Environmental Toxins and Human Health
For decades government agencies have monitored levels of pollution – synthetic chemicals and naturally occurring toxic substances – in our land, air and water. Today, studies monitor levels of pollution in people, also referred to as body burden. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started this bio-monitoring practice in the 1970s using tissue samples. Current bio-monitoring data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have assessed human urine, blood and breast milk samples for body burdens and identified a variety of synthetic chemical pollutants.
“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world”. —John Muir
These pollutants are commonly found in products we consume on a daily basis. Through intake of food, water, air (indoor air is generally more toxic than outdoor) and personal care products, we are raising the level of synthetic chemical pollutants in our bodies. Many scientists now believe that every creature on the planet, including unborn babies, carry a body burden of these pollutants.
With over 75,000 synthetic chemicals registered for commercial use in the U.S. (the majority of which were not in existence prior to World War II), scientists question the effect of these chemicals on our bodies and minds. Prior to registration and use, most chemicals have not been tested to understand their impacts on human health. When tested, they are usually studied as a single agent, at a specific dose, for a short time period. In our daily lives we encounter mixtures of these synthetic chemicals at varying doses, most of them at such low levels they are imperceptible to our senses – we don’t see, smell, or taste them.
It is this daily low-level exposure that is of current interest to researchers. How do these chemicals in our tissues and body fluids interact with each other? What happens as they interact with our stress and reproductive hormones, our neurotransmitters? What is their impact on cellular oxidation, genetic expression, or on our immune system? There are many research questions. However, the sheer number of chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis makes it difficult to prove cause and effect.
Evidence is linking many synthetic chemicals to increases in chronic diseases such as asthma, learning and behavioral disorders, childhood leukemia, infertility, endometriosis, as well as cancers of the breast, brain, ovary, testicles and prostate. (Better diagnosis, reporting and genetic susceptibility alone cannot explain the rising incidence of these diseases). Yet at this time, what we don’t know about the health impacts of these chemicals in our bodies, is as important as what we do know. Until scientific evidence is definitive, preventing harm, especially to our children seems a reasonable approach. Decreasing exposures is the place to start.
Exposure to synthetic chemicals in the environment is unavoidable. However, the following 10 suggestions can help you decrease daily exposures:
- Become more informed about chemical pollutants. The Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org has a comprehensive, scientific data base of body burden information.
- Know that a child’s daily chemical exposure is often greater than an adult’s. Growth and development puts them at additional risk. For information about identifying in-home environmental exposures and health risks, contact the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition at www.checnet.org.
- Buy organic and eat foods lower on the food chain. Toxic chemicals concentrate and bio-accumulate in fat tissue (including in humans). Remove the fats from meat. If possible, buy organic low fat dairy products. Check the report card of best and worst produce choices for pesticides at www.foodnews.org.
- Know fish consumption hazards. Go to ‘fish facts’ on ‘DOH web’ at www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/oehas/fish/default.htm
- Know how to use plastics safely. Do not use them in the microwave. See: www.mindfully.org/Plastics/plastic.htm
- Substances in cosmetics, fragrances, and personal care products are absorbed through your skin. Many chemicals in these products are known carcinogens and effect reproductive health. Learn more at www.safecosmetics.org.
- Use non-toxic products at home, work and school. See www.watoxics.org.
- Try alternatives to synthetic chemicals in the lawn and garden. See: www.seattletilth.org, www.pesticideinfo.org, or call the Natural Lawn and Garden Hotline at 206.633.0224 Environmental Toxins and Human Health.
- Support optimum personal health: eat and drink quality foods and water, exercise regularly, sleep well, reduce daily stresses, and stop smoking.
- We can only be as healthy as the health of our environment. Collectively, informed consumer choices by individuals, families, communities and nations will create change and support healthy environments.