Friday, February 17, 2012

Toxic is as toxic does

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism, polemics

For lunch today, I had one of those microwave meals, something I very rarely do. I am not even sure why my wife bought it, because while she will often buy almost anything that is on special, she is very leery of anything that will result in using plastic inside the microwave oven (we microwave in ceramic or glass only). Regardless, there it was, and I agreed to dispose of it by ingesting the contents. Once I had done so (about an hour ago), I turned over the bowl to see what I could find. It is recycle group 5, helpfully designated "PP", meaning polypropylene. That is good: there are no plasticizers, and polypropylene, like the polyethylene found in milk cartons, has very, very little potential for leaching into food.

Just a few years ago, PVC's were common in "microwave safe" plastic materials. The fact is, they are only safe in that they won't melt when steam hits them. They have a much greater potential to release chlorinated chemicals into the food, and they are made with plasticizers, including phthalates, that are rather scary, with a long rap sheet of damaging effects.

For a long list of things that won't do such damage, consult the Appendix to What's Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World by McKay Jenkins. But do also take time to read the book. It begins with the author's own wakeup call, a bout with cancer at a young age, quite a bit younger than my own cancer episode at age 53 (he isn't 53 yet). It led him to study the matter, and he arranges the book by concentric rings of concern: the body (what is in it already), home, retail outlets and stores, and the yard.

For an answer to the title question, you'll have to consult one of the online "body burden" studies listed in his Appendix. Some of their conclusions are in the "Body" chapter. Brace yourself for a shock. People in seemingly pristine places were found to have significant amounts of numerous pesticides, of heavy metals but primarily mercury, and of contaminants from plastics manufacture and plasticizers. Most of us are probably even more "burdened".

I found the chapter on "Home" helpful, particularly because I am planning to paint a few rooms in the near future. His suggestions about the most benign paints are worth considering. At least modern latex paints are less damaging than what my grandfather, a house painter, had to work with. I wonder if all that painting has something to do with his death at 75, when his father had lived 82 years, and his mother, 87 years. I also paint in the spring or fall, when I can open the windows and fill them with fans.

A book like this requires a lot of research, and all research needs to be checked, at least for plausibility. While I am very appreciative of all the research the author has done, there are two claims I need to challenge. On page 171 it is stated the "mowing your lawn for an hour produces as much pollution as driving your car about 650 miles." On the following page we read, "Using a gas-powered leaf blower for a half hour releases as much carbon as driving a car 7,700 miles at 30 miles per hour." The first claim is implausible, the second is incredible.

Firstly, my 12-year-old Camry gets 28 mpg on the highway. Driving 650 miles consumes just over 23 gallons of gasoline. A fresh catalytic converter is 90% efficient, and I replaced mine less than a year ago. A lawn mower, of course has none, but it does have the benefit of running at a constant engine speed, which reduces emissions compared to more variable speed. Anyway, the cat converter means my car emits the amount of pollutants my lawn mower would by burning 2.3 gallons of gasoline. I can run my mower for an hour on less than a quart of gas, so my estimate is one mower-hour is equivalent to at most 2.5 gallons run through my car, or a 70-mile drive, which also takes about an hour.

Secondly, 7,700 miles of driving takes 275 gallons of gasoline. Half an hour of leaf blower use needs at most a pint, and probably less; my neighbor's leaf blower has a much less powerful engine than my lawn mower. The 7,700 mile claim is ridiculously wrong. Burning a pint of gasoline, no matter the engine, releases about three pounds of carbon dioxide. Burning 275 gallons releases about three Tons. I looked in the author's notes, and he has no indication what his source was for either claim. The sources are grossly wrong, stupidly wrong!

There is one other minor misstatement, and not a surprising one. The author notes that there are several thousand halogen-containing chemicals being produced, presumably products on the market. It is worse than that. A friend who works at a major chemical company told me that there are more than 30,000 products containing fluorine, chlorine, bromine or iodine in his company's database of chemical products. In my estimation, things are at least ten times worse than what the author states. Given the secrecy of these companies to most outsiders, this is not surprising.

OK, with those items put to bed, let's not forget that in general, the author's research is very good. In particular, a final chapter on regulations and the difference between Europe's REACH laws and America's TSCA is well outlined. Some US states, including Washington and Maine, have taken steps to implement some provisions of REACH within their borders. That is a useful early step.

I had an early impulse, reading the book, to scoff. No longer. My generation is the first "plastics generation". I have a 24-year-old son. What kind of world is he facing? Is there a chance that it will become more benign? There is hope. I cook mainly with cast iron cookware, and have taught him to do so. I do use Teflon coated cookware for a few things. I am watching research that one company is doing to replace PFOA with safer chemicals for Teflon manufacture. And PFOA is already pretty safe, which is a good thing, because everyone who has been tested has some in their body. Perhaps my grandchildren will grow up free of at least some of the chemicals that make up my own body burden.

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