Better living through chemistry? From BPA in water bottles to flame-retardants in furniture, and mercury in fish to lead in computer monitors, our world has become a very toxic place. We are constantly bombarded by a host of chemicals used in everything from plastics to pesticides, and regulation is often painfully slow to come. The following five books ask difficult questions about what is safe, how we define it, and how we can develop and fight for better safeguards for future generations. Investigate the ongoing and tragic American epidemic of lead poisoning, or use BPA as a launch pad for exploring the effects of chemicals on the human body. Consider the insidious threat of chemicals to the development of the next generation's brains, and trace the development of life's defense systems — the mechanisms that transform, excrete and stow away potentially harmful chemicals — from more than 3 billion years ago to today. Each of these books offers an education — sometimes difficult but always important — on the dangers and promise of our chemical world.


"Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children"

By Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner

Publisher: University of California Press

BPA, formaldehyde, flame-retardants and pesticides: There are a lot of chemicals we’re trying to avoid these days, but lead isn’t generally a topic of conversation. Don’t be deceived, though: Lead poisoning is still a major problem endangering the health of millions of American children. In fact, 5 million preschool children are still at risk today. In “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children,” CUNY’s Gerald Markowitz and Columbia University’s David Rosner examine the epidemic of lead poisoning in America over the past half century. They remind us that public health is inseparable from politics, and show how over the course of many decades, the United States government has failed to protect its most vulnerable citizens from the threat of lead poisoning time and again. Even though the dangers were well known, and countries including France, Spain and Sweden banned interior lead paint as early as the 1920s and 1930s, products containing lead continued to be marketed to American families well into the 1970s, and lead paint — the most insidious danger of all because it can cause brain damage even if it isn’t peeling — remained in use until the congressional ban at that time. It remains on the walls of 30 million American homes to this day, and one expert has even estimated that America’s failure to address the lead paint problem early on may well have cost the American population, on average, five IQ points — enough to double the number of mentally disabled children and halve the number of gifted children in the country. In 1990, the Department of Health and Human Services developed a plan to remove lead from the nation’s homes over 15 years at a cost of $33 billion, but the plan was opposed by the lead industry, Realtors, landlords, insurance companies and even some private pediatricians who objected to the extra bother of screening children. Instead, the EPA commissioned the much cheaper, ultimately ineffective and completely unethical Baltimore toddler study. “Lead Wars” clearly shows that the scandalous and tragic history of lead is one that our society is doomed to repeat over and over again unless we develop and fight for better safeguards against chemicals and new technology.


"Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation"

By Dan Fagin

Publisher: Bantam

Another book that highlights the importance of public resistance, Dan Fagin’s “Toms River” offers essential insights into cancer, the environment, carcinogenesis and prevention, all told through the lens of Toms River, N.J. The quiet, suburban beach community experienced an incidence of cancer among its children that was higher than any other part of the state, and thus became the setting of a horrifying and cautionary tale. Fagin recounts 60 years of inadequate oversight that made it possible for large chemical companies to use Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river. One major polluter was Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corp., which manufactured dyes and pigments from 1952 to 1986 and plastics and additives from 1959 until 1991, and released contaminated wastewater directly into the Toms River until 1966, when it built a 10-mile underground pipeline to the ocean. In addition to detailing the saga of rampant pollution, Fagin chronicles the stories of the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and brings to life the everyday heroes in Toms River who struggled for justice and found themselves at the center of a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping.


