The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being

The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being

by Baker


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We are running a collective chemical fever that we cannot break. Everyone everywhere now carries a dizzying array of chemical contaminants, the by-products of modern industry and innovation that contribute to a host of developmental deficits and health problems in ways just now being understood. These toxic substances, unknown to our grandparents, accumulate in our fat, bones, blood, and organs as a consequence of womb-to-tomb exposure to industrial substances as common as the products that contain them. Almost everything we encounter—from soap to soup cans and computers to clothing—contributes to a chemical load unique to each of us. Scientists studying the phenomenon refer to it as “chemical body burden,” and in The Body Toxic, the investigative journalist Nena Baker explores the many factors that have given rise to this condition—from manufacturing breakthroughs to policy decisions to political pressure to the demands of popular culture. While chemical advances have helped raise our standard of living, making our lives easier and safer in many ways, there are costs to these conveniences that chemical companies would rather consumers never knew about. Baker draws back the curtain on this untold impact and assesses where we go from here.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865477070
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Nena Baker is a former staff writer for The Arizona Republic and The Oregonian. Her award-winning investigation of Nike's Indonesian factories led to numerous improvements for workers.

Read an Excerpt



One evening in early 2003 I was perusing the pages of The New York Times when an article about a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught my eye. The CDC said that with the help of technology that detects an increasing number of chemicals in human blood and tissue, it would be releasing new measurements, called biomonitoring, every few years. This bit of news, which netted only a few paragraphs in the paper, seemed to me a much bigger event than that. The discomfiting fact that small amounts of chemical pollutants—including substances used in everyday products—pulse through my body and everyone else’s expands the very definition of pollution. No longer can we think of pollution as an external insult that affects only the environment. Our bodies bear the burden, too.

The CDC’s promise of regular biomonitoring reporting raises intriguing questions. Should we be worried about the effects of these pollutants on our health? Can everyday items be responsible for the chemicals inside us? Don’t regulators already make sure we’re safe from daily doses of hazardous substances? I started digging and soon discovered a situation unlike any I had encountered in all my years as an investigative reporter. It inspired me to leave daily journalism after two decades to write The Body Toxic.

In short, the United States does not have a viable means to keep its 300 million citizens safe from untold chemical hazards in the things we use and buy day in and day out. As a result of this failure, chemicals that can interfere with the body’s reproductive, developmental, and behavioral systems are freely used in everything from plastics, soaps, and toys to food, food wrappers, clothing, and carpeting. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies show that these endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which throw off the body’s hormone system in various ways, cause lab animals to exhibit disorders and diseases that are on the rise in humans. The ghoulish list includes cancers of the breast, testicles, and brain; lowered sperm count; early puberty; endometriosis and other defects of the female reproductive system; diabetes; obesity; attention deficit disorder; asthma; and autism. Getting back to the CDC’s biomonitoring work: the chemicals not only contaminate our homes, offices, and vehicles but are also inside us at levels that, in a few cases, are equal to or uncomfortably close to the amounts that cause harmful effects in lab animals.

Everyone is affected by the phenomenon. But unlike global warming, this public-health crisis has not been blasted into the blogosphere or made into a movie by Al Gore. At least, not yet. But awareness of toxic chemicals in everyday products began to take hold during the four years that I worked on this book. Important new research studies grabbed headlines. New chemical regulations in the European Union and Canada emphasized consumer safety over corporate profits. Product scares brought home the danger of everyday exposures to toxics.

As I was finishing these pages, parents across the land crept through the night stealing toys from their babies because of lead-safety issues involving millions of popular playthings. Meanwhile, worried pet owners besieged the Food and Drug Administration with eighteen thousand phone calls after an outbreak of animal deaths from melamine-laced food. The problem products shared a common place of origin: China. As the recalls mounted, so, too, did cries that Chinese manufacturers do not live up to U.S. lead-safety standards introduced in the 1970s, when the United States banned lead in paint because of its potent toxicity to the brain and central nervous system. Prohibitions on leaded solder in plumbing and food cans soon followed. And in the early 1990s, the United States completed its phaseout of leaded gasoline. The resulting reductions in the blood lead levels of U.S. adults and children, as tracked by the CDC, are considered one of the great success stories of public health.

