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Poisons we live with

Book>> What’s gotten into us? Staying healthy in a toxic world • by Mckay Jenkins, Random House • US $26

By Vaishali Bose
Published: Wednesday 15 June 2011

bookAbout a year ago, this magazine carried a story on how lethal toys could be.

I was struck by a paragraph that described how children could be ingesting chemicals when chewing a toy meant for teething children. That scary feeling came back while reading What’s gotten into us? Staying healthy in a toxic world.

The book is US-centred. But the account could hold true for most parts of the industrial world, where the environment is seething with dangerous chemical compounds—weird stuff that has crept into our bodies, whether we know it or not.

Author Mckay Jenkins had a personal reason for writing the book. After years of healthy living, this journalism professor in a US university was startled to find an orangesized lump in his left hip. Public health professionals visited his hospital room to question him about toxins to which he might have been exposed over the years. He had been a journalist and then a professor—“not exactly high-risk occupations”—but the list of potentially dangerous substances to which he could have been exposed was frightening and made him want to learn more. The chemicals were everywhere: “in the water that comes through the tap; in the plastics we find in our baby toys or use to store our food; in our soaps and shampoos and in the chemicals we spray on our weeds and apply to turn our toilet paper white.”

The cancer scare made Jenkins even more earnest to stay healthy. But that was no easy task. His investigations revealed government agencies responsible for protecting the environment most often did not have the financial wherewithal or the technical acumen. He uncovered the thwarting of regulatory legislation by chemical companies that would rather pay minuscule fines than clean up their mess.

imageBut Jenkins’ account is not a rant against industry and government. He provides eye-opening anecdotes and pertinent statistics. The author is also aware that linking negative outcomes—like low birth weight and breast cancer—to specific chemicals is impossible. “In medicine, cause and effect are not always clear,” he writes, “but that should not become a reason to avoid the precautionary principle”.

The book also shows how consumers have become complicit in this toxic mess. “It isn’t just chemicals that have gotten into us,” Jenkins notes, “it’s also culture”. “We are saturated with products, and marketing, and advertising,” he writes.

Jenkins provides suggestions for staying clear of the worst. He argues that educating ourselves needn’t be exhausting and depressing; it can be empowering and energising. “Once we have access to information, once we begin paying attention, we develop a fuller, more personal connection to the actions we take.” But like others before him, Jenkins also recognises that the cumulative impacts of synthetics are not yet scientifically understood and, in fact, are painfully understudied.

Vaishali Bose is a school teacher and musician based in New York

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