Unsafe At Any Exposure

The human body has to be robust. It would have to be, considering the toxins that pervade our existence. It would have to be, considering that government fails to protect us from fungicides, pesticides, pollutants. It would have to be, considering that plastics have been found in our blood, in our lungs, in breastmilk, in babies’ urine.


About five months ago, I had an event that resulted in a hospital admission. I’m going to avoid some details, in the interest of brevity.

I had a concussion and have no memory of my son’s unlocking my jaw and depressing my tongue to restore breathing. No memory of the EMTs’ arrival, the trip to the emergency room, the CT scans, the vomiting. When discharged two days later, I was told to avoid screen time for two weeks. Later, when reviewing my health portal, I looked only at my head scan. It was later that I accessed the remaining scans. The chest CT noted a “pleural-based nodule”.

A Google search revealed nothing encouraging. Instead, I read “mesothelioma”. I knew that this cancer is the result of asbestos exposure and, yes, I’ve had multiple exposures to asbestos. Growing up in a house whose basement contained it and engaging in do-it-your-self, home-improvement projects.

Immediately, I messaged my physician who responded that while a pleural-based nodule doesn’t necessarily mean malignancy, the finding merited follow-up—another chest scan six months later. Of course, I began to lament that my son, in saving my life, had robbed me of a peaceful death. (The last memory I had on that Sunday morning was thinking: I feel lightheaded.) Later, when I regained consciousness in a hospital bed, my son said he was acting on adrenaline when he revived me and then at the hospital, he questioned if he’d made the right decision. After reading about mesothelioma, I was sure he hadn’t. I considered if and when I should plan my own death.

The next CT scan delivered good news. The nodule had shrunk. Probably it’s a clot from the “event” that resulted in my concussion, hitting first my head and then my chest. The radiologist said no further scans are necessary.

Detour over, I now transition from my small, personal life to those huge issues and the vast problems we face on a planet that soon may require intubation—the pollutants we inhale, consume when we eat, and absorb through our skin.

Among the many exposures we endure is asbestos. Silly me to have thought its use was banned in the US. Also, I didn’t know that it’s natural and found near mica deposits—deposits often contaminated with asbestos.

I located this site to see what products contain something that’s unsafe at any exposure. Flame retardant garments. Think children’s pajamas. Crayons. Clay. Children’s makeup. Brake pads, coffee pots, gas ranges, insulation. On and on and on and on.

Many of you may be aware of the Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder lawsuit in which tens of thousands of women are suing the company because it knew its product contained asbestos that caused their ovarian cancer and/or mesothelioma. A Reuters investigation opens with this sentence: “Darlene Coker knew she was dying. She just wanted to know why.” When you have time, please read it. And here’s an article about J&J’s tactic to declare bankruptcy to avoid payments to victims.

Strategies to circumvent accountability aren’t the exception.

Dupont, for example: This multinational corporation manufactures PFAS, known as forever chemicals. Here’s chilling information about the prevalence of these chemicals, the shifting of responsibility and another article that lists common products containing PFAS. Beware when you reach for Glide dental floss. And read this for more information about evading culpability by creating a “spin-off” corporation (the unloading of “…PFAS obligations to smaller companies that do not have the money to pay for them.”) as well as personal stories. Here’s Bonnie Smiley: “Everybody in my family has a different disease and I’ve been seeing specialists since I was born. Without Dupont, our town would not exist. But there’s a giant mess left over and they’ve downplayed it.”

This April 11, 2022 Washington Post article about farmland in Maine is behind a paywall and details a young couple’s saga, purchasing property in 2014, their dreams of growing organic produce for themselves and to market. Their son was born in 2018. In the 1990s several farms in the area “had been fertilized with municipal or industrial sludge—essentially, treated sewage—that contained an unknown amount of PFAS.” A customer alerted them that their property was among the list. Water testing “revealed levels of PFAS that were 400 times higher than Maine’s state guideline.” They ordered blood tests for themselves. “They had PFAS levels 250 times greater than the average American, higher even than some industrial workers.”

We can point a finger at Ronald Reagan, not only his policy of deregulation but also neoliberalism. During Reagan’s two-term, WH tenure, he stripped the EPA of its authority, allowing “business influence to go unchallenged” as he implemented a plan written by the Heritage Foundation. Read this 2018 study that assigns presidential blame, not only to Reagan but also subsequent presidents and especially Trump.

The human body has to be robust. It would have to be if we reach mid-life without some devastating medical diagnosis. It would have to be, considering that government fails to protect us from poisons in which we and Planet Earth are steeping. We are so fucked.

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com