The toy recalls and pet-food fiasco soured many consumers on Chinese-made products, with nearly half of all Americans, according to a Harris poll, saying they would avoid any type of item fabricated there. (Quite a task given that the U.S. Census Bureau says we import more goods from China than from any other country.) Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate called for mandatory safety testing of all toys sold in the United States because voluntary self-policing by manufacturers, importers, and retailers and spot checks by a woefully understaffed and underfunded Consumer Product Safety Commission simply don’t work. In April 2008, Washington State recognized this fact by enacting the toughest toy safety standards in the nation: toys containing unacceptable levels of lead, cadmium, and plasticizers called phthalates will be outlawed as of July 2009. Consumers should be concerned about the dearth of safety standards in developing countries, where the vast majority of U.S. products are made. And Congress should be scrambling to ensure that children can play with any toy without sending their parents scurrying for lead-test kits or chemistry textbooks. The trouble with toxics, however, goes far beyond where a product comes from and a few well-known substances of long-standing worry.

Inventory your house and you’ll see why. Televisions are treated with flame retardants; furniture and carpets are coated with stain fighters; food containers take form from plasticizers; plastic toys—even those without lead paint— may be molded from polyvinyl chloride (PVC); and the bathroom shelf brims with chemical-laden personal care items. These products and treatments are problematic for a variety of reasons, including their potential to contribute to human exposures to hormone-mimicking substances. As with lead, children are the most susceptible to potential lifelong impacts from these toxics because their metabolism and behaviors expose them disproportionately.

The chemical industry insists everyday exposures to endocrine-disrupting substances are inconsequential to humans, young or old, because the amounts are too minuscule to matter. Such assurances are backed up with studies that, with rare exceptions, are funded by the industry itself. I don’t want to give away too much here about what you’ll discover in the book, but suffice it to say, the way chemical regulations work benefits the industry at the expense of the public. Yet manufacturers did not cook up our chemical stew all by themselves. To suggest so overlooks gross congressional failures: for more than three decades, our elected leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, have let stand the notoriously weak and ineffectual Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976, which governs the use of some 82,000 chemicals.

Through these pages, I will show just how spectacularly this landmark legislation falls short of what it was intended to do: protect public health and the environment. Indeed, the federal toxics law discourages chemical companies from knowing and sharing hazard and exposure information—the two variables that must be known in order for regulators to conduct risk assessments, according to Dr. Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician and professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. From 1993 to 1998, Goldman served as assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, where she set up voluntary programs to generate data from chemical manufacturers. Goldman is the first to concede that the honor system hasn’t worked.

"As soon as [chemical manufacturers] identify a new problem with a chemical, then that chemical becomes vulnerable to regulation," says Goldman. "And so if you were sitting there worried about protecting shareholder value, would the first thing on your mind be to go out and find more problems with your product that will then subject it to more regulation? It would not, because the more regulations, the less likely your customers are to want to purchase the chemical from you. And so in the way the laws are structured, there’s a perverse incentive not to look. The financial incentive is that as long as you don’t look, if you have no data about hazards, no data about exposures, then there is no risk assessment and then there is no risk, which is, of course, not actually true. But that is, in effect, how it works."

Through the years, authorities no less than the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. General Accounting Office, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) have weighed in on the inadequacies of federal regulations governing the use of toxic substances on inventory with the EPA. In its most recent report, the GAO recommended that Congress strengthen the toxics act to give the EPA the authority it lacks to do what most citizens assume it already does—assess and control chemicals that cause harm. Where endocrine-disrupting chemicals are concerned, Congress instructed the EPA more than a decade ago to begin a screening program in order to identify substances that may interfere with biological processes and change the way the body functions. That was in 1996, just as the theory of endocrine disruption was emerging. To date, the EPA has spent some $70 million but has yet to identify even one substance for chemical manufacturers to begin screening. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is now riding herd on the EPA to take "adequate and timely steps to protect the American public from dangerous endocrine-disrupting chemicals." Wasted time and long delays are the rule when it comes to toxics testing, putting all Americans in harm’s way.

From a consumer’s point of view, the situation is equally appalling at the FDA, which oversees $1 trillion a year of food, drugs, medical devices, and cosmetics. A scathing 2007 report prepared by members of the agency’s own science advisory panel concluded the FDA is suffering from serious deficiencies that put American lives at risk. Noting that the FDA’s resources have tightened as its workload and need for scientific sophistication have soared, the report said, "This imbalance is imposing a significant risk to the integrity of the food, drug, cosmetic, and device regulatory system, and hence the safety of the public." When a crisis erupts involving cosmetics, food, or drugs, the FDA cannot adequately respond. One example: in April 2008, the FDA agreed to review bisphenol A, the backbone of polycarbonate plastic, only after Canadian regulators moved to ban it in baby bottles and a U.S. House committee began investigating.

