We’ve written previously about Devra Davis’s The Secret History of the War on Cancer, which generated a lot of controversy. Dick Clapp, an environmental health professor at Boston University’ School of the Public Health (BUSPH), wrote for us about two opposing reviews of that book, and now he’s exploring the controversy surrounding another book that links environmental problems to disease.
Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children, by Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff, links toxic products to a rise in childhood disease and death. The journalist authors highlight polluted communities where children have high rates of health problems and industries that produce toxic substances. BUSPH’s Insider interviewed Clapp about the reactions to 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.
Update, 10/2: Also check out this review by Ruth Etzel, in Environmental Health Perspectives.