Book Review: Toxic Exposures: Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Health Movement

Toxic Exposures Book Cover

by Phil Brown (Columbia University Press, 2007, $29.50)

Reviewed by Jill Chapin

Have you ever read a book and wished you had written it yourself, because so much of it reflected your own feelings? That’s how I felt when I read Phil Brown’s Toxic Exposures. He looks at the impact of the environment on our health, and how citizens and scientists are joining together to address the poisoning of America. According to Brown, ordinary citizens are no longer accepting data that contradict their own reality, and they’re working hard to refocus research and funds to acknowledge their firsthand experiences.

His book covers the environmental issues that affect asthma, Gulf War-related illnesses, and breast cancer. This is a book that is to be underlined, mulled over, reread, and kept nearby for quick reference. It will validate your intuitive sense that something is very wrong, and that we must all act to be the engine of change.The chapter on breast cancer was most illuminating. Breast cancer activists base their new paradigm on the precautionary principle, which calls for shifting the burden of proof of harm from the people exposed to environmental contaminants to the industries that produce them. This principle is what directs the course of public health and safety issues in Europe. Indication of harm, not proof of harm is what guides those who follow this principle. The European Union (EU) is far more proactive than the United States in removing toxins from the environment before conclusive studies are completed, mainly because they realize there may never be irrefutable evidence. But the possibility of harm is enough for them to take action.

Without telling you all the ugly details about the business of cancer, it’s enough to know that supposedly committed cancer organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute, invest relatively little on research that examines environmental links to cancer. Instead, they focus on genetics and diet, as if we had suddenly mutated or were making personal decisions to live recklessly. But some decisions are out of our control. How can we avoid the contaminants in the air we breathe or the food and water we ingest? How can our lifestyle be altered to avoid the effects of massive agricultural pesticide spraying or the chemically treated household goods that are ubiquitous in our society?

The chapter on breast cancer is reason enough to read this book. Brown cites a few activist organizations, including BCA, as leaders in focusing on the environmental causes of breast cancer. He praises BCA for its policy of not accepting funds from corporations that may create a real or apparent conflict of interest for BCA or whose practices endanger public health or may contribute to cancer incidence.

After reading Toxic Exposures, I realized that cancer used to terrify me. Now, the business of cancer infuriates me. But I have come to understand that while fear can paralyze you, anger can galvanize you into action, and it is often the first step toward empowerment. In the words of Gandhi, you must be the change you wish to see in the world. Begin your journey toward change by first reading Toxic Exposures.

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