Acknowledging the breathtaking scope of the challenges faced by the FDA, Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach offered this alarming assessment of the agency he has headed since 2005: "The simple truth as I see it today is that the FDA of the twentieth century is not adequate to regulate the food and drugs of the twenty-first century . . . FDA was created one hundred years ago because change had created peril along with promise, and today FDA must be re-created because the peril and promise from these products is now even greater." As the FDA founders, scant resources hamper the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Full-time positions have dwindled from 978 in 1980 to a paltry 400 staffers as I write this in early 2008. Under the George W. Bush administration, the CPSC took a hands-off approach that veered further than ever from the agency’s mandate to regulate products that present an unreasonable risk. As an example of the agency’s nonchalance, Acting Chairman Nancy Nord maintains Congress never intended for the agency to inspect all consumer products. It would, she says, be "unrealistic, not to mention the drag of such an effort on global commerce, our economy and ultimately higher product costs."

Buyer beware, indeed. For more than three decades, the chemical industry, with the complicity of our elected leaders, has kept us in the dark about the toxicity of everyday substances and successfully resisted policy efforts that would better protect the public. It’s high time for chemical makers and Congress to come clean.

Excerpted from The Body Toxic by Nena Baker

Copyright © 2008 by Nena Baker

Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Coming Clean     3
A Chemical Stew: Body Burden     11
Chemicals We've Loved: Consumer Conveniences     33
Kermit's Blues: Atrazine and Frogs     57
What Price Beauty? Phthalates and You     88
Up in Flames; Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers     112
The Goods on Bad Plastic: Bisphenol A     141
Out of the Frying Pan and onto the Paper: Perfluorinated Chemicals     163
Reaching Ahead: New Policies     190
Epilogue: My List and Beyond     212
It's All About You     217
Environmental and Public-Health Groups That Get It     225
Learn More from Government Sources     229
Notes     233
Acknowledgments     257
Index     259

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The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
cass1269 More than 1 year ago
i found this book to lack a certain depth. though it does have a lot of information in it, it seems to repeat its self often. through out the book i found that it was all the same information. It was all information on how the various companies in the u.s. were using chemicals that were harful to us consumers. Though this was all quite interseting, i found it to all be the same after the first 30 pages. This book was also littered full of pesimistic views. The bulk of the book was all about what companies were doing wrong and how our legislation has failed time and time again to ban certain chemicals. Only at the vaery tail end of the book did she finally reconize the companies that have been making large steps towards going green and taking out harmfull chemicals.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Body Toxic, by journalist Nena Baker, is a well researched book on a sobering and chilling topic. Baker describes the ineffectiveness of both the EPA and FDA. She writes: 'A scathing 2007 report prepared by members of the agency's own science advisory panel concluded that the FDA is suffering from serious deficiencies that put American lives at risk.' All of us--regardless of how well we take care of ourselves--have bodies filled with chemical contaminants. All animals and humans all over the world have contaminants that are stored in fat, bones, blood and organs. Chemicals are in virtually everything--toys, water repellent clothes, plastic, paint, cosmetics, cleaners and more. Baker writes that the vast majority of the 80,000 industrial substances in our country have not been tested for potential toxic effects. Baker calls the mid 20th century 'The Synthetic Age,' and basically informs us that baby boomer's are the first crop of people to be exposed to heavy-duty amounts of chemicals in everything from hula hoops to polystyrene cups, DDT, Saran Wrap and synthetic clothes. There is a chapter devoted to the weed killer Atrazine and its affect on frogs, dangerous cosmetics and plastics and perfluorinated chemicals found in non-stick pans. There is also a chapter on looking ahead to much-needed policy changes, and how to avoid excess chemicals from everyday objects. Baker includes a list of what she does to avoid exposure. The list is a good start, as are the other suggestions in the following chapter, but it is not comprehensive. I suggest Harmonious Environment: Beautify, Detoxify and Energize Your Life, Your Home and Your Planet to supplement The Body Toxic, as it has hundreds of ways to reduce exposure to chemicals. Raising Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Care is another book with good additional information. Highly recommend!
Lema06 More than 1 year ago
This book seemed like an over exaggeration. All the evidence to support the theories were either based off animal testing or theoretical happenings. She would take certain things that had happened to humans or their offspring and say it could have been linked to this chemical. Key words could have. This book doesn't provide any real evidence that these chemicals will hurt humans. The animal testing where the results were negative never appeared in humans, even at extreme doses. Then she and others rant about our regulatory programs. They say they basically aren't doing their jobs, but my question is how can someone outlaw a main chemical that hasn't showed any negative effects in people. I think we should take this book as a could happen. Keep it in the back of our minds, but it shouldn't prohibit people from living our lives.