The author went for his regular medical checkup not anticipating any problems. Though middle aged, he was in good shape. He never smoked, ate all the right foods, and was a dedicated runner and cyclist. His only complaint was a faint, intermittent tightness in his hip, coupled with a twinge in his left leg, and itchy, burning skin. An MRI scan was duly conducted, revealing a suspicious dark tumor growing within his abdomen. The tumor was a soft-tissue sarcoma, an ugly mass of fibers connecting the hip to muscles and nerve tissues in the leg. It could be surgically removed with the risk of severing the femoral nerve, ending any future hope of running. At this point, three specialists had been seen, and none knew its cause. The tumor was finally removed by a renowned New York surgeon. It was the size of an orange and benign. While waiting for surgery, all the usual questions were asked, about ethnicity, lifestyle, age, and family history. However, the surgical team asked questions which hadn’t been asked before. Questions such as, “Have you been exposed to toxic chemicals?” They asked exhaustive questions about fumes, bug killers, dry cleaning agents, glues, plastics, and flame retardants. They also asked about his home, its location, the interior living environment, and whether it was near any incinerators or heavy industry. This set the author thinking: just what was the link between these questions and a tumor the size of a large orange? The beginning of an answer was to be found in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
In 1985 a combined French–American team discovered the wreck of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland. Some seven years later, with salvage operations near completion, the French government decided to return items to the remaining survivors. Items such as hairpins, pince-nez spectacles, and ivory combs. What was remarkable about this long list of day-to-day items was that nothing was made of plastic. Nothing was synthetic. And nothing was disposable.
The sinking of the Titanic lies on the rim of living memory. It was not that long ago. Over the course of the twentieth century, in just a short period of time, plastics and throw-away goods have become commonplace. Who now would use an ivory comb? In addition to plastics and goods, one of the greatest changes over the last eighty years has been the invention of synthetic chemicals. The invention of these chemicals ushered in a new era of industrial-scale agribusiness. Plastic products saturated societies, as did synthetic personal care products, synthetic clothes, furniture, and cleaning agents. Food was processed and agriculture became dependent upon pesticides and fertilizers. Over a few short years the twentieth century became the synthetic century.
This created wealth and food, but also unprecedented levels of pollution and environmental devastation. It also created a gaudy monoculture in which items were purchased cheaply then simply thrown away. Disposable pens replaced fine fountain pens, musk that once cost $340 a kilo at 1940s’ prices was replaced by chemical scent, clothes and furniture once made from natural fabrics were now made from artificial fibers.
This reliance upon man-made chemicals and plastics, which in turn is reliant upon cheap oil, shows no sign of abating. Over the last twenty-five years consumption of synthetic chemicals in the United States has increased by 8,200%. Some 80,000 chemicals are now in use. These form the foundation for tens of thousands of consumer products such as lipsticks, deodorants, and hair dyes. Every single day the United States produces or imports 18 billion kilograms of these chemicals. In one year, this amount, loaded into tanker trucks, would circle the earth at her equator eighty-six times. If this were not enough, two billion kilograms of pesticides have been dumped over the last ten years. The situation is not dissimilar in other nations.
Whether consumed or not, all these chemicals have to go somewhere. They do not simply break down and disappear. They spread throughout land and sea. In America alone, 100 million plastic bags are buried every year. The equivalent of 12 million barrels of precious oil. We throw away around 50 billion plastic water bottles every year. Many of which now float aimlessly around the Pacific Ocean, forming large plastic islands, never breaking down, yet destroying plankton, marine life, and whole ecosystems. The plastics and chemicals not absorbed go somewhere else. They go into us.
