A Plenty Magazine Top 10 Green Book of the YearWe 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.
"In Body Toxic, Baker begins with a visit to Commonweal, a Marin County environmental health institute, to explore some biomonitoring studies, which ascertain the numbers and types of foreign chemicals in humans. She then explores the implications of humans harboring so many substances, including increased risk of '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.' It's a frightening list, and Baker acknowledges that the scientific evidence for each of the links between specific chemicals and diseases varies; 'what's extraordinary is that we know so little about the risks posed by their inherent toxic properties.' Citing a disaster such as the Bhopal, India, toxic release in 1984, she continues, 'Unless something goes terribly wrong, we barely note the activities beneath the smokestacks at more than 13,300 chemical plants around the United States.' The bulk of Baker's book contains case studies of various chemicals pesticides, phthalates in cosmetics, Bisphenol A in plastics, PBDE flame retardants and more. Her profile of UC Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes is particularly engaging, for he is not only a star researcher and teacher but also an impassioned advocate who was opposed by the chemical industry after his work on pesticides showed scary impacts on frogs."—Steve Heilig, San Francisco Chronicle"Illuminating . . . Throughout The Body Toxic, Baker gives consumers information to help them make 'informed decisions.'"—Seth Shulman, The Washington Post Book World"Powerful . . . An eye-opening exposé."—John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer"Baker is neither obsessive nor alarmist. She calmly presents two decades' worth of critical research into the science and industries behind leading chemical culprits such as phthalates, pesticides, and PFOAs. In an appendix, she outlines the reasonable, manageable steps she's taken to detox her own home, body, and lifestyle."—Plenty"This is it: The book that finally chronicles the chemical invaders tainting us and the environment . . . Any one of the chapters focusing on particular toxins (in weed killers, beauty products, cookware and computers) deserves an outraged movement."—E, The Environmental Magazine"Nena Baker . . . gets her blood tested and finds out she's positive for more than three dozen toxic substances—including DDT (banned 36 years ago). This opens her investigation into our country's long history of better living through chemistry, and the price we're paying now."—O, The Oprah Magazine"I admit this is a scary book with lots of reasons for alarm. But it is an important one because Baker's is one of the growing number of voices shouting for reform and environmental cleanup. Baker does offer hope in the form of things they are doing in Europe to mitigate the damage. Moreover she also has a number of suggestions for avoiding, or limiting, our exposure to the more toxic chemicals we know about."—Donna Chavez, SheKnows"Congress recently handed a partial win to parents and consumer advocates who want to ban toxic plastics in kids toys. Legislators voted to ban three kinds of phthalates—plastics associated with cancer, developmental problems, sperm motility, infertility, obesity and insulin resistance—from toys such as rubber duckies and plasticized books. The bill subjects three more phthalates to testing. It's a partial win because the bill has no impact on the wide use of phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) in skin-care products . . . The author of a chilling new book that probes the health hazards of everyday things, says the bill marks a watershed moment for U.S. efforts at reducing toxic risks."—Kate Nolan, The Arizona Republic "Startling."—Elizabeth Grossman, The Oregonian"Waste is not the only problem facing modern civilization. In The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being some of modern science's miracles are bared for the threat they are. From nonstick coatings in microwave popcorn to the painful history of cosmetics, Nena Baker relates several cases of modern industry's disregard for the safety of its customers. The apparent lack of accountability is staggering when looking at the breadth of some of the pollution in question."—Sean Davis, Courier & Press (Evansville) "Puberty-inducing teen cosmetics are but one example of chemicals that are changing our bodies daily. Cancer, low sperm counts, diabetes, asthma, and autism are among the human ills attributed to industrial chemicals in common consumer products, writes Nena Baker in The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being. While Baker makes it clear that manufacturers are far from blameless, she also calls out U.S. lawmakers for letting stand 'the notoriously weak and ineffectual Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA] of 1976.'"—Keith Goetzman, Utne“This important book will make it impossible to ignore the inconvenient truths about products we use everyday. Be prepared to be amazed at what is known and not known about thousands of chemicals that are used in our clothes, our homes, our pizza boxes, and just about everything else.”—Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., President, National Research Center for Women & Families “Nena Baker makes an exciting and eye-opening contribution to the growing public awareness of environmental health. The intimate communion between our bodies and the world around us is revealed here with uncommon clarity. Be astonished. Send The Body Toxic to everyone you care about.”—Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks a Cancer and the Environment“A startling, disturbing and important piece of journalism . . . Engrossing and essential reading.”—Ron Slate, On the Seawall: A Literary Website“The Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976 is ‘notoriously weak and ineffectual,’ charges investigative journalist Baker, and the EPA, the FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission lack the manpower and resources to do their jobs. As a consequence, she asserts, the public is continually exposed to dangerous levels of harmful chemicals in a host of everyday products; each one of us is ‘a test animal in a vast uncontrolled experiment.’ Baker quotes researchers and activists who support her charges, provides the responses of chemical-industry representatives who reject them and cites companies that have taken action to reduce toxic substances in their products. Separate chapters explore what is known about the harmful effects and what has been done to restrict the use of five individual chemicals: atrazine, an agricultural weed killer; phthalates, found in cosmetics; polybrominated diphenyl ethers, widely used in ire retardants; Bisphenol A, an element in reusable plastic food containers and the lining of metal food cans; and perfluorinated chemicals, used in nonstick cookware, firefighting foams and floor cleaners. Baker finds good news in the sweeping reforms enacted by the European Union, which in 2006 passed legislation requiring companies to prove their substances are harmless, in Canada's new chemicals-management plan and in the efforts in California, Michigan, Massachusetts and other states to institute chemical-policy reforms. While waiting for Congress to act, consumers can take steps to lighten the chemical load they are exposed to, she states, and offers her own guidelines for doing just that. An appendix sums up the essential facts about each of the five chemicals discussed and offers advice on avoiding them. A pithy call to action replete with frightening stories about what's hidden in the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the beds we sleep in.”—Kirkus Reviews“This is a chilling look at the questionable safety of nearly everything we store food in, drink from, wear, walk on, rest on and drive. Chemicals used to make everything from water-repellant jackets and flame retardants to unbreakable plastics used for food storage are building up in our bodies and the environment with possible far-reaching consequences, says journalist Baker. She focuses on endocrine disruptors that alter hormone levels, even in fetuses. Individual chapters consider the weed killer atrazine; phthalates found in many cosmetics; and perfluorooctanoic acid, used in nonstick and stain-repellant coatings. Lab studies have linked these chemicals to cancer, diabetes, obesity and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, among other problems. Baker blasts both Democrats and Republicans in Congress for the toothless Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which leaves testing and reporting results to the manufacturer. But the companies rely on skilled public relations firms to attack scientists who raise safety concerns. The current pro-business administration also takes some licks from Baker. Although she offers suggestions for reducing exposure to these chemicals, No place—and no one—is immune.”—Publishers Weekly
Nena Baker is a former staff writer for The Arizona Republic, The Oregonian, and United Press International. Her award-winning investigation of Nike's Indonesian factories led to numerous improvements for workers.