I suspect that few people would argue with the statement that pollution of the air that we breathe has an impact on health. What you may be surprised to learn is that according to the World Health Organization, particulate matter found in air pollution contributes to approximately 7 million premature deaths each year, a figure equating to 1 in 8 deaths globally.
The seriousness of this situation was further driven home to me by the recent announcement of a nationwide study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The study is the first to find links between particulate exposure and negative health effects in women with diabetes. The study links exposure to air pollution with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke in women with diabetes.
Even in an advanced country such as ours, where pollution standards continue to be developed to protect us, we are all still at risk of negative health effects caused by air pollution.
"Everybody breathes the ambient air, so it affects everyone, so even small risks can translate into major burdens of disease," says Michael Jerrett, a professor in the environmental health sciences department at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health.
It got me thinking of how so many things we are exposed to every day can impact our long-term health yet go unnoticed or, at best, be seen as a minor irritant, such as bad air quality — of how pollution can contaminate the human body a breath at a time, of how we need to think of "pollution" as a term encompassing more than the introduction of dirty and unsafe substances into the atmosphere. Everyday products that we are exposed to here on the ground are polluting our bodies, as well.
This is the message of a powerful and no-punches-pulled New York Times opinion piece this past Sunday by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist Nicholas Kristof.
Two major medical organizations, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics and the Endocrine Society, recently issued independent warnings about toxic chemicals in products found all around us. These unregulated substances have been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity, diabetes and infertility.
The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics findings show that widespread exposure to toxic environmental chemicals threatens healthy human reproduction. The focus of the federation's work is on "endocrine disrupters." These chemicals imitate sex hormones and often confuse the body. They are found in pesticides, plastics, shampoos, cosmetics, cash register receipts, food can linings, flame retardants and countless other products.
Today exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy and lactation is ever-present, says the organization. Virtually every pregnant woman in America has at least 43 different chemical contaminants in her body. The report also cites a National Cancer Institute report finding that "to a disturbing extent babies are born 'pre-polluted.'"
The Endocrine Society, in the release of its 150-page "scientific statement," notes that emerging evidence ties endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure to diabetes and obesity. It further states that this mounting evidence also ties endocrine disrupters to infertility and prostate, testicular, breast, uterine and ovarian cancers, as well as neurological issues.
As to the chemical industry's response to these concerns, Kristof believes that it is straight out of the playbook of big tobacco. The plan seems to be to minimize or dismiss the science and resist regulation, with a blind eye to the harm befalling unsuspecting citizens. In the 1950s, researchers were finding that cigarettes cause cancer, but the political system lagged in responding. Now the same thing is happening with toxic chemicals. As pointed out by Kristof, the chemical lobby donated the equivalent of $121,000 per member of Congress last year.
The fact that these accumulating findings currently represent the medical mainstream makes them hard to ignore and unlikely to go away. The gynecology federation's report was drafted by experts from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the World Health Organization, Britain's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and similar groups.
We shouldn't expect significant changes any time soon. Aiding and abetting the situation is the strange state of U.S. law, which tends to assume a product to be safe unless proven otherwise. Of the 80,000 or more chemicals on the global market today, only a small number have been rigorously screened for safety, according to Tracey Woodruff of the University of California, San Francisco. Even when a substance is retired because of health concerns, there is no assurance that the chemical replacement is any safer.
Sometimes it falls upon the courts to provide the protection we deserve. A September decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, overturned the Environmental Protection Agency's previous approval of the chemical sulfoxaflor, which was being used on crops such as citrus, cotton, canola, strawberries, soybeans and wheat. The product was found to be toxic to honeybees, and honeybees are crucial to pollination of crops.
Though the EPA has prohibited further sales and distribution of the chemical, growers who have a stock of the pesticide can still apply it, according to the cancellation order.
So where does this leave us in the battle to protect the air we breathe and the products we use?
For now, the best approach beyond supporting better representation and better laws to protect the public is to be as educated as we can be in order to protect ourselves. To do this requires information we can trust, eating certified organic products and avoiding as much as we can the products listed in the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics report.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Radek Ko?akowski