A Truly Toxic Issue: Our Chemical Environment
A truly toxic issue Modern life is saturated with carcinogenic chemicals. But without regulation, just how are we supposed to avoid them?
I used to be under the impression that you had a reasonable chance of avoiding debilitating and potentially fatal diseases like cancer if you just took a few simple precautions: ate plenty of fruit and vegetables, gave up smoking, drank in moderation and did a bit of exercise. It's since become apparent that the world we live in is so overrun with environmental pollutants that it is next to impossible to keep oneself truly healthy.
A report released in the US earlier this year by the President's Cancer Panel concluded that the risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated; that exposure to potential carcinogens is widespread; that the 80,000 or so chemicals used by millions of Americans in their daily lives (mostly inadvertently) are largely unregulated and that, to a "disturbing extent", babies are being born "pre-polluted".
As someone who has spent a great deal of her time cycling around farmers' markets in inclement weather to fill cloth bags with local seasonal and organic produce, and sweating out toxins in hot yoga studios in between, these findings are particularly enraging.
I've known for a while that imbibing food is a perilous adventure. Meat, fish and dairy products have long since terrified me. Even fresh produce has its dangers. A conventional apple for example - the very fruit that is meant to keep the doctor at bay - can contain up to 42 different pesticides, many of them known carcinogens.
But now, it seems that food is the least of our worries, to the extent that you have some control over what you digest. The fact is we are being bombarded 24/7 by toxic chemicals: benzene and formaldehyde in our furniture and carpets, bisphenol A (BPA) in food containers and the coating on credit card receipts, and who knows what in our electronic devices.
Some of these chemicals, like formaldehyde (which is probably in the desk I'm typing at right now and in the sofa I'll be reclining on later) and BPA, which is everywhere, have been the subject of hundreds of studies and are known to be harmful, even in very low doses. BPA is particularly troubling, being linked to breast cancer, infertility and birth defects in infants (reducing the normal distance between their anus and genitals for example), yet it is ubiquitous in - of all things - babies' bottles. BPA was banned from use in Canada in 2008; despite more than 700 studies coming to the same distressing conclusion, it is still FDA-approved for use in the United States.
And these are just the chemicals we know about. What damage the other 79,998 or so chemicals floating about are causing is anybody's guess.
You can, of course, minimise your exposure to toxic chemicals by adhering to the following set of guidelines: buy food, home and garden products, toys, medicines, furniture and clothing that are organic and free of BPA, phtalates, endocrine disruptors, formaldehyde and other toxic by-products of the manufacturing process. Filter your water and air, don't use your mobile phone, don't use Wi-Fi, don't use the microwave, steer clear of electronic devices generally, wear sunscreen, avoid carpets, test your house for mould, test your house for radon levels, avoid first-, second- and third-hand smoke - and next time you sign a credit card receipt, try not to touch it.
No problem, right? Well, not if you have the resources of someone like Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow, perhaps, but for the average Joe, toxin-free living is simply not feasible. I can't get my landlord to clean the windows in my apartment - so there's no way he's checking the radon levels anytime soon. And how, exactly, is one supposed to recognise an endocrine disruptor when it comes knocking?
For people of limited means, this is an even bigger problem. They have enough to be getting on with trying to put food on the table without having to worry whether the food, not to mention the table itself, is safe.
If average citizens are to have any hope of a toxin-free lifestyle, we need the government to step in and regulate the poisonous substances that we are being exposed to on a daily basis. Fortunately, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Last April, Senator Lautenberg proposed the Safe Chemicals Act, which would overhaul the dangerously outdated Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976. The new act, like many others before, is still waiting for congressional approval and you can be sure that the longer it languishes, the happier the plastics and manufacturing industries will be.
Meanwhile, according to the President's Cancer Panel, a whopping 41% of Americans - almost half the population - will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. In 2009 alone, 562,000 Americans died from the disease.
© 2010 Sadhbh Walshe