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How Cooperatives are Driving the New Economy

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Stories of companies and communities where business is done by the people, for the people. Now in the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine.

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Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History

When author Florence Williams learned her breast milk contained chemicals like flame retardants, she started investigating what exactly is in a breast and how that body part connects us to our children, our past, and our surroundings.

Breasts Cover

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
by Florence Williams
W.W. Norton, $25.95, 338 pages

When Florence Williams was nursing her second child, she had her breast milk tested: It was a cocktail of synthetic chemicals, from flame retardants to BPA. This experience started her research into what exactly is in a breast and how that body part connects us to our children, our past, and our surroundings. The result is her compelling, highly readable, often funny, but also deadly serious book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.

The human breast—unique in nature for its size and shape—developed early in our species’ life, for the suckling of infants with bigger heads and flatter faces. Now its augmentation is the number one plastic surgery, and breast milk is sold online for 262 times the price of oil.

The breast is the organ most sensitive to chemicals, especially to the synthetic endocrine disrupters present almost everywhere—in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the cars we drive. As a result, breast cancer is the number one fatal cancer in women worldwide—and it’s increasingly becoming a problem in men. Rather than responding to these dangers with fear, Williams inspires us with thoughtful, well-researched consideration of what others may only want to ogle or avoid thinking about altogether.

Williams adds her strong voice to two connected and important, growing movements: for the regulation of chemicals, and for cancer prevention, not merely treatment. This book is an impassioned cry for a more holistic vision and more collective action to safeguard not just body parts, but the whole body—not just the individual, but also the species and the world that supports us.

Editor's note: This story initially claimed that Florence Williams' breast milk contained "inorganic" chemicals. Alert reader djanick pointed out in the comments that toxins such as BPA are, in chemical terms, organic. The word has been changed to "synthetic" to correct this error.


Nadia Colburn wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Nadia is a writer and teacher of writing living in Boston.

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