Environmental Toxicology: Unsafe toys, lipstick, water bottles, pesticides and more!
In our modern industrialized society, on a daily basis we are exposed to countless chemicals, toxins, and carcinogens in the form of fumes, preservatives, pesticides, fertilizers, waste runoff, and residues. Some of these substances have been proven to be harmful, some of them are speculated to be harmful, and for many of them, we have no idea as to their potential impact on our health.
Even though we are certain of many of these health effects, the offending chemicals are still in our everyday foods, packaging, toys, household cleaners and many other products. It is of paramount importance that we educate consumers on what is safe, what is dangerous and why, and continue to support research into the effects of other potentially harmful substances. A more difficult subject to tackle is the additive effects of what we are exposed to, combinations of heavy metals, multiple hormone-modulating chemicals, or chronic, long-term exposure to materials that we are told are safe at low levels.
While educating consumers is important, educating healthcare professionals is important as well. The same way we are supposed to educate our patients on the dangers of smoking and obesity, we need to be educating our patients on the myriad of issues involving environmental health, both known and potential. Preventative medicine has been proven to be the least expensive and most effective way to counter many disease processes, and our hope is to prevent a portion of the morbidity and mortality that is occurring and will occur from human exposure to chemicals from our industrialized society.
The more publicized exposures include lead-based paint in children’s toys, lead leeching from dishes, phalates and bisphenols leeching from plastics, organophosphate poisoning from pesticides, and perchlorate contamination in many foods. Lead and other heavy metals are known to cause developmental delay, hyperactivity, and various other neurologic problems and can commonly found in old paints, many lipsticks, and more recently contaminating children’s toys. Phalates are plasticizers found in a wide range of consumer goods including pesticides, perfumes, nail polish adhesives, caulk, baby care products, and medical tubing and has been correlated with hormonal changes linked to decreased sperm counts, changes in genital anatomy in boys, and is possibly linked to resistance to insulin and the development of Type II diabetes. Bisphenols are used in the production of polycarbonate plastic and is found in the lining of canned foods, water bottles (including the commonly used Nalgene bottles with recycling symbol #7), and a large percentage of plastic food containers. They have been found to mimic estrogen and disrupt hormones, causing decreased sperm counts, carcinogenic effects during development, as well as a link to increased risk of breast cancer. Organophosphates are pesticides that block acetylcholinesterase, disrupting nerve conduction and also make up the active ingredients in Sarin and VX nerve gas. Although they degrade fairly quickly in the environment, they are one of the most common causes of poisoning worldwide and can potentially effect brain development even at low levels. Perchlorates are salts that are used in rocket fuel and fertilizers and has been found to contaminate up to 1/3 of American produce and milk. It interferes with iodide uptake in the thyroid gland, thereby causing hypothyroidism (low thyroid functioning).
While more research is necessary to support and confirm some of these correlations, and a significant amount of work has yet to be done to uncover the health effects of other chemicals, what we can do now, on local, regional, and national levels, is to educate consumers of the known and potential problems with exposure to these substances in our homes and daily lives. Through outreach to local hospitals, physicians’ offices, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, we hope to decrease the exposure risk to our community. We hope to integrate environmental health into a comprehensive preventative health system that can save billions of healthcare dollars per year and lead to significantly decreased morbidity and improved lives for our citizens. As a secondary benefit to this education, decreasing the use of toxic pesticides, chemicals, and plastics, will also decrease the amount of toxins released into the environment in the manufacture of these goods, decrease landfill waste, and encourage sustainable and organic farming, which as been recently shown to provide food using 20% less energy and with significantly more vitamins and antioxidants.