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Health problems & disease: the toxic chemical link

by Varda Burstyn & David Fenton

Printed with permission from the author, originally appeared in Eco-Sense, published by the Environmental Health Association of Ontario, www.ehaontario.ca

It’s not news to the chemically sensitive community: word is spreading that many 20th-century chemicals are toxic and have seriously adverse effects on health. Today, cancer epidemiologists like Devra Davis, who heads up the world’s first Center on Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, have moved from the margins to the mainstream. Davis’ 2007 book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer, eloquently and irrefutably makes the links that vested interests have tried so hard to deny (www.environmentaloncology.org).

In addition, two decades of research shows that a group of chemicals whose molecular structure mimics or disrupts sex hormones has been doing grave harm to sexual and neurological development. So-called “endocrine disrupters” – aka “estrogen mimickers” and “androgen-blockers” – have penetrated every dimension of our lives. They’re found in plastics, pesticides, flame retardants, cleaning products, air “fresheners,” and personal grooming products.

These dangerous molecules have been pushing the age of puberty downwards in girls, halving the average sperm count in men, harming the development of boy’s genitals and, it now seems conclusive, actually reducing the number of boys born relative to girls. A documentary which aired on CBC last fall, The Disappearing Male, explored this species-threatening issue – one of a dangerous cluster of harmful effects that argue for urgent regulatory and industrial change.

The chemicals implicated in this research have also had grave consequences for neurological development, wreaking havoc with the delicate neurological development of fetuses, babies and children. The result: an epidemic of attention deficit and behavioural disorders, a breathtaking multiplication of the incidence of autism spectrum disorders (from roughly 1 in 10,000 births in the 1950s to roughly 1 in 100 today), runaway Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease – not to mention the damage to the central nervous systems of chemically-sensitive adults.

What’s even newer in the last five years – confirmed by more and more studies in 2008 and 2000 – is that toxic chemicals are also implicated in the epidemics of so-called normal illnesses that used to be called the “diseases of civilization.” We are speaking here of diabetes – considered by Canadian health authorities to be the single most serious disease in terms of public health risks today. We are speaking of cardiovascular illness, of Alzheimer’s and other dementias; of obesity and its associated ills; of respiratory diseases such as asthma; kidney and liver disease; and of autoimmune and inflammatory illness, ranging from allergies to lupus to fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And we are talking multiple pathologies.

A recent study reported, “adults exposed to higher amounts of the plastic compound Bisphenol A are more likely to be afflicted by cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and have liver enzyme abnormalities.” What we’re learning is that chemical toxicity – and chemical ubiquity – affect all of us, not just those unfortunates who suffer from the full-blown nightmares of chemical sensitivity or other severe disabilities.

Now, on the understanding of ES-MSC, there is progress too. One very important breakthrough has taken place in Germany: The World Health Organization is the global standard-setter for assessing and classifying health problems. Drawing on its International Classification of Diseases – 10 (ICD-10, chapter 19), the German government has finally codified ES-MCS as it should be, and as it is: a physical disorder of allergies and poisoning (toxic injury).

It has also linked it with other complex chronic conditions such as ME-CFS, in the chapter on diseases of the nervous system; and with Fibromyalgia in the chapter on diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue. The German document also states that classification of MCS as a disorder of mental and behavioral disturbances – which is how Quebec misclassifies the illness at present – is not correct. Nor is the use of another diagnostic classification system. Bravo, Germany!

Space limitations mean we can only give a small hint here of what all the new research is saying on the whole array of illness now implicated in chemical consequences. But we have assembled an impressive sampling of it on our informational website and blog. We invite you to visit www.thechemicaledge.wordpress.com where we seek to reach people beyond the chemical sensitivity community with the facts of the chemical health crisis, for crisis it is.

If you go to the site, then click on EcoSense, and, by all means, if you also explore the whole site, you’ll find nearly a hundred new references dealing with compelling health research on all types of illness. You’ll also find lots of other material to help think about how to effect positive change. Torontonian Linda Sepp, who scours the scientific and popular press nearly every day and sends out her findings to many in the community, has informed us and others about many of these studies. We want to thank her and acknowledge her invaluable role in helping us and others stay up to date.

What’s becoming crystal clear is that chemicals play a key role in illness across the board, and that people who were exposed to these chemicals during gestation are at much higher risk than others. When every one of us now carries a body burden of many chemicals, and when even household products are laced with toxic chemicals, most fetuses cannot escape at least some exposure, which is why Wayne Ellwood, in his New Internationalist summary of the latest evidence, says, “Critics predict that in 10 years the fallout from the petro-chemical and plastics plague will rank with tobacco and pesticides as a major global public health issue.”

It’s important to see the silver lining in the massive grey cloud of news. Mainstream market books such as Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children (2008), by Philip and Alice Shabecoff, and The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our  Health and Well-being (2008) by Nena Baker are getting the word out. Simply put, once these findings become widely known everyone will share a motivation to leave the age of toxic chemicals behind – not just a minority of sufferers.

And victims of toxic injury like the chemically hypersensitive will, we hope, finally receive the recognition and treatment we deserve. The greatest challenge to achieving these possibilities at present is that research remains leagues ahead of medical practice, consumer behaviour, industrial production and government action. Although the number of family physicians who are learning to link the health problems of their patients to chemical toxicity is growing, many of them, plus the superstructure of specialists who have so much power in our health care system have barely begun to grasp this reality.

And while an important number of chemical engineers and businesspeople have launched the “Green Chemistry” movement, old dirty technologies still rule the day and fight regulation with huge war-chests and powerful lobbies. Many consumers now want, and purchase, safe-chemical products (building, cleaning, grooming). But the majority still purchase toxic ones because they don’t know better, or have no access to them, or can’t afford the healthy alternatives.

The pivotal piece between all these sectors is government. It has the power to make the changes – through regulation, incentives, economic and legal penalties, the funding of innovative and urgent health practices and services – which can radically accelerate our motion toward a healthier world. So personal choices should always be combined with green citizenship, and green citizenship should always strive to reduce our chemical, as well as our carbon footprint. Indeed, these often overlap. So read about it, and spread the word and don’t forget the people who represent you at city, provincial and national levels!

NOTE: Hospital Guide for Taking Care of Patients with Environmental Sensitivities
The David Thompson Health Region of Alberta, Canada, has produced a hospital guide on how to care for patients with Environmental Sensitivities. You can review their guide and scent-free policy by following this link on our EHAO website: www.ehaontario.ca/resources.htm