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Pub. Date:
University of California Press
Pub. Date:
University of California Press
Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics / Edition 1

Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics / Edition 1

by Norah MacKendrick Norah MacKendrick


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Better Safe Than Sorry takes on the timely question of how consumers understand and make decisions about the daily chemical exposures we face. Weaving together a rich explanation of the complex evolution of chemical regulation with an empathetic exploration of individual collective strategies to mitigate risk, Norah MacKendrick makes an important contribution to our understanding of this significant issue, which lies at the intersection of science, environmentalism, parenting, corporations, and public health.”—Jennifer A. Reich, author of Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines

“This is a unique examination of policy and regulation, the environmental health movement, and corporate and individual responses to chemical contamination in food and personal care products. It’s a fresh look at how people put excessive effort into reading labels and buying products that provide them with less toxic exposure and healthier lives, while the corporate structure is so powerful and the regulatory framework so weak that individual efforts are never enough. MacKendrick weaves together environmental sociology, gender studies, popular culture, environmental studies, and social movements while highlighting the centrality of gender in ‘precautionary consumption.’“—Phil Brown, author of Toxic Exposures: Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Health Movement
“MacKendrick proves why the supermarket, the pantry, and even the label on your lotion are objects of sociological investigation as critical and consequential as the street corner, the newsstand, and the operating room. This book is growing more relevant, more urgent by the minute.”—Rebecca Altman, writer and sociologist
“Well researched and beautifully written, Better Safe Than Sorry shows how ‘precautionary consumption’ is a logical but inadequate response to a regulatory system that has failed consumers and the environment. By showing how strategies like reading labels and choosing ecofriendly products perpetuate inequalities, this book makes critical contributions to our understanding of consumption, risk, and environmental regulation.”—Sarah Bowen, author of Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520296695
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Norah MacKendrick is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University.

Read an Excerpt



Chaz Dean believes in a natural, healthy lifestyle, so it's no wonder his approach to hairstyling follows suit. ... Chaz's own hair care line is made with natural ingredients. ... So dedicated is he to this philosophy that his WEN#174; product line does not include a shampoo. Rather, his cleansing conditioner is a single product that both cleanses and conditions, without the use of sodium laurel sulfate or other damaging detergents found in shampoos.

From the website of Chaz Dean, entrepreneur and celebrity hairstylist

Regulatory and scientific authorities worldwide, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and European Commission, have concluded that glyphosate, when used according to label directions, does not pose an unreasonable risk to human health, the environment, or pets.

From "What Is Glyphosate?" published online by Monsanto, manufacturer of Roundup

When Chaz Dean, a celebrity hairstylist based in Los Angeles, launched the product WEN Sweet Almond Mint Cleansing Conditioner, he pledged to change the world of hair care. He explained that his cleansing conditioners were inspired by his garden, and he claimed that they were made from natural ingredients and were healthier for hair than conventional shampoos. By 2014, however, Dean's company had received over 21,000 complaints from customers who had experienced hair loss, hair breakage, and scalp rashes after using WEN hair products. As permitted by law, none of the ingredients in Dean's products underwent formal safety testing. Despite numerous consumer grievances, and notwithstanding an advisory issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), WEN products are still for sale, and Dean maintains that they are safe. Although the FDA has no power to recall the products, warnings distributed via social media caused sales to drop, and in 2017, Dean settled a class action lawsuit launched by affected customers.

In 2017, a judge in Fresno, California, ruled that, in accordance with California's chemical safety labeling law Proposition 65, the herbicide Roundup, produced by Monsanto, must carry a warning label stating that the active ingredient glyphosate is "known to the state to cause cancer." But Roundup must only carry this warning in California, where chemical safety rules are considerably stricter than those in the rest of the country. In a separate ruling that same year, Monsanto was ordered to turn over emails it exchanged with government regulators and scientists about the safety of this herbicide. This correspondence revealed a close relationship between the company and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is responsible for ensuring the safety of agricultural pesticides, and a deliberate effort on the part of key EPA officials and Monsanto to downplay results from studies showing that glyphosate caused tumors in some animals. Glyphosate is the world's most widely applied pesticide, and, not surprisingly, glyphosate residues can be found in most foods containing soybeans, oats, and corn — food crops typically treated with glyphosate. The International Agency for Research on Cancer — part of the World Health Organization — has classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans" and as positively associated with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Stories like these reflect a disturbing but familiar pattern in the U.S. retail landscape: a food or product is assumed to be safe, evidence emerges that associates it with health problems, this evidence is disputed, and the product is left on the market, leaving consumers to figure out what to do. In fact, the marketplace has evolved to capitalize on widespread concern and uncertainty over such matters by promising safety. Shoppers walking into a major supermarket, like Target, Kroger, or Safeway, will encounter a number of labels telling them about the "bad" things that are not in products and all the "good" things that are. As illustrated by the case of WEN, the proliferation of promotional materials and labels emphasize the natural quality of the products being sold.