It might be thought that with so many chemicals being produced extensive safety testing would have been conducted. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is full toxicity information available for just 7% of all man-made chemicals. Only 3% have been tested for effects on reproductive health and cancer. Fully 99% have never been tested for effects on human health. These untested chemicals are not metabolized by people into benign compounds, they are not excreted, but they do accumulate over time. Such little oversight, and even less testing, led Professor Mark Miller, the Director of the Pediatric Environmental Heath Unit at the University of California, to assert that we are blind as to what is going on with these compounds. Another professor of pediatric medicine, this time at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, conducted a major study in 2010, which suggested links between synthetic chemicals and autism. At precisely the same time the number of chemicals has mushroomed, pediatric learning disabilities have risen by 191%. During a ten-year period to 2005, the state of California witnessed a 210% jump in autism. Cancer is ever on the increase, and autoimmune diseases are becoming common. Of course, this might all be a coincidence, the problem is that we do not know. The view of the editor of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet is that we are treating people like experimental animals in a vast uncontrolled study. A study carried out as usual by monied corporate interests.
Armed and alarmed with such figures and relieved of a tumor the size of a large orange, the author wondered about the presence and effect of these chemicals in everyday life. He invited a toxicologist into his home to assess his exposure to toxic substances, and it is to the home that we now turn.
Our home is not like our great-grandparents’ home. Our bookcases and cabinets are often made of manufactured wood held together by toxic glue. Our interior paints contain volatile organic compounds. Everything is smeared with flame retardants. That odor you can smell when you take the plastic wrap off a new mattress is synthetic chemicals releasing into the air. The scent from your air freshener or your laundry detergent is more chemicals dispersing into the air. Chemicals which do not disappear. Instead, they settle into rugs and carpets, which contain even more chemicals and dyes. This chemical dust gets everywhere, waiting to be stirred up every time you vacuum. This chemical dust is long lasting and toxic. In 1972 DDT was banned due to its deleterious effects upon human health. In 1977 certain flame retardants were outlawed for similar reasons. Decades later, both are still found in household dust, whether they were used in the house or not. Pesticides from nearby fields are carried into your home, then concentrate in your carpet at levels two hundred times more than is found in soil. Anything you spray goes into the air, interacts with dust, then settles until disturbed, even if years later. Solvents are particularly problematic, as they are linked to neurological problems. They are present in manufactured woods, and used extensively if you have your house remodeled. Your home might have the fit and finish of a high-end hotel, but your family and local environment are slowly being poisoned.
Two hours north of the interstate in New England lies a small road that winds through the huge northern woods of Maine to the town of Fort Kent. It is one of the most pristine and isolated places in America. The local people are educated, favor a local economy, eat organic food, and care about their local environment. There is no heavy industry within hundreds of miles. Inhabitants of Fort Kent were invited to take part in a study by the Harvard School of Public Health. They donated their blood, hair, and urine for sampling. The results shocked the participants. Every person harbored at least thirty-six harmful chemicals. All had traces of Scotch-Guard, despite it being banned in 2001. Mercury was present at levels that causes subtle yet permanent brain damage in developing fetuses. Despite their geographic remoteness, the participants were not alone in accumulating toxins. A study in 2007 of several American States found that every participant was contaminated with flame retardants. These flame retardants are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including thyroid disruption, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development. A 2005 study of newborn babies found 287 industrial chemicals, of which 217 were toxic to the brain, and 208 caused abnormal development. The inhabitants of the remote town of Fort Kent in Maine had inadvertently exposed themselves to noxious chemicals through their furniture, cleaning products, and toiletries.
Far removed from the local, organic economy of Maine are the supermarkets that dominate modern urban life. Most of our food and household goods are now purchased in supermarkets, including our toiletries. On average we apply a personal care product a dozen times a day. Deodorants, shampoos, moisturizers, soaps, lipsticks, concealers all feature in our daily routine. Most contain synthetic chemicals, 89% of which have never been assessed for safety. The United States Environmental Working Group has compiled the largest database of chemicals in personal care products. At least one-third contain an ingredient linked to cancer, and almost one-half have an ingredient harmful to reproductive health or child development. Hormone disruptors are rife. There is also a growing use of nano-particles, 1,000 times smaller than a human cell, which the University of Delaware found to be absorbed by plants, before entering the human food chain. Again, these particles are untested.