"Is It Safe?: BPA and the Struggle to Define the Safety of Chemicals"

By Sarah A. Vogel

Publisher: University of California Press

As the managing director of the health program at the Environmental Defense Fund, Sarah Vogel is well-versed in one of the most contentious public health issues today: the negative impacts of potentially toxic chemicals used in common household items. These chemicals are now found in most humans tested today, and one of the most the familiar, bisphenol A — or BPA — has been found in more than 90 percent of human urine samples. The hormone-disrupting chemical has been associated with harmful health impacts ranging from cancer and obesity to infertility and heart disease, and according to Vogel, the public outcry over BPA reflects “a growing anxiety about the safety of chemicals in the marketplace.” Vogel’s new book, “Is It Safe?” examines the BPA crisis as part of a larger history to define the safety of chemicals, and to understand the effects of chemicals on the human body. She shows how, as chemical production exploded over the past 60 years and transformed the world in which we live, we became quite literally what we made: a little bit of plastic, pesticides, flame retardants and BPA. Along the way, questions arose that demand answering now more than ever: What is safe, who defines it, and according to what information? We are all exposed to industrial chemicals from conception to old age, a reality that requires us to work to define the safe use of chemicals, and build a more sustainable and healthy future.


"Only One Chance: How Environmental Pollution Impairs Brain Development — and How to Protect the Brains of the Next Generation"

By Philippe Grandjean

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Building a brain is no small feat: The process consists of a series of complex and intricately coordinated stages that need to happen at very specific times. Brain cells are formed during the last few months of pregnancy at a rate of about 200 cells per second, and up to 1,000 synapses are generated each second during the first months after a child is born. The fact that the brain must undergo all of these processes during limited time windows means that we literally have only one chance to develop a brain — and damage during early development is likely to be irreversible. With all this in mind it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the brain's development is uniquely sensitive to toxic chemicals, yet an understanding and acknowledgement of “chemical brain drain,” as Dr. Philippe Grandjean describes it, has historically been hampered by misconceptions and misunderstandings. In his forthcoming book, Grandjean explains how chemicals such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic and certain pesticides pose an insidious threat to the development of the next generation's brains, and warns that even small deficits may negatively impact academic achievements, economic success, risk of delinquency and quality of life. Today, a whopping one out of every six children suffers from some form of neurodevelopmental abnormality, and those caused by chemical brain drain will remain for a lifetime. Grandjean insists that if we work to control all of the 200 industrial chemicals that have already been proven to affect brain functions in adults, and push for routine testing for brain toxicity, stricter regulation of chemical emissions, and more required disclosure on the part of industries that unleash hazardous chemicals into products and the environment, that there is hope for the brains of future generations. We can halt chemical brain drain and protect the next generation — but we have only one chance.


"Evolution in a Toxic World: How Life Responds to Chemical Threats"

By Emily Monosson, Ph.D.

Publisher: Island Press

“There is no question that we have dramatically changed much of the world’s chemistry, both globally and locally,” writes Dr. Emily Monosson in her forthcoming book, “Evolution in a Toxic World.” With BPA in baby bottles, mercury in fish, and lead in computer monitors, it’s clear that our modern world has become a toxic place, but Monosson’s take on environmental toxicity is unusual. The way she sees it, the world has always been toxic, and examining how life adapted to such early threats can offer insights into today's (and tomorrow's) most dangerous contaminants. Monosson explores how chemicals with some potential to be toxic have been both a necessity and a bane to all living things throughout history. She traces the development of life's defense systems — the mechanisms that transform, excrete and stow away potentially harmful chemicals — from more than 3 billion years ago to today. Take oxygen, for example: “The chemical world in which life evolved was a world where atmospheric oxygen rose from fractions of a percent to over 20%.” Beginning with our earliest ancestors' response to ultraviolet radiation, Monosson follows the evolution of chemical defenses such as antioxidants, metal binding proteins, detoxification and cell death. “Ultraviolet light once intense and deadly now filters through a tenuous shroud of ozone, and metals, like the Cheshire cat, bounced back and forth between bioavailable and inaccessible.” She explains that these chemicals influenced not only the evolution of toxic defense but also the basic mechanisms of everyday life itself, and suggests that studying how our complex internal defense network currently operates, and how it came to be that way over many thousands of years, may allow us to predict how it will react to novel and existing chemicals. Ideally, this understanding could lead to not only better management and preventative measures, but also possibly treatment of current diseases.

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Teaser photo: Amelia-Jane/Flickr