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McKay Jenkins

The author talks about what we can do about living in a toxic world

Photo: Laura Prichett (Laura Prichett), License: N/A

Laura Prichett

What's Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World

McKay Jenkins gives a talk April 28 at the Ivy Bookstore at 6:30 p.m.

It's not McKay Jenkins' fault that I'm afraid of my coffee cup. During a recent interview at a Roland Park coffee shop, the locally based journalist and Cornelius Tilghman Professor of English and Director of Journalism at the University of Delaware (disclosure: this writer was a UD journalism student) pointed out that the cup is made of plastic, that I have no idea what went into that plastic, and, perhaps most daunting, that the regulation of what goes into the coffee cup is so poor that there is no reason to assume that any of it is safe.

Still, it's not his fault. And what you begin to gather from Jenkins' new book What's Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World is that it's not any one person's fault--that as a whole, we've allowed our planet and our lives to be infused with synthetic chemicals, the safety of which is far from certain. Jenkins decided, after a near brush with cancer, to dissect the role of synthetic chemicals in our homes, our bodies, our water, and our lawns. As he notes in the Toxic, he found that there is quite a bit not to like: "In the last twenty-five years, the country's consumption of synthetic chemicals has increased 8,200 percent." "[T]he U.S. chemical industry, a $636-billion-a-year business, is so woefully underregulated that 99 percent of chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health." "Every day"—every day—"the United States produces or imports 42 billion pounds of synthetic chemicals, 90 percent of which are created using oil."

And all this before reaching the end of the prologue.

Still, his tone is hopeful. By demanding more information and using that information to make better choices, we can begin to sweep up the mess the past six or seven decades has left us.

City Paper: So, this book is terrifying. How did writing this book you change you?

McKay Jenkins: Well, terrifying is one response. My hope is that it will also be empowering, because when you realize the places where your food comes from and it really depresses you and then you kind of wake up to that so then you can actually make some better choices. So this book is really in the tradition of Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, where he terrifies you by taking you inside an industrial meat processor or inside the way that processed food is made and people read that and they were freaked out about their food and suddenly they were aware that they had many other options that they could choose from. And that's what this was supposed to be.

In my case I actually had a really frightening health scare that turned out by pure luck to be benign, and so I had all the fear and horror and wisdom that you get going through a cancer scare without actually getting cancer, which is a real blessing. So the research led me to look into all these different products we have and all the compounds they're made out of--and there's that, and that's frightening.

In addition to fear, it left me with a sense of real anger about the way that products are made and not regulated. Let me put it this way: The things that go into the products that we use are totally mysterious to us. For example, could you have any idea what's in that cup? [points at the plastic coffee cup] No idea, right? And how would you find out if you wanted to know? There's no label, there's no source, if you're lucky there's a company name. It's very frustrating, and that's not just for something like a cup. That's true for your cosmetics.

You can't see it, but there's plywood that's wrapping this building that's made of formaldehyde, but you'd never know that because first of all you don't know what plywood is made out of, because you've never stopped to think and even if you did know it was made with synthetic chemicals you'd probably assume that they were safe because why wouldn't they be? And then you find out that it's not safe, and then you think, Well, where am I going to find out about all this? And there's just basically no way to do it.

So in addition to the anxiety that this stuff creates, it also creates a sense of frustration that you don't have access to information that you want to have so you can make better choices. We're not stupid people, all we want to do is be able to make good choices. And what you find, and this is particularly true it turns out for women and for women who are thinking about having kids--they've done all kind of studies of this--that of all the people who get kind of engaged with these issues, the ones that are most animated are people who are not just thinking about their own health, they're thinking about their children's health. So you see a lot of this, when the states are trying to regulate these chemicals what they'll typically do is they'll frame the legislation by calling it something like the Safe Kids Chemicals Act or something like that. Because, you know, you say to somebody, "What we want to do is we wanna regulate Bisphenol A," and nobody knows what that is. But if you say we want to get the toxic chemicals out of baby bottles, people can react to that, people can get that. So a lot of these public health groups and environmental groups are getting smart about framing this debate by talking about dangers to children's health or maternal health. The other thing is maternal health. Because it turns out a lot of these chemicals can be passed from the mother's body to the baby through their breast milk or through their placenta.

