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“The Body Toxic,” by Nena Baker B.A. ’81

September 22, 2009

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    Nena Baker B.A. '81
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Nena Baker B.A. ‘81 writes an eye-opening book on the implications of chemical contaminants accumulating in our bodies.

by Barbara Schuetze

In early 2003, investigative journalist Nena Baker learned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had begun tracking the levels of chemical pollutants in a representative sample of the U.S. population.

She was fascinated by the broad questions this information raised: Should citizens be concerned about the traces of flame retardants, pesticides, plasticizers, and stain repellents the CDC measured in virtually all Americans? Are sofas, cookware, carpeting, and dozens of other commonly used items inside our homes and offices responsible for pollutants in our bodies? Is government adequately overseeing the use of toxic substances to ensure that all Americans are safe from daily doses of hazardous chemicals?

“The answers to these questions truly stunned me,” says Baker. So much so, that she was inspired to leave daily journalism after more than two decades to write The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being (North Point Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). The book received a 2009 Nautilus Award in the conscious media/journalism category.

This carefully documented exposé reveals the story behind chemical advances used to develop a myriad of products that make modern life easier and safer–but at a cost.

Focusing on five high-volume endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in everyday products, The Body Toxic  presents mounting evidence of a correlation between toxic chemicals and the rise in human health problems. “Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies show that these endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which throw off the body’s hormone system in various ways, cause lab animals to exhibit disorders and diseases that are on the rise in humans,” the author says. Epidemiological studies are beginning to confirm what researchers have found in the lab.

Baker notes, “America has languished with toothless toxics laws that were written more than 30 years ago with a lot of lobby and industry input to ease and facilitate commerce, with nothing to counter that slant.” In fact, the vast majority of more than 80,000 chemicals registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have never been tested for toxicity. The book traces the politics of regulation and calls for a total revamping of U.S. laws governing toxic chemicals, modeled after the more rigorous chemicals management recently instituted in Canada and the European Union. After delineating the perils of untested chemicals, The Body Toxic  offers practical tips to reduce our everyday exposure to hazardous substances and provides a list of links to environmental and health groups at the end of the book.

Early on, as editor of her high school newspaper, during the Woodward and Bernstein era, Baker realized “journalism done well can change the course of history.” She has always aspired to stories that “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

As an English major at Lewis & Clark in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Baker gained valuable skills from Susan Kirschner, senior lecturer, who taught her the importance of reading literature from the viewpoint of a writer. Baker also recalls communication professor Dick Hoyt opening her eyes to the possibilities of a journalism career and book writing. 

After graduation, Baker eventually landed jobs with United Press International, the Oregonian, and the Arizona Republic  successively. While she was at the Oregonian, her award-winning investigation of Nike’s Indonesian factories in the early 1990s led to numerous improvements for workers by compelling the company to take more responsibility for conditions at contract factories.

After living on the East Coast, in Southern California, and in Arizona, Baker is happy to be back in Portland. She recently released the paperback edition of The Body Toxic.

Baker also has another book in the offing, which builds on the information presented in The Body Toxic. “It will address what we can do to solve the problem of chemical contaminants,” says Baker, “and why we have to act now.”

Barbara Schuetze is a Portland-based freelance writer.

A Few of Baker’s Tips for Reducing Chemical Exposure

  • Eat organic foods whenever possible.
  • Don’t eat microwave popcorn. The insides of the bags are coated with toxic grease-resisting chemicals.
  • Don’t use plastic food containers in the microwave.
  • Avoid polycarbonate water bottles and baby bottles because they’re made from the controversial chemical bisphenol A.
  • Opt for hard-aluminized pots and pans instead of Teflon or coated cookware.
  • Vacuum and dust weekly–a lot of chemicals settle in dust.