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The Toxicity Panic

The contemporary fear of plastics and other household menaces can’t possibly be justified—or can it?

When, armed with an infant, you descend into the nether world of urban playgrounds and playdates and long, searching conversations about upper-middle-class parental obsessions (gluten allergies, Mandarin classes), you’re likely to find yourself wondering whether you’ve joined a genial but nutty sect. Rumor runs rampant; information is so copious and conflicting there might as well be none at all; skepticism and standards of scientific evidence shimmer and vanish at the hint of something to worry about. Not long before my entry onto the mommy track, parental anxiety spiked over the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, linked, by a sketchy and quickly refuted study, to autism. The supposed connection made a bigger impression than the refutation, and, while I didn’t actually know anyone who failed to get their children immunized for MMR, plenty of parents did refuse the shot; vaccination rates have plummeted in communities around the country in recent years. The decisions of these parents seems both tragic and telling. Vaccines rank among the greatest triumphs of modern medicine, but, since a vaccine can entail introducing dead infectious matter and potentially toxic chemicals into a healthy body, it also demands trust. Rejecting a vaccine for one’s child seems as strong an expression of distrust—of science, of medicine, of technology—as a non-Christian Scientist parent could make.

When the plastics panic came into view about three years ago, I figured it would have just as slight an evidentiary basis and be just as psychosocially expressive. The first chemical my fellow Upper West Side parents and I became all too familiar with was bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA stiffens plastic; it yields the hard, clear plastics that so appealingly mimic glass. A compound distilled, in part, from acetone that is said to be “weakly estrogenic” and has been linked to breast cancer (among other illnesses), BPA can be found in everything from the epoxy resins that line soup cans to water bottles to corrective lenses. Another set of synthetic chemicals subject to obsessive dissection were phthalates, which are found in some food containers, among other things. Phthalates, like BPA, are said to be endocrine disruptors—in mimicking hormones that help the endocrine system orchestrate development, they can potentially disrupt that process, which might cause, oh, say, infertility later or neurological problems in infants who may have absorbed the chemicals in the womb.

Apparently, the thing to do with potentially toxic plastics was to throw them out. Campbell’s soup, water bottles, translucent containers the Tupperware lady would have died for—in the trash. Any plastic food item marked with a 3, 6, or 7—out. (No. 3 plastic is PVC, polyvinyl chloride, which often has phthalates added as a softener; no. 6 plastic, which is mostly found in those foam carry-out containers, has styrene, a neurotoxin; no. 7 includes polycarbonates and may have BPA.)

Once we’d begun purging our households, though, we had no idea how to stop. To find out what to get rid of, we took to the Internet, where we were told that kitchens were not the only rooms we had to worry about and plastics not the only threat. Searches for BPA soon prompted alarm about bathrooms. These contain baby lotions, tubes of toothpaste, sunscreens, and shampoos filled with phthalates and parabens (some are considered endocrine disruptors). Other suspicious substances included, amazingly, sodium fluoride, which I had always thought of as unequivocally good for you. This chemical, the active ingredient in most commercial toothpastes, gets an eight out of ten for toxicity, according to the Environmental Working Group, and is a restricted substance in Canada. We logged onto the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) “Simple Steps” site, which features a cartoon cutaway of a suburban home, studded with stars indicating dangerous toxins. A star on a hose held by a man watering his lawn yielded atrazine, a herbicide commonly found in drinking water that has devastating effects on male frogs. A star on a bookshelf in a child’s room alerted us to formaldehyde, which is often found in plywood and other building materials and may give children asthma, among other things. A star on a bathroom faucet signaled hexavalent chromium, the metal made famous by Erin Brockovich; when used in chrome plating at high enough doses, it can leach into air and water and cause cancer and allergies. (The NRDC didn’t say how high the dose had to be or what the usual levels are in our water.)

