It’s not every day that you open the front page of a newspaper to learn that your childhood home is now considered a toxic waste dump complete with three Superfund sites and a million tons of toxic compounds.
But that’s exactly what happened to Nancy Nichols, senior editor at The Harvard Business Review, who writes about her town’s chemical past in Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy (Island Press, $24.95).
And, at the risk of sounding a bit sinister, it could happen to you.
After all, it’s not like Nichols — who began investigating the potential health effects of her town’s industrial pollution after her sister was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer — grew up near a known nuclear accident site like Three Mile Island.
That would at least be understandable, though still tragic.
Instead, the two sisters grew up in Waukegan, Ill., a Midwest town so run-of-the-mill and ordinary that it serves as the perfect backdrop.
That’s the overall message of her book — that chemical contamination is no longer confined to places we’ve never heard of; instead, it is every where, surrounding us as a byproduct of an industrialized society with a chemical policy that values innovation at any cost over precaution.
In fact, even our bodies contain a whole host of industrial chemicals, giving us our own “body burdens.” As Nichols mentions, studies by both the U.S. EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found measurable levels of industrial chemicals in all adults tested in the U.S.
“Where we once thought of pollution simply as existing outside of us — in the landfill, or in the lake, or in the lagoon behind the factory — today it’s recognized that each and every one of us is a walking environment, and often a toxic one at that,” she writes.
Throughout the book, Nichols’ weaves bits of her own personal journey through illness as she investigates the potentially lethal effects that industrial pollution in her hometown had on her and her sister’s health.
This method, though powerful, carries with it the risk of losing the integrity of an unbiased journalist. By immediately associating her sister’s (and her own) cancer with her town’s toxic past, the reader can’t help wonder whether Nichols was really able to remain an impartial reporter.
But critics who fault her for this are missing the point: At the end of the day, we can’t afford to wait for bulletproof evidence that these millions of pounds of chemicals we’re putting into the environment are causing harm to us or to our environment.
Take PCBs, for example. We allowed this class of organic chemicals to be mass-produced around the world before they were properly evaluated for health and environmental risks. And despite banning them more than 30 years ago, we’re still cleaning up after the havoc they continue to wreak on the environment.
The truth is, we simply don’t know what effects most chemicals in use today are having on our bodies and we may never know. But continuing a regulatory policy where chemicals are innocent until proven guilty is clearly a risk we can’t afford to take.
Nichols’ book does not contain the groundbreaking research of past investigative pieces such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but it’s an important read because it reminds us of the consequences that come with a lax chemical policy that values the health of the chemical industry over the health of the individual.
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