Book Review: How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace

How Everyday Products Make People Sick

by Paul D. Blanc, M.D. (University of California Press, 2007, $19.95 (paperback))

Reviewed by Jane Sprague Zones

How Everyday Products Make People Sick is a literary and historical treasure chest. Its author, Paul Blanc, is a professor of medicine, chief of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and the endowed chair in Occupational Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. In his book, Blanc uses case studies of common products to show that their hazards are frequently identified, but regulation of their use to prevent harm is routinely thwarted.

Blanc calls on a variety of resources to describe these cases in sweeping historical context: rock and roll, classic literature, philosophy, science fiction, antiques appraisal, soap operas, fine arts, culinary science, and Seinfeld (remember George’s unwanted fiancée, who perished after licking dozens of cheap envelopes on their wedding invitations?). The use of this variety of sources makes the book broadly readable and entertaining, and the examples reinforce the general points that are made.

One of the most fascinating chapters in this book is about the evolution of glue from its early manufacture from animal hides to new synthetic superglues that people make in their own homes by combining two chemicals that create an unbreakable bond. This showcases how manufacturers have extended products meant for industrial use into household adhesives and cleansers at the expense of safety. Rubber cement, for example, which many of us as children used to build models, used benzene as a glue solvent, which had been linked for decades to leukemia.

Many of the maladies encountered in recent times mirror conditions that were identified much earlier. For example, carpal tunnel syndrome has been variously described in other eras as “seamstress’s cramp” or “carpet-layer’s knee.” “Sick building syndrome” is the modern version of poor ventilation described in the Victorian age and earlier. Even worker burnout and “going postal” (enraged people attacking colleagues in their workplace) have their historical equivalents.

Yet, these problems continue today and Blanc describes four ways in which antiregulatory, probusiness factions have hindered attempts to address the toxic effects of environmental hazards. The first is to create doubt by attacking evidence as “junk science” or producing information to dispute scientific consensus. An example is Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, which builds staggering amounts of evidence for the existence of this deadly man-made problem. Some members of Congress are still citing Exxon-funded studies to dismiss the data.

A second strategy used to delay effective action against environmental assaults is to blame the victim and declare that regulation is too costly. Blanc points out the memorable naming of an emerging life-threatening illness as “Legionnaires’ Disease,” for the group of men who first were diagnosed with it while attending a convention in a hotel whose air conditioning system was later determined to have caused the illness. He asks why it wasn’t called “Bellevue-Stratford Hotel pneumonia” and notes that “the pivotal difference between industrial injuries or illnesses and environmental contamination episodes on the one hand and most other medical problems on the other hand is that a human perpetrator usually is not involved in the latter.”1

The third strategy is the labeling of those who advocate for a cleaner, safer environment as unrealistic visionaries or as being against technological progress. Finally, a fourth strategy is to argue that if any action is needed to improve household and workplace environments, the market will correct it in the natural course of events. Illustrating these four strategies, the book is full of examples of the ways in which manufacturers have literally gotten away with murder, with few penalties that might impede dangerous business practices.

In the end, Blanc calls for strengthening the regulatory agencies that assess risks of emerging substances, inspecting worksites and manufacturing processes, and following up on health effects from toxic exposures. He describes how the Bush administration has concertedly dismantled federal regulatory agencies by installing political allies in leadership positions, lowering budgets to enforce current regulations, and weakening safety standards.

As I write this review, the morning paper describes three newly published studies that identify 216 commonly used chemicals that induce breast tumors in animals.2 Of these, people are highly exposed to 97, including industrial solvents, pesticides, dyes, gasoline and diesel exhaust compounds, cosmetics ingredients, hormones, pharmaceuticals, and radiation. The researchers write, “Regulators have not paid much attention to potential mammary carcinogens” and regarding breast cancer, “If even a small percentage is due to preventable environmental factors, modifying these factors would spare thousands of women.”3

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