CP: When I read this, I kept thinking this is literally a story about the future of our race, because it's affecting our children and all of our reproductive health.

MJ: It's not just cancer we're talking about. There's really quite a bit of hormonal issues we're talking about, especially with some of these plastics because they mimic hormonal activity. So people should not just be worried that they're going to grow a tumor out of their face, they should also be concerned that. . . you know you see some of these trends like early adolescence for girls, like girls are starting to adolesce at 10, now. Boys, there's like this national, not an epidemic but a downward trend in what you call sperm density, like sperm counts are dropping all over the place. And why would that be? It's because, well, one possibility is that these chemicals are messing with reproductive systems, so there's that whole thing. There's also the child development thing, the brain development thing.

One thing I don't really try to wade into is the whole question of autism, which is a massively controversial thing that affects a lot of people. But without getting into it, it seems at least possible that that's also partially affected by this. The way that this argument progresses is that you start to recognize that everything that we use is made out of toxic chemicals, and therefore toxic chemicals are in every square inch of our lives. That's one part of it. The second part is that we've been marinating in this stuff for, like, 70 years. That's another part of it. Then you can start to read these studies where they can find these chemicals in every inch of the earth. They can find toxic chemicals at the top of Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. They can find beluga whales that have breast cancer. They test Inuit people in the Arctic, and they've got it and none of these people live near factories or anything so you find that these chemicals blow around the world and they just get into everybody's bodies. So then you have this whole component where they can test your body and find out that you've got it in your body, and then you've got scientists who can say that in a laboratory these chemicals cause X, Y, and Z problems for animals. So when an industry says something like, "Drinking out of that plastic cup is not gonna cause you to get cancer and you can't prove that it does," that's true. You can't prove that that cup is going to cause you to get cancer.

CP: You can't watch your tumor grow while you're drinking out of the cup.

MJ: Right, but the same argument said smoking one cigarette is not going cause you to get lung cancer, but what common sense seems to say is that you saturate yourself in this stuff over time, and from multiple sources, and it can't lead to good things. So that's the progression of the way of thinking, and then you try to break it down chapter by chapter and just lay out all the various ways that people get exposed to this type of thing. And you realize to your horror that it's pretty much everywhere you go.

CP: I actually saw on the highway a Sherwin Williams truck with that "Cover the Earth" ad that you talk about. It's literally the Earth being covered in the paint.

MJ: It's like the Dupont [slogan]: Better living with chemistry. There was a time when covering the earth with paint was seen as a positive thing. A company called ChemLawn, that used to be considered to be, as far as like a marketing thing, that people would go out of their way to make their lawns saturated with chemicals. That was seen as a good thing. Now they don't call themselves ChemLawn anymore.

CP: There's no way for me to separate this because I grew up after the era of synthetic chemicals, but it baffles me that when they started doing this nobody stopped to think at all about this. How did that mindset come about? Why wasn't it regulated from the beginning?

MJ: So I'm older than you, but not as old as my parents. The people who were first introduced to this culture of chemistry were people basically the baby boomers, the post-World War II generation. So if you think about these trucks that were spraying DDT--they would go up and down suburban streets. I talked to all kinds of people that are a little older than me, let's say their in their 50s, they remember being kids playing on a street in let's say Philadelphia, and a truck would go by and spray them. They'd be spraying the lawns but they would be gagging in DDT spray.

CP: Isn't that in Silent Spring? There's a kid out playing and he gets sprayed by DDT.

MJ: So why wasn't that horrifying? That's what Rachel Carson was writing about. It's because people thought this new technology being able to rid the world of bugs was a good thing. Because, they would say, "Who wants mosquitos? Well let's just kill everything in sight." What they didn't think of was that these chemicals don't just kill bugs. They kill other things, and they stick around in the environment and they go downstream, and when it rains it goes into the creek and there was the story it nearly wiped out bald eagles.

