Originally posted on May 18, 2015
Image: Emily Monosson, author of “Life-Changing Chemicals” in Whole Terrain’s Metamorphosis volume, and the books Unnatural Selection and Evolution in a Toxic World
by Lana Bluege
Marketing & Social Media Editor
Emily Monosson contributed “Life-Changing Chemicals” to Whole Terrain’s latest volume, Metamorphosis. It is a piece that calls attention to the misuse of chemicals and their impact on the human body and natural world we live in. Many may remember the famous discussion of chemicals in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but have we as a society learned from this warning? Or are we, as Monosson suggests, “a chemically-addicted society”? We sat down with Monosson to understand the ideas behind “Life-Changing Chemicals.”
Whole Terrain: In your piece you compare the 1960s chemical impact to today. What are the positive and negative changes that have occurred?
Emily Monosson: Since the ’60s — or really the ’70s — a whole field of environmental toxicology has grown up. We are much more aware of chemicals that are potentially problem-chemicals, and there are many obvious positive changes in water quality and, in some cases, air quality.
Of course there is also the flip side. We’ve taken care of the most obvious offenders, but now there are many more subtle effects of chemicals that can have important effects. For example, many of the endocrine disrupting chemicals: those effects may not show for a generation, or perhaps at the time of puberty or later, or they may be more difficult to detect through testing. And there are many more chemicals produced and used today, from plastics to nanomaterials. Some will be beneficial, some we will likely look back on and say, “What were we thinking?!”
WT: Tell us a little bit about your work as it pertains to Whole Terrain’s emphasis on reflective environmental practice.
EM: If you mean how we live in the world, I guess it would be that we need to think more about how and when we use chemicals. Some we want to preserve, make sure they are useful when we need them. In the best of all worlds we wouldn’t need pesticides — but I don’t see that happening right away. Perhaps someday. But the reality is that there will always be pests and pathogens. So if we are to use pesticides I guess I’d hope they are used in a far more reserved way: only when absolutely necessary, like antibiotics. This means we might think more about prevention. How do we go about whatever we are doing and reduce the need for pesticides and antibiotics? Better hygiene? Vaccines? Being more patient when ill? On the farm, engaging in more ecological practices that might build a more resilient system less prone to pests or better able to handle some low level infestation?
WT: What was your environmental awakening moment?
EM: I grew up in the 1970s, so that whole time was an awakening. But I think what bothers me on some level now is the uncertainty of what exposure to many chemicals in very small amounts may do. This is something I first realized just out of grad school when working on a fellowship in DC at the EPA. I was reviewing their water quality testing techniques in 1988, and realized the potential for many chemicals to slip through the testing process. So I guess that was a moment, realizing how difficult it is to control or even detect chemicals once they’ve been released. That was back then, it is now much easier and less expensive to test for chemicals. But still, there is the problem of what it means to be exposed to small amounts of many different chemicals.
WT: What inspired the particular piece you submitted?
EM: It is excerpted and altered from a book I just published, Unnatural Selection. The inspiration for the whole book was to think about how evolution influences our lives and how we influence evolution with our Industrial Age chemicals and antibiotics. (As above, insidious.)
WT: In your research, have you come across any peculiar changes in the environment, such as interesting defense mechanisms for microbial activity or invertebrates, that might be of interest to our readers?
EM: I think the most interesting concept is that no matter a bacterial cell or a cell in a fly or mosquito or even a plant cell, many of the defense mechanisms that are selected for are similar. It makes sense. It is like there is a set of defensive “tools” that nature uses. Gene duplication, sometimes to the extent that there are 100 copies of the targeted gene, serves as nature’s own solution to pollution by dilution — in this case, antibiotic or pesticide pollution in the cell. Other examples include altered target sites, so that when a protein is targeted by an antibiotic or pesticide, a small change may occur so the target is no longer recognized by the pesticide or antibiotic but is still functional; or an increased or altered ability of the capacity to pump out or not even let in toxic chemicals. It’s all so interesting (as a toxicologist!) to witness the amazing defenses life has. That is, until these defenses become overwhelmed.
WT: What do you see as your contribution to the environmental movement, or how do you see your work affecting the way people view the rest of the natural world?
EM: I hope they realize the power and relevance of evolution. Life is constantly evolving. It is a powerful process, and relevant in our lives. It is not just about the origin of human beings and the diversity of species.
WT: If you could share one piece of advice to those submitting pieces to Whole Terrain in the future, what would it be?
EM: It’s really nice to submit to a project with a theme and to see what else surrounds the piece: art, poetry, other essays and stories — really nice to see.
Bio: Emily Monosson is a toxicologist, writer, and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This article is modified from her recent book, Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene by Gene (Island Press, October 2014). Her other book is Evolution in a Toxic World (Island Press, 2012). You can find her online at her website or blog.