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The U.S. of Anxiety

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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008

You stare at your sunglasses. They stare back. You ask, "Et tu?" Are they also toxic? And what other toxins have they been hiding behind those rose-colored shades through which you've looked at the world all these years and thought it good?

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The cellphone sits on your desk and you wonder if it is contaminated, too. The CD you love, playing it all these years until you squeezed all the music out of it -- has it really been killing you?

You wonder whether it, too, contains the resins that the National Toxicology Program indicated this week can mimic estrogen in the body and may cause cancer and other disorders. While you read this, look on the bottom of your water bottle. If there is a simple 7, stamped like a demon sign in the recycling-logo triangle, it also may contain the dreaded bisphenol A, a chemical used in the production of polycarbonate plastics.

"Are people exposed to bisphenol A?" the report asks. "Yes. The primary source of exposure to bisphenol A for most people is through the diet. . . . Bisphenol A can migrate into food from food and beverage containers with internal epoxy resin coatings and from consumer products such as polycarbonate tableware, food containers, water bottles and baby bottles."

You put your water bottle down. Fear creeps in. You rub your hands on your skirt for good measure. What will you drink? You have long feared the water fountain after there were reports of lead. But it's not just the water. Plastic forks potentially contain the evil resin, too. And canned food, and baby bottles. Potential hazards lurk.

With this report, the fireflies of fear have risen again. Fears are caressed, and pampered and promulgated. Rampant and steady, fed through a constant drip of reports, with warnings coming long after you have spent years walking with a cellphone virtually glued to your head and drinking from plastic bottles and bearing those potentially lethal dental sealants in your mouth.

Fear is abstract and concrete. Edible and liquid. You may have imbibed it this morning as you listened to the news about the long list of other things you should be afraid of: The economy, climate change, rising utility prices, foreclosures, school massacres, the absence of bees.

But fear is a curious thing. It makes a person run from one thing, but she may be running into the arms of something more frightful. They say fear is the emotion that brings things to pass. One day you wake up and realize the thing you feared is not the monster that has come to sleep in your bed. But something else, something you never thought about, would creep in the open window. It's all a matter of perspective.

Elly Porter is a good mother. An arts and dance teacher who lives in Takoma Park, she ran for years from the fear of bad food. She did everything to avoid it. "When I had my first child," Porter says, "I was the healthiest mom. I nursed her. I fed her all organic food. . . . She got cancer anyway." Her daughter, now 18, has recovered.

That put the brakes on her worries about food. After that, Porter learned to balance her fears with common sense. She doesn't microwave food in plastic. It's an intuitive thing that seems to make sense. "I don't know about the latest fear," she says. "Bottled water?"

She is standing in an aisle in a mega-bookstore. The sun presses through large windows. She smiles. "Fear is a curious thing," she says. "But I think I'm more fearful of my daughter driving."

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