Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lake Effect by Nancy A. Nichols

Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town's Toxic Legacy
by Nancy A. Nichols

Published: Island Press
Format: Hardback
Copyright: 2008
Pages: 178
Genre: Non-fiction / Environmental Health
Source: personal copy 

From the cover: Sue and Nancy had an everyday American childhood on the shores of Lake Michigan, with summers on the beach, swimming and fishing, and the sorts of secrets that only sisters share. But their hometown had a secret of its own: it was strewn with deadly industrial pollutants.

Sue was diagnosed with cancer at only forty-one years of age. As she lay dying, she made Nancy promise to write about the pollution in their hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, and whether it was connected to her illness. ... Using her skills as a journalist, Nancy investigated the troubling history of Waukegan's toxic waste sites."

This book is a short and intensely personal look at the impacts of exposures to toxic chemicals that were commonly used in industry and are still pervasive in the environment today. The Great Lakes are ringed by AOCs or Areas of Concern - a term that technically means "geographic areas that fail to meet the general or specific objectives of the [U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality] agreement where such failure has caused or is likely to cause impairment of beneficial use of the area's ability to support aquatic life." More simply, an AOC is a location that has experienced environmental degradation as exemplified by issues like contaminated wildlife,  water quality problems and loss of fish and wildlife habitat. In practice it usually means that there are one or more Superfund sites in the area.  There are currently 43 identified AOCs in the Great Lakes: 26 in the United States, 12 in Canada and 5 that are shared by both countries.

Source -

You can see Waukegan along the lake on the boarder between Illinois and Wisconsin. There wasn't a natural harbor there, so to improve the economy of the town, they build an artificial one. Industry boomed there, but because there was no river flowing into the lake from the harbor, pollutants that were dumped into water there pretty much stayed put, building up over time.

"By 1969, the top predators among fish were so contaminated that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seized 34,000 pounds of Lake Michigan coho salmon, labeling it unfit for human consumption. There were fish in the lake with whole-body PCB [polychlorinated biphenyls] concentrations as high as 77 ppm [parts per million] – levels approximately 15 times the then permissible 5 ppm. The FDA's acceptable level today is 2 ppm ... and the eight Great Lakes states themselves now have a far more stringent standard of 0.05 ppm."

The author discusses the various studies she found that demonstrated links between PCB exposures and both rare cancers like the ovarian cancer her sister died from and the most common cancers like breast cancer.  It is an insightful look at the science of environmental cancer and at our societal response.

"It is, after all, so much easier to think of Lance [Armstrong] as the courageous survivor, even the victor that he is [or at least it was - $&**$&*!!! - she wrote the book before the drug thing hit the fan], rather than to think about what could have made the rate of testicular cancer triple between 1940 and 1980 – post-World War II years when the use of toxic chemicals in our society blossomed." p 121

We still have a legal and legislative system that favors manufactures over citizens and for all we talk about the concept of the precautionary principle in this country we don't usually apply it.  The EU does, which is why the United States, once a leader in environmental law, has now become a dumping ground for products that have been refused entry in the EU (but that is another soap box).

The author adds Rachel Caron's favorite quote, from Abraham Lincoln: "To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards of men." p 122

I am almost certainly going to be using this book in one of my classes next year because it offers a short but thoughtful and well-referenced investigation of environmental cancer in a manner that is very approachable. This book provides a stepping stone to a more complex works like Our Stolen Future, Silent Spring and the Pulitzer prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer


  1. Hopping over from the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

    I grew up across from an industrial plant and have often wondered if it contributed to my lymphoma at age 23. Fortunately, I survived that, but I would like others to not go through it.

  2. I recently read Toms River, another discussion about toxic waste dumps and the cancer they contribute too. It was incredibly well written and well researched, so I'd highly recommend it :)


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