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Poisoned Profits

The Toxic Assault on Our Children

Book Review: Poisoned Profits

By Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff

Reviewed by Michael McCally, MD, former PSR Executive Director

The title of their recent book, Poisoned Profits: the Toxic Assault on Our Children, makes clear that Philip and Alice Shabecoff have strong opinions about chemicals in our environment.

The Shabecoffs assert that specific industrial chemicals are a clear threat to human health, particularly the health of children, that we are all exposed to these chemicals in the air we breathe, water we ingest and food we eat, that our exposure to these chemicals is imperfectly regulated, that reform of regulatory policy and procedure is urgently needed, and that the voice of advocates -- patients, families, doctors , scientists, and public interest organizations -- is critical to achieving the necessary reform.

At the risk of hyperbole, the Shabecoffs use the metaphor of crime to structure their book and emphasize their points. The crimes are illnesses with possible environmental origin, the affected individuals and their families are the victims, the evidence of harm is found in individual cases and environmental epidemiology, the scenes of the crimes are waste dumps and manufacturing plants, the perpetrators are chemical and waste industries, the co-conspirators are lax regulators, and witnesses for the defense are families, advocacy organizations and outspoken scientists.

The use of the crime metaphor, presenting individual cases as crime stories is powerful but has the potential to mislead. The story of a leukemia patient living in proximity to a radiation facility or the baby with a cleft palate who lives near a toxic waste makes an inescapable cause and effect link in the readers mind even while the authors are trying to make clear that proof of causation is difficult to establish and that precaution is the best policy.

The Shabecoffs’ presentation of the relevant biomedical science is thorough and accurate reflecting their individual long careers as science writers: Philip as the first environmental correspondent for the New York Times and founding editor of Greenwire, and Alice as freelance journalist and executive director of National Consumers League. Be prepared to be introduced to cutting edge science areas like toxicogenomics and the limits of environmental epidemiology.

Environmental awareness has by most measures increased dramatically in the last decade. Philip Shabecoff’s earlier books, Earth Rising (2000) and A Fierce Green Fire (2003), are important contributions to the present vigor of American environmentalism. Few now doubt the reality of global warming. The trick now being worked is the transformation of this awareness into political action and effective environmental protection.

As is often the case in this field the Shabecoffs spend the largest part of their text on the problem, the harms created by some industrial chemicals. They take appropriate pains to point out that the book is not an indictment of all chemicals and that injudicious removal of large numbers of chemicals from commerce could devastate the economy and harm the public health.

The Schabecoffs limit consideration of solutions to the problems raised by toxic environmental chemical exposure to one good but constrained chapter titled of course “Justice”. Topics introduced here include: parental responsibility, public education, more and better environmental health research, the precautionary principle, green chemistry, better regulation of industry and corporate self reform. The critical topics of political action, regulatory reform of chemical policy, the development of environmental health and social justice movements, and individual responsibility and action are mentioned but not developed. I hope the authors are saving these topics for development in another book which I would be eager to read.

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