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Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR)’s Environmental Health Policy Institute, an online forum of physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts, published the following article in response to the question, “How does our food production system drive our exposure to toxic chemicals?“
The author, Dr. Joanne Perron, offers this eye-opening answer, drawing on her personal journey with breast cancer and her years of experience as a physician.
As an OB/GYN who trained at Los Angeles County/USC Women’s Hospital during its heyday of 18,000 deliveries per year, I saw countless women with fibroids and ovarian masses the size of term pregnancies and an overwhelming number of third-world-like adverse birth outcomes, maternal and fetal. In those ancient times of the late 80s-early 90s, the prevailing wisdom was that these women, who often lacked preventive care, were the unfortunate carriers of bad genes. When people ask me how I first became interested in environmental causes of disease, I recall that I privately thought, never risking professional scorn as a resident, there had to be another component that conventional medical teachings ignored which contributed to the adverse reproductive disorders I was learning about.
Of course then, my cursory knowledge was only of acute pesticides exposures since many of my patients were migrant farm workers. I surmised that there were mutagenic or genotoxic mechanisms from pesticides responsible for their health problems, but other than the nature vs. nurture debate, had never heard of epigenetic mechanisms in my medical training. So fast forward to 2001 when I started training in integrative medicine with Andrew Weil at the University of Arizona, Tucson. This is when I first heard the term xenoestrogens. I started wondering if chemicals in the water and food supply could be related to the reproductive disorders I was increasingly seeing in a middle class population. I say increasingly, because even women who came to see me for their annual “well woman” exam seemed to have an inordinate number of complaints such as abnormal bleeding, pelvic pain, endometriosis, fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, ovarian cysts, or PMS. And most of these women did not work in agriculture.
I also started wondering if all of the cases of non-familial pre-menopausal breast cancer were due to some environmental causes. And then in 2004, at age 45, having breast fed my sons, never smoked, eaten healthy, and exercised regularly, I too got the diagnosis of breast cancer. And I was the kid who actually liked eating eggplant and other “weird” vegetables. With no family history of breast cancer, I started serious study of the potential environmental causes of breast cancer and while I am aware of the multitude of other environmental contaminants, pesticides were something, as a beginner, I could wrap my mind around.
A close friend from childhood, Kristie, who lived 4 houses away, died at 38 from breast cancer. She had no family history of breast cancer. Additionally, both of her sisters had unexplained infertility (their mom was a “fertile Myrtle”). With every high school reunion, I heard of former classmates who had passed away from different types of cancer. We grew up in the west San Fernando Valley, which had mostly ranches and agriculture until the post WWII building boom. In the late 1950s to early 1970s, many of the schools and residences abutted orange groves, onion fields, and corn fields. Not only do I recall frequent spraying of nearby fields, but also the sweet smell of regular misting from the mosquito trucks during the summer months.
Did early pesticide exposure cause my individual case of breast cancer? My scientific training informs me that I will never know for sure. However, a large body of data is beginning to point the finger at early life, including in-utero, pesticide exposure as a crucial factor in many adverse health outcomes, some occurring many years after initial exposure, that clinicians see on a daily basis, including birth defects, reproductive disorders (male and female), cancers, metabolic disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, and neurological diseases.
To this day, when I talk about epigenetics to same-age colleagues in the trenches, some are disbelieving because they didn’t learn about it in medical school and the journals that they read don’t mention epigenetics, oxidative stress, or even endocrine disruption with linkage to adverse health outcomes. The sentinel 2009 Endocrine Society Scientific Statement should be mandatory reading for every health care professional before assuming practice or getting recertified. Most importantly, it states that there is evidence that endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can have effects on human reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology. I admit it took my brain a bit of time to rewire and integrate an understanding of the mechanisms underlying epigenetic factors of disease and to appreciate that disruption of the intricate orchestrated endocrine signaling is more complicated than the lock and key theory of hormone function that I learned many moons ago.
This is just a brief summation of the science and concerns that scientists have about pesticides and other EDCs, but what about the local anecdotes that I frequently observe or hear about? From two different sources, I have learned that Stanford hospital receives most of its cases of congenital cardiac defects and childhood cancers from the Salinas valley. Also, that the Monterey/Salinas cancer clinicians are seeing more cases of premenopausal breast cancer from the Salinas area. Monterey County, the salad bowl of the US and the biggest producer of strawberries, is my home. It is an area of exquisite natural beauty, but has some of California’s most polluted streams and rivers from agricultural run-off. I shudder to think of the quality of our drinking water. To add to our woes and potentially contaminate our ground water even more, a great big experiment may soon occur on those who live in proximity to strawberry fields with the December 2010 approval by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation for the use of Über-toxic methyl iodide to fumigate those fields.
