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Book ReviewsToxic Invasion DamagesEveryone’s Health

Posted Sep 12 2008 11:49pm

Have you ever held your breath for 35 minutes? In a manner of speaking, I am right now (Feb. 7) as I ride a Chicago bus so noxious with fumes, I vacillate between not inhaling at all and being forced to take a shallow breath to avoid passing out. I’m convinced the tailpipe is connected directly to the heating system.

I wish I could say this was an occasional occurrence, but alas at least once a month my fellow commuters join me to win the jackpot: most polluted bus in the Chicago Transit Authority fleet.

I find it quite ironic, therefore, that on today’s bus ride I finished reading How Everyday Products Make People Sick by Dr. Paul D. Blanc. While the book is largely a way-back trip through the horrors of the industrial workplace, it also is revelatory as to how toxic poisons became part of our daily lives.

Blanc reveals how perfectly safe products such as animal- and plant-derived glue became a toxic substance made from coal-tar and petroleum by-products. Bleach, used in the homes pf most Americans, originally killed workers by the score. Both of these products can be as health-damaging to the consumer as the workers who first discovered the side effects of these chemicals. Bleach when mixed with other common cleaning products can cause a form of asthma.

By sifting through the historical record, Blanc exposes how politicians and industrialists repeatedly fail to learn from the side effects – brain and nerve damage, impotence, chloracne, mill fever and of course death – that befell those who made household products such as plastic, glue, rubber, cotton, fuel additives and bleach.

One would think these problems are a thing of the past, but apparently not. Blanc makes clear that there is a cycle of forgetting safety lessons and letting businesses return to their bad ways. Or industry simple exports the side effects to poorer nations.

Are we heading back into one of those periods of forgetfulness? Consider that thousands of new untested products are hitting the market everyday.

Another book that reveals how unnatural chemicals and products are infiltrating our lives is The Hundred-Year Lie by Randall Fitzgerald, which I mentioned here.

The toxic bus is the least of our problems, according to Fitzgerald, who reveals that we’re poisoning our water, food and air with pharmaceuticals, home products and cosmetics. But scientists have little understanding of how these chemicals interact once they’re in our body. Just about every aspect of our lives polluted with chlorine, pharmaceuticals, synthetic chemicals, flame retardants and other chemicals, Fitzgerald says.

No need to persuade me that the dangers are real: I’ve thrown many products away – think bathroom cleaners, shampoos and dashboard conditioners for the car – after discovering they affect my breathing or irritate my skin. We’ve had to change diaper brands numerous times for both of our kids because of horrible skin reactions. (We think it might be the bleach used to make diapers white.) The list is endless.

I’ll warn you in advance: Reading these two books will be unnerving for some and a lesson in anger management for others. While there may be a touch of alarmism in The Hundred-Year Lie, Blanc takes a very sober approach in How Everyday Products Make People Sick. Both books, though, shed light on my contention that Something Odd Is Happening to US.

It’s morning now, 12 hours after the bus ride. All night long, I could taste the industrial fumes. The off-taste is slowly fading, but my lungs are clogged and my voice has dropped an octave, which happens when I talk too much or breath bad air. After reading these books, I can only imagine what those fumes are doing to mine and everyone else’s health.

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