ONE The Body
To make a point about the saturating presence of toxic chemicals in the environment, field scientists will, on occasion, leave off looking for contaminants in big cities and abandoned industrial sites and travel to some of the world’s most remote places. In recent years they have found petrochemicals—and breast cancer—in the bodies of beluga whales in Canada’s St. Lawrence River. They have found PCBs—compounds used in electrical transformers that have been banned for thirty years—in the snow atop Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Andes. They have even found flame retardants in the blubber of seals on Canada’s Holman Island, far above the Arctic Circle. Synthetic chemicals, it turns out, circle the globe like the winds.
Despite such evidence—that toxic chemicals are, in essence, everywhere—human health advocates have struggled for decades to convince the public that there may be a link between so-called environmental toxins and individual and community health. After the stir caused by the publication of Silent Spring in the early 1960s, it took a full decade for the government to pass, and begin to enforce, pollution controls in factories and hazardous waste dumps. And thirty years after that, it remains more difficult than ever to convince people that the products they rely on every day—products that are made, after all, with these same toxic chemicals—might in any way be risky to use.
It’s important to understand that your body is already full of toxic chemicals. This is true even if, as the saying goes, you were born yesterday. Long before you ever bought a flame retardant couch, or a sheet of plywood, or a can of ant spray, the chances are quite good that you absorbed toxins through your mother’s placenta, her breast milk, or both. Given the ubiquity of chemicals in our lives, the accumulation grows from there.
In Maryland, where I live, a lot of attention is paid to the health of oysters, one of many endangered species suffering from toxic runoff in the Chesapeake Bay. Oysters spend their days on the bay floor, filtering water in one end and out the other. Whatever microscopic material is in the water passes through the oyster. Most of it exits; some of it stays inside. These toxins can be measured.
What is becoming clear is that we are all oysters. We are all exposed to all kinds of toxins. Some of these we filter out; others stay inside us.
In recent years, public health groups have come up with a new tactic to make this point: the body burden study. Such studies are not, at least primarily, invested in proving that toxic chemicals are “dangerous.” This work is being done, with increasingly clear results, in scientific laboratories. What the body burden studies do is prove that these chemicals are everywhere—in the environment, in wild and domestic animals, and, with increasing frequency, in our bodies. Proving that toxic chemicals are dangerous hits people in their heads. Proving that people have chemicals in their bodies hits people in their guts. For decades, the chemical industry has been able to convince our heads that chemical harm is still in dispute, that “more research is needed.” The authors of the new body burden studies are betting that the gut is less easily persuaded.
“Our experience with persistent chemicals of the past such as DDT and PCBs has shown what happens when we wait to gather conclusive evidence of a chemical’s harm instead of acting on mounting evidence,” the Public Interest Research Group reported in 2003. “By the time the chemicals were regulated, they had spread across the globe and left a path of damage from which we have yet to recover.”
If lab science aspires to prove chemical harm, body burden studies aspire to show chemical exposure. In Europe, linking harm in the lab with exposure in the community has been enough to prompt radical changes in the way toxic chemicals are regulated. “In a court of law, a person is innocent until proven guilty,” a United Nations report on the persistence of environmental toxins says. “Chemicals suspected of bio-accumulating, persisting in the environment, and harming human beings and animals do not deserve that kind of protection. Unless precautionary action is taken to curtail exposure to these chemicals, millions of people—not to mention millions of other creatures ranging from lake trout to penguins—are likely to suffer terrible harm.” As of three years ago, chemicals in Europe are considered guilty until proven innocent. Here in the United States, it is still the other way around.
When I wanted to find out how ubiquitous synthetic chemicals had become in people, I decided to go to Maine. I wanted to meet some folks whose bodies, I had heard, had recently been tested and found to be full of plasticizers. And mercury. And stain resisters. None of these people worked in a laboratory, and they had not grown up in big industrial cities, or near the chemical corridors of Louisiana, Houston, or Delaware. One was a woman raising young children in rural western Maine. Another was a twenty-eight-year-old woman raised in one of Maine’s remotest corners. A third was an organic farmer.
