After having endured multiple viewings of the PBS documentary "The Vaccine War" and reconstructive surgery on my right knee in recent weeks, I can't say emphatically enough what a breath of sweet, clean oxygen it was to find a copy of Philip and Alice Shabecoff's book Poisoned for Profit in my P.O. box when I got out of the hospital.
The book, the subtitle of which is How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, is no feel-good read, to be sure. Not by any stretch. But it serves as a reminder that there are honest, truth-telling journalists out there who engage their craft the way it's supposed to be engaged.
The Shabecoffs are not stenographers to power, a role the FRONTLINE documentary on vaccines and autism and the mainstream media play so well and so profitably. They're don't regurgitate what experts or focus groups say and call it journalism. No, they seek out, recognize and tell the truth as they find it, as the facts and common sense dictate, despite the fact that their message is one that few humans understandably can, or want to, wrap their heads around.
"Of America's 71 million children, almost 21 million, nearly one out of three, suffer from one chronic disease or another," the husband-and-wife team write in Poisoned for Profit. "... How can we ignore these numbers?"
I'm a slow reader and have been known to set aside nonfiction books before I'm finished with them, so I won't wait until I've read Poisoned for Profit to start sharing its message with my readers. Besides, there's no way to fairly summarize a work of this magnitude in one column anyway. And I expect this book will inform my writing for years to come,.
"Of America's 71 million children, almost 21 million, nearly one out of three, suffer from one chronic disease or another."
But by way of introducing the authors, I must say that my personal work and journalistic worldview have been greatly influenced by Philip Shabecoff's. As both a graduate student at the IU School of Journalism and environmental reporter at the Bloomington Herald-Times between 1982 and 1996, I emulated his work as the New York Times's chief environmental reporter. He worked there 32 years, the last 14 covering the environment.
And when I started my first online publication in the late 1990s, a daily headlines-leads-and-links environmental news service called the Indiana Environmental Report, I modeled it after Greenwire, a similar service Philip founded and ran after he left the Times in 1991.
Alice Shabecoff, whose work I wasn't familiar with before she e-mailed me a few weeks ago about an essay I wrote on vaccines and autism, formerly served as executive director of the nation's oldest consumer group, the National Consumers League. She is also the founder and executive director of a national nonprofit called the Community Information Exchange.
Poisoned for Profit is Philip's fourth book about the environment (Alice's first). His other titles include A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (2003), Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century (2001) and A New Name for Peace: International Environmentalism, Sustainable Development, and Democracy.
Poisoned for Profit was released in hardcover by Random House in 2008. Jennifer McCharen, assistant to the publisher at Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, Vt., said the paperback version was released on May 18, 2010, with revisions and the new subtitle.
"We're considering this a revised edition, new in paperback," she wrote in a May 20 e-mail.
Despite the amount of pre-surgery time I spent watching, taking notes on and trying to write a critique of "The Vaccine War," I am not going to spend much time or space on it because, while it is chock full of information, the 56-minute program isn't really worthy of much attention. Its producers missed the point completely.
"An allegedly cutting-edge program like FRONTLINE shouldn't be asking in 2010, 'Do vaccines cause autism?' and, more tellingly, 'What role do celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. play in it all?'"
Indeed, this documentary would have been powerful five, maybe 10, years ago. But what producers delivered to PBS viewers on April 27, 2010, was a facile primer, a mere prelude to the stark realities of our times, with no serious attempt at finding the truth. It was he-said-she-said journalism, with a bias so obvious that the only real questions enlightened viewers came away from the film with were, "Do they really not get it?" or, "Are they just tools?"
In their promotional materials, FRONTLINE producers promised to "lay bare the science of vaccine safety." But while they presented a polished, in-depth presentation of the roiling conflict between parents and the public health establishment over the cause-effect relationships between vaccines and autism, the only thing they exposed, which is what "lay bare" means, is the fact that the Internet is more powerful than mainstream journalism and medical science, combined.
By using the Web to communicate with each other, parents are going beyond the vaccine-industrial complex and its mainstream media echo chamber, educating themselves and reaching their own conclusions about the efficacy and safety of the American vaccine schedule. Other than that, the producers told the same, tired old story. Vaccines are miracle drugs. And parents who believe that vaccines caused their children's regression into autism are understandably distraught but wrong, and dangerous.
Belaboring the point that vaccines have been extraordinarily effective at reducing and eliminating some horrific diseases is news about as old as it gets. Leaving any impression that vaccines have been absolved from any role in the degeneration of the human condition, as represented by the ongoing epidemics of autism and developmental disabilities, was poor journalism, pure and simple.
