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How a baseball-sized tumor woke me up to the dangers of everyday chemicals

Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
The products we’ve come to depend upon contain chemicals we rarely stop to think about.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

On a crisp fall afternoon a few years ago, I visited an orthopedist to have him look into some twinges I had been feeling in my left leg. It was probably nothing, I figured—a pulled ligament, most likely. But after rotating my leg a few times, the doctor suggested I get an MRI just to make sure nothing else was going on.

What turned up surprised us both. A tumor the size of a baseball was growing between my left hip and my pelvic bone. As the father of  four-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter, I was devastated.

One agonizing month later, I found myself in New York City, wearing a surgical gown and waiting to be rolled into the operating room. As I sat there, trying to keep it together, a pair of researchers approached, clipboards in hand, and asked if they could go over my history of chemical exposure.

I was a college professor, not an industrial worker. What could I possibly have been exposed to?

My what? I was a college professor, I said, not an industrial worker. I wrote and read books for a living. What could I possibly have been exposed to?

A lot, it turns out. Seven petrochemicals—ethylene, propylene, butylenes, benzene, toluene, xylenes, and methane—form the building blocks for tens of thousands of consumer products. These substances are in our cosmetics, water bottles, air fresheners, detergents, paints, flame retardants, weed killers, and even our mattresses. The objects we have come to depend upon contain chemicals that few of us ever stop to think about.

As it turned out, my surgery went well. The tumor was large but benign. But as I left the hospital, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my life–and all our lives–had become saturated with chemicals few of us ever stop to think about.

Everything we do, from brushing our teeth in the morning to laying our heads down at night, puts us in contact with potentially harmful chemicals.

For the next two years, I investigated both the science and the history of what I came to think of as our synthetic century. I wanted to understand how it is that everything we do, from brushing our teeth in the morning to laying our heads down at night, puts us in contact with potentially harmful chemicals.

In the mid-1970s, some 62,000 chemicals were being used in the United States. Today that number is thought to be closer to 85,000. In the last 25 years, the country’s consumption of synthetic chemicals has increased an estimated 8,200%, according to Michael Wilson, a research scientist with the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

The rapid proliferation of products made from petrochemicals has vastly outpaced our ability to monitor their effects on our health and the environment. The US Environmental Protection Agency has a full set of toxicity information for just 7% of the country’s high-volume chemicals. And the US chemical industry, a $637 billion-a-year business, is so woefully under-regulated that the vast majority of chemicals have never been tested for their effects on human health.

It’s not enough for modern consumers to try to limit our exposure to toxic chemicals by buying safer products.

Unfortunately, what we do know is worrisome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been conducting chemical “body burden” studies for years, trying to quantify just how many chemicals are finding their way into our bodies. Exposure to phthalates, the plastic used to make water bottles, is “widespread,” the CDC has found. Insecticides are found in the bodies of “much of the US population.”

In 2005, a study conducted by nonprofit organization The Environmental Working Group found some 287 chemicals—including 180 that can cause cancer in people or animals, 217 that can be toxic to the brain, and 208 that can cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests—in umbilical cord blood taken from a sample of 10 babies around the United States. The blood samples, initially collected by the Red Cross, contained “pesticides, consumer product ingredients, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage.” Other studies have reached similar conclusions.

All this can seem quite disheartening. That’s especially true when you consider that, thanks to the political influence of the powerful chemical industry, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act has not been updated since the 1970s.

But just as toxins can accumulate and spread around the world, so too can information—and, occasionally, political action. Consumers of everything from lipstick to laundry detergents are using databases like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep to find safer products. And voters in states from Maine to Oregon have passed chemical safety laws that are tougher than any bills coming out of the federal government.

Yet it’s not enough for modern consumers to try to limit our exposure to toxic chemicals by buying safer products. We must also work to more strictly regulate the industries that create these chemicals in the first place. Chemical contamination is like climate change: We can take small steps to address the problem ourselves. But we also need politicians to stand up to the chemical lobby and fight for a cleaner, safer world.

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