ISSUE BOOKS DON'T sell very well," according to
Lewis Regenstein, the author of America the Poisoned. At least, that's how he is quoted in a recent Detroit News column about this compilation of the chemical crises that occur with dismaying frequency in every corner of the country.
Well, there can be no doubt that America the Poisoned is an issue book; but the market will have to determine the accuracy of the author's claim. If he is correct, part of the reason is likely to be discovered in the several adages about bad news and our reluctance to accept it.
For this book is definitely bad news; it is a dictionary of disaster, a catalogue of chemical excess, a compendium of crimes against the environment committed in the name of progress. It is a volume, as Shakespeare wrote, of "News fitting to the night, black, fearful, comfortless and horrible." After reading it, most people will never again want to hear the corporate tagline "Better Living Through Chemistry," and many of the more impressionable readers may wish they could join E.T. on his voyage to an extraterrestrial home.
If the author is to be believed -- and he footnotes and documents his material meticulously -- it may already be too late for most of us to find antidotes to the scores of pernicious and persistent chemical poisons which have been distributed with such intensity on this earth since World War II -- the advent of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons that opened the lid to Pandora's chemical box.
Regenstein pays due homage to Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring, which kindled the public outcry that eventually halted (in this nation) the sale of DDT. Noting that his volume appears in Silent Spring's 20th anniversary year, Regenstein tells his readers that while the Carson book deserves its honors and its place in history, it did relatively little to halt the flood of toxic compounds that are wreaking such havoc with our health and welfare.
Instead the nation is literally being inundated with chemicals sprayed from the air, spewed from chimneystacks, applied to our cropland, showered over entire forests, buried beneath the earth or beneath the sea, introduced to our food and drink, impregnated into our clothing, and, in a kind of final indignity, stirred internally into mother's milk in such wretched excess that even that sacrosanct fluid is now so chemically contaminated it would not be allowed on commercial food counters.
Some of the results of this rush to produce compounds, according to the author, include a soaring cancer rate (56 million Americans, says Regenstein will contract the disease), miscarriages, stillbirths, blindness, bleeding, insanity, vomiting, corruption, and, almost mercifully in some cases, death. Altogether a "black, fearful, comfortless and horrible" portrait of what many citizens have been told is progress.
The book is more catalogue than narrative, more a collection of evidence than an essay. Acknowledging the support and assistance of his wife, the author writes, "My thanks . . . last but not least to my wife Janice, for putting up for years, though not always cheerfully, with my clippings, scribblings, and boxes of material scattered all over the house." Using the book as reference, one can imagine that there must have been scores of those boxes, hundreds of scribblings, and thousands of clippings. Because what Regenstein has done, basically, is collect and categorize all of them to document, in repetitive and relentless detail, thousands of individual instances of chemical poisoning.
We are informed of Agent Orange, of Love Canal, and the Michigan PBB disaster along with less publicized narratives of individual horrors, like the Ashford, Washington, women's meeting at which a timber company chemist reportedly told worried mothers that "babies are replaceable" and the women should "plan their pregnancies around the (2,4-D) spray schedule."
But the real villain of the book, seldom directly identified, but lurking in the shadows of every dark chapter, is the Reagan administration and its policies that tend to loosen, rather than maintain, the government's surveillance of toxic substances, chemical excess and environmental abuse. Anyone who reads this book and assigns it any credibility must also be alarmed; there is simply too much evidence that a chemical crisis is at hand. To begin to set the elements to rights, the author tells us, that "the overwhelming majority of people who support conservation must get active and organized. The public must demand that politicians either support environmental protection or be voted out of office."
Perhaps, as Lewis Regenstein has said, "Issue books don't sell very well." That remains to be seen. If this one causes half the stir it should, what happens at the polls this November and in 1984 will surely be affected.