In the supermarket is a section overflowing with plastic, throw-away toys. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, millions of toys around the world were recalled due to the presence of toxic materials. Often the main culprit was lead. The detrimental effects of lead have been known for at least 300 years. It harms the reproductive system, the liver, kidneys, immune system, and brain. Recently, the University of Cincinnati tracked hundreds of the urban poor from childhood to maturity, measuring levels of lead in the blood. They found neurological deficits in parts of the brain that controlled impulses, emotions, and judgement. For every 5 mcg increase of lead in the blood, arrest for violent offenses increased by 30%. With its effects well known for such a long period of time, lead is banned in fuel, paints, and toys. Yet millions of toys are still recalled due to the presence of lead. How is this possible?
Over the last ten years Chinese consumer imports into America rose from $62 billion to $246 billion per year. Around 80% of all toys sold in America now come from China. These largely plastic toys are subject to few checks. In the Los Angeles area some 15 million truck-sized containers flow through the ports every year. There is only one inspector to check the safety of these imports. It is an impossible task. In the whole of the United States there is only one small laboratory for testing the safety of toys. Time and time again, journalists have randomly tested toys, routinely finding lead contamination, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors above safe levels. This lack of oversight came about because Mattel Inc., one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers, lobbied politicians to make safety testing self-regulated. It is up to the toy manufacturer whether to test and what to test for. The result is cheap plastic toys, contaminated with dangerous substances, that soon enough are discarded into rubbish dumps.
Close to the toy section in the supermarket might be found children’s pajamas. Strangely enough, these pajamas are coated with flame retardants, a subject to which we now return.
Flame retardants are used in all manner of goods all over the world. They are not a thin, inoffensive coating. Often they make up 30% of the weight of a product, whether it be a cushion or a computer. The chemical compounds within flame retardants are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). They are extremely hardy and can travel great distances. They are also seemingly indestructible. When buried in landfills, they do not break down, instead turning to dust, which goes into the soil, then the air, and eventually into rivers and oceans. They are now found all over the world in marine life, meat, dairy, and vegetables. They are in human blood and body fats. They show up after liposuction operations. Increasingly, they are present in breast milk. In 2000, Swedish researchers demonstrated that flame retardants were widely found in women. Since the early 1970s levels in females have doubled every five years. A young mother today is likely to have fifty times more flame retardants in her body than her mother did. The Swedish government outlawed these chemicals, and levels in breast milk have now dropped by 30%. But that’s in Sweden, a fairly environmentally friendly country. In the United States, as University of Texas researchers soon discovered, breast milk was considerably more contaminated: ten thousand times more contaminated. Nor was this contamination limited to breast milk. Thirty popular foods were also analyzed and found to be flooded with flame retardants at levels twenty times higher than in Europe and Japan. At these levels the risk of cancer and child development problems is considerable. In addition, the chemical compounds within flame retardants closely resemble the thyroid hormone thyroxine. They block the movement of thyroid hormones impairing thyroid function. With a blunted thyroid, a person feels sluggish, has mood and temperature swings, and gains an excessive amount of weight. If you’ve ever wondered why so many women now have thyroid conditions, then the answer probably lies in your new bed or on your sofa in the form of heavy duty flame retardants.
Flame retardants are not the only chemical weapon blasted around the world. In World War I Germany manufactured and used chlorine as a chemical weapon. As a poison and a killing agent it is highly effective. When transported within countries it often merits a security detail as it poses a major security risk. Just moving quantities of it can endanger whole cities. It seems slightly odd that we decided to put it in tap water and cleaning products. Even manufacturing chlorine poses considerable risks. Dioxins are released into the air, which then enter the food chain. Mercury is also emitted, which finds its way into fish thousands of miles away. But the good news is that chlorine is used to bleach toilet paper, meaning we can have pure white toilet paper, rather than it being colored a natural off-white. And that makes it more attractive on the supermarket shelf. The bad news is that major manufacturers of toilet paper are cutting down and using two-hundred-year-old trees in order to make wood pulp for paper. Again, it seems odd that two hundred years of growth is sacrificed for a product which is used briefly, then discarded.