As a result, everyday decisions about what to buy have become exceedingly complicated for shoppers concerned about environmental contaminants in their food and consumer products. Many plastic water bottles, for instance, have labels stating that they are "bisphenol A–free," while stainless steel bottles claim to be "plastic-free." How do shoppers know which bottle is best? In the produce aisle, choosing an apple is just as complex. Customers are likely to find a pricey certified-organic apple, an imported conventional apple (grown with pesticides), and, possibly, a locally grown but conventional variety. Which one should they choose? When they get to the dairy section of the store, they might wonder about the difference between "rBGH-free" yogurt and certified-organic yogurt. Perhaps the most perplexing choice they will encounter is whether the instant macaroni and cheese made with organic milk from grass-fed cows is healthier than the instant macaroni and cheese made with organic milk from cows fed something other than grass. Of course, both products are highly processed, high in sodium, and, as it turns out, likely contain traces of toxic substances that can interfere with the human reproductive system.

These decisions seem small because, after all, they are about food and consumer goods, and they take place in a grocery store. But in actual practice, they are complex. Consumers must decipher seemingly infinite warnings plastered on product packages — suggesting that one bad shopping choice could imperil their health (or the health of their children) — while trying to balance the household budget and buy the right foods and products to suit every family member's tastes. All of this reading and decision-making could prompt shoppers to drop their baskets in the middle of the aisle, walk out of the store, and vow never to read a label again.

Such experiences are not limited to the grocery aisle. Messages to avoid toxic chemicals abound. Popular books about the dangerous chemical substances in foods and consumer products feature such titles as No More Dirty Looks: The Truth about Your Beauty Products — and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being, and The Non-toxic Avenger: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) — one of the largest environmental health advocacy groups in the United States — offers readers multiple safe-shopping guides, including the popular Dirty Dozen guide to pesticide residues in fresh produce, and the Skin Deep Guide to Cosmetics.

Sales of certified-organic food and so-called natural foods, cosmetics, and cleaning products are higher than ever in the United States, and growth in this sector outstrips growth in the conventional grocery sector. Whole Foods Market, a global natural and organic food retailer, reported record profits from 2008 to 2014 and opened hundreds of new stores across the United States during that period. Conventional retailers now compete with the company by offering their own low-cost, generic, eco-friendly, or certified-organic brands. According to figures from the Organic Trade Association, more middle-class shoppers than ever before, including middle-class African American and Latino consumers, are choosing organic items when they shop. The food industry projects that natural and organic food sales will continue to outpace other sectors of the grocery market.

I call this trend toward "green" or nontoxic shopping "precautionary consumption." Precautionary consumption is a kind of "looking before you leap" that takes place in grocery stores. It can involve, for example, reading a product label to identify potentially harmful additives, checking for an organic certification seal, or using the EWG's Skin Deep database to find cosmetics that don't contain carcinogenic ingredients. Precautionary consumption is about deploying a personal standard of safety, a standard that shifts depending on what a person is concerned about at a particular moment, where they are shopping, their disposable income, how busy they are, and other demands on their attention. The sheer expansion of precautionary consumer spaces and advice means that the individual consumer angle is now a dominant way of thinking about and framing chemical exposure. This approach, in so much as it hinges on suggesting that better label reading at the supermarket will address and mitigate chemical pollution, obscures the larger systemic context that has resulted in a marketplace awash in untested chemicals. By focusing on consumer practices, individualized precautionary consumption directs attention away from the responsibility of government and chemical companies to enforce and enact responsible testing and manufacturing protocols.

Put another way, precautionary consumption is a product of broader social, economic, and political transformations, whereby collective risks — that is, risks that affect large numbers of people — are increasingly addressed as individual-level problems with individual-level fixes. Precautionary consumption requires individuals to make subtle calculations, such as deciding whether it is better to save a dollar by choosing a conventional apple with pesticide residues that could cause cancer later in life or to spend the extra money to buy an organic apple and avoid such chemicals — at least momentarily. Most significantly, precautionary consumption often falls to mothers, as they are the primary shoppers in most households. Middle-class women in particular become aware of the dangers of synthetic chemicals in their food and consumer product during the transition to motherhood — either before conception, during pregnancy, while breastfeeding, or when preparing to offer an infant its first solid foods.

This book engages these issues and other pressing questions: How and why has precautionary consumption become a major component of consumer culture? More to the point, why are mothers taking on the responsibility for precautionary consumption? How do they approach the task of chemical avoidance through shopping? Do they embrace it as a marker of their commitment to motherhood, or do they resist it as another job they have to incorporate into their busy lives? Finally, what are the larger social and political implications of approaching contamination as a matter of consumer choice? This book traces the rise of precautionary consumption to understand why consumers are so concerned about chemical substances in their food and consumer products. More specifically, it explores the gendered labor of precautionary consumption to show that it is not the practice of paranoid, affluent mothers; rather, it is a response to social and medical discourses that hold women responsible for producing healthy children. These discourses have been mobilized in powerful ways in response to advances in science and technology, revealing the remarkable permeability of the human body to ubiquitous environmental chemicals that have never been properly evaluated for their impacts on human health.

