Green Books Campaign: Chasing Molecules

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 100 bloggers are reviewing 100 great books printed in an environmentally friendly way. Our goal is to encourage publishers to get greener and readers to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books. This campaign is organized by Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

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In CHASING MOLECULES: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry (Island Press, 2009), Elizabeth Grossman, an acclaimed investigative journalist, chronicles the effects of petroleum-based synthetic chemicals in ordinary consumer products on human health and to the environment. These chemicals may even change, at a molecular level, the way our our bodies work. The consequences range from diabetes to cancer, reproductive and neurological disorders.

These synthetic chemicals are ubiquitous in the products we use every day:

  • flame-resistant plastics
  • waterproof coatings for textiles and food packaging (like popcorn bags)
  • children’s plastic toys
  • flexible plastic tubing
  • nail polish
  • nonstick pans
  • plastic food and beverage containers
  • sunscreen
  • carpets and furniture

Chemicals from these products make their way—through the air, water, and soil—in our environment, our food, and our bodies. In addition, toxic chemicals that were once frozen in Arctic ice are now being released into the air and water as the ice melts because of global warming.

The chemicals can even alter one’s genes in a process scientists call epigenetics. The introduction of a chemical foreign to the body may change the way the gene interacts with other molecules in the cell’s nucleus. Exposure early in life—particularly before or just after birth—seems to be the prime time for these kinds of changes to occur. But epigenetic screening is not part of routine chemical testing of a chemical.

One example that surprised me was the effect of the chemical tributyltin, which is used as a wood preservative, glass coating, and many other uses. In animal studies, it was found that exposure to tributyltin increased the number of fat cells, thus possibly setting into motion a genetic propensity at birth for obesity.

Despite this gloomy scenario, Grossman offers hope in the burgeoning field of green chemistry. She argues that we don’t have to do without these products. Rather, industries need to create products that are “benign by design.” These new compounds will mimic rather than disrupt natural systems. Through interviews with leading researchers, Grossman gives us a first look at this radical transformation.

Don’t be put off by the word “molecules” in the title. I’m not a chemist, yet I found Chasing Molecules to be an extremely absorbing, but not a highly technical, read. It’s a 21st-century Silent Spring, very readable but sometimes shocking. Her message is an urgent wake-up call for industries to invest in green chemistry and to create products that won’t harm people and the environment.

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NOTE: Along with the review copy, we received a hand-out written by Grossman with information about the safety of various consumer products. Grossman is careful and measured, never hysterical. We thought it might be useful to share her suggestions (buying children’s toy, plastic containers, etc) with FROGS ARE GREEN readers in the next couple of weeks.

16 thoughts on “Green Books Campaign: Chasing Molecules

    • Hi Serena–

      Thanks for your comment. I am going to do a few short posts about avoiding some of these chemicals in products we use everyday (nonstick pans, children’s toys, water bottles etc), so check in next week!

      Mary Jo

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