Neither does the Pacific Ocean escape the toxic effects of pesticides; the Salinas and Pajaro river watersheds drain those same pesticide laden fields and empty into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Perusal of the MBNMS maps on this site clearly illustrates the color red to indicate “impaired” rivers. Meanwhile, the fishermen wonder where all the salmon have gone and I wonder about the local tide pools that once teemed with loads of hermit crabs, urchins, and starfish for John Steinbeck and my little boys to learn about.
I try not to turn into an Eeyore when I discuss these issues with those I am trying to educate. I often think about the messaging we use in this line of work and how we could better persuade those who are comfortable with the status quo or those who lack knowledge and understanding of the connections between the pervasive use of dangerous chemicals and the health of future generations. At one time I preached about a future scenario similar to the book and movie “Children of Men,” but that didn’t win me any converts. Now, I jokingly tell colleagues that I want to design tee shirts that say “Bugger off, don’t methylate my DNA or perturb my thyroid!” or “Halogens are not for children and other living things.” Mostly, I just breathe deep and acknowledge that I am a foot soldier to take this information to clinicians, policy makers, and patients, but as with many issues in public health this may be a long and arduous march.
Journal of Applied Toxicology published a study on January 12, 2012 finding 99 percent of breast tissue samples from post-mastectomy contained parabens. Tissue was collected in England from 40 patients with primary breast cancer between 2005 and 2008.
Parabens Seen in Almost All Breast Mastectomy Samples. MDNews.com. January 12, 2012.
Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum. Journal of AppliedToxicology. L. Barr, G. Metaxas, C.A.J. Harbach, L.A. Savoy, P.D. Darbre. Wiley Online Library. January 12 2012.
“Fabric softener ads often portray an image of comfort, freshness and sweetness. Yet most fabric softeners contain a grim list of known toxins which can enter your body through the skin and by inhalation, causing a wide range of health problems, particularly for young children” (NaturalNews).
Fabric softeners contain toxic chemicals. Selena Keegan. NaturalNews.com. January 11, 2012.
Scented laundry products emit hazardous chemicals through dryer vents. The same University of Washington researcher who used chemical sleuthing to deduce what’s in fragranced consumer products now has turned her attention to the scented air wafting from household laundry vents.
“This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored,” said lead author Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. “If they’re coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they’re regulated, but if they’re coming out of a dryer vent, they’re not.” The research builds on earlier work that looked at what chemicals are released by laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions and other fragranced consumer products. Read Full Press Release Here
Steinemann, Anne C. Exposure Assessment. Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public Affairs. University of Washington.
“DEET is a registered pesticide. DEET is short for N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide (also known as N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide). It is a member of the toluene chemical family. Toluene is an organic solvent used in rubber and plastic cements and paint removers. DEET is absorbed through the skin and passes into the blood. The Medical Sciences Bulletin, published by Pharmaceutical Information Associates Ltd. reports, ‘Up to 56% of DEET applied topically penetrates intact human skin and 17% is absorbed into the bloodstream.’ Blood concentrations of about 3 mg per litre have been reported several hours after DEET repellent was applied to skin in the prescribed fashion. DEET is also absorbed by the gut” The Hazards of Deet.
Natural alternatives must be applied more frequently but may offer less harmful effects. You can make your own by mixing 10-25 drops of essential oil with 2 tablespoons of carrier oil. Carrier oils include jojoba, almond, and coconut. Castor oil has repellent capabilities and can be used as well.
Essential oils suggested in the article include:
• Lemon Eucalyptus
• Tea Tree
The Centers for Disease Control recommends DEET and Picaridin (which is determined to be among the least toxic chemicals, as documented by the organization Beyond Pesticides), but also validates the effectiveness of natural options. According to the CDC’s website:
“Oil of lemon eucalyptus [active ingredient: p-menthane 3,8-diol (PMD)], a plant-based repellent, is also registered with EPA. In two recent scientific publications, when oil of lemon eucalyptus was tested against mosquitoes found in the US it provided protection similar to repellents with low concentrations of DEET” Insect Repellent Use and Safety.
