My students sometimes ask me why in the United States there are cancer-causing ingredients in their cosmetics, or neurotoxins in their mattresses. Or hormone disruptors, and prescription drugs, in their drinking water.
I always answer by chalking out a map of the country, and its grid of 48,000 miles of interstate highways that were constructed after the second world war. The roads were initially conceived as a defense against foreign invasion, I tell them. But the unintended consequences include a host of major environmental and health problems we are only now beginning to understand, from climate change and species extinction to cancer.
Follow my logic, I tell my students: before the war, the vast majority of Americans lived in cities, or they lived on farms. Suddenly, with all these bright, shiny new roads, millions of veterans returning from the war discovered they had a third option: they could move their families to new communities built “out in the country”. Developers began the feverish transformation of farms and forests into subdivisions, and the era of suburban sprawl had begun.
The results of this staggering land transformation include the economic devastation of our older cities; the virtual eradication of local food production; and the transformation of forests and farms into ever-expanding subdivisions and shopping malls. Cities such as Detroit and my hometown of Baltimore each lost many hundreds of thousands of residents. And as the changes turned the United States into a nation of suburban consumers, industry – notably the chemical industry – responded by creating products to satisfy our every urge. Petrochemicals, it turned out, could be used to make everything, from lipstick and water bottles to processed food and cheap hamburgers, made with beef reared in concentrated feeding operations on corn partly made of synthetic fertilizers and weedkillers.
Our homes are saturated with chemicals
Inside our homes we have become saturated with the chemicals used to create nonstick cookware and fireproof kids’ pajamas; cosmetics; dry cleaning chemicals and PFAS chemicals in some bags of microwave popcorn. In recent years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and health groups in a number of states have been testing people for the presence of toxic chemicals in their bodies; without exception, these studies find that we are all contaminated with chemicals that cause cancer, endocrine disruption and neurological and reproductive damage.
Here’s the problem: of the tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals in common commercial use, only about 200 have been adequately tested for their effect on human health. Cognitive development experts say learning disabilities rose 191% between 1977 and 1994. The California Department of Developmental Services says it saw a 210% jump in autism rates in the decade following the mid-1990s. Twenty-four million Americans have an auto-immune disease; research indicates this number has been doubling and tripling around the globe. The University of Kentucky has reported a link between trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent known as TCE, and Parkinson’s disease. TCE can be found in more than a third of the nation’s waterways.
And then there’s the waste. Over their lifetimes, the average American will throw away 15 tons of packaging, much of it plastic, and much of which will one day enter the food chain and end up in the bodies of humans and marine animals alike. A whale that recently washed up on the shores of the Philippines was found to have 88lb of plastic inside its stomach before dying of dehydration and starvation.
Outside the home, our food has become chemical-dependent as well. Nationwide, suburban sprawl has meant the loss of 4m family farms, and the migration of our food production to industrial-scale, monoculture farms in the midwest. We now have some 300m acres of industrial corn, wheat and soybeans, most of it genetically modified and virtually all of it dependent on rivers of synthetic fertilizers and industrial-scale weed and bug-killers. Agricultural herbicides have so devastated our native plants (like milkweed) that charismatic creatures like Monarch butterflies and some 40% of pollinators are in grave danger of blinking into extinction. Cornell’s David Pimentel has estimated that 72m birds die each year from exposure to pesticides, a number that does not include those that die because a parent was killed by pesticides, or birds killed by eating contaminated insects or worms. The number is probably closer to 150m .
Among humans, the picture is beginning to look dark indeed. Between 1996 and 2011, the agricultural use of glyphosate – marketed by Monsanto as Roundup – grew by 527m pounds. The World Health Organization has called Roundup – the most popular weedkiller in the world – a “probable human carcinogen”.
Last summer a California jury demanded Monsanto pay a terminally ill man $289m in a landmark case saying it was liable for his cancer (a judge reduced that to $78m, and Monsanto is appealing). Monsanto’s parent company Bayer has said it is facing thousands more potential similar lawsuits. In the third such case to be ruled on, last week a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay a couple $2bn after they got cancer after using its weedkiller, the largest damages award so far.
Along with 2,4-D (one of two active ingredients, plus kerosene and diesel fuel in Agent Orange), Roundup is available in your local hardware store, and is in common use on much of the 63,000 sq miles of suburban lawn in the United States. By 1999, more than two thirds of America’s home lawns had been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides, much of which ends up running off into our drinking water. In 2000, the US General Accounting Office reported that Americans were spraying 67m pounds of synthetic chemicals on their lawns every year, lawns that – like our food, and our plastics, and many of our resulting environmental and physical ills – were dramatically accelerated by a highway system originally built to protect us.
McKay Jenkins is a journalist and author of several books on the impact of chemicals on people and the natural world. His books include ContamiNation, Poison Spring and, most recently, Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet. He is Tilghman Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Delaware and lives in Baltimore with his family.