BREASTS by Florence Williams


A Natural and Unnatural History
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Five decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, breasts may have replaced birds as early indicators of chemically induced catastrophe.

According to Outside editor Williams, breasts are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine, warning us of environmental damage that may be causing early puberty, breast-milk contamination and other maladies. “Breasts are an ecosystem,” she writes, “governed by long-evolved functions, migrating molecules, and interconnected parts.” Williams buoys her arguments by interviewing a host of scientists, surgeons, breast-implant candidates and even former Marines who believe they have developed breast cancer from drinking tainted water at the Camp Lejeune base. In the name of science, she also volunteered for experiments, “detox[ed]” from processed foods and personal-care products and sent her breast milk to a lab to test for flame-retardants. The author peppers these encounters with accessible information on how breasts evolved, how they develop and, tragically, how they can go wrong. While Williams excels at making complex science understandable to an educated lay audience, some of her conjectures come across as hyperbole, as she decries “modern times” in which we are “marinating in hormones and toxins” without considering some of the ways in which chemistry has led to better living. Her conviction that childbearing and lactating protect women from breast cancer may alienate women who either can’t or don’t wish to have children. One senses that she is proud of herself for refusing even an Advil after giving birth and for eating organic food and climbing mountains, but this slightly smug tone detracts from the otherwise valuable evidence she presents.

Lively and thought provoking, albeit tainted by self-righteousness.

Pub Date: May 7th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-06318-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2012


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