However, please note that essential oils may trigger reactions in those who are chemically sensitive, due to their natural volatile compounds and/or possible solvents used to extract them.
A couple of other ideas discussed in the article were:
• Use a fan. Mosquitoes don’t like wind.
• Plant mosquito repelling plants like lemon balm, catnip, basil, lemon geranium.
• Use less attracting yellow bulbs for outdoor lighting at night.
• Wear long sleeves and pants.
A good way to treat an insect bite? Two possible options include:
• Baking soda
• Bentonite clay
Make a paste with filtered water and allow to dry.
Side Note: Some people have good results with taking garlic or apple cider vinegar (ACV) to repel mosquitoes or using ACV diluted with water as a spray. Others have used the golden colored mouthwash (Listerine) as a spray on patios and furniture.
Disclaimer: Always use a test area with sprays and check with your doctor before taking any supplements or being exposed to any new products. No information on this website should be construed as medical or legal advice.
A new project was just launched by the Cleaner Indoor Air Campaign called, Choose Friendships Over Fragrances, This campaign provides awareness about Environmental Illness, information about those who report these adverse effects to chemicals and fragrances, as well as helpful tools and resources.
Research done in 2004, 2005 and 2009 by Stanley M.Caress and Anne C. Steinemann “… found that nearly 38% of Americans report adverse effects when exposed to some kind of fragranced product” (Steinemann). With approximately 310 million people in America in 2010, that is almost 117 million Americans who report adverse effects to normal, everyday products.
It is suspected that many more may possibly live with these reactions, but do not make the connection between the fragrances and their symptoms. Therefore, it is hard to determine exactly how many more people actually live with Environmental Illnesses.
Various terms are often used to describe Environmental Illnesses, such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), Toxic Injury, Chemical Injury and/or Toxic Encephalopathy. Many living with such conditions as Allergies, Asthma and COPD often react to chemicals and fragrances as well. Reported severity can range from mild and aggravating to severe and debilitating, with symptoms varying from coughing to closing of the throat to migraines and memory loss.
As we can imagine, people living with these conditions often experience limited access into public places, issues at work and inability to attend functions with friends and family. Regrettably, these barriers can lead to loneliness, isolation and feeling abandoned when loved ones choose not forgo the fragrances that cause these problems.
Therefore, if our loved one is telling us they are getting debilitating migraines, dizziness or fatigue from our laundry detergent, maybe we should consider simply switching it out so that they may remain a part of our lives.
Check out our latest project, Choose Friendships Over Fragrances.
■ Learn more about those living with adverse effects to chemicals and fragrances.
■ Find out how to keep these loved ones a part of our lives!
■ Get a list of Readers’ Favorite Fragrance-Free Products.
■ Share our posters!
Don’t miss this very informative and enlightening audio interview about chemicals in every day personal care products and cleaners. Anne C. Steinemann, Ph.D is a highly respected professor and researcher who has made some very cutting edge discoveries.
This is a must listen to interview for all living with environmental illness, their loved ones and the general public!
In 2010, the University of Washington completed a study that revealed the emissions of unlisted chemicals in common fragranced products such as air fresheners, laundry products, soaps, lotions, deodorants, shampoos and cleaning products.
“Of the 133 different chemicals detected, nearly a quarter are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one federal law.” …. “All were widely used brands, with more than half being the top-selling product in its category” (Exposure Assessment). Read Full Press Release Here
Steinemann, Anne C. Exposure Assessment. Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public Affairs. University of Washington.
Researches, Stanley M. Caress and Anne C. Steinemann discovered that, “…30.5% of the general population reported scented products on others irritating, 19% reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and 10.9% reported irritation by scented laundry products vented outside.” Of course they also found that the percentages were higher with those with asthma and chemical sensitivity (Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity).
Caress, SM, Steinemann, AC (2009) Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population. Journal of Environmental Health 2009 Mar; 71(7); 46-50. PubMed.gov.
The term, Environmental Illness, is generally used to describe a number of mild to severe health responses to the environment, whether it be such things as: food, plants, animals, smoke, smog, chemicals or electromagnetic fields. Most people are familiar with allergies to our surroundings that can range from mild seasonal allergies to trees and grasses to severe anaphylaxis to peanuts. Many people even know how asthma is a closing of the airways that can be triggered by many different … [MORE]
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