The rise of precautionary consumption corresponds to the poor regulation of the American food system and chemical production at a cultural moment when Americans are preoccupied about what they eat and put into their bodies and even more apprehensive about what they feed their children. In this milieu, it is overwhelmingly women who are working to bypass the legacy of widespread chemical pollution. Not only does precautionary consumption place a large and unfair burden on women, I argue, but it is also a temporary and piecemeal response to the widespread problem of environmental chemicals.


Many Americans believe that the federal government keeps a close eye on the chemicals used in food and consumer products. However, the majority of synthetic chemicals used in processed foods, cleaning products, personal care products, furniture, and electronics have entered into production without any rigorous testing or federal government review, and most of the chemicals used in cosmetics require no premarket review. The EPA has the authority to regulate commercial and industrial chemicals, but between 1976 and 2016 it took action on less than 10 percent of the eighty-five thousand chemicals that were registered for use in the United States. The FDA is responsible for regulating chemicals used in cosmetics, but it only reviews coloring additives and maintains a short list of chemicals that are prohibited or restricted.

Outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. federal government, major reforms to chemical legislation have been enacted. Starting in 2007, the European Union adopted an explicit precautionary approach to chemical regulation, much to the disappointment of U.S. chemical producers, who lobbied extensively to stall or derail these regulatory efforts. In the case of cosmetics, the European Union has banned or restricted the use of over 1,300 chemicals because of concerns about health effects, while the FDA has banned or restricted only 11 chemicals. More action is occurring at the state level in the United States. California, Maine, and Washington, for example, have all enacted legislation to restrict compounds such as certain brominated flame retardants, bisphenol A (BPA), and triclosan — restrictions that are not present at the federal level.

Reading about the cocktail of chemicals flooding the consumer landscape and the myriad commodities promising that they are "safe," many observers will inevitably wonder if they should be worried about synthetic chemicals in their food and homes. The short answer is yes. It would be a mistake to dismiss this phenomenon as consumer paranoia or the consequence of bad information distributed through the Internet, the approach taken by books like Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health. Concern about lowdose exposure to environmental chemicals is supported by published, peer-reviewed toxicology and environmental health research — research that has compelled organizations such as the Endocrine Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue policy statements urging government action to restrict the use of many synthetic chemicals currently being used in food and consumer products. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics released its opinion on this issue: Widespread exposure to toxic environmental chemicals threatens healthy human reproduction. Industrial chemicals are used and discarded in every aspect of daily life and are ubiquitous in food, water, air, and consumer products. Exposure to environmental chemicals and metals permeates all parts of life across the globe. Toxic chemicals enter the environment through food and energy production, industrial emissions and accidents, waste, transportation, and the making, use, and disposal of consumer and personal care products.

In the rest of this chapter and throughout this book, I outline the scope and significance of human environmental chemical exposure. I demonstrate how the distribution of toxic substances in the environment and human bodies, and the attribution of responsibility for addressing toxic exposures, are not random. Exposure and responsibility are culturally and socially determined.


Owing to massive investments in industrial research during World War II, the manufacturing of synthetic chemicals increased three-fold after the war and is now a trillion-dollar industry. In the United States, 85,000 synthetic chemicals are registered for use, and just under 2,500 new substances are introduced into the U.S. market each year. These substances must be registered with the EPA, and yet, until very recently, there was no requirement that they be tested for their potential environmental impact and human health consequences.

The adult human body contains hundreds of these chemicals, accumulated during a lifetime of exposure. This internal load of synthetic chemicals is referred to as a chemical dose or body burden. By breathing outdoor and indoor air, drinking, eating, using a computer, and sitting on a couch, the human body continually absorbs multiple chemicals, often at low concentrations. Some of them, like BPA (used to line food cans and produce some types of plastic), are excreted from the body, while others, like brominated flame retardants and pesticides, accumulate in tissues and fat deposits. Pregnancy mobilizes some of these chemicals, and many of the chemicals that pass through a mother's body (e.g., air pollutants, BPA, parabens) enter the placenta, where they are absorbed by the fetus. Breastfeeding mobilizes maternal fat stores and the fat-soluble chemicals that they contain. Thus, through breastfeeding, a mother transfers to her infant some of the environmental chemicals stored in her body.


Excerpted from "Better Safe Than Sorry"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Norah MacKendrick.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

List of Abbreviations xv

1 Introduction 1

2 Safe until Sorry: Chemical Regulation in the United States 26

3 Personalizing Pollution: The Environmental Health Movement 56

4 Be a Super Shopper! Precautionary Consumption at the Grocery Store 83

5 The High Stakes of Shopping: Precautionary Consumption as Mothers' Work 103

6 Precautionary Consumption as a Class Act 125

7 Moving toward Environmental Justice 143

Methodological Appendix 159

Notes 179

Reference List 205

Index 233

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