This was madness! We’d emptied the pantries; we were considering emptying the medicine cabinets (did the toothpaste have to go?); were we supposed to junk the bedroom furniture, too? How were we supposed to know whether this was a real threat or just another clanging chord in the wall of “green noise,” that is, our daily bombardment by bad environmental news? Anyone looking for an exit strategy from what felt a lot like obsessive-compulsive disorder could fall back on detoxify-your-home lists published by Time, Newsweek, USA Today, and WebMD. These demanded immense investments of time but sounded sort of reasonable. Dust and vacuum regularly, because, according to WebMD, dust is rife with “lead, fire retardants, pesticides, and other chemicals.” Test for radon and lead. Don’t use pesticides. Filter tap water. Use green cleaning products. Get rid of non-stick pans; they may have perfluorinated chemicals, which last for years in the environment and in the body; and bad plastics.

My children got upset when I threw out the water bottles given to them as prizes by their tennis coach (the number on the bottom was 7). My husband got annoyed at the new cleaning products I was buying, which didn’t clean very well. He demanded to know: Was everything poisoning us? Was the world really more toxic than it used to be—more toxic than in 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring? Or had detoxification become a kind of collective anorexia, a way for mothers to refuse to live in a world we found too terrifying, another means of bubble wrapping our darlings?

Maybe, I told him, the detoxification craze should be seen as a sort of maternalist counterrevolution, a rejection of modernity by women who failed to appreciate how technology had freed them. I was reminded of Mary Douglas, the anthropologist who famously analyzed purification rituals as means of restoring a disturbed social order. Dipping further into research on “intuitive toxicology”—that is, how ordinary people assess the poisonousness of potentially poisonous things—I discovered that women consistently worry more about toxicity than men do. (They worry more about risks in general—as do, interestingly, minorities.) Women are more likely to avoid chemicals whenever possible and don’t necessarily think that a miniscule dose of something makes it less poisonous. This last belief directly contradicts established scientific reasoning about toxins. Deciding whether a chemical is dangerous usually involves doing a dose-response assessment—figuring out how much of a poison produces effects in laboratory animals. The dose makes the poison, as the saying goes.

A common explanation for why women and minorities are more risk averse is that they are less likely to work in science and tend to share less in the benefits of technology, and are therefore less willing to trust the institutions that manage risk in our society. Students of intuitive toxicology also speculate that dose-sensitivity skeptics are succumbing to primitive models of contagion—the folk belief that, when things come into contact, they transfer properties permanently.

On the other hand, just because we mothers were supposedly irrational and backward, that didn’t mean we were wrong. What if, in being shamed into inaction, we were blinding ourselves to the horrors lurking within dozens of totally familiar activities? I couldn’t stop flashing back to a scene from “Mad Men” in which the Drapers’ little girl, Sally, prances around inside a plastic dry-cleaning bag, the kind we now know can suffocate a child, or at least fill her nose with perchloroethylene—that’s the cancercausing dry-cleaning fluid. Since the scene takes place in the early ’60s and Betty, her mother, doesn’t know any better, she yells at Sally only for having maybe messed up her dry-cleaning. If we don’t do the right thing now, will our children be laughing a generation hence at the irony of it all?


Several months and many books and conversations later, I have concluded that the children will be laughing—and bitterly. What I’ve discovered will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying serious attention to research on consumer products, but, since that description had not previously applied to me, or to most people I know, I’ll report my finding: The United States deals with potentially toxic household products in a manner that is so cavalier that it would, in a saner world, be called negligence. To my husband, I explain that the world has not grown qualitatively more toxic than in the bad old preenvironmentalist days. What has changed is that the scientific understanding of how these things are poisonous has undergone a conceptual revolution, with the result that we mothers who fail to throw out our no. 7 plastics risk looking as complacent as Betty Draper, if not quite as culpable as those 1950s doctors who let themselves appear in ads for cigarettes.

When I first began my crash course on this subject, I assumed the reason quasi-eco-moms like me have spent the last half-decade fretting neurotically about the stuff our bodies come into contact with, rather than about the environment writ large—about what’s in our homes rather than in rivers and lakes and soil and air—is that we’re typical selfabsorbed bourgeois parents. Now I know the real reason is that we can see inside our bodies better than ever before, and what we find there horrifies us. Toxicologists used to test the environment and conduct surveys to discover the degree to which people might have been exposed to poisonous stuff; their conclusions were largely guesswork. Now, an increasingly common technology called biomonitoring lets them measure the effects of toxic exposure in blood, urine, breast milk, semen, and all the other parts of us where chemicals tend not to flush out. Biomonitoring brings home the truth in the saying that we are what we eat—not to mention drink, breathe, wear, sit on, rub up against, and chew on distractedly.

Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested Americans every two years in order to build a database of what are called “body burdens,” thereby helping toxicologists set new standards for exposure and definitively link chemicals to illness, or else decouple them. The CDC started with 27 worrisome chemicals and is now up to 219. This process has revealed a surprising new form of egalitarianism at work on our continent: No matter how puritanical or hedonistic your lifestyle, whether you’re rich or poor, elderly or fetal, a resident of Portland or New York City, you almost certainly have BPA in your bloodstream, along with other toxins that have entered the food chain and water system or have become ubiquitous in building materials and food-packaging. In its most recent report on these body burdens, in 2009, the CDC stated that nearly everyone it tested had detectable amounts of BPA; of polybrominated diphenylethers, flame retardants that can thwart a fetus’s neurological development; of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the really bad stuff in non-stick cookware that has also been shown to thwart the proper development of young animals; of perchlorate, a chemical used in making rockets and fireworks, which can keep the thyroid from making necessary hormones; of a gasoline additive now banned in most states, methyl tert-butyl ether.

But is all this actually dangerous? Well, the answer depends on how you define “dangerous,” and, to know how to do that, you have to know about a paradigm shift in our understanding of toxicity that cuts so deep, it should thoroughly undermine your sense of what is safe and what isn’t.

The transformation started with something called the “endocrine-disruption hypothesis.” Its discovery in the late ’80s involves one of those heroic scientific narratives that make people like me— people who instinctively discount their own opinions when faced with the gnomic wisdom of credentialed experts—feel both emboldened and depressed. Its heroine is Theo Colborn, a rancher and mother of four who went back to school at the age of 51, eventually getting a Ph.D. in zoology. Soon after graduating, she landed a job reviewing other scientists’ data at the Conservation Foundation in Washington. She noticed that biologists investigating the effects of presumably carcinogenic chemicals on predators in and around the Great Lakes (fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals) were reporting odd phenomena. Whole communities of minks were failing to reproduce; startling numbers of herring gulls were being born dead, their eyes missing, their bills misshapen; and the testicles of young male gulls were exhibiting female characteristics. Colborn correlated this data with the presence in the water of organochlorine compounds such as PCBs, DDT, and dieldrin, some of which have hormone-mimicking effects and build up in fatty tissue. Often, the offspring of creatures exposed to chemicals were worse off than the animals themselves. Colborn concluded that nearly all the symptoms could be traced to things going awry in the endocrine system, the network of glands that orchestrates development by secreting hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and growth hormone into the body at set times.

In 1991, Colborn called together a conference, whose participants ranged from biologists and endocrinologists and toxicologists to psychiatrists and lawyers, at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. They produced what become known as the “Wingspread Statement,” the core document of the endocrine-disruption hypothesis. The statement asserts that “a large number of man-made chemicals that have been released into the environment, as well as a few natural ones, have the potential to disrupt the endocrine system of animals, including humans” and that “reproductive effects reported in wildlife should be of concern to humans dependent upon the same resources.” Endocrine disruption—the mimicking or blocking or suppression of hormones by industrial or natural chemicals— appeared to be affecting adult reproductive systems and child development in ways that far surpassed cancer, the outcome most commonly looked for by researchers at the time. Potential problems included infertility, genital abnormalities, asthma, autoimmune dysfunction, even neurological disorders involving attention or cognition. In one early study that Colborn reviewed, for instance, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laboratory chief commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers ate fish out of the Great Lakes. The researchers found that the children “were born sooner, weighed less, and had smaller heads” than those whose mothers hadn’t eaten the fish. Moreover, the more that PCBs were found in their cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2.

