washingtonpost.com
Home Sick
Are unregulated chemicals in everyday products making us ill?

Reviewed by Seth Shulman
Sunday, September 7, 2008

POISONED PROFITS

The Toxic Assault on Our Children

By Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff | Random House. 353 pp. $26

THE BODY TOXIC

How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being

By Nena Baker | North Point. 277 pp. $24

As we near the end of an administration with the most lax regulatory track record in modern memory, public fear rightly mounts about the safety of everyday chemicals. Journalists Philip and Alice Shabecoff, now grandparents, are fierce and vocal advocates for the nation's children, and their book indicts industry and negligent government regulators for a so-called "toxic assault" on children that they contend "bears the hallmarks of a crime."

The authors' contentions are enough to raise the ire of the most blasé and scare many parents witless. Chapter five, for instance, entitled "The Scene of the Crime," offers a frightening portrait of the nursery as "arguably the most toxic room in the home." There we find little Johnny and Jennifer breathing volatile organic compounds from the freshly painted walls, and formaldehyde fumes leaching from the pressed wood used in floors and furnishings, as the kids lie on a crib mattress that contains toxic flame retardants and ingest insidious phthalate molecules from their teething rings.

Frightening though it may sound, the depiction will strike most readers as overwrought. We want to know: Just how dangerous is the nursery, really? But the Shabecoffs have other plans than to offer a measured answer. Invoking Rachel Carson's Silent Spring on the very first page of their book, they seem to think that a good, scary polemic -- "We're poisoning our kids!" -- is what's needed to bring the issue the attention it deserves. They may be right.

Certainly, Philip Shabecoff's well-earned reputation as an elder statesman of environmental journalism lends the book credence. The husband in this journalistic team was among the nation's first full-time environmental reporters. After serving as a White House correspondent for the New York Times during Nixon's resignation and the Ford administration, he asked in 1977 to be reassigned to cover emerging environmental issues. For the next 14 years, Shabecoff wrote high-profile stories about everything from acid rain to scientists' then-mostly-unheard-of concerns about global warming. And he inspired scores of journalists like me to make reporting on the environment a central focus of our work.

With Poisoned Profits, the Shabecoffs deserve credit for forcefully urging the issue of our children's environmental health onto the national agenda where it surely belongs. Unfortunately, though, the book's hard-sell tactics ultimately work to its disadvantage. The public has come a long way since Carson's day, and the Shabecoffs' frequent failure to provide context and perspective will lead many skeptics to dismiss their important argument while likely irking even many sympathetic readers.

A prime example is the book's overreaching, headline-grabbing contention that "of America's 73 million children, almost 21 million, nearly 1 out of 3, suffer from one chronic disease or another." A look at the data quickly shows that figure -- and the Shabecoffs' claim of a "steep upward trend" in the incidence of toxic effects in children -- to be overblown. By the authors' own count, more than half of these children (some 12 million) suffer from a constellation of ailments, including the real but notoriously ill-defined and likely over-diagnosed attention deficit disorder, whose link to toxic chemicals is only tenuously established.

Hyperbole also creeps into the numbers of even more closely studied environmental effects. They write, for instance, that 310,000 children have had their "bodies and minds . . . poisoned with lead," adding that today's kids "carry more than one thousand times more lead in their bones than pre-industrial age children." This may be true, but the book fails to note sufficiently that modern-day U.S. efforts to protect kids from lead have been primarily a "good news" environmental story. Data from the EPA show that the phase-out of leaded gasoline in the 1980s helped reduce airborne lead levels by an order of magnitude. A recent study of lead levels in children under 6 by the Centers for Disease Control similarly found a more than six-fold drop between 1997 and 2006 to the lowest incidence of elevated levels in decades.

Don't get me wrong. I believe, as the authors clearly do, that too many American children suffer from lead poisoning and exposure to other toxins. But a book assessing the toxic threat to the nation's children requires a great deal of separating the truly alarming from the potentially worrisome, and on this score the Shabecoffs often shed more heat than light.

The book does, however, include a useful appendix with common-sense ideas to minimize toxic exposure at home, from installing a water filter to using sticky doormats that remove potentially toxic particulates from the soles of incoming visitors' shoes. Despite the book's thrust as an exposé, some of its best reporting addresses the work of scientists and designers seeking to create safer products. The authors acknowledge the public's receptivity to these emerging efforts, noting for instance that so-called green cleaning products "are now hip" and that organic food "is jumping off the shelves." Alas, these promising signs of change are buried deep within an alarming -- and too often alarmist -- jeremiad.

Less sweeping in its indictment but more balanced in its approach is journalist Nena Baker's The Body Toxic. "When it comes to toxic exposures, the personal is political," Baker writes. Fittingly, as a point of departure, the author pays $2,000 for a laboratory in Britain to conduct a so-called "body burden analysis" identifying the amounts of toxic substances in her blood. Like that of virtually anyone in the industrialized world, Baker's body contains trace amounts of everything from PCBs to flame retardants. Seeking to make sense of what the levels mean -- and what kind of threats they may pose to her health -- Baker has written an illuminating, consumer-oriented book that sifts through some of the latest findings about the dangers of everyday chemicals.

Unlike Poisoned Profits, which lumps together anecdotes of corporate wrongdoing, scientific studies and downright red herrings to bolster its case, Baker's readable chapters separately tackle specific toxic threats, such as the widely used herbicide atrazine or the now-notorious bisphenol A, which was (until recently) widely used as a component in plastic water bottles. Throughout The Body Toxic, Baker gives consumers information to help them make "informed decisions," and she includes a list of a dozen steps she has taken to minimize her exposure to toxic chemicals.

Like the Shabecoffs, Baker saves some of her most scathing criticism for the regulatory failures -- such as the notoriously weak Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976 -- that have allowed thousands of new chemical compounds on the market without adequate testing. As a result, Americans have for decades been "kept . . . in the dark about the toxicity of everyday substances." Despite differences in tone and emphasis, both books pair solid reporting with an urgent message: Chemical makers and regulators must clean up their act in light of mounting evidence of untoward health effects from many widely used chemical contaminants. ·

Seth Shulman is the author of "Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration" and, most recently, "The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company