Book of the Week: What's Gotten Into Us?

Meet McKay Jenkins, University of Delaware prof, who’s feeling just fine but one day goes to the doctor and learns he has a tumor the size of a navel orange growing in his abdomen.

The doctors start grilling him. They want to know what chemicals he’s been exposed to. What toxins. Not industrial stuff, mind you. Stuff he would have used in his home.


It’s more than a tad alarming, thinking about all this, and he’s off on a quest to find out … what’s gotten into us, which is the title of his subsequent book. Subtitled “Staying Healthy in a Toxic World,” it was published last year by Random House.

Often, reading this stuff can be not only horrifying, but grueling. You have to wade through a hash of scientific reports. But through it all, Jenkins is a charmer. This is a personal, personable journey. I was just sampling the book, and almost every page I turned to caught my attention.

This will give you the gist:

Here’s Jenkins and his wife, Katherine, in a big box store strolling through the hardware section, which he calls a “red zone” of chemicals. They wind up looking at caulk, which according to the packaging contains a host of chemicals, including “gamma-aminopropyltriethoxysilane.”

The packaging further informs him that some of the ingredients “may cause kidney, cardiovascular and liver effects.”

After reading this, Jenkins recalls, “I put it down, gently.”

And he begins to think of how most people, including him, simply recaulk the tub barehanded, swiping the excess goo off with their fingers.

They look at more caulk. And things get more complicated. The packaging tells Katherine that if she wants to know more, there’s a number she can call.

Jenkins writes: “ ‘Just the fact that you have to go through all these steps to figure out if something is safe makes me nuts,’ Katherine said. ‘And look at this.’ She showed me the label. ‘Manufacturer can’t be held liable for damages in excess of purchase price,’ it said. What damages were we talking about, I wondered? Damages to your bathtub? Or damages to your body? And how much damage would $1.97 cover anyway?”

He takes readers through the intricate world of flame retardants, bisphenol A, phthalates, herbicides, formaldehyde, and more.

He clues us into government oversight, or the lack thereof.

This is a subject we should all get to know better.

After all, it’s all about what’s gotten into us.

And here's a bonus book:

Debra Lynn Dadd, a familiar name to people who began to look at toxic chemicals in their homes a few decades ago, is back with an updated look at consumer products, "Toxic Free: How to Protect Your Health and Home from the Chemicals That Are Making You Sick," published by Tarcher/Penguin.

She details not only how to identify household toxins, but also how to "purge them with natural solutions," the publisher writes.