Book Review - Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2012-10-25

BOOK REVIEW

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams, WW Norton and Co., 2012

Review by Alex Merrill

“Breasts are our sentinel organs. They offer us a window into our rapidly transforming world and the excuse to steward it better.”

Warning: While reading Breasts, I often felt like hugging my own breasts protectively. I also gave thanks that I’d finished nursing my kids 16 years ago. I wouldn’t have wanted to read this book while I was lactating.

At the same time, I couldn’t put it down.

Williams is a wonderful writer who manages both to distill the evolution of our mammaries into a manageable read, and to clearly explain complex ideas about medical research. With imagery ranging from acutely clever to blatantly cheeky, she relates the story of the human breast from the late-Triassic era to now. But playful tone aside, this is a serious book about a serious issue: the toxic effects of our environment on our breasts—and hence on human health

Breasts includes an impressive array of topics. Her cringe-worthy account of breast implants may leave you wondering, as I did: would men ever subject themselves to being injected with wood chips, glass balls or ox cartilage, for purely cosmetic—or any other—reason? Williams traces the development of the birth control pill and hormone therapy over a half century ago to look at how this steep infusion of hormones we’ve been absorbing throughout our life cycle is a likely culprit in the recent dramatic rise in breast cancers.

Reaching into the 21st century, Williams examines how other human-made chemicals now ubiquitous in our environment—such as the now infamous Bisphenol A—could be dramatically altering girlhood by bringing on early puberty. She also addresses many other common chemicals in our households whose health effects have not yet been studied. And she explains why a sharp spike in the incidence of male breast cancers on a U.S. Marine base in North Carolina may help researchers to understand how environmental toxins are related to breast cancer.

The clearest message of this book is that our breasts and our environment are intricately related. As Williams notes, because breasts are made up of fat and glandular tissue, they “soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges.” And this gives rise to very real dilemmas for the women of our era. As she researched her book, Williams was breastfeeding her second child. She decided to have her breast milk tested for chemicals and found that it contained many pollutants, including flame retardants, common for women in the United States. Nursing, she writes, is a “very efficient way to transfer our society’s flotsam to the next generation.” In this context Williams weighed the pros and cons of breastfeeding and asked: Should women in industrialized countries breastfeed?

She did not arrive at a clear answer.

While I was reading Breasts, I talked to a friend who happened to be reading it too. She has a 6-month-old son who she’s still breastfeeding. Yikes, I said to her, How is this making you feel? I’m torn, she said ruefully. But I still think I’m doing the right thing. Formula is part of the same environment and exposed to the same toxins, isn’t it? And formula doesn’t have all the benefits of nursing. 
At 55, I don’t have to make that choice, but many millions of women do.
William’s book presents a clear case for our regulators to start following the precautionary principle, to “act in the presence of information and not require certainty.”  It is “folly” she argues, to think that we, as individuals, can protect ourselves and our children from the vast array of chemicals in our environment. Williams notes that of the 82,000 chemicals in use, only “a few hundred” have been tested for their health effects. 
As Williams says, regulators tend to assume chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Breasts is a powerful argument for reversing that dangerous practice.While I was reading Breasts, I talked to a friend who happened to be reading it too. She has a 6-month-old son who she’s still breastfeeding. Yikes, I said to her, How is this making you feel? I’m torn, she said ruefully. But I still think I’m doing the right thing. Formula is part of the same environment and exposed to the same toxins, isn’t it? And formula doesn’t have all the benefits of nursing. At 55, I don’t have to make that choice, but many millions of women do.

William’s book presents a clear case for our regulators to start following the precautionary principle, to “act in the presence of information and not require certainty.”  It is “folly” she argues, to think that we, as individuals, can protect ourselves and our children from the vast array of chemicals in our environment. Williams notes that of the 82,000 chemicals in use, only “a few hundred” have been tested for their health effects. As Williams says, regulators tend to assume chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Breasts is a powerful argument for reversing that dangerous practice.