Suggested Readings: Collective Health



Our new year-long series is focused on interconnected systems that are broken. In a country that has tended to divide into individual families and alliances, rather than come together as supportive neighbors, this can make things harder than they need to be if we are to create solutions to improve conditions for all.

The growing list of excerpts below illuminate the broken ways that need collective fixing.

May 31: Excerpts from ProPublica’s The Story of 3M’s Forever Chemicals

There was nothing wrong with her equipment or methodology; PFOS, a man-made chemical produced by her employer, really was in human blood, practically everywhere. Hansen’s team found it in Swedish blood samples from 1957 and 1971. After that, her lab analyzed blood that had been collected before 3M created PFOS. It tested negative. Apparently, fluorochemicals had entered human blood after the company started selling products that contained them. They had leached out of 3M’s sprays, coatings and factories — and into all of us.

… More than 20 years before, two academic scientists, Donald Taves and Warren Guy, had discovered a fluorochemical in human blood. They had wondered whether Scotchgard might be its source, so they approached 3M. Newmark told her that his subsequent experiments had confirmed their suspicions — the chemical was PFOS — but 3M lawyers had urged his lab not to admit it.

As Hansen wrote all this down in a notebook, she felt anger rising inside her. Why had so many colleagues doubted the soundness of her results if earlier 3M experiments had already proved the same thing?

… In Johnson’s telling, a tacit rule prevailed at 3M: Not all questions needed to be asked, or answered. His realization that PFOS was in the general public’s blood “wasn’t something anyone cared to hear,” he said.

New health effects continue to be discovered. Researchers have found that exposure to PFAS during pregnancy can lead to developmental delays in children. Numerous recent studies have linked the chemicals to diabetes and obesity. This year, a study discovered 13 forever chemicals, including PFOS, in weeks-old fetuses from terminated pregnancies and linked the chemicals to biomarkers associated with liver problems. A team of New York University researchers estimated in 2018 that the costs of just two forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS — in terms of disease burden, disability and health-care expenses — amounted to as much as $62 billion in a single year.

Recently, 3M settled the lawsuit filed by cities and towns with polluted water. It will pay up to $12.5 billion to cover the costs of filtering out PFAS, depending on how many water systems need the chemicals removed. The settlement, however, doesn’t approach the scale of the problem. At least 45% of U.S. tap water is estimated to contain one or more forever chemicals, and one drinking water expert told me that the cost of removing them all would likely reach $100 billion.

Excerpts from “Everything Is Broken,”

Norman looked at us sympathetically. “There are still many good individuals involved in medicine, but the American medical system is profoundly broken. When you look at the rate of medical error — it’s now the third leading cause of death in the U.S. — the overmedication, creation of addiction, the quick-fix mentality, not funding the poor, quotas to admit from ERs … the unique thing here isn’t that you fell down so many rabbit holes. ”

I’m not looking to rewind the clock back to a time before we all had email and cellphones. What I want is to be inspired by the last generation that made a new life-world— the postwar American abstract expressionist painters, jazz musicians, and writers and poets who created an alternate American modernism … a blend of forms and techniques with an emphasis not on the facelessness of mass production, but on individual creativity and excellence.

Excerpt from “The Double Shift,” by Katherine Goldstein

Imagine if much of the country didn’t have reliable internet. There were years-long waiting lists to get it, and its cost was so high you aren’t sure how you’d afford it even if you got off the waitlist  Sometimes you could go to a friend or family member’s house and use theirs, but  you don’t want to risk damaging the relationship by asking too often. What if every single day you had to cobble together how to find internet from all of these sources just to do your job and provide for your family? This is what it’s like to be a working parent in need of childcare in America.

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