Thursday, December 22, 2011

What's Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins

This was a book I had meant to read for some time and didn't until it came time to remove it from the new book shelf at work. I know the author in passing from my time as a Public Administration student at the University of Delaware. My specialization was watershed management and I did some volunteer work with the Water Resources Agency on campus that brought me in contact with Jenkins a couple of times. My first encounter with him was when he was the keynote speaker at the Drinking Water 2001 conference. His talk was incredible and I thought that anyone who speaks as well he does, has to be a good writer, too.

I had read one of his books, The White Death, previously, and it was fantastic. My ex bought it for her Dad for Christmas and he, too, liked it. She bought him two other books of Jenkins' which also were appreciated. So needless to say, I had an expectation of this being a good book.

Unfortunately, I don't feel it was. I felt like a good portion of it was a bit of shock journalism. Jenkins explores how things we encounter in our every day life are causing illnesses and disease. Not things like Jenny McCarthy's accusation that vaccines cause autism but more stuff like lawn care chemicals causing health problems.

Jenkins' biggest issue seems to be with phthalates. These are substances added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable. They are found just about everywhere and they presumably cause health problems.

I say presumably because, really, what doesn't? I have read several times this past year that 1 in 2 people will develop cancer during their lifetimes. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that much of the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the things we use, cause illness. And it doesn't take much to figure out that there is little reason for the companies that provide us with this stuff to change. We can get in an uproar over lead paint in toys from China while we inhale chemicals from our carpets or phthalates that come from our electronic devices aging.

Jenkins cites some studies of people living in rural areas, presumably away from a lot of these contaminants, whose bodies are loaded with toxins. You can't escape it. And the world grows and gets more congested and more contaminated and eventually we'll hit a breaking point and the apocalypse will arrive. That last bit is from me, not Jenkins.

Jenkins is a little more optimistic. He thinks we can make changes to personal lifestyles that will enable us to avoid some of the detrimental junk. Eat organically, for instance. Use cleaners made only of natural substances. An assortment of other options available primarily to those with money.

I'm letting my personal feelings get too entwined in this review so let me focus more on the straight content. Jenkins' viewpoint is very one-sided. He looks for things to support his case but doesn't really explore the possibility that stuff might not be as bad as he is making it out to be. Like I said, it felt like shock journalism. There isn't a wealth of scientific evidence cited. What there is tends to be limited in scope and not entirely conclusive.

It didn't surprise me either that I thought the best chapter in the book was about water and it relied heavily on the work of Jerry Kauffman, who heads the Water Resources Agency. That chapter just felt like it was the most grounded in actual science.

Although I didn't care for the book, it might make a good primer if you aren't as naturally cynical as myself and it hadn't occurred to you that your environment is killing you. You might get something out of it. For a McKay Jenkins fix, though, you ought to read The White Death. Awesome book.

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