In the years since the Wingspread conference, many of its fears and predictions have been fleshed out by new technologies that give a far more precise picture of the exquisite damage that toxins can wreak on the human body. Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are beginning to understand how even small doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development. In a recent talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics—the study of how genes respond to toxins—the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things,” that is, the huge doses that led to “death or low birth weight.” In 2006, for instance, a group of scientists—including biologists, zoologists, medical specialists, public health experts, and government officials such as Birnbaum—met in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and issued a “consensus statement” based on several hundred studies that declared with certainty that BPA was causing “organizational changes ... in the prostate, breast, testis, mammary glands, body size, brain structure and chemistry, and behavior of laboratory animals.”

The implications of these organizational changes for public health are enormous. As scientists map the effects of incorrect endocrine signaling, they are developing new ideas about how chemicals can, in effect, re-program animals and humans to be more susceptible to certain diseases—and to pass that susceptibility on to their offspring. This theory, known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHad, has blossomed into an emerging new field. DOHad paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.

The notion that toxins could cause inheritable harm is counterintuitive—chemicals are generally less toxic in adults and may only be toxic while the chemical is present in the body. But the effect of a chemical can be different on a human unfolding in the womb, says Jerrold Heindel, who heads a branch of the NIEHS that funds studies of endocrine disruptors. Compared with an adult, a fetus might respond to a chemical at “onehundred-fold less concentration or more, and, when you take the chemical away, the body is nonetheless altered for life.” And not just for the child’s life, but maybe her children’s lives, too. “Inside the fetus are germ cells that are developing that are going to be the sperm and oocytes for the next generation, so you’re actually exposing the mother, the baby, and the baby’s kids, possibly,” says Heindel.

These problems rarely present themselves in the kind of time span that would make it easy to draw clear lines between toxins and their effects. Infants may seem fine at birth but carry within them a heightened sensitivity to hormones and hormone-like chemicals only revealed later in life, often in puberty, when endocrine systems go into hyperdrive. This increases the adolescent’s or adult’s chances of falling ill, getting fat, or becoming infertile. In a 2007 article for Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology that reviewed a wide swath of animal studies on endocrine disruptors, Heindel described how a fetus could be affected by toxic chemicals. The fetus could be inundated once by a chemical that instantly triggers a dysfunction. Or, it could be exposed first in the womb, and then a subsequent exposure could provoke discernible havoc—it could develop a disease that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, or suffer an increased risk or earlier onset or exacerbation of that disease. Heindel adds that animal studies predict, strongly, what endocrine disruptors will do to humans.

If the endocrine-disruption hypothesis and DOHad are right, then we can no longer say that it’s the dose that makes the poison; it’s the timing that makes the poison. And the timing matters to more than just fetuses. Babies, too, are particularly vulnerable—they are still in the full throes of development and have weaker immune systems. They like to propel themselves across the floor, where they swallow more chemical-laced dust than we do. Plus, mothers inadvertently transmit their body burdens to their children through breast milk, where toxins accumulate by attaching themselves to fatty molecules. (The benefits of mothers’ milk, however, are still thought to outweigh the dangers of the toxic top-up.)

It’s worth noting that all of these discoveries are being made in a world that is at least ten times more plastic than it was half a century ago. As Susan Freinkel points out in a powerful new book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, in the ’60s, an American might have used about 30 pounds of plastic a year. In 2011, she’ll probably use more than 300 pounds. And, because large polymers take practically forever to break down, much of the plastic that has ever been manufactured is still with us, in landfills, ocean floors, and the stomachs of northern seabirds.

What’s more, plastic totally dominates the world of the child. Children drink formula in baby bottles and water in sippy cups, eat food with plastic spoons on bright melamine trays, chew on bath books and rubber ducks, and, if they don’t do these things at your house, they’ll do them at someone else’s or at school, no matter how many notes you write or mad-housewife-ish you’re willing to appear. Exposure to all that plastic, meanwhile, could have a cumulative effect. Now toxicologists can see that lots of tiny doses from many different estrogen-mimicking chemicals entering the body by multiple pathways can have a big impact. “If you’re being exposed to two-hundred fifty chemicals and only thirty of them have estrogenic activity, but they’re each very low, still, thirty of them might add up to be significant,” says Heindel.

