on The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health, by Nena Baker (North Point Press)

On August 15, the New York Times ran an AP wire story reporting that the FDA has reaffirmed its contention that “the trace amounts of bisphenol A that leach out of food containers were not a threat to infants or adults.” Had I not just completed my reading of Nena Baker’s new book, the broader significance of this brief article would not have been apparent. Baker describes bisphenol A as “the starting material for a polycarbonate plastic used for reusable food and beverage containers and an epoxy resin that lines most metal food cans.” Animal studies prove that bisphenol A “mimics the female hormone estrogen [and] causes an array of consequences at miniscule doses,” of which the most serious effects in humans become evident only after long exposure: “increases in breast and prostate cancer, increases in urogenital abnormalities in male babies, a decline in semen quality in men, early onset of puberty in girls, metabolic disorders including Type 2 diabetes and obesity, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” The AP story noted that the “National Toxicology Program said that there was ‘some concern’ about [bisphenol A’s] risks in infants,” but the FDA still insists those baby bottles are safe. Meanwhile, a Senate bill was introduced in April by Democrats to ban the substance in baby products, and California, Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan are considering their own legislation.

baker.jpgA startling, disturbing and important piece of journalism, The Body Toxic gives us an opportunity to peer into the shadowy omnipresence of chemicals in our lives. Baker charts the historical rise of the chemical industry and its formidable power base. Utterly dependent on nonrenewable fossil fuels, these companies consume seven percent of the petroleum products on the American market. For the citizen consumer, The Body Toxic also serves as a primer on the most insidious chemicals to be found in our houses and workplaces – not only in foods, cosmetics, housewares, furniture, computers and clothing, but also in dental sealant, air fresheners, pesticides, and flame-retardant for mattresses. This may sound like a catalog-from-hell for activists and environmental extremists – and though The Body Toxic is an undaunted drive toward unmasking the culprits, it isn’t a screed. The chapters’ narratives often begin with a profile of a respected researcher who has spent years amassing data to challenge industry assertions, followed by a discussion of the efforts of industry, government and consumer activists to influence the growth, demise, or replacement of a chemical. In particular, Baker focuses on atrazine (the most common agricultural pesticide in the US), phthalates (which give plastic its flexibility and resilience, and are used in cosmetics), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (or PDBEs, now more prevalent than the banned PCBs, used in flame retardants), perfluorinated chemicals (resisting grease, water, and stains, for Teflon, Scotchgard and Gore-Tex products), and bisphenol A.

In “Kermit’s Blues: Atrazine and Frogs,” Baker profiles Tyrone Hayes, a researcher who was hired in 1998 by Sygenta (formerly Novartis), the principal maker of the weed killer atrazine, to study that chemical’s biological effects. Hayes’ studies proved that atrazine interferes with the endocrine systems of frogs. He discovered that “Missouri farmers with poor semen quality are excreting urine with atrazine levels high enough to chemically castrate frogs in his laboratory.” Furthermore, Hayes showed that “male frogs exposed to as little as 1 part per billion, or one-third the level allowed in U.S. drinking water, had impaired laryngeal growth – a bit of a problem for frogs, which rely on basso profundo croaks to attract mates. Hayes also noted what he described as ‘ambiguous gonads’ that were suggestive of hermaphroditism.” Sygenta’s public relations playbook, muffling the impact of Hayes’ findings, is a prototype of highly successful industry strategy. Since 60% of Americans are exposed each day to this herbicide, why is the FDA recalcitrant in the pursuit of more knowledge about atrazine? Why has the EPA not even tried to ban a toxic chemical since 1989?

Baker points to the weakness of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which assigned the testing of chemicals to the EPA. “But Congress put regulators on a short leash,” says Baker. “Their actions could not ‘impede unduly or create unnecessary economic barriers to technological innovation.’” In her investigation of chemicals in cosmetics, she points out that “about 10,500 ingredients are used in the product category, spanning everything from common table salt to chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems, according to EWG [the Environmental Working Group] analysis. Yet the FDA has banned or restricted only nine ingredients in the seven decades it has monitored safety.” Apparently the European Union has handled its responsibilities more seriously, having banned more than 1,000 beauty care ingredients. “Through a request I made using the Freedom of Information Act,” she writes, “I learned that only thirty employees work in the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. The office’s annual budget of $3.4 million is the same as it was nearly two decades ago and does not include funding for safety assessments … Consider this: the city office that controls the 989 traffic signals in Portland, Oregon, where I live, has forty employees and a budget of $22 million.”

But the battle line between industry/government and activists is defined by a disagreement over how to measure the danger to consumers. Deca is the name of a widely used flame-retardant produced by Chemtura. (Deca supersedes Penta and Octa, discontinued by Chematura after the European Union and the state of California enforced their own bans. But now Deca appears to be even more environmentally persistent than its predecessors. Legislation to ban Deca is pending in eight states.) Baker explains, “The argument over Deca … is not about the strengths or shortcomings of particular risk assessments. Instead, it turns on whether policy makers accept the premise that risk assessment records, based on conventional epidemiology and toxicology that underestimate the environmental links to certain diseases, should continue to be the benchmark for determining what is best for human health.” In other words, activists point to the effects of even small doses, such as in the atrazine studies, and the need to track longer-term harm on humans, a connect-the-dots method. Industry and government take a risk-based approach, replacing dose-based data with odds-making.

In the meantime, Baker gives us advice on several things we can do to reduce our exposure to these poisons, such as avoiding microwave popcorn: the bag’s grease-resistant coating breaks down in the heat, and two epidemiological studies suggest that maternal exposure to these PFOAs may lower a baby’s birth weight. If your Nalgene bottle has a #7 recycling stamp, toss it out. Check to see if your baby’s teething ring contains phthalates. The list continues.

baker2.jpgNena Baker was the first American reporter to break the story of sub-standard working conditions in Nike’s Indonesian factories in the early 1990s, and she has written about illegal disposal of toxic chemicals by the jewelry trade. While researching for The Body Toxic, her first book, she tested her own blood and found high levels of perfluorochemicals, perhaps persisting from her days weather-proofing hundreds of pairs of shoes when she worked in a shoe store as a college student. The significance and scope of her new work make The Body Toxic engrossing and essential reading.

[Published August 12, 2008, 277 pp., $24.00, hardcover]