“In the course of a lifetime,” Florence Williams writes, “breasts meet many friends and foes: lovers, babies, ill-fitting undergarments, persistent pollutants, maybe a nipple ring, a baggie of silicone, or a dose of therapeutic radiation.” In this engaging book, science journalist Williams sets out to provide what she calls “an environmental history of a body part” that is rarely, it seems, examined on its own merits. Even the evolutionary significance of breasts, she argues, has long been ignored by male scientists who saw in them powerful signifiers of fertility — attractors of men, that is, rather than feeders of babies. This persistent male focus on the sexual breast has obscured and even thwarted their primary function (as evidence she cites both low breast-feeding rates and an ever-increasing number of surgical augmentations). More troubling still, Williams says, in breasts we see early warnings of the long-term, devastating impact of environmental toxins — due to their high fat content, breasts “soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges.”
Much like “Stiff,’’ Mary Roach’s look at the lives of cadavers, “Breasts” benefits from its author’s field trips to learn from various experts; among the most illuminating come during her investigation into the world of breast implants. Williams talks with America’s first recipient of a silicone-implant boob job, as well as Houston’s hottest plastic surgeon, whom she hopes will deem her own breasts too perfect to need implants (spoiler: he doesn’t). More serious sections exploring multigenerational fallout (infertility, cancers, precocious puberty) from exposure to everyday chemicals are terrifyingly convincing. Seen this way — the breast as canary in a toxic coal mine — the author’s call to protect them feels both timely and urgent.