The Magazine

Scratch 'n' Sniff

When the body overreacts, all hell breaks loose.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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Breathing Space is also shot through with peculiar claims. He writes that, at the middle of the past century, there was an "assumption that consumers, particularly women, [had] both a responsibility and a choice to make a healthy home. It is also a version of the American dream shaped largely by the values of the white middle class." Does this mean that nonwhites and others had an alternative vision--say, one where men were obliged to make their homes unsafe and messy? At least twice, Mitman seems to blame humans entirely for allergies: "Antihistamines and other biomedical wonders would soon offer a technological fix to an illness that modern civilization had begun." And "if civilization and progress spawned hay fever, then perhaps there was no better breeding ground than the burgeoning metropolis of Chicago."

The chapter on allergies and cities is both grossly one-sided and kooky. Mitman rails about the "ecology of injustice" and uncritically repeats the assertions of left-wing advocates for the poor and nonwhite. Mitman claims that vacant lots in urban areas are the "by-products of the inefficiencies and injustices of industrial capitalism." He asserts that, in the 1960s, "the black community transformed anger and rage into a positive force of social change." And he describes the Young Lords as "young Puerto Rican activists." He does not speak of those who burned and trashed whole swaths of Newark, Watts, Detroit, and other cities, nor does he lament the criminal activities of the Young Lords. Mitman complains about rats in the homes of the urban poor but then derides a New York City rat-eradication program as "like putting a Band-Aid on an internally hemorrhaging patient." Never mind that the people in the infested slum wanted the rats croaked; and never mind that the anti-rat campaign might have improved the living conditions in 6,000 buildings where 100,000 people reside. On page 150 Mitman reaches the zenith of weirdness: "To the residents of Central Harlem and Spanish Harlem, the cockroach was linked, not to race, but to the inhumanity of beings toward one another. In their eyes, the cockroach became an ally in the protest against economic, racial, and social injustice."

The history of allergies is an interesting one. Sufferers will have to wait for the arrival of another study to learn the full story.

Kevin R. Kosar is a writer in Washington.