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.”


Thus the whole thing comes off seeming a bit gimmicky. I say this not to add insult to injury, but because I, too, have used this very gimmick. As a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism last year, I turned in an article very similar to “The Pollution Within.” Ironically, it was based on the EWG’s release of “Skin Deep,” a massive online database that catalogues toxic substances in a mind-boggling number of consumer hygiene products. I cleared out my medicine cabinet and looked up some 20 creams, gels and lotions one by one. My scheme, though far less costly than Duncan’s, produced the same result. I threw away some Neutrogena after-shave, but could do little more than recount the public information on toxicity already out there. My editor agreed that it seemed contrived — his comments on my draft amounted to “So what?” So what, indeed. Maybe I’m just bitter that I’ve now been scooped, ex-post facto, by another, very capable journalist.


Clarification: The above post has been changed to show that the name of National Geographic’s environment editor is Dennis Dimick, not David.

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