How did this happen?
Lauralee Raymond grew up in Fort Kent, way up in Aroostook County, near the St. John River, on the Canadian border. This part of Maine is a paradise of rivers and lakes, where moose can seem to outnumber people and canoeists from all over New England ply one of the East Coast’s great remaining wildernesses. Lauralee’s family has lived in the north country for generations: her father’s family is from Acadia, her mother’s from Quebec. Lauralee’s great-grandfather and grandfather were both potato farmers. The family, for a very long time, has been connected to the land.
Ask a Maine native what they consider to be northern Maine, and they are likely to say, “Bangor.” But you’d need to continue another four hours north from Bangor to get to Fort Kent. “If you drive through Aroostook County, there’s so much forest, you don’t see houses forever,” Lauralee says. Since Interstate 95 stops two hours south of town, the only way to get to Fort Kent is to follow a winding road cutting through the northern woods. There are moose and deer at every turn, Lauralee says, and if you want a true adventure, drive the road at night.
Surrounded by such a wealth of natural beauty, Lauralee spent most of her childhood outside. She and her friends swam in creeks. They rode their bikes and skied cross-country. Every fall, they got a few extra weeks off to help with the potato harvest—which, for the kids, meant separating the potatoes from the rocks and the mud. Nowadays the area is known mostly as an Olympic training center for biathletes—who combine cross-country skiing and shooting—and for hosting a qualifying sled-dog race for Alaska’s Iditarod.
As she grew older, Lauralee moved downstate to attend Bates College, in central Maine, then settled first outside Augusta and later in Portland, where she now works for a women and children’s policy group. When I met her, she was sitting in a coffee shop that was festooned with signs encouraging customers to support Maine’s economy by buying local. Local food. Local music. Local beer. In one corner, a trio of women sat knitting. In another, a woman nursed a child in her lap. This, it turned out, was Lauralee’s kind of place. She is a cheerful, open-faced, energetic young woman, and fiercely proud of her state’s eccentricity, its rural character, and its independence.
But in recent years Lauralee has had this sensibility shaken. She had agreed to meet me in the café to talk about a study in which she had taken part that had made her question a great deal about her ability—and her state’s—to exist apart from the corrupting influences of the urbanized world. A couple of years ago, she had participated in a study being conducted by a public health group hoping to draw attention to the growing presence of toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products. Each participant would donate samples of their hair, blood, and urine to a research team from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southern Maine. Once the samples were collected, they would be sent to laboratories in Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, for chemical analysis. Technicians would test the samples for a spectrum of toxins. The lab would not offer diagnoses; there would be no attempt to link contamination to current or prospective diseases. All the volunteers would learn was what they had lurking in their bodies.
Thirteen people agreed to participate. They came from all walks of life: A furniture store owner. A teacher. A nurse. They were men and women, young and old. Several represented a group that has become a very important constituency for public health advocates: they were women of childbearing age. At twenty-eight, Lauralee Raymond definitely qualified.
Public health advocates hoped that proving the presence of toxic chemicals in a randomly selected group of citizens would cement the notion that toxic chemicals were more than a problem limited to people who lived near Superfund sites, or showed up only in residents of New Jersey. The study’s sponsors were interested in research and advocacy in equal measure: if people in Maine were contaminated, the thinking went, people everywhere were probably contaminated, and something ought to be done about it.
Before the test, Lauralee Raymond was confident, even cocky, about the relative purity of her body. She was in her twenties. She was a runner. She ate organic food. She had spent her childhood in one of the most pristine corners of one of the most rural states in the country. If anyone’s body was clean, she figured, it would be hers. To make matters more interesting, her mother agreed to be tested as well. When it came to the number of chemicals in their bodies, Lauralee felt certain that youth would be served.
“I went into this as a kind of game, or a competition with my mom,” Lauralee said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this will be fascinating, to see how much better health I am in than my mom.’ Look, my parents can’t even pronounce ‘tofu.’ I figured, maybe this will get my mom to take better care of herself.”
