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McKay Jenkins talks about "Staying Healthy in a Toxic World"

Book advises paying more attention to the toxic chemicals pervading every inch of our lives

Photo: Laura Prichett, License: N/A, Created: 2010:06:06 23:40:54

Laura Prichett

What's Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World

By McKay Jenkins
(Random House, 336 pages)

It's not McKay Jenkins' fault that I'm afraid of my coffee cup. During a recent interview, the journalist pointed out that the cup is made of plastic, that I have no idea what went into that plastic, and, perhaps most daunting, that the regulation of what goes into the coffee cup is so poor that there is no reason to assume that any of it is safe.

Still, it's not his fault. And what you begin to gather from Jenkins' new book What's Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World is that it's not any one person's fault - that as a whole, we've allowed our planet and our lives to be infused with synthetic chemicals, the safety of which is far from certain. Jenkins decided, after a near brush with cancer, to dissect the role of synthetic chemicals in our homes, our bodies, our water and our lawns. As he notes in Toxic, he found that there is quite a bit not to like: "In the last 25 years, the country's consumption of synthetic chemicals has increased 8,200 percent." "[T]he U.S. chemical industry, a $636 billion-a-year business, is so woefully underregulated that 99 percent of chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health." "Every day" - every day - "the United States produces or imports 42 billion pounds of synthetic chemicals, 90 percent of which are created using oil."

And all this before reaching the end of 
the prologue.

Still, his tone is hopeful. By demanding more information and using that information to make better choices, we can begin to sweep up the mess the past six or seven decades has left us.

So, this book is terrifying. How did 
writing it change you?

Well, terrifying is one response. My hope is that it will also be empowering, because when you realize the places where your food comes from and it really depresses you, then you kind of wake up to that, so then you can actually make some better choices. In my case, I had a really frightening health scare that turned out by pure luck to be benign, and so I had all the fear and horror and wisdom that you get going through a cancer scare without actually getting cancer, which is a real blessing. So the research led me to look into all these different products we have and all the compounds they're made out of.

In addition to fear, it left me with a sense of real anger about the way that products are made and not regulated. Let me put it this way: The things that go into the products that we use are totally mysterious to us. For example, could you have any idea what's in that cup? [points at the plastic coffee cup] No idea, right? And how would you find out if you wanted to know? There's no label, there's no source, if you're lucky there's a company name. It's very frustrating. So in addition to the anxiety that this stuff creates, it also creates a sense of frustration that you don't have access to information that you want to have so you can make better choices.

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