Perhaps one of the most infamous chemical weapons is Agent Orange, used repeatedly in Vietnam, partly to destroy rice paddy fields, thus depriving civilians of food. One of the main constituents of Agent Orange is a chemical called 2,4-D. It was found to be an effective herbicide, which destroyed weeds but not grass. The safety of this chemical was tested in the following manner. A University of Chicago botany professor ate 0.5 grams of 2,4-D every day for three weeks, and said he felt great. Its safety now assured, it went on general sale, to be sprayed on lawns throughout the United States for over fifty years. Later testing of 2,4-D was slightly more circumspect. It was found to disrupt human hormones, affect reproductive health, cause genetic mutations, and linked with a variety of cancers. It is still used on lawns.
The effect of 2,4-D goes far beyond poisoning people. When sprayed on lawns it kills all the clover. The problem is that clover pulls in nitrogen from the air, naturally fertilizing the land. Without clover, there is no nitrogen, and without nitrogen, lawns become infertile. The solution, perversely, is to spray synthetic nitrogen. Merrily we spray 2,4-D, then we soak land in synthetic nitrogen, which runs off lawns into drains and rivers, then onward through bays and estuaries into the sea. This powerful fertilizer feeds algae growth, which blooms, then covers vast areas, sucking the oxygen out of the water. These areas become dead zones, where nothing can grow, destroying delicate local ecosystems. Sadly, nitrogen is not the only chemical damaging our waterways. The phosphates found in most laundry detergents enter the water supply then end up in the sea. Every 500 grams of phosphate from detergent spawns 9 kg of algae, which costs $200 to remove. Our cheap detergent ends up costing a great deal. This water pollution has devastated the eastern seaboard of the United States. Delaware alone has lost 78% of its fresh water mussels, 20% of its fish, 31% of its reptiles and amphibians, 34% of its dragonflies, and fully 70% of its coastal forests. Many plant species are now threatened or extinct.
The author of What’s Gotten into Us is a professor at the University of Delaware, the same state that is home to Dupont, the manufacturer of teflon used to coat nonstick pans. On campus, various buildings are named after the Dupont family following substantial endowments. One researcher, for reasons which remain obscure, decided to house a parakeet near a stove on which he heated a nonstick pan. The bird died. The cause was the fumes coming off the nonstick material, fumes which are in our kitchens most days. Dupont did not dispute this fact. Faced with fumes from our pots and pans, toxins in our shampoos and soap, pesticides concentrated in our carpets, and flame retardants seemingly every place on earth, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Change can begin simply and slowly: a toothpaste changed, a different soap purchased, a hair dye avoided. Clothes comprising natural fibers, that are not stain resistant, nor noniron can be bought. Our houses can be freshened by the radical step of opening the windows. Changing cleaning products, using more elbow grease; living more like our great-grandparents is harder, but possible with perseverance. Learning how to remodel our houses using natural products or grow our gardens is harder still. Let lawns grow, plant native flowers and shrubs, then watch as birds, butterflies, and bees return to your garden. Make conscious decisions when buying a product. Do I really need it? Why am I buying it? Will it last? Where was it made? What is it made of? Gradually, the chemical load in one’s immediate environment and upon one’s body can be reduced. As more consumers make conscious choices industries can change. The organic food movement started with a few small farms, that often had setbacks as they relearnt old techniques, before blossoming worldwide. In the state of Maine, that remote place where flame retardants were ever present, people stood up to the industry and got them banned. The alternative is to continue blindly on, wrecking communities, fouling the planet, and deforming unborn fetuses. Eventually we poison our own bodies then drop dead like the Dupont parakeet, hemmed in by a chemical stew of our own making.