Down mammary lane with 'Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History'

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Here's a claim I think I can make with certainty: I've just finished the only book I'll read this year that begins with the word "funbags." Florence Williams starts "Breasts" with a list of nicknames for her subject, a good sign -- it's always nice to give a nod to your reader's inner 12-year-old.

By Florence Williams
Norton ($25.95).

You may sign on for the fun, but you won't leave without at least a little trepidation. Yes, Ms. Williams argues, breasts are mesmerizing, all mystery and Marilyn Monroe, but they're also complex and profound -- a source of life as well as a delivery system for disease that researchers link more and more to the chemicals people eat, drink, touch and inhale.

This is a guide to the organ's life passage, from birth to breastfeeding to menopause, and how genetics and environment intermingle and sometimes crash head-on. Ms. Williams catalogs chemicals in our clothing, food, sofas, shampoo -- at times, reading "Breasts" made me want to take a shower until I learned some of the things roiling in the water supply.

One of the more troubling story lines is how the substance BPA affects the way the breast grows and changes. BPA, found in plastic water bottles and a raft of other products, is an artificial estrogen studied in the 1930s as a way to prevent miscarriages. Though it's been shown to make cancer cells multiply in the lab, a lack of government control and testing plus a lot of powerful lobbying mean it's still in use. (Government and industry shoulder most of the blame in this book.)

Researchers are growing more confident that BPA and other chemicals contribute to cancer and the earlier onset of puberty in preteens. The earlier the start of puberty, the greater the risk of breast cancer -- and, as Ms. Williams relates, the sooner these girls enter a world where a large segment of the population sees them chest first. "It's hard enough to stand your ground as a preteen," she writes. "But an 8-year-old is pretty much incapable of it."

Most major breast cancer organizations say no proof exists that such materials cause the disease, and indeed no one can say for certain. But one researcher tells Ms. Williams that studies with identical twins suggest chemicals could cause up to 75 percent of breast cancers, rather than the 4 to 10 percent often cited. With 700 chemicals introduced in the United States every year, this story has no apparent end.

Ms. Williams weighs the joys and benefits of breastfeeding against the pain and ambivalence women sometimes experience while nursing; she also explores how exposure to chemicals in their mothers' milk may seed children with toxins. Some may live in children's bodies long enough to pass on to their children.

To prove how these factors affect bodies in real time, Ms. Williams volunteers herself as guinea pig. She attempts a detox, shunning food and drinks packaged in plastic and avoiding her car to avoid chemicals sealed into the interior and upholstery. The purge cuts her chemical levels, but given modern life she concludes that her prospects of staying clean are slim: "Our collective levels tell us we cannot hide from toxins, no matter how carefully we shop, eat and vacuum."

Thankfully, she's not always this serious. Like Mary Roach and other writers of science journalism, Florence Williams knows one way to keep her reader is to balance wonderment and worry with humor and strategic first-person disclosures. This is a book that confides in the first paragraph that its author's mother referred to the subject as "ninnies." Her tone stays even and light whether she's talking about estrogen receptors or the average size of today's breast implants. (If you're curious, the samples she beholds "were about the size of a large Krispy Kreme.")

She scopes details that make real the people behind the research she cites: a Maori fishhook made from cow bone strung around an academic's neck, the glowy photo above a Boston biologist's desk of a blonde breast-feeding. ("My wife doesn't like it," the guy admits.)

She offers a little of what you'd expect from a book with a cover displaying a pair of plush grass-covered mounds. She visits a popular implant doctor at his shiny-sleek Houston office -- "where Trump Plaza meets Jiffy Lube" -- to undergo an exam as if she were a patient, watching as a 3-D imaging machine shows what she'd look like with an intergalactic rack.

And she tracks down the woman who became my favorite character, a Texas redhead named Timmie Jean Lindsey. She was 29 when she received one of the first sets of silicone implants in 1962, and after 50 years Ms. Lindsey still wears them inside her tattooed chest though they've hardened and often hurt. She tells Ms. Williams that when she was approached for the experiment she volunteered what she really wanted was to have her ears pinned back. They threw in that procedure for free.

"I have to tell you," she declares, "they said it would boost my confidence, but I had plenty of confidence." I liked "Breasts," but I could have read a whole book about Timmie Jean.

bookreviews - health

Leslie Rubinkowski, a former Post-Gazette features writer, teaches writing at Carlow University and Goucher College and is the author of "Impersonating Elvis." First Published June 24, 2012 4:00 AM


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