Little Things, Big Impacts
by MELINDA HEMMELGARN, M.S., R.D.
In 1997, Richard Carlson,Ph.D., published the best-selling look, Don’! Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’: all Small Stuff. The book encouraged readers not to let the “small things” in life get the best of them, but when it comes to environmental pollutants, small things matter. A lot.
]ust ask Bruce Lanphear, M.D., M.P.H., of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, who gave the opening keynote at the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN) conference in Austin, Texas, this year. The conference focused on environmental factors related to food, farming and dietary patterns most important to protecting children’s health.
Lanphear explained how “little things matter“ — that chemicals, such as lead, mercury, bisphenol-A (BPA) and pesticides are biologically active at parts per billion levels. To get an idea of just how small 1 part per billion is, think of it this way: 1 ppb is equal to 2 tablespoons of sugar diluted in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The chemical industry is quick to tell us not to worry about low levels of contaminants, such as pesticide residues on produce, or the BPA that migrates out of food packaging and can linings into our food. How-ever, Lanphear explained that the chemicals designed by drug companies, such as Ritalin to control hyperactive behavior in children, are active at levels similar to, or even lower than, the levels of toxins found in the blood of children and pregnant women. “The fetus and young children are most vulnerable to environmental toxins because their brains and detoxifying enzymes are still developing. Plus, their rapidly growing cells are more susceptible to damage.”
Take pesticides, for example. Many pregnant women and children are exposed to these chemicals in their diets and from those used in and around the home, on pets, lawns and gardens. Yet, as Lanphear explained, children who are exposed to increasing levels of organophosphate pesticides (from just 10 to 75 ppb) during fetal development, experienced IQ deﬁcits of five points.
What’s the big deal?
Five IQ points might not seem like much, but Lanphear showed how on a population-wide scale, we’re talking about a signiﬁcant national downward IQ shift, with those who are mentally challenged increasing by the millions.
“The cumulative impact of exposures to three or four toxins is over whelming to imagine,” he said.
According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), the Califomia Department of Pesticide Regulation reported that the residues they found during their 2013 food sampling, “pose no risk,” even though the percentage of food samples containing pesticides increased over the past ﬁve years. While most of the residues were at levels below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety standards, the agency‘s “safe levels” don’t recognize the health impacts of very low level exposures, nor do they account for the effects of multiple pesticide exposures, especially during fetal development and early childhood.
The fetus and young children are most vulnerable to environmental toxins because their brains and detoxifying enzymes are still developing. Plus, their rapidly growing cells are more susceptible to damage.
INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
Lanphear explained how in the United States and Canada, chemicals are safe until proven toxic. So chemicals are released into our environment before being tested for toxic effects, and “our children become part of a massive science experiment.” He cited glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide as a prime example.
“We know very little about glyphosate’s effects on public health,” Lanphear said, yet its use has skyrocketed from less than 50 million pounds in 1997 to 250 million pounds in 2011.
Margaret Reeves, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at PAN, explained that even though the EPA banned the pesticide chlorpyrifos for home use in 2001 because of its toxicity, the agency continued to allow its use in agriculture, thereby exposing farm workers and their children to harm.
PAN reports that women living within a mile of ﬁelds where toxic pesticides are applied have a 60 percent higher chance of having children with autism, and the link appears strongest for chlorpyrifos.
GENES AND ENVIRONMENT
While our society has witnessed a decline in infectious diseases over the past several decades, several CEHN conference presenters reported increasing rates of autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes, as well as allergies, asthma, autism and childhood cancers – all linked with changes to our environment and microbiome.
Lita Proctor, Ph.D., who coordinates the Human Microbiome Project at the National Institutes of Health, explained that while microorganisms in the gut may be small individually, together they weigh about as much as our brain and play a key role in our immune system. She described an “impoverished microbiome“ resulting from consuming processed, low-ﬁber foods, birth by C-section rather than vaginal delivery, formula feeding instead of breast milk and the use and abuse of antibiotics in our food and medical system.
Lanphear cited the skyrocketing increase in autism over the past few decades — from 1 in 5,000 children in 1975 to 1 in 68 in 2010. But, he said, most of the research dollars go toward investigating genetic reasons for the disease, not environmental ones.
“You think you’re going to solve problems with genetics? Really?,” Lanphear asked.
NATIONAL DIETARY GUIDELINES
From the experts assembled in Austin to the American Public Health Association’s recognition that, “the food we eat and how we grow, produce, market and distribute it have enormous implications for the public’s health,” we would hope to see signiﬁcant changes to the latest revision of our national dietary guidelines.
The ﬁnal report is still under revision as I write this article. But, I’m not overly optimistic. To its credit, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee boldly attempted to include a discussion of sustainability and the environmental impact of our diet. But this tact has been criticized by Congress and other groups for not strictly sticking to diet and nutrition.
The advisory committee recommended a more sustainable, plant-based diet, but there was no mention of reducing exposure to pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or hormones. Nor was there any mention of the beneﬁts of organic farming and pasture-raised meat and dairy.
Instead, a headline from the March 11 Wall Street Journal read: “Vilsack: Dietary Guidelines Are About Health, Not Environment.”
Surely the head of our agriculture department understands that protecting public health is intricately connected with protecting the environment. And a diet that is good for our environment is good for us too. Failure to produce, process and prepare food with an eye toward its impact on our larger environment and future generations is foolish at best and devastating at worst.
PERSONAL & CITIZEN ACTION
Following are strategies provided by CEHN conference presenters to create a healthier environment and improve children’s health:
* Eat fresh, organic foods.
* Avoid canned, packaged and processed foods.
* Microwave only in glass (never plastic).
* Minimize use of pesticides around the home.
* Support bans on cosmetic pesticides.
* Work with schools to use less canned food and more fresh and frozen foods.
*Check into daycare and schools for pesticide use and develop policies to restrict their use.
*Race for the cause as well as the cure.
*Tell your story to your elected officials, and ask for the policy changes you wish to see.
“In a country run by corporations, we still have a vote, but we have a minority shareholder vote,” said Lanphear. Still, he added, “There is hope; there’s always hope.”
In closing the conference, Eric Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resource Defense Council in Washington, D.C., said he held the most hope for the power of our individual stories partnered with strong science. “Teach around stories,” Olson advised. Individuals who have been directly affected by issues will have the most powerful voices for policy change.
Melinda Hemmelgam, M:S., R:D., a.k.a. the “Food Sleuth,” is a registered dietitian and award-winning writer, speaker and radio host based in Columbia, Missouri. She and her photographer husband created F.A.R.M.: Food. Art, Revolution Media ~ a Focus onPhotography to Re-vitalize Agriculture and Strengthen Democracy, to increase awareness, appreciation and advocacy for organic farmers. Tune into Food Sleuth Radio at: www.kopn.org. Reach Melinda at: food-sleuth@gmalI.com.
This article reprinted with permission from ACRES USA.