Anyway, you grow up like that, where people and these companies are coming up with all these new-fangled formulas to make stuff, and people are like, "Wow, cool we can wear nylon stockings, how interesting." And they stretch those kind of synthetic things over their body, they get synthetic cosmetics, they get synthetics for their lawn, they get synthetics for their housing materials, and suddenly the technology makes everything really convenient, which people love. And so you have 20 or 30 years of just booming product design using these chemicals, and everybody loves it. And why wouldn't they love it? But then suddenly you start to think, Well what's all this stuff made out of? What're all the unintended consequences?

CP: One of the other big things I got by the end of this book, especially when you get to the Lawn and the Water, is how everything you do comes out somewhere else. In the epilogue you link a tuna fish can to a light bulb, and it starts to really scare you that you can minimize your exposure but you can't eliminate it because it's everywhere.

MJ: One problem with this issue is that its kind of like cigarettes--if you stop smoking you can do really great things for your body, but it's also kind of like global warming because you can drive a Prius and that will limit your contribution, but it's not going to solve the problem because the problem is enormous. This is where we get into this dilemma where you can shop your way out of part of this problem but you can't shop your way out of the entire problem. So what you need to do is you need to start thinking about regulating these chemicals.

Maryland is, like many other states, really trying to push some chemical regulation, so they passed some laws limiting this stuff, [such as] Bisphenol A. Maryland is specifically trying to follow Maine's example. It's really important that people understand that the reason it worked in Maine is because the lobbyists had no traction there. And the reason it's having trouble here is because the lobbyists have a lot of traction, and any state where there's a lot of industry is going to have a really hard time passing this stuff. But Maryland's an interesting case, because it's kind of a progressive state with a strong industrial process, so this battle is going to be pretty serious over time.

CP: Another fact that stuck out to me is you always say, "The industry is fighting this." But I realized that the industry is just people as well. Don't these people in the industry also care about their own health? At all?

MJ: But tobacco had lobbyists too. The industry has learned a lot of its strategy from tobacco, and this is one of the most energizing parts of this story is that industry doesn't have to convince you that a particular chemical is safe. All they have to do is make you confused about whether or not it's not safe.


So if you read a study that says something like, "I understand that pesticides are potentially causing tumors in children or in dogs." They don't have to say, "We have a study that says it does not." All they have to say is, "Were not totally sure about this." So you're looking in the hardware store for some pesticides and you say, Hmm, I sort of remember I read a study that said one thing but then I read another that said something else so I guess it's kind of up for debate so I'll just go ahead and buy it. All they have to do is confuse you.

There's a book called Doubt Is Their Product where the strategy is to make you have doubt. Not to convince you of the opposite, just to muddy the water a little bit, so when you're standing there trying to figure out whether to reach for that product, you'll just be a little confused, and as long as you're confused you'll still buy it. And that's the strategy.

CP: Why is it so much worse here? Why are we so resistant in this country? How come it seems to be that we're the ones behind instead of leading on this?

MJ: I think that's a very important question. Especially compared to Europe. In Europe, the standard line is chemicals are guilty until proven innocent. Especially Scandinavia has this real tradition of concerns for public health trumping concerns for business. So what they will say is, if there's some credible reason to think that a chemical is bad for public health then we're not just going to allow it on the market. And in this country what we say is, we're going to allow it on the market and we're going to leave it up to you to prove that it's bad.

There's a pretty well-known study in Europe where they started to see evidence that flame retardants were ending up in breast milk. So they ban it. They say, that's it, we're not going to allow it anymore, and the amount of flame retardants in breast milk dropped 30 percent in three years, just like that, boom. Now that would seem to be a logical model, but that's not the way things are talked about here. And I think the answer, without simplifying it too much, is that the industry has a much stronger influence on things in this country than it does in Europe.

CP: I'm still trying to get over this. I didn't realize how much worse we were than the rest of the world. It seems very strange to me.

MJ: And its not something to be particularly proud of as an American. Is your pride in your country only in the amount of stuff it can make? If that's all you think about that's what you're gonna get. If on the other hand you want to be proud of the general health of your population, that would be an entirely different thing to proud of. You would have a really high standard of health and therefore these chemicals would be unwelcome. That would be a really different way to view the world.

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