- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

By John Wargo
Yale University Press, $32.50, 371 pages

In spite of the upbeat title, “Green Intelligence: Creating Environments That Protect Human Health” may be the last place to go to feel encouraged about mankind’s will or ability to save the environment.

Something in our genes prevents it, perhaps? The fallout from too many nuclear experiments or similar malevolent acts has affected our brains?

This is entirely possible, given author John Wargo’s provocative statement at the outset. “One unexpected side effect of twentieth-century prosperity has been a change in the chemistry of the human body,” he notes, before going on to explore how this came to be.

More than 300 pages later he concludes, unsurprisingly, that “environmental risks are usually poorly understood by society at large, and neglected by states, corporations, and individuals.” He drives the point home in a final chapter titled “Lessons Learned and Emerging Threats.”

Not exactly a cheerful message but certainly a valuable one, since what he does so spectacularly well is give detailed accounts of five major environmental failures in our history and outlines safeguards needed to forestall future disasters. Along the way, we are treated to a history of major misadventures by science, industry and the military in the fields of atomic energy, toxic substances and manufactured materials such as plastics.

“Air pollution now kills more Americans than breast and prostate cancers combined, and about as many people die premature deaths associated with particulate matter pollution as are killed in traffic accidents,” is how he introduces a chapter titled “Who Is Most at Risk?” in the section “Breathing Toxic Air.”

What hope there is to such challenges, he suggests, lies in educating ourselves to understand how and why mistakes were made and learn from them. Mr. Wargo seems the man to do it. A popular professor at Yale, he comes from the department of political science as well as environmental studies and is the author of a previous book, “Our Children’s Toxic Legacy.”

It isn’t just America that is at risk, he warns us. One of the most significant lessons to be learned from books such as this one is how one country’s actions impact significantly the rest of the world. Take plastics, for instance, and the by now familiar litany of their dangers.

“Plastics by one estimate now constitutes 90 percent of all trash floating in the world’s oceans,” Mr. Wargo writes. “The mass of plastic particles in the two floating trash areas, known collectively as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is now six times the mass of plankton — small, abundant organisms consumed by many species of marine life.”

Too often ocean animals mistake the trash for food. Hence, the realization widely circulated of how large predatory fish tend to ingest the highest amount of chemicals that eventually find their way into the human bloodstream everywhere.

That isn’t the only consequence, of course. Plastics make modern living possible. Babies are wrapped around the clock in plastic diapers; their mattresses are treated with plastic flame retardants. Plastic toys and teethers are ubiquitous, as are food containers and the very appliances most people depend on to live. And most plastic comes from natural gas and petroleum products that contain a high amount of carbon that is a key environmental polluter.

“More than a thousand chemicals are now suspected of affecting normal human hormonal activity,” Mr. Wargo asserts. It’s impossible to know what chemicals are in the plastics that consumers take for granted since, as he points out, the labeling of ingredients is not required under federal law; some items are identified for the sake of recycling but not their composition.

Exactly how much difference labeling would make is open to question, given a majority’s reluctance to observe even basic recycling guides. But recycling plastic only extends an item’s life by one generation; eventually the throwaway items end up in a landfills or incinerators where there are few barriers to keep hazardous chemicals from escaping into the environment.

If he sometimes goes overboard in attributing nearly all the country’s major medical ills to dangerous chemicals at loose in the land, the shock value alone is probably worthwhile. The danger in his approach is our being overwhelmed by the slew of evidence he presents. We can too quickly lose the human face in the litany of misery revealed.

He mentions the numbers of fishermen and their families on Vieques exposed to elevated levels of mercury in their diet and we are treated subsequently to a lengthy account of nearly every study known on the subject as weak as the problems associated with producing such studies.

The fish, of course, have absorbed toxic chemicals produced by the Navy’s use of parts of the island for practice bombing targets. The resulting harm to the health of the islanders is documented at length.

Finally, as if to compensate for all such egregious errors, he offers in an epilogue titled “Taking Personal Control” some useful suggestions on improving matters, one individual and family at a time to avoid some of the worst effects of a polluted and chemically infested world. And he does it by category: diet, drinking water, air quality, consumer products.

Those categories about cover the average person’s average day, if not their average exposure to harm. “Avoid bottled water” is among them, since, he vows, sweepingly enough, that “urban supplies are the best-tested sources of drinking water.” That depends, of course, on what urban area is under the microscope.

The tap water in Charleston, W.Va., was the subject of a critical article on the front page of the New York Times recently, showing how toxins from local industries polluted the local supply in spite of regulatory laws designed to prevent such infractions. “More than 23 million people received drinking water from municipal systems that violated a health-based standard,” the paper said.

Caveat emptor. Reports appear almost daily about harmful effects from toxins in the environment on future generations. It’s worrisome enough to wonder whether there are any really effective controls since putting laws on the books are useless without enforcement.

Never fear, Mr. Wargo is on the case. Anyone interested in a conscientious examination of the issues will find the book a necessary resource. Because of his diligent research, the public should have no excuse to plead ignorance of what is going on around them.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.

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