The dust jacket of Nena Baker's new book, The Body Toxic (North Point Press, 277 pages, $24), depicts two images: On the front, an egg fries in a scratched Teflon pan; on the back, a single drop of milk or infant formula oozes from an overturned baby bottle. The message, of course, is that Teflon and plastic, two wonder products of the consumer age, are poisoning us. Well, before we start running for our lives, let's face it: A steady diet of fried eggs and cow's milk or infant formula (instead of breast milk) poses far greater risks to human health than the cookware or containers that deliver them.
Baker, a former investigative reporter for The Oregonian, has written a slim volume about toxins in the environment that builds an even slimmer case against the chemical industry. The human health risks of every one of the chemicals Baker examines are either unknown or unproven. And in at least one case, Baker concedes, the chemical under study hasn't been found in humans at all. She begins with atrazine, a weed killer that one industry-funded researcher finds causes genital malformations in rare species of frogs. When the servants of Satan who work for the chemical company invite the researcher to duplicate his findings, Dr. Frogman declines because he wants to broaden the study—not to extrapolate the health effects of atrazine on humans but to test it on other species of frogs. Baker's case against atrazine is further weakened when tests by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conclude traces of atrazine in human urine are "below the limit of detection"—Baker's scientific way of saying government researchers can't find atrazine in humans anyway.
Baker goes on to scrutinize other household chemicals, mostly "endocrine disruptors" that affect reproductive health, such as PBDEs used in flame retardants, phthalates found in cosmetics, bisphenol A from plastic baby bottles, and perfluorinated chemicals used to make Teflon. In every case, however, either test data is inconclusive, scientists disagree on exposure levels, the chemical has already been banned in Canada or the EU and is on its way out in the U.S., or the chemical industry has phased or is phasing it out anyway. Baker argues repeatedly that industry-funded research has skewed science in chemical companies' favor and the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is inadequate for regulating chemicals in the 21st century. Such charges are probably true but hardly new, and Baker's book is weak at presenting specific examples of malfeasance. In the appendix, Baker offers advice to readers on limiting toxics exposure, but there's no sense of urgency that such measures matter. Baker writes, for example, that she replaced her Teflon cookware only after it "wore out." One can only hope not as worn out as her readers will be after slogging through this well-intentioned but unpersuasive book.
Nena Baker appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Sept. 8. Free.