Today's post is from Alexis Rizzuto, an editor at Beacon Press.
We at Beacon would like to commemorate the passing of one of our environmental authors, Theodore Michael Dracos (Ted in his by-line, Theo to friends). His book,Biocidal: Confronting the Poisonous Legacy of PCBs, first came to us in 2008 but went to another press. Nonetheless, I kept the manuscript and used it frequently as a reference to better understand the workings of toxic chemicals in our ecosystems and in our bodies. I also kept in touch with Theo. When the book came back on the market, I was glad to be able to bring it on to Beacon's list.
Theo was passionate about getting the word out about PCBs, these synthetic chemicals that can now be found in everything from fish to frogs, eels to eagles, orcas to Inuits. They have been found in every human ever tested, in our blood and even in breast milk, threatening us at our most vulnerable stages of development. One of the most fascinating scientific pieces he wrote was a clear explanation of epigenetics—the study of how toxins can cause changes on a genetic level, changes that actually become inheritable.
Keenly aware of the destruction wreaked by the largely unregulated release of industrial chemicals into our biosphere, Theo could easily have become hopeless. Indeed, in our correspondence we'd often share the latest news on the role of chemicals in such abominations as the collapse of bee colonies, the spread of a communicable cancer in Tasmanian devils, the ongoing decimation of America's bat population, a rash of beak deformities in Alaska's birds. It was after that last blow that I shared with him a quote from Aldo Leopold: "One of the penalties of an ecological education is living alone in a world of wounds." To that, Theo added, "and a world of beauty."
I agreed, though I told him that I sometimes find it hard to see past the wounds. His response is one I return to whenever the latest environmental degradation leaves me dispirited:
"That's not good about the wounds getting in the way of the beauty. Jung said, 'Life is brutal and beautiful.' It seems to me that the only way to counteract the brutality and suffering is to concentrate on the beauty at every chance."
And he did, sending me photos of the bluebells on his rural West Texas property, and telling me of the family of mountain lions that had taken up residence nearby.
The fight against PCBs and other toxic chemicals goes on, as does their destructive work. But when I get overwhelmed by the wounds, I think of Theo's ability to appreciate the glories that remain. Thanks, friend.
In 1962, Rachel Carson stunned the world with the publication of Silent Spring, exposing the lethal character of the pesticide DDT. Her work launched a global campaign against synthetic chemical toxins and veritably created a world environmental movement. But unbeknownst to Carson, an even more insidious chemical cousin to DDT had been silently poisoning the biosphere.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were first manufactured in 1920. Seen as a "magic fluid," they were a cheap and stable heat-transfer material used as a critical coolant in big power grids. The chemical industry soon went on to develop hundreds of other uses for this highly toxic group of substances—everything from copy paper and paint to hydraulic fluids. Despite being outlawed in the U.S. since 1976, PCBs are currently found in the remotest corners of Earth and remain the most prevalent group of industrial chemical contaminants in much of the world. Every human being, from the womb to the grave, bears a body burden of these poisonous molecules forever locked in their blood and tissues.
In Biocidal, investigative journalist Ted Dracos tells the full story of PCBs for the first time, starting with the chilling chronicle of how the chemical industry manipulated regulatory agencies and scientific findings for decades to continue to reap huge profits, despite their knowledge of the threats posed by their "magic fluid." Dracos draws on extensive research to document the connection between PCBs and catastrophic human illness, presenting the latest science as studies draw ever more disturbing links between PCBs and continued health impacts ranging from cancer and autism to immunosuppression and reproductive abnormalities.
Biocidal also explores the science behind the threat PCBs pose to Earth's biodiversity: today, killer whales in the Puget Sound are dying, the eggs of Ontario Lake trout are doomed before they can hatch, 99 percent of the freshwater eels of Europe have disappeared, and frogs around the world are going extinct. While these disasters have many possible causes, evidence pointing to PCBs keeps accumulating, much like the toxins in these animals' systems.
Nonetheless, Dracos leaves readers with a profound message of hope: the damage is not irreversible. In fact, cleanup efforts that involve the removal of the source of PCBs can really work, and quickly. Offering a simple blueprint for steps that can be taken to reduce the impacts of all industrial chemicals, Biocidal ultimately points the way toward a detoxified world.