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Sunday Book Review: Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES

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Nancy Langston’s superb new book explores how endrocine-disrupting chemicals, especially synthetic estrogen (DES) have affected human bodies in the decades since World War II. Exposing the deep problems with American regulatory agencies, how cultural conceptions about gender have shaped our response to and use of synthetic chemicals, and how our national faith in technological progress has blinded us to the dangers of toxicity, Langston tells a disturbing tales of sexually malformed animals, cancerous women’s bodies, and profits overriding scientific inquiry.

Langston tries to understand why we have seen such enormous increases in cancer rates and problems with women’s reproductive rates: testicular cancer among men in the United States up 51% between 1973 and 1995, increases in infertility, fibroids, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer among women. She suggests the most likely reason is the vast increase in synthetic chemicals during fetal development that mess up people’s bodies for life.

In many ways, this story reminds us of many of the problems with regulation, health, and environmental issues today. The FDA has had the potential to be an effective regulatory body, but it is staffed by industry supporters. Lobbyists help write weak regulations and work to water down the strong ones that make it through. Like with climate change today, industry used scientific uncertainty to undermine strong regulations; how could we regulate DES and other chemicals without ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY that they are going to cause cancer? This despite all the tests that showed cancer, reproductive problems, and other illnesses in test animals! And like with other western nations ready to fight climate change today, the U.S. proved way behind the times in regulating DES and other synthetic chemicals. When Canada was banning using synthetic chemicals on animals in the mid 1940s, the Americans were embracing this with great energy, despite the Canadian data that chemical residues in the meat could be detected in women’s bodies.

Like the rest of American society, things got worse under as conservatism began rising in the country. It was during the late 1970s that environmental safety managers began shifting to the idea of risk assessment, or measuring the public health risks versus economic benefits. This meant that industry took even greater control over regulating environmental risk. Risk assessment grew rapidly under Reagan and regulations of public health problems declined significantly. The use of hormones in meat skyrocketed, plastics that leak chemicals into the water supply and our bodies began to be used more and more, and rates of problems with sexual characteristics skyrocketed among people and animals.

Toxic Bodies is also a useful book for understanding how gender plays into issues of medicine, health, and nature. Cultural norms about women’s bodies and women’s sexuality has profoundly shaped our use of synthetic chemicals. As Langston notes for instance, doctors prescribed DES to women having problems with pregnancy in the 1940s without proper testing of its effects. Even after DES became linked with vaginal cancers in 1971, doctors assigned it to stop girls from growing too tall, in order that they remain feminine and presumably attractive to men.

Langston also does a good job making the science comprehensible for the intelligent reader without a strong scientific background. One of the challenges of environmental histories that center medicine and the body is writing the science for a historical audience. Most of us don’t have backgrounds in science, though Langston does. She is dealing with tricky biological and epidemiological terminology, but if you hang in there, you can not only understand what’s going on, but you become even more outraged by this story.

It’s been awhile since a history book made me this angry, not only at the past, but at the present, because we have learned no lesson from these stories. We still approve all sorts of technologies that could negatively affect human health without proper testing. This isn’t just with chemicals, but processes like fracking. We already have evidence that fracking will pollute water supplies, cause public health problems, and even lead to earthquakes. But, hey, there’s lots of money to be made pumping natural gas! The reckless and profit-driven treatment of our bodies and our land continues to kill people today and there’s no evidence this will change anytime soon.

Argh.

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