Although most of Swan’s analyses focus on Western countries, she has uncovered similar trends in South America, Asia and Africa.
Swan offers a sense of relief in her wrap-up, providing practical advice on steps that individuals can take to protect their health. She goes beyond lifestyle recommendations, outlining a far more difficult task: Purging harmful chemicals from our homes by reading the ingredients on bathroom and kitchen cleaners. Choosing personal care products that are phthalate-free and paraben-free. Ditching air freshener and scented products. Not microwaving food in plastic, making sure to filter drinking water and toss out plastic food storage containers and nonstick cookware. The suggestions go on.
Swan does miss an opportunity to give more attention to real-life stories. When she mentions individuals, their reproductive problems are often described without the history or context that strengthens a narrative. There are times when a memorable personal story might have supplanted a rather detailed anatomical and chemical description. There are passages that suffer from what Swan herself refers to as “stat overload” or dozens of foreign-sounding chemical names.
Over all, her conclusion is well supported: the need for regulation, specifically United States federal policies that require companies to prove chemicals safe before using them commercially. Europeans favor this precautionary principle and are currently phasing out or banning the most dangerous chemicals. Swan underscores how this contrasts with the American approach of “innocent until proven guilty,” which then requires taxpayer-funded government studies to investigate health effects.
“Count Down” is an important book for anyone concerned about the environment, pollution, successful childbearing or declining health of the human species. Other than the pervasive chemical names, it is written in a casual, accessible style and will be of practical relevance to couples and young adults who are considering having a family.
Fertility is already an issue for some who have children later in life, when the effects of these chemicals may be more pronounced. Swan offers somewhat bracing recommendations for women who choose to delay pregnancy: Freeze your eggs in your 20s as an insurance policy. For men, investigating their sperm count early might reveal infertility trends when they are easier to correct. More broadly, this book provides a wake-up call that increases understanding of fertility, its challenges and the recognition that both partners play a role.
But ultimately her conclusion is a plea for swift national and global actions that ban the use of these chemicals and mitigate the effects of those that are impacting health and even life itself worldwide. Swan makes it clear that the future of many species, including our own, depends on it.