By now, you may be asking, if our health is so sensitive and if we live in a total plastic environment, why aren’t we sicker than we are? And sicker than we used to be? The answer is, we’re healthier in some ways and sicker in others. Medical advances mean we’re likelier than ever to survive our illnesses, but all kinds of diseases are on the rise. Childhood cancers are up 20 percent since 1975. Rates of kidney, thyroid, liver, and testicular cancers in adults have been steadily increasing. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has gone from one in ten in 1973 to one in eight today. Asthma rates doubled between 1980 and 1995, and have stayed level since. Autism-spectrum disorders have arguably increased tenfold over the past 15 years. According to one large study of men in Boston, testosterone levels are down to a degree that can’t be accounted for by factors such as age, smoking, and obesity. Obesity, of course, has been elevated to the status of an epidemic.

There are many ways to explain upticks in rates of any particular ailment; for starters, a better-informed populace and better tools for detecting disease mean more diagnoses. Other environmental stressors include Americans’ weirdly terrible eating habits, our sedentary lifestyle, and stress itself. Still, in Birnbaum’s talk at the National Academy of Sciences, she declared unequivocally that data from animal studies “support a role” for environmental toxins as contributing players in a long list of “important human diseases.” Then she flashed a PowerPoint slide that listed those diseases. Crowded onto the slide in small print were: breast and prostate cancer, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, attention-deficit disorder, and hyperactivity, among others. Which diseases, exactly, have fetal origins and which chemicals have the power to sidetrack development, and how, should become clearer at the end of a giant, long-term study of some 100,000 children just launched by the National Institutes of Health. But, for now, DOHad’s theories have gained widespread acceptance, at least in universities and the agencies that fund them. “The science is really very well grounded,” says Carl Cranor, a law professor and the author of a recent encyclopedic critique of U.S. chemicals regulation, Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants.


You might think, as I did, that, as our consumption of plastic and other chemical-laden materials soared, public oversight would have increased as well and that a confused mother like me could look to the government for guidance on what to keep, what to throw out, and what kind of body burden I could safely let my children accumulate. You would be wrong. While pesticides and pharmaceuticals go through batteries of tests well before they come to market, industrial chemicals and the consumer products made with them only get scrutinized by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the EPA after they’re sold. Nor is the EPA empowered to require companies to provide basic safety data for chemicals. Instead, regulators must guess which chemicals to test. The “EPA collects little to no information about chemical exposures, yet such information is essential to the evaluation of risk,” Lynn Goldman, the dean of the public health school at George Washington University and a former EPA administrator, told Congress in February. (Goldman was recently appointed to advise the Food and Drug Administration on BPA.)

What’s more, when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA<) was passed in 1976, it grandfathered in about 62,000 chemicals already on the market, of which only about 2 percent have been reviewed by the EPA. About 85 percent of the 50,000 chemicals introduced since have never been assessed; in many cases, their makeup is shrouded in claims of confidentiality. At the EPA’s current rate of review, simply evaluating existing chemicals could take hundreds of years. The EPA has only ever banned five chemicals—not including asbestos, which a federal court concluded didn’t meet the burden of proof.

So far, regulators have been slow to adapt to the sea-change in thinking about toxins. The EPA only began experimenting with toxicogenomic methods in the past two years. The science used to set standards in the United States still assumes that low doses are safer than large ones, and still looks for effects of toxicity at the level of the organ—such as cancer or obvious deformities—rather than for small, slow-acting changes at the molecular level. (This helps explain, somewhat, why a 2008 National Toxicology Program report on BPA merely evinced “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures” and “negligible concern” for adults.) And, while laws such as the Food Quality Protection Act require the government to protect vulnerable members of the population, the TSCA only calls on the EPA to make general assumptions about what’s safe for everyone.

There are hints that things may be changing. Recent findings about the dangers of endocrine disruptors are proving so robust that the EPA is finally discussing a switch from post-market to pre-market testing. Last year, congressional Democrats introduced bills that would do just that (although they have little to no chance of passing right now). Individual states are beefing up oversight of chemicals in consumer products; Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Chicago, among others, have banned BPA in food and drink containers. Sweeping E.U. regulations are forcing U.S. manufacturers to submit extensive documentation on roughly 30,000 chemicals or lose access to the European market. Even the industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council, has called for changes to TSCA to avoid a hodgepodge of regulations.

