Book Review: Toxic Arguments

Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children by Philip and Alice Shabecoff. Hardcover. 368 pages. Random House. List price $26.00.


     There’s a cartoon that ran in the New Yorker a couple of years ago. Two cavemen are sitting cross-legged, looking puzzled. One of them is saying, "Something's just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty."

     It is possible that one of those cavemen represents the ancestor of Philip Shabecoff, the former New York Times environment correspondent and co-author with his wife Alice of "Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children," which advances a positively Neanderthal view of the role of chemicals in modern life.

     To read the Shabecoffs' book, you'd think we would be the ones dropping dead at thirty – or thirteen, such is the Shabecoff's concentration on the dangers facing our children.

     In this view of the world, everything we do, literally from dawn to dusk, exposes our children to another deadly risk.

     Vinyl in the shower curtain, Teflon on the frying pan, phthalates in the food storage containers in the fridge, Bisphenol A in the water bottle and the PVC on your child's t-shirt design could all give your child cancer, and that's all before your child goes off to school. Chapter five, "Scene of the Crime," literally lists hundreds of ways in which daily life supposedly exposes our children to danger.

     Of course, we're all living past 30, way past 30. Life expectancy in the U.S. has been increasing for over a hundred years, and continues to increase. In 2004, it reached 77.8 years, up from under 50 in 1900 (and under 70 in 1950).

     Meanwhile, cancer mortality rates have decreased significantly for children, according to the National Cancer Institute. There has been a very slight increase in cancer rates over the past thirty years, but survival rates have increased sharply, from under 50 percent in 1970 to over 80 percent today.

     The fact is that modern life is much, much safer than it was in previous centuries (never mind the Stone Age), and chemicals actually have a lot to do with that.

     Chlorination of water, for instance, has reduced death from waterborne diseases in the U.S. from up to 100 deaths annually per 100,000 people to negligible numbers today.

     The supposedly evil phthalates that enable PVC products to be flexible have provided doctors with durable, sterile containers that can withstand heat and pressure and tubing that doesn't kink. These advances have saved many thousands of life by enabling better handling of blood and intravenous medicines.

     Biocidal chemicals give us the prospect of wiping out MRSA, an antibiotic resistant staph infection, and other diseases that lurk in hospitals. Chemicals also enabled high-yield farming and produced the "green revolution," which has stopped literally millions of people dying of hunger around the world.

     What would our life be like without these chemicals? Nasty, brutish and short, as philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it.

     The Shabecoffs, to their credit, do admit this, but try to weasel out of the bind this admission puts them in by advocating "green chemistry," the development of safe chemical substitutes. To the extent that this is happening spontaneously (industry after all advances by finding better ways of doing things), this is unobjectionable, but the point of the Shabecoffs' book seems to be to scare people into forcing companies to act by organizing to demand action in the political sphere. Yet if the green chemicals aren't there yet, or are too expensive in comparison with existing chemicals, then vast numbers of people could be denied the benefits we have accrued over the past century.

     We know what could happen. The Shabecoffs, by their own admission, are trying to do what Rachel Carson did in the 1960s. She raised a scare over the chemical pesticide DDT that motivated concerned people so much that a national ban was put in place and a de facto international ban erected.

     Yet the "safer" replacements for DDT proved more expensive and less effective. As I detail in my book, The Really Inconvenient Truths, less effective chemicals proved unable to save the American Elm from Dutch Elm Disease, resulting in a loss of 60 percent of the trees across the nation, while more expensive chemicals meant that the countries of Africa were unable to afford to protect their citizens adequately from malaria, resulting in millions of avoidable deaths. Such are the risks of raising scares and organizing vocal and rich pressure groups based on those concerns.

     We live in a world where risk surrounds us every day. The Shabecoffs appreciate that.  However, they fail to appreciate that chemicals protect us from much greater risks. That's a tradeoff I'll take for my family any day. I do not want to go back to the Stone Age.


Iain Murray is Senior Fellow in Energy, Science and Technology at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Won't Tell You About – Because They Helped Cause Them, from Regnery Publishing.