importance of nutrition, physical activity, sleep, stress management, social support, play, and a sense of purpose to our health and well-being.
Why are these factors so important? Because they are the primary drivers of chronic disease, which is by far the leading cause of death in the industrialized world. If you’re interested in prolonging your lifespan, the name of the game is, quite simply, avoiding chronic disease for as long as possible.
There’s another major factor that contributes to chronic disease that I haven’t written as much about yet I’ve come to believe is every bit as important (if not more so, in some cases) than those I just mentioned above: environmental toxins.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof points out that we’re exposed to hundreds of these toxins on a daily basis, most of which are completely invisible—and either ignored or underappreciated by the conventional media and medical establishment:
Scientists have identified more than 200 industrial chemicals—from pesticides, flame retardants, jet fuel—as well as neurotoxins like lead in the blood or breast milk of Americans, indeed, in people all over our planet.
These have been linked to cancer, genital deformities, lower sperm count, obesity, and diminished I.Q. Medical organizations from the President’s Cancer Panel to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics have demanded tougher regulations or warned people to avoid them, and the cancer panel has warned that “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’”
They have all been drowned out by chemical industry lobbyists.
These lobbyists have been so effective over the years that our current laws permit companies to introduce new chemicals into our environment (which inevitably end up in our food, air, and water) without any testing to show that they are safe.
In other words, chemicals are “innocent until proven guilty.”
That’s bad enough. But even when the chemicals are proven guilty, or at least strong concern about their effect on our health is raised, nothing happens.
The chemicals Kristof mentions above are perfect examples. BPA, pesticides, flame retardants, and other chemicals that are commonly found in our food, food packaging, clothing, furniture, and household materials have been linked to numerous diseases in adults, and most disturbingly, lifelong developmental changes in children.
Yet these chemicals continue to be used, and the media gives very little attention to the problem. From the same article:
Americans are panicking about the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the prospect that widespread infection may reach the United States. That’s a legitimate concern, but public health experts say that toxic substances around us seem to pose an even greater threat.
“I cannot imagine that Zika virus will damage any more than a small fraction of the total number of children who are damaged by lead in deteriorated, poor housing in the United States,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, a prominent pediatrician and the dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“Lead, mercury, PCBs, flame retardants and pesticides cause prenatal brain damage to tens of thousands of children in this country every year,” he noted.
Kristof argues that we need a new public health revolution with the goal of protecting babies and children from the harmful effects of these toxic chemicals.
I couldn’t agree more.
As a parent and a clinician, I’m deeply concerned about the effect of toxins on our children’s health. We need laws that protect our kids, not corporations. Companies should be forced to prove that a chemical is safe before introducing it—instead of using our children as unwitting test subjects in an uncontrolled, society-wide scientific experiment.
In the meantime, what can we do as parents to protect our kids (and ourselves) from exposure to these chemicals? Here are the three most important places to start:
- Eat real, organic food. This means avoiding chemical additives in processed and refined foods, pesticides in conventional produce, and antibiotic residue in conventionally raised animal products.
- Use natural personal care products. What we put on our skin may be even more important than what we put in our mouth when it comes to toxins.
- Reduce exposure to toxins in your home. The Environmental Working Group has a great “Healthy Home” checklist, which includes suggestions like storing food in glass or stainless steel instead of plastic, using natural laundry detergent, and avoiding vinyl shower curtains. I’ve also written about the importance of testing for mold in your home if you suspect you may be exposed.
I’ll be writing more on this subject in the future because I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s a significant—and underrated—cause of chronic disease, and a threat to our children’s future.