Monday, June 7, 2010

Reflections on Sanjay Gupta’s Toxic America

Image credit: A6U571N

Toxic America.

We use a number of products every day from cleaning supplies to cosmetics. But how often do you think about the effect these chemicals could be having on your health?

We expect that the government regulates consumer products and exposures to ensure safety, but Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s two-night special Toxic America pushes us to question these assumptions. (If you missed it... You can watch replays this week or on

Toxic Towns.

The first part of the special was entitled Toxic Towns and told the story of the residents of Mossville, Louisiana, a community surrounded by 14 industrial plants.

The residents of Mossville are experiencing a range of health problems, including kidney problems, asthma, and cancer. Residents spoke casually about how hysterectomies are common for young girls and one man shared that 8 out of 10 members of his family developed cancer, which is a significantly greater number of cases than would be expected if it was due to chance or genetics alone.

Toxic Towns recounted the town’s fight to get recognition for the role that exposures to products and byproducts leaked from the plants, such as dioxins (one of the most toxic substances known to man), played in their development of adverse health effects.

The story of Mossville is a story of environmental injustice. Poor communities are disproportionately stuck living around industrial plants. Knowing the potential risks, it’s hard to wonder why anyone would decide to live in such danger if they had an actual choice.

The residents were well aware of the threat they faced. The industrial plant owners would sometimes admit to small release incidents, but would claim that it did not cross the fence line, which is a ridiculous statement since the fence cannot serve as a barrier for air pollution.

Pollution in the air was not only the problem; chemical analysis also confirmed the existence of chemical pollution in the water. Tests measuring the level of dioxin in the blood of the Mossville residents showed that their level was three times higher than the U.S. population average.

One way I believe Gupta could have strengthened Toxic Towns, would be by reminding Americans that Mossville is not the only city with health effects that are expected to be the result of environmental contamination. Cancer clusters occur when a group of people, family, town, or co-workers come down with related types of cancer. Clusters can be a tell tale warning sign that people are being exposed to a localized environmental agent that is making them sick.

Other examples of clusters include men who lived at Camp Lejeune, a North Carolina military base, who developed breast cancer (an EXTREMELY rare type of cancer for men) and Pennsylvania residents living near several superfund sites and a power plant were found to be four times as likely to come down with a rare blood cancer.

Toxic Childhood.

In the second part of the special, Toxic Childhood, Gupta uses lessons we learned in the past to emphasize the urgency of a modern problem. In the past, we have discovered certain chemicals affect our health only after they reached the market.

DDT was once considered to be a miracle pesticide and was considered safe for humans and animals, but later we discovered DDT was a threat to public health. Initially, we did not think exposure to lead was a problem for children’s health, but today we recognize that even low-level exposures can cause mental deficits, such as reduced IQ, for children.

Gupta enlighten viewers that, today, we are again seeing the same warning signs. Many chemicals in products we have grown to depend on, such as plastics and cleaning products, are most likely not safe, as we initially believed, but instead are having lasting effects on our children’s health.

He included new research shows that chemicals are able to cross the placenta, exposing the developing fetus to a range of chemicals that are in the mother’s body. The Environmental Working Group conducted studies measuring the levels of chemicals in newborn umbilical cord blood and found over 200 chemicals.

Currently, even when mothers try to make all the right choices during pregnancy, by eating a balanced diet, avoiding fish, and reducing exposures to chemicals, they still end up with toxic chemicals in their bodies.

Growing bodies of research show that even low-level exposures can have lasting effects, and there is an ongoing debate over whether our current regulatory laws are actually protecting our health. Over 80,000 chemicals are in commerce but only about 200 have been tested.

Toxic Childhood really summed up the heart of the problem: Our approach to regulation considers chemicals safe until proven harmful. Fortunately, this story was not all bad news, since there is currently the potential for change. A bill that was introduced, by Senator Frank Lautenberg, called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 (S. 3209), would increase government regulatory authority, shifting the burden of proof to the companies, requiring chemicals are proven safe before they enter the market.

The Way I See It.

The real problem is that we don’t know the definitive risks these chemicals pose to children’s development and health. Yet in order for chemicals to be regulated, these exposures must be linked to specific effects, as was done for children’s lead exposure and mental deficits. But by the time these links can be established, the damage is already done.

Our current regulatory system places the burden of reducing exposures on the individual. At the same time, even when Americans want to avoid certain chemicals, they will find that it is near impossible.

I’ve written before about the current debate over the safety of BPA, a chemical which is used in the production of water and baby bottles, and to make the epoxy used to line aluminum cans.

Currently, companies that manufacture household cleaners only have to list active ingredients in the products. Consumers have no way to know what the minor ingredients are, so how would they be able to chose what products they do not want to buy?

Removing a specific chemical, like BPA, does not guarantee the new product is any safer. Manufactures simply swap one chemical for another, but just like the initial chemical, the alternatives are not being thoroughly tested for safety. Studies have also shown many products that claim to be “BPA-free” can still have detectable levels of BPA.

It is time for us as consumers to call on our government to develop regulations that protect our health. We need to shift the burden of reducing our exposure from us to them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Commenting is now open, but we'd love it if you chose one username so other commenters can get to know you. To do this, select "Name/URL" in the "Comment as" drop down. Put the name you'd like others to see; the URL is optional.

Any profanity, bigotry, or synonyms for "[ ] sucks!" will be deleted. We welcome criticism as long as you're making a point!