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Professor Brings Green Intelligence to a Green Building

Yale Professor shares his research of chemical menace to health at a book signing.

Two radical minds met on Sunday in Darien. John Wargo is an expert on why we should create environments that protect human health, and Peter Gisolfi  created one: the Darien Library.

Yale Professor John Wargo came to the library to speak about his book, Green Intelligence, published by Yale University Press on Sept. 29.  It is a shocking exposé, filled with detail—while restrained in tone—of the failure of government and industry to safeguard human health from the effects of toxic chemicals.

Architect Peter Gisolfi came to the library to listen to Professor Wargo’s talk; that, and because he Gisolfi loves to visit the library he designed. It's free of toxic materials, and it’s the first library in New England to win a gold LEED certificate for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

In the hour before Wargo’s lecture, Gisolfi led a tour of the library, which opened early this year. He pointed out how the geothermal heating and cooling system saves nearly half the energy of traditional systems, and how natural lighting through huge windows on the second floor obviates the need for electric lighting during most daylight hours. The ventilation system continuously freshens the indoor air. The building materials are natural and non-toxic: chiefly brick, wood and porcelain.   

“The most dangerous thing for the librarians are books and computers,” he remarked.

Wargo noted, on the other hand, that Americans on average spend 92 percent of their time inside buildings that are not green, quite unlike the library, and are thereby exposed to a myriad of chemicals far worse than those they would experience out-of-doors.

Indeed, Wargo said his research of more than two decades suggests that the presence of dangerous chemicals in the environment may be largely responsible for today’s epidemics of hormone-related cancer, pre-term births, autism, degenerative diseases and other ailments.

Wargo is Chairman of Environmental Studies at Yale College and professor of Environmental Policy, Risk Analysis and Political Science at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He has acted as advisor to Environmental Protection Agency administrators, National Academy of Sciences committees, the United Nations World Health Organization and former Vice President Al Gore.

But his concerns are not just those of an academic. It was the Dad in him that provoked this father of three to probe the pesticide industry and write his first book, Our Children’s Toxic Legacy: How Science and law Fail to Protect Us from Pesticides, 10 years ago.

The “tissue burden” most of us walk around with (a combination of pesticides, metals, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents and byproducts of fuel combustion) did not exist 100 years ago, Wargo told the audience of 50 in the library’s uncarpeted auditorium.

“I’m not happy about the fact that my children are walking around with this body burden of synthetic chemical substances,” Wargo said.

Government and industry continue to neglect the fact that children and developing babies are the most vulnerable, he said. Most data about health risks is developed by vested interest and it incorrectly assumes that exposures and risks are uniformly distributed in the population, he added.

Moreover, at best, chemicals are analyzed individually, where mixtures of chemicals and other toxic agents may have synergistic effects that are far worse, he said.

“The $400 billion plastics industry, which releases 100 billion pounds of plastics into the global market annually, is well beyond government control,” he said.

On an individual level, it is impossible for the ordinary consumer to know whether or not a plastic container contains toxins that pose a health risk. Some 80,000 synthetic chemicals are in circulation, most of which have not been tested for health risks, Wargo said.

Wargo begins Green Intelligence with a chapter on nuclear weapons testing. His research revealed that government promoters of nuclear weapons were well aware of the health risks of atmospheric tests, but they acted deliberately to deceive the public. He said that in the early days of nuclear weapons testing , 15,000 corpses were “clandestinely” collected from around the world by the United States to test for levels of radioactivity in human tissue. The results showed troubling levels of radioactivity in bone tissue but the information was suppressed.

When the Atomic Energy Commission tested human milk for the presence of strontium-90, a radioisotope created in nuclear fission, “[t]he result was the first credible evidence that mothers transferred radionuclides to nursing children.”

Wargo says the AEC, plastics, pesticide and vehicle industries and others were strikingly similar in their neglect and strategies of public deceit.

“The effects are menacing: secrecy skews the balance of power toward government or corporate leaders while ensuring public ignorance,” reads the prologue. “As these environmental histories illustrate, secrecy also creates false impressions of naturalness, wildness, purity and safety, leading generations to experience contaminated environments without their knowledge or consent.”

What can an individual do to avoid unwanted chemical exposure? Green Intelligence has a chapter full of practical suggestions.

For one, avoid eating anything whose chemical additives you can’t pronounce. Or do as architect Peter Gisolfi does: spend as much time as possible at the Darien Library.

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