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Food, Environment, & Toxic Chemicals

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By Michelle Perro, MD and Vincanne Adams, Ph

An excerpt from What’s Making Our Children Sick?: How Industrial Food Is Causing an Epidemic of Chronic Illness, and What Parents (and Doctors) Can Do About It  (January 2018), originally published in “Well Being Journal“  VOL. 27 NO. 1 January/February 2018, pg 22-23.

Add to the list of multiple chemical exposures our children face today those that have nothing to do with our food production, such as PCBs, parabens, phthalates, styrenes, and petrochemical residues— chemicals found in plastics and paper products that are used every day, in body care and cleaning products, in our water supply, and in the air we breathe. Sandra Steingraber, in The Toxic Sandbox, reminds us that even our most benign and banal activities can be filled with dangerous chemicals that are harmful to our children.

Indeed, foods are not the only way that people are exposed to toxic chemicals. Beth Greer, author of Supernatural Home, notes that many of these chemicals are used in common products such as food packaging and sunscreen. In fact, it is easy and simple for chemicals to enter the body and to accumulate over time. Tracey Woodruff, a UC San Francisco research epidemiologist who used to work the EPA, found in a study of 268 pregnant women that nearly 100 percent who were randomly sampled tested positive for the presence in their blood of polychlorinated biphenyls, organochlorine pesticides, PFCs, phenols, PBDEs, phthalates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and perchlorate. Exposure to chemicals during fetal development increases the risk of adverse health consequences exponentially, including risk of adverse birth outcomes, childhood morbidity, and adult disease and mortality. In many of these women, a whopping eighteen chemicals were found in their blood.

“Foods are not the only way that people are exposed to toxic chemicals…many of these chemicals are used in common products.”

The fact is that most of these chemicals get into the body by way of environmental exposure. Being in places where there are chemicals usually results in one way or another in the chemicals getting inside the body. But many of the worst chemicals (including some Woodruff found in pregnant women) start out and are used in agriculture. The fact that so many chemicals show up in the bloodstream, urine, stool, and organs, and that they tend to be stored in fat means, however, that the use of these chemicals is not just an agricultural concern. They are part of our ecosystem and part of our biology. We are living and breathing them via our air, water, and foods all the time. In fact, our kids are exposed to them even before they are born. As Woodruff and colleagues remind us, quoting a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, “Our babies are being born pre-polluted.” And if exposure to household and industrial chemicals is frightening, consider the fact that combinations of the effects of these chemicals with the pesticides that come from industrial agriculture have never been studied in a meaningful way.

We are living in a chemical soup, but do we need to when it comes to our foods? Should we also have to worry about the toxicants that are in our foods that, quite literally, we are making our soup with? We are choosing not to focus on the larger chemical hurricane that surrounds us and our children. Rather, we focus on the source of our chemical exposures that is less well-known and therefore less likely to be a current concern for many of us. That is, the toxic chemicals that come from our industrialized food production system. We are specifically interested in the pesticides that were introduced and have grown exponentially in use since the 1990s when we started growing and selling crops that were designed to be used with them (or, really, to be turned into them) through genetic modification. Finding the delicate balance between protecting crops, on the one hand, and protecting humans, on the other, is one that has vexed agribusiness industries for years. It has also turned many scientists and parents, unwittingly, into political activists.

“We have historically solved many of our food supply
problems by way of chemistry and industrial models of production.”

We cannot discuss the rise in use of pesticides and toxic chemicals in industrialized food production without also discussing the use of GM technologies to grow our foods. Not surprisingly, the most important concerns about these technologies are the most controversial. Many questions have aroused this controversy. First, are genetic modification technologies actually increasing instead of decreasing the amount of toxic chemicals that are being used in crop production? Second, are the genetically engineered foods that are grown with these pesticides, and are now in plentiful supply, studied sufficiently enough to know whether or not they are themselves dangerous to humans, and particularly to children? Third, are the agrochemicals associated with GM food production actually toxic and if so how toxic (i.e., at what levels are they toxic)?

Depending on how we answer the above questions, corollary questions arise as well: Are we witnessing an epidemic of dangerous exposure to the very things that have been putatively used to ensure a safe and reliable food supply? Is it GM crops or just the pesticides that come with them that we should be worried about? Are our children our “canaries in the coal mine” of our high-risk industrial food system? Are we in the midst of another Silent Spring? How did we get here and what can we do about it?

Jane Goodall once posed the question “How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?” Our response would be “Easily.” We collectively tend to believe in the United States in the dictum of better living through chemicals. We have historically solved many of our food supply problems by way of chemistry and industrial models of production. It has made us, and many corporations who have monopolies on our food systems, very rich! We also generally believed and continue to believe that the food industries are working with our best interests in mind, or that there are regulatory agencies that will protect us if they are not. And yet, we now know that many of the chemicals we use to safeguard our food production are not without harm, and in fact are quite toxic. In fact, not only do we now use poisons to grow our food, but also we have turned much of our food into what many would consider a form of poison in and of itself. How did this happen? Who is watching the hen house?

This excerpt is from What’s Making Our Children Sick?: How Industrial Food Is Causing an Epidemic of Chronic Illness, and What Parents (and Doctors) Can Do About It (January 2018), and is printed by permission of the publisher, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 802-295-6300; www.chealseasgreen.com.

Michelle Perro and Vincanne Adams

Michelle Perro, MD, is a veteran pediatrician with over thirty-five years of experience in acute and integrative medicine. She has both directed and worked as attending physician from New York’s Metropolitan Hospital to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland and has managed her own practice, Down to Earth Pediatrics. She is currently lecturing and consulting as well as working with Gordon Medical Associates, an integrative health center in Northern California.

Vincanne Adams, PhD, is a professor and vice-chair of Medical Anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco. She has previously published six books and is the editor for Medical Anthropology Quarterly.