At the most of elemental journalistic levels, the producers of "The Vaccine War" failed for submitting a story about autism that didn't even define the term. All viewers learned is that it's a "mysterious disorder" (autism is actually a spectrum of complex disorders, plural) and "appears" to be on the rise (the jury is really in on that one, autism is on the rise).
They saw horrifying image after horrifying image of children suffering from preventable diseases, like whooping cough, rotavirus and chicken pox. But the only image they saw of autism was a panicky kid in a doctor's office just before receiving a shot. The audience saw no flapping arms; no racing back and forth across a room, over and over and over again; not a single mute child.
In other words, viewers came away from "The Vaccine War" not even knowing what the war is about.
An allegedly cutting-edge program like FRONTLINE shouldn't be asking in 2010, "Do vaccines cause autism?" and, more tellingly, "What role do celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. play in it all?"
It should be asking, "Why can't one in every six school-aged children in America think, speak, learn, communicate, focus and/or behave the way human beings have for thousands of years? What is damaging our children's abilities to function?"
Philip and Alice Shabecoff know precisely what the issues are and address the questions that need to be answered in Poisoned for Profit. From the first page they make clear that the one in six American children with developmental disabilities are but pieces of an extraordinarily more complicated and disturbing puzzle, that the true environmental catastrophe in America is not being played out in the Gulf but in the lives of American families, every single day, without relief, ad infinitum.
"We live in a society drenched in pollutants. Not all these chemicals are harmful, but these numbers reveal the scale of the assault our children face."
In the book's opening paragraph they lay the issues out clearly and concisely, followed by the historical context and facts readers need to truly understand the crisis, which are hallmarks of true journalism.
"The toxification of the environment -- the introduction of poisons into our habitat by industrial and commercial activity -- has been a fact of modern life for decades," they begin. "But this plague of pollution is so insidious, like the slowly heating pot of water that boils the unsuspecting frog, that its true dimensions have crept up on us largely unheeded. So has its impact on the health of our children."
In 1980, the Shabecoffs say in Poisoned for Profit, the United States produced or imported 200 billion pounds of industrial chemicals. Today, the figure is 27 trillion.
"We live in a society drenched in pollutants," they write. "... Not all these chemicals are harmful, but these numbers reveal the scale of the assault our children face."
Baby boomers, they note, were the last generation of American children born to parents whose bodies were "fairly free of manmade toxics" and the first to endure America's "unthinking, revolutionary experiment with 'Better Living Through Chemistry.'"
Boomers' children exhibit "unprecedented rates of chronic illnesses and disabilities," they continue. And the prospects for even having children are greatly diminished, as evidenced by the "epidemic of reproductive problems, including infertility and miscarriages."
If they do succeed at conception, American parents today risk the highest rates of preterm birth and low birth sizes in the world, which suggests these children were "exposed to pollutants in the boomers' wombs."
And once the boomers' grandchildren are born, the one in three facing chronic illnesses is really a conservative estimate.
The Shabecoff's cast this environmental catastrophe in human terms, beginning Poisoned for Profit, with the experiences in a Tennessee town where a cluster of children born with birth defects was traced to water pollution from a nearby landfill. But they detail the epidemics of chronic diseases and conditions, ailments that can only be treated, and seldom if ever cured, in the starkest of terms -- statistics.
"When the 11 million American children struggling with obesity are added to the equation, nearly half -- 45 percent -- face lifetimes of chronic disease and disability."
Twelve million children have "some form of developmental disorder, from autism to ADHD and serious learning disabilities that cloud their minds and torment their behavior," they say.
About half that many, 6 million, suffer from asthma, which is fatal to some. Another 2.5 million "live with disfiguring, debilitating birth defects," while 310,000 suffer from lead poisoning. "Cancer threatens the lives of 58,000 children."
When the 11 million American children struggling with obesity are added to the equation, nearly half -- 45 percent -- face lifetimes of chronic disease and disability.
I've only read the first few chapters of Poisoned for Profit, and my physical state hasn't exactly been ideal for such an intellectual undertaking. But from what I know of the Shabecoffs' work, and the people, organizations and science they have used thus far in the book, I have to agree with the Boston Globe's assessment when it was first released in 2008:
"Structured like a criminal trial, [Poisoned for Profit] proceeds methodically and patiently, building a criminal case. I found it difficult to argue with the avalanche of numbers provided by the authors, who share an extensive background in environmental issues ... Their expertise informs every exhaustively researched sentence."
To be continued, for sure.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .