals are produced or imported in the U.S. every day. “Whether all that stuff ends up getting turned into consumer products, or burned, or buried, it never disappears. It has to end up somewhere. And it does. It ends up in us.”

To find out more about how ubiquitous synthetic chemicals have become in our bodies, Jenkins visits with several people in Maine who participated in a body burden study — an analysis of chemicals found in their blood, hair, and urine — directed by the state’s Environmental Health Strategy Center. Even remote, rural living could not prevent the presence of flame retardants, plasticizers, mercury, and stain resisters in their bodies. On average, each person harbored thirty-six different toxic chemicals, and all had detectable levels of lead, mercury, and arsenic. Amy Graham, a fit mother in her late thirties who grew up on a small family farm in a town of only a couple hundred people, is a poignant example. Upon learning that she has among the highest level of flame retardants of all the participants in the study, she feels a mixture of fear, anger, anxiety, and powerlessness. Where did all these chemicals come from?

Jenkins tries to uncover the truth and see what he can do to protect himself and his children. In his search for answers he plays the part of a curious and sometimes confused neophyte on a pilgrimage. Figuring that it would be akin to “stripping down in front of your doctor or spending time on a therapist’s couch,” Jenkins invites the toxicologist Alan Donnay into his home. He soon finds himself seeking the man’s approval and squirming while Donnay scolds him about a recent remodeling project, carpets, cleaning agents, and old cans of paint in his basement. Jenkins also canoes the Brandywine River to learn about how chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers affect drinking water throughout the country. And he spends time with a professional landscaper who tells him that he fears that his use of lawn pesticides led to his child’s diagnosis of ADHD.

Given the prevalence of toxic chemicals in our environment and bodies, Jenkins’s suggestion that being an informed consumer is one way to effect change may seem laughable. But while industry controls politics, and the legislative process can take years, consumer pressure, especially employed by women of childbearing age, is an efficient way to get companies to clean up their products. And reframing the debate as a family health issue instead of an environmental one gets political results. It also just plain makes sense. Many of our grandparents lived well without these chemicals, the vast majority of which were developed after World War II. “It’s worth relearning what we’ve forgotten,” says Jenkins. “How to build and furnish and clean our homes. How to care for our lawns. How to feed and clothe and bathe our children.” For Jenkins, this is imperative; the question is simply how long it will take us to make this transition back.