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BOOK REVIEW

A case against the chemical industry

By Eric Liebetrau
November 24, 2008
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Despite President Bush's claims that we have "the best health care system in the world," nearly one of every three children in the United States struggles with some form of chronic disease. To those unfamiliar with the near-crisis situation faced by the country's youth, the roll call reads like a report from a Third World nation: with 2.5 million born with birth defects; 310,000 poisoned by lead; 6 million with asthma, and 12 million with developmental disorders like autism or attention deficit hyperactivity. Perhaps most disconcerting, childhood cancer has increased more than 67 percent from 1950 to 2001.

These are only a few of the hundreds of statistics cited by Philip and Alice Shabecoff, the intrepid husband-and-wife team behind "Poisoned Profits," a rightful attack on the chemical industry. "Disability, disease, and dysfunction among our nation's children," they write, "have reached epidemic proportions."

The Shabecoffs embark on a children's crusade of sorts, sharpening much of the evidence turned up in Nena Baker's recent "The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being." Both books lament the woefully inadequate measures established by the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, but the Shabecoffs continually emphasize the greater risks posed to children, who are more susceptible to the agents in thousands of chemicals not sufficiently regulated by the government. "The real-world result," they say, "has been pernicious, motivating industry to protect existing products rather than innovate to find safer ones."

Structured like a criminal trial, "Poisoned Profits" proceeds methodically and patiently, building a formidable case. I found it difficult to argue with the avalanche of numbers provided by the authors, who share an extensive background in environmental issues - Philip as the former chief environmental correspondent for The New York Times, Alice as the executive director of the National Consumers League.

Their expertise informs every exhaustively researched sentence.

Ultimately, the cumulative effect of so many statistics and case studies - many of which are heartbreaking - is numbing, but the book is not just one long complaint. Instead, it is a well-reasoned plea for change. Check out the lengthy and helpful appendices, which provide plenty of actionable items and dozens of resources that can help effect that change.

The encyclopedic list of harmful chemicals that occur with frequency in everyday household items is staggering. Among the many nasty perpetrators: Bisphenol-A, a main ingredient in plastics that leaches out and causes hormone disruptions, birth defects, and degenerative brain disorders; butadiene, a carcinogen often found in carpeting and rubber; formaldehyde, common in pressed-wood flooring and some bedding; and PCBs, which, though banned in 1978, can still be found in many household items and foods. And it's not just the variety, but the sheer volume. As the industrial boom gained steam following World War II, agitation against the pollution caused by major chemical companies was slow in coming, much of it driven by Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring." Though the book was viciously attacked by the chemical industry, many activists consider the landmark book a significant contribution to the launch of the environmental movement. The Shabecoffs prove to be a potent addition to that tradition.

"If there can be movement on climate change," they write, "there can also be movement to address the toxic plague that is harming our children. It can be hoped that the next administration, whatever its party, will get the message."

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.

POISONED PROFITS: The Toxic Assault on Our Children By Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff

Random House, 353 pp., $26

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