The organizers of the study had told her, and all the participants, that they should be prepared for a few surprises. Lauralee scoffed.
“I was thinking, like, ‘You don’t need to tell me that. I’m going to be fine. My results will be fine.’”
Russell Libby was also raised in a rural part of Maine. He grew up in Sorrento, outside Bar Harbor. His people were from modest means, mostly farmers or retailers; his grandmother was a drugstore clerk, his father a state trooper. As a kid, Libby worked at a golf course where they used a lot of pesticides, and then worked raking commercial blueberries, where they used still more. Later, he was trained as an economist at Bowdoin College and the University of Maine. Libby has devoted his career to studying agricultural policy. He spent a decade as research director of the state’s Department of Agriculture, and has been involved with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association for thirty years, the last fifteen as its executive director.
He is also a published poet. Like Wendell Berry, Libby is given to lines reflecting the pressures he, and his rural state, feel from the industrialized world. One poem, “Worth,” opens with a quote from a vice president of Dow AgroSciences recommending that farmers work a piece of land “for all it’s worth.” The next stanzas raise questions that shift our attention from the economic to the metaphysical:
For how many bluebirds it’s worth?
For how many monarchs?
What price the elusive fireflies?
I pulled the early peas today,
tossing the vines in the compost bin,
then carried the sack of Tartary Buckwheat from the barn,
seed grown by Liz and Chris on their farm,
and sowed it in the same way
farmers have sowed since the beginning,
fingers pointing in the direction the seeds are thrown.
And what is that worth?
To hear the seeds meeting the ground,
to look up and see the clouds
that will bring rain tonight or tomorrow,
and know next week the ground will be covered
with pale green, triangle-shaped leaves,
six weeks before the white flowers will carry bees.
I met Libby at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in the middle of January. The civic center had everything you’d want in an agricultural trade show: Raffles for a new tractor. Maple-sugaring equipment. Sign-up booths for the Sheep Breeders Association and the Beekeepers Association. There were portable sawmills and a man demonstrating the strength of a plastic shovel by jumping on it. This thing is so strong, he was telling a customer, that he once ran over it with his truck and it just snapped right back. Off in one corner, I picked up a pamphlet that promised to teach me how to build an outdoor oven out of clay.
It was here that I figured out what Maine farmers grow in winter: beards. I have never seen such a fine crop in my life. And I’m not talking about the neat goatee you might find on a Boston banker, or the sideburns-and-soul-patch combination you might find on a bartender in New York. This is Maine. I’m talking about full bushes, capable of warming not just chins but chests.
I met Libby at a booth set up by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. His lively blue eyes lit up—naturally—a thickly bearded face. He wore a green corduroy shirt and hiking boots, and, judging from the number of people who came by to shake his hand, he seemed to know everyone. We walked over to a set of folding chairs beneath a podium used for product demonstrations and sat down to talk.
Like Lauralee Raymond, Libby told me he had spent the bulk of his life in rural communities, and had been unusually conscious in his choices. He hasn’t used synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on his farm since he started it twenty-five years ago. When it came time to build a house, he and a neighbor “made a whole lot of decisions to take things out of play.” They used only native woods, doubling up layers rather than using plywood, which he knew contained formaldehyde. They didn’t lay carpeting, since most of it contained toxic flame retardants. The whole project, he said, was “very low-tech.”
If Lauralee Raymond figured she’d be clean because of her youth, Russell Libby figured he’d be clean because of his choices.
The Maine study was modest in scale. It set out to test for a handful of chemicals known to be toxic: phthalates, softening plasticizers that are added to everything from baby toys and plastic shower curtains to drinking-water bottles and soft lunch boxes; flame retardants, which are mandated in everything from television sets to sofa cushions and draperies; perfluorinated chemicals, the so-called Teflon treatments that are used as stain-resistant coating on furniture upholstery and as nonstick coating for cookware and food packaging for things like microwave popcorn; and bisphenol A, a hardening plastics additive used to make baby bottles and the lining of food cans.
Excerpted from What's Gotten into Us? by McKay Jenkins. Copyright © 2011 by Mckay Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.