Naturally, not everyone agrees about what those changes should be. Arthur Daemmrich, a professor at Harvard Business School, worries that burdensome regulations will crush small companies and inhibit innovation. Industry scientists I talked to say that a better fix would be to give the EPA enough money to enforce existing rules. Other toxicologists in the employ of chemical companies tell me that the new science is incomplete or inadequately standardized and call for more research into the effects of chemicals on humans. I have to admit that I didn’t find these arguments particularly convincing. The chemicals lobby, like the tobacco lobby before it, has a long history of demanding more research when existing research doesn’t suit its fancy. One scientist, Robert Chapin of Pfizer, noted bluntly that it would take an act of Congress to force chemical companies to do extensive, European-style testing: “We will do those kinds of studies when the regulators say we must.”


So is there anything we can do, as individuals, to protect ourselves or our children? I’ve arrived at my own, only somewhat arbitrary steps. Follow the detoxify-your-home lists. Don’t eat meat and fish every day. (Predators not only absorb toxins through their environment, they absorb the toxins in the animals they eat.) Don’t put plastic in the microwave; the chemicals that stiffen or soften plastics can leach into your food when heated. Don’t buy “bad plastics” or tin cans with epoxy resin linings—that’s most cans manufactured in the United States, which doesn’t outlaw BPA. (Europe and Canada do.) Avoid cosmetics and lotions that list “fragrance” as an ingredient. (Manufacturers can legally include certain “fragrances” without identifying them; they can contain phthalates.) Finally, look at the Environmental Working Group’s website, or others like it, and try not to be overwhelmed.

Still, even if you do all this, at best you’re tinkering around the edges. “I’m going to reveal my bias in this,” says Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s very hard as an individual to control your own exposure.” Whatever you do, you will be absorbing an unthinkably huge list of chemical compounds whose long-term effects we don’t know, from more sources than you could possibly shy away from.

As for me, despite being daunted by how hard it is to clean up my apartment, let alone the world, I’ve also been feeling a somewhat surprising sense of vindication. In the case of consumer products, if not that of vaccines, anxious, half-informed mothers like me had inklings about their toxicity that turned out to be justified, if not necessarily right in every detail. Meanwhile, as the tools for gauging the effects of toxicity have become more sophisticated, the previous generation of risk-assessment experts—with their narrow study parameters, insistence on dose-sensitivity, and smug theories about irrational lay people—are looking more and more wrong. At one point in my research, I came across an article in a journal prosaically titled “Public Understanding of Science” that I read and reread with strange fascination. It described a concept called “civic epistemology”—citizen-activists who decided that lobbying against toxins wouldn’t work if they didn’t also take the production of knowledge into their own hands. The author, Alistair Iles, tells the story of how years of lobbying by non-governmental organizations with well-staffed research departments forced regulators (European ones, mostly) to think about how actual consumers interact with actual products in their homes. Before molecular biologists began quantifying what happens when chemicals enter the body through multiple pathways, it was consumer-activists who suspected that our modern reality is one in which we poison ourselves all day long—with our soup cans, nonstick pans, bottled water, baby lotions, nail polish, shampoos, formaldehyde-laced baby furniture, fabric-protecting sprays, and so on. The minute particulars of this quotidian social experience, by the way, are what are missing in almost all the regulatory studies being done, just about anywhere: the exhaustive chronicling of, as Iles puts it, “who is exposed and at what times; whose behavior and social context helps shape exposure; what is in consumer products in the market (perhaps contrary to manufacturer claims or knowledge); and how affordability affects the use of ‘less toxic’ products.” As Colborn’s story suggests, though, we do have the ability to figure out what we’re doing to ourselves, even if we haven’t managed to stop it. This strikes me as a triumph of some sort, though I can’t quite say for whom; as victories go it’s a little Pyrrhic.

Judith Shulevitz is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the April 28, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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