When McKay Jenkins complained of nagging soreness in his hip and thigh 10 years ago, he expected doctors to attribute the pain to exercise and middle age. But an MRI revealed a tumor was growing — a shocking discovery for the health-conscious professor of English, journalism and environmental humanities living in suburban Baltimore.
When he was questioned by researchers about exposure to toxic chemicals, Jenkins began wondering if there was a correlation.
"It's not like I had been a worker in a factory," Jenkins said. "But they were talking about consumer products: paints, cleaners, stuff you'd find anywhere in your house."
Although Jenkins' tumor turned out to be benign, the scare prompted him to start extensive research that became material for "ContamiNation: My Quest to Survive in a Toxic World" ($16), published in paperback by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House, earlier this year.
Described by Richard Preston, author of "The Hot Zone," as the "Silent Spring" for the human body, the book questions the safety of many products used by Americans — bleach, lawn fertilizer, flame retardants, plastic packaging and more — and suggests lifestyle changes to limit exposure to the potentially harmful chemicals they contain. Though research supporting direct links between these substances and health problems remains limited, the lack of information is reason for concern, according to Jenkins and the lawmakers, government regulators, scientists and test subjects he spoke with for the book.
As Jenkins writes in "ContamiNation," a UC Berkeley researcher found that America's consumption of synthetic chemicals increased 8,200 percent in the last 25 years, while little is known about the health risks they pose.
"With so little information, it's easy to see why we have become so complacent," Jenkins writes.
"Smoking a single cigarette never killed anyone either. The trouble with exposure to toxic chemicals, as with exposure to tobacco, is that the impact is cumulative, long-lasting, and, frequently, slow to reveal itself."
Jenkins, 53, who lives with his wife and two children in the Armagh Village neighborhood near Rogers Forge, hired a toxicologist and environmental health engineer to look at his house. He was startled to learn how many potential dangers were lurking, from old paint cans to plastic blinds.
Many of the recommendations were to eliminate. "You don't need to use Teflon pans. Use a little olive oil," Jenkins said. "You don't need lawn chemicals."
Jenkins went to a big box store, reading labels and noting potential hazards in every aisle.
"The cosmetics aisle is like the Wild West of chemicals," Jenkins said, noting the number of chemicals — like formaldehyde, toluene and paradioxine — that consumers apply to their skin daily.
Many products are laced with perfumes that contain phthalates, which some scientists suspect are endocrine disruptors and a potential promoter of cancers.
But some health experts believe that people more substantially increase their cancer risk with more obvious lifestyle choices— smoking, abusing alcohol, obesity, lack of exercise and sun exposure. Genetics also plays a role, as do HPV and Hepatitis B and C, according to Kenneth Portier, vice president of the Statistics and Evaluation Center of the American Cancer Society.
No one is saying it's not wise to limit exposure to chemicals, Portier said, "but then there's the question: Why worry about phthalates if you're already dosing yourself with chemicals from smoking?'" he said. "The best prevention of cancer remains maintaining a lean body weight, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and getting some exercise."
Industry associations also question claims about the relative dangers of chemicals. Regarding phthalates, the Personal Care Products Council, a national trade association for the cosmetics and personal care products industries, points to the range of chemicals in the group on its website: "The safety profiles of different phthalates are not all the same, with some possessing undesirable properties while others do not (much in the same way, mushrooms as a family includes both edible nutritious mushrooms and poisonous toadstools)."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, "does not have the authority to require cosmetic manufacturers to submit their safety data to FDA, and the burden is on FDA to prove that a particular product or ingredient is harmful when used as intended," according to its website. It is, however, against the law to use any ingredient that makes a cosmetic harmful when used as intended, and it has regulations that prohibit or restrict use of certain ingredients.
Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council said in a statement released this week that "the mere presence of a chemical in a product is not an indication that there is any cause for concern," and cited a desire to work "with [government] agencies to support smart and scientifically sound regulation of chemicals used in commercial products."
Health experts are particularly concerned about exposing children to chemicals, Portier said: "They're a special class because they're growing; their cells are active."
Compared to adults, children also eat, breathe and drink more relative to their body weight, says Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
"Children are not little adults, so exposures may result in a much greater effect," she said, adding that young children may increase their exposure because they often put things into their mouths as part of their normal behavioral development.
It's not one particular chemical that's necessarily more harmful, Quirós-Alcalá said: "We're exposed to a soup of chemicals every day."
"There's a misconception that if it's on the market, it's safe," she said, adding that sometimes when a chemical is taken out of a product, it's replaced with another chemical that could also have negative health effects, a practiceknown in scientific circles as "regrettable substitutions."
"For example, BPA is being replaced with similar compounds — BPS, BPF — for which the long-term health effects in humans remain unknown," she said.
And just because a product is labeled "natural" doesn't mean it's without risk, said Portier. "Asbestos is a natural product that is also a known carcinogen."
Even without a direct causation — exposure to chemical A will cause cancer B — there's reason to limit risks, according to Jenkins: "The volume of chemicals we're talking about is enormous."
A professor at the University of Delaware for 20 years, Jenkins has published seven nonfiction books, including one he co-authored with a former EPA scientist called, "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA." Just last week, Jenkins finished a manuscript of a book about GMOs.
"ContamiNation" was first released as a hardcover five years ago under the title, "What's Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World." It was published this year as a paperback in "an effort to get the book into more hands," said Jenkins.
The re-release didn't require much updating, he said, adding: "It's frustrating, actually, that almost nothing has changed."
Federal oversight, including monitoring of everything from children's toys to bottled water, remains lax, Jenkins said. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act hasn't been updated in 40 years, for example.
"Chemical regulation, in other words, has become a Catch-22: The EPA lacks the power to request data on chemicals in order to determine if they can cause harm, and it can't make a risk assessment without these data," Jenkins writes. "So no data are provided, no risk assessments are made, and chemicals keep flooding the market."
There has been some progress by state legislators in places such as Maine, Jenkins writes. He and other health advocates hope that as more states adopt stricter regulations, the movement will become a major shift impossible to ignore nationally.
For now, lifestyle changes can help, but sometimes, there isn't a perfect choice, Jenkins said. Bottled water may contain synthetic organic chemicals and bacteria, according to some studies. But tap water may also contain chemicals and pharmaceuticals that can't be filtered by water treatment facilities, not to mention contamination from lead pipes. (Of the two, scientists generally agree tap water is the better choice.)
Jenkins said people tend "to either freak out or throw their hands up and say, 'What's the point?'
"You could say, 'Everyone's going to get cancer anyway.' … But there are real problems with that kind of fatalism," he said.
It's not unlike accepting racism as a given, he said.
"Given the world we currently inhabit, it's easy to feel overwhelmed," Jenkins writes. "Changing brands of toothpaste or throwing out the roach spray is easy. Learning how to paint our houses — and our faces — with products that won't harm our health is a bit harder."
To learn more about the products in your home and their potential effects on your health, visit these websites: