Duncan should have given a passing mention to the EWG, at least for transparency’s sake. An early draft did contain a quote from the EWG, which Appenzeller clipped “because it didn’t advance the story … and their material was not unique.” But the magazine has already admitted its mistakes, and there really is no lapse of integrity given Duncan’s and his editors’ acknowledgment of the EWG’s complaints. According to Appenzeller, the online version of “The Pollution Within” will include a sentence highlighting the EWG’s contributions in the field of bio-monitoring. And Duncan, in one of his two comments on the EWG blog, wrote that he would post an apology on his own Web site: “But I won’t post anything as long as my photograph is up on your site, and I am depicted as some sort of arch-villain of the press taking advantage of the unwitting sources.”


The photo Duncan refers to once sat next to National Geographic’s iconic yellow borders and a large question mark at the top of the EWG blog. It is gone now, sort of. In its place is a silhouette reading, “David Duncan — photo removed at request of author.” And that’s about as much as the EWG has been willing to concede. If the group once had a valid point to make, it has been overshadowed by its infantile pursuit of reparations.


At any rate, this brouhaha overlooks a more interesting point about Duncan’s approach to the worrisome topic of ambient pollution. Many science writers take consumer-oriented angles to their stories, but tales of toxic chemicals in clothing, bedding, toys, hygiene products, cleaning supplies and just about every other thing that comes off a shelf are nothing new. It is important to be critical of potentially dangerous gadgets, but with every new article, readers must ask what is new in the reporting, especially given that establishing a link between health problems and people’s exposure to harmful toxins is very difficult.


On the whole, Duncan’s National Geographic article, with all its charts and infographics, is a persuasive aggregation of information about bodily pollution and bio-monitoring. But what sets Duncan’s report apart from the typical consumer-oriented science piece is the author’s willingness to guinea pig his own body. The extent to which that exercise illuminates anything for the reader is debatable, however, given that the $15,000 it cost National Geographic is well beyond the means of most Americans. And, more importantly, the results of Duncan’s “chemical report card” are, like all writings on this subject, inconclusive.


With banned or restricted chemicals present in his blood, Duncan writes an interesting account of the toxins’ origins, tracing them to sources of exposure throughout his life:


In the nearby farmland, trucks and crop dusters sprayed DDT and other pesticides in great, puffy clouds that we kids sometimes rode our bikes through, holding our breath and feeling very brave.


Recollections such as this one are fascinating windows into a world that was once much less attentive to its use of chemicals. In a thorough explanation of exposure dangers, Duncan also recounts tales of toxic troubles from California to New England. But all this sounds like we’ve heard it before, and he has much less to say about his current state of health. The most worrisome result of his tests concerned high levels of flame retardants (PBDEs) in his blood. They are found in a vast array of consumer products, but the most concrete conclusion Duncan draws after being told he is, by most standards, healthy, is this: “I’ll never feel quite the same about the chemicals that make life better in so many ways.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.