Pointing Fingers and Naming Names: "Poisoned Profits" Indicts Big Business for Polluting the Environment and Harming Children’s Health

By Michelle Salzman

Creating a stir in environmental health circles, recently published Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children (Random House), blames big business and chemical companies for introducing toxicants into the environment to the detriment of the health of American children. The book makes its case, in part, by telling heart-rending stories of families who believe they have been affected by environmental hazards, from contaminated water supplies to household items containing dangerous chemicals, and by linking these exposures to serious illnesses and disorders such as leukemia and autism.

The book is the result of more than five years of investigative work by former New York Times environmental reporter Philip Shabecoff and his wife Alice, a freelance journalist and former executive director of the National Consumers League.

Poisoned Profits has been criticized by some reviewers as sensational, and for failing to show a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the exposures and specific illnesses. But others hail the work as an important contribution to the public dialog about toxic exposure in the environment and our health.

Here, Boston University School of Public Health Environmental Health Professor Richard Clapp, ScD, MPH, a scientific reviewer for Poisoned Profits, talks to the Insider about the book.

Insider: What is Poisoned Profits about and why does it strike a chord with environmentalists?

Richard Clapp: Poisoned Profits chronicles tragedies of child health caused by environmental toxicants. It covers cases of cancer, autism, and other illnesses and disorders, and it offers possible links to these hazards. It also follows the money — it reveals the names of businesses that are responsible and talks about what they’ve done to avoid accountability for children’s suffering. It is a hard-hitting book written by smart and capable journalists.

I: Some reviewers have criticized the authors for showing many specific examples of illness but not enough evidence to link the illnesses to specific exposures. Are they hyping the evidence?

RC: Well, it is true that epidemiological studies don’t provide definitive answers to specific cases of disease. Epidemiologists look at groups of people, and how disease moves in a population, rather than at individuals. It can be very difficult to prove unequivocally that a child’s birth defect was caused by a specific chemical from a specific company. But epidemiology offers the best science to understand how diseases occur in populations by looking at patterns. The Shabecoffs make the case that the epidemiological evidence is strong in linking some child illnesses to toxic exposures.

I: So, is Poisoned Profits sensationalism or fair comment?

The reason that I think Poisoned Profits is so controversial is because the book names names and the polluters are afraid that this information could be used against them in court. However, I would say this information is accurate background to the larger picture. It’s well-researched and well-vetted — so it’s controversial, but sound.

I: What do you think readers should take away from this book?

RC: The Shabecoffs present the material in Poisoned Profits as the weight of evidence, which tells us that we should be careful with chemicals that we put in the environment — especially what we put in kids’ environments. The book is a way to bring these issues to people’s attention.

I: Why has this book struck a chord with you and other members of the Department of Environmental Health at BUSPH?

RC: In some ways this book catalogs a lot of things we’ve been interested in and doing research on over the last ten or twenty years. It’s a popular reflection on the type of research we’ve been doing at BUSPH. For example, the book mentions polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and we have done a lot of work on PCBs in this department. Roberta White, chair of the department, has studied how PCBs and mercury affect child development. She co-authored a study on children in the Faroe Islands who were exposed to PCBs and mercury. Poisoned Profits also discusses polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), better known as flame retardants. The department has several projects involving two or three of our faculty and several of our doctoral students studying PBDEs in household dust. Several of our faculty members have also worked on the environmental disaster at Love Canal, where thousands of tons of toxic waste were discovered buried below a New York community that was shown to suffer higher-than-expected cases of certain illness. Tom Webster, environmental health department associate chair, worked directly with people in Love Canal.

As a department, we are deeply enmeshed in these issues and some of our research is even cited in this book.

I: The authors offer readers a lot of information about the hazards of environmental toxicants, which can be daunting. What should people do with this knowledge?

RC: I can see how the book could be overwhelming for a layman. It covers issues that we encounter all the time in the field of environmental health, so it isn’t surprising to me. If readers want to learn more about anything brought up in Poisoned Profits or investigate any other related topics, the book offers a number of resources in its appendix. It also points to Ask the Researcher, which is part of Boston University’s Superfund Basic Research Program. Through this website, people can submit questions about environmental pollutants and a researcher will post the answer online. This book is not the final word, but it informs people of potential dangers and it gives people the tools to learn more about them.

A discussion on the science of Poisoned Profits will take place Tuesday, September 23, at 1:00 p.m. at 715 Albany Street, Talbot Building, West 457, Boston, MA 02118. Participants include Richard Clapp, Martha Herbert, MD, PhD, Pediatric Neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Paul Epstein, MD, MPH, Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

You can reach Michelle Salzman at msalzman@bu.edu

This article first appeared in the School of Public Health Insider on August 27, 2008.

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