In Review :: Toxic Exposures

Book review of Phil Brown’s Toxic Exposures: Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Movement
Toxic Exposures: Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Movement
by Phil Brown

Columbia University, 2007, 356 pages, $28.95

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spacer cover of Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves by Andrew Szasz

Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves
by Andrew Szasz

University of Minnesota, 2007, 323 pages, $24.95
Go to your local bookstore or
buy online

In the past decade, the public has been besieged with ever-growing (and often frightening) evidence that some of the 80,000 industrial-age chemicals in wide use can have negative impacts on our health. As research on environmental health has ramped up, so has economically motivated backlash aimed at discrediting environmental risks. As the environmental health movement comes of age, these two books present analyses helpful to anyone interested in understanding the broader context of the struggle for a healthier world.

Focusing on breast cancer, asthma, and Gulf War-related diseases as case studies, Phil Brown examines how scientists, patients, and environmentalists are learning to work, live, and do battle with uncertainty and denial. Although true progress has been slow and fraught with obstacles, scientists and health activists are winning gradual acknowledgement of chemical contributions to disease. But the controversy manufactured by industry propaganda continues to confound understanding of the chemical role in these diseases and add uncertainty about what actions to take.

New research and heightened public advocacy are challenging established ways of doing business, both scientific and industrial. Brown has also been directly involved in community health work and ends on an uplifting note about the power of collective advocacy: stories about scientists, environmentalists, and health activists who have successfully advocated for precautionary policies in professional associations, municipalities, and entire nations. But any such progress is an uphill fight.

In the midst of uncertainty, we are faced with choices—often between the political and the personal. In Shopping Our Way to Safety, Andrew Szasz raises some uncomfortable issues. He demonstrates how much of the public’s energy has been diverted into “quarantining” ourselves from the health threats we fear lurk in our food and homes—buying air filters, drinking bottled water, and otherwise attempting to avoid personal exposure.

Not that this is necessarily bad—other than the wasteful scam of selling water in plastic bottles—but as Szasz illustrates, many of us come to feel that protecting ourselves is enough. Like the fallout shelters of the 1960s, our self-quarantine gives us a false sense of security, Szasz argues. We distance ourselves from the source of the problem without addressing its roots. Under a spell of greenwashing and what Szasz calls “political anesthesia,” we often fail to hold industry and government accountable.

Protecting ourselves and working for broader change are not exclusive, but the latter is a messier proposition. The problem is ultimately profit. Eco-product companies may benefit from marketing to and playing off of our fears. Corporations stand to lose large profits if their products are seen as tainted by risky chemicals, and they overwhelm politicians and the public with vast lobbying and media relations campaigns.

Sorting out the truth can be difficult, but it is getting easier as scientific evidence builds, advocates partner with scientists to make good information available, corporate and chemical lobbying is exposed, and policy is built on this body of evidence. Szasz points out that back in the 1960s, anti-war advocates “won their struggle to convince Americans that building fallout shelters was folly and suicidal.” For a more current example in environmental health, Brown looks to Europe, which has developed health and safety policies based on precautionary protections with some success to date. In this arena, the New World might well take some lessons from the Old—that the longstanding European concept of “solidarity” among people and communities can, and probably must, apply to environmental health if we are to truly have cleaner, healthier bodies.

Steve Heilig wrote this review as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Steve Heilig is the director of public health and education at the San Francisco Medical Society and co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. Photo of Steve Heilig
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