A teenager asked me today if there really is that much difference between our environment now and how it was 100 years ago. I wanted to say yes and describe the changes without scaring her too much. The fact remains that over 80,000 new chemicals have been created since World War II and very few of them have been tested for their effects on us and other living beings. Testing does not occur until we become concerned that the chemical may be dangerous for living beings. That means that a terribly long time passes and huge amounts of damage must occur before we begin to investigate. Under the Precautionary Principle, chemicals would be tested on us before they are released into public use. That does not happen now. Rather, we are exposed to pollutants and toxic chemicals in our air, our water, and even our soil. Common items that we use each day may contain poisons that damage our health.
How do these chemicals affect us? Let’s look at this from the standpoint of disease. Air pollution, for example, affects our cardiovascular systems (http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/air-pollution-heart-health3.htm). It impairs the electrical communication so important in the heart and it reduces the oxygenation of our body. The EPA and the American College of Cardiology have put out a fact sheet about the increased risks of heart disease and stroke from outdoor air pollution.
Liver disease in adults is connected to the chronic low-level exposure to over 100 common pollutants “including lead, mercury, PCB’s and pesticides…” I had a patient who developed pancreatitis after gardening one weekend. The staff in the hospital insisted he was a hidden drinker. We knew he was not an alcoholic. Rather, he was exposed to pesticides in his garden and was not wearing hazmat gear to protect himself. I have no doubt the pesticides significantly contributed to his pancreatitis. It took him months before he fully recovered.
Many studies now attribute cancer and obesity to our bodily levels of environmental pollutants and toxins.
Children are especially vulnerable. In addition to being affected by what is in the air and the water they are closer to the ground and often chew on products they pick up (yes, even teens chew on their pencils). Environmental pollutants are associated with lead poisoning, asthma, cancer, and developmental disabilities, and reduced IQ. These are not only terribly disrupting, they are also very costly for our society, to the tune of many billions of dollars per year. Many scientists now believe that the epidemic of food allergy, gluten allergy, and chemical sensitivity we are seeing in the children is a result of exposure to the environmental toxins.
What is a person to do? We cannot avoid all exposures and still live in this world. However, we can significantly reduce the amount of exposures by keeping our residence as clean of pollutants and toxic chemicals as possible. The Environmental Working Group provides a checklist and guide for a healthy home. The EWG also provides a number of listings of what products are healthier for us available on their website ewg.org.
For your health and for those who live with you, create an oasis of clean air and beneficial products in your home. Remember, even our pets are vulnerable and equally susceptible. They deserve our attention to these details for the health and well-being of us all.