By Lisa Frack

Lisa Frack served on NWEI’s curriculum review committee for our new course, “A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet.” Lisa is the Portland-based social media manager for the Environmental Working Group and mother to Coleman (7) and Georgia (4). Following please read an article Lisa wrote for NWEI’s print newsletter this September.  If you are interested in finding out more about the topics Lisa discusses, NWEI’s new program is a perfect place to start–call us (503-227-2807) or visit our website for more information on A World of Health.

When I was pregnant for the first time, I was all about prenatal yoga, checking my baby’s amazing developing body online, and comparing symptoms with friends.  As it should be.

What I wasn’t doing was avoiding traffic pollution because I knew it could cause genetic changes that led to asthma, as a recent study shows. And really, how can you? Nor did I weigh the fish I ate to minimize my baby’s mercury exposure. And I happily accepted hand-me-down baby bottles (reuse! save money!), which I later learned (after years of use) contained BPA.

Nope.  I ate too much, slept a lot, and ultimately gave birth to a (thankfully) healthy, full-term baby boy. It wasn’t until my second pregnancy that I read Sandra Steingraber’s excellent book, Having Faith: An ecologist’s journey to motherhood. In beautiful prose, she weaves the story of her own pregnancy into a scientific report on the critical moments of those nine months, when developing fetuses are most sensitive to chemical exposures. And I’ve never looked back.

Not that I regret reading the book.  I don’t.  Or awakening to the toxic world we live in. It’s better that my head is squarely out of the sand. But, I do regret that modern pregnancy – and life in general – is such a toxic minefield.

What do you mean, toxic minefield?

With over 80,000+ industrial chemicals on the market, most not tested for safety, many in consumer products, the word “minefield” doesn’t seem extreme.  We walk through this minefield every day – when eating and shopping for food, decorating our homes, choosing toys and personal care products, drinking water and, yes, breathing.  In fact, we’re born into this minefield, with hundreds of chemicals in our umbilical cord blood (some banned decades ago) and breastmilk laced with fire retardants.  We humans hardly start off with a clean slate.

Navigating the minefield

Some of us are aware of the potential impacts on our health, and (like me) spend a good bit of time navigating our way to a less toxic lifestyle.  In addition to the unnecessary time and worry spent reducing my family’s exposures to toxic chemicals, my efforts are far from perfect (and often expensive).  I can choose safer products, filter my tap water, and buy organic whenever possible, but I can’t single-handedly make my air clean or remove lead from all toys on the shelf (much as I’d like to!).  So while personal in-home “greening” certainly matters and can reduce our toxic exposures, it is just one approach to a far broader problem.

The good news about people’s increasing efforts to live less toxic lives is that, beyond some good, old-fashioned consumer-driven market shifting, it often takes us from the personal into the political, where the root of the problem often lies.  Our country’s toxic chemical and personal care products laws are notoriously ineffective, allowing us to be exposed daily to literally thousands of untested and downright dangerous chemicals.  Our federal toxic chemicals policy was a weak law when it first passed in 1976, and because it hasn’t been updated since – unlike all other major environmental legislation – it’s still weak today. At our expense.

Preventing the minefield

The reason to prevent everyone’s toxic exposures – not just our own – is obvious: not everyone has the information, know-how, interest, or access to research to shop greener, and they shouldn’t bear the brunt of weak toxics policies.  If my baby shouldn’t drink from a baby bottle that leaches BPA, should yours?  Should anyone’s?

Of course, our planet and its non-human inhabitants – with which our health is very much intertwined – can’t follow the latest non-toxic checklist (and I, frankly, would rather not have to!).  As a result they’re affected by our petro-chemical lifestyle, too.  Some current examples: male frogs now carry eggs, whales have flame retardants in their bodies, and some fish are almost too contaminated with mercury to safely eat.  While these cases should shock, too often they don’t, since they are the new norm.

And while it might seem daunting or feel too late (after all, 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered in with no safety testing when the Toxics Safety Control Act was passed in 1976), there are strong past successes from which to draw inspiration, like the banning of lead in wall paint and gasoline, after which average human blood lead levels dropped impressively, or the Canadian trend to ban aesthetic pesticide use.  And in recent news, six states have successfully banned BPA from baby bottles, with more in the works (unfortunately not Oregon, though there is hope in the upcoming state legislative session).

There is a nationwide effort afoot to overhaul these toothless old laws that has (at last) reached the halls of Congress.  The goal is to replace them with chemical safety systems that require chemicals be proven safe before they hit the market, not after, as is (tragically) the case now.  It’s this kind of policy change that will restore some consumer trust, shift entire markets and protect everyone – not just ourselves.

All for one planet, and one planet for all

And then there’s our planet home.  If we just focus on human health, we miss an essential piece of all this: our health IS the planet’s health.  It’s not a separate thing.  We depend on it, it depends on us.  We muck it up, it mucks us up.

As a longtime environmentalist who eventually had two kids, I lost the pure environmental drive for a little while when I shifted my focus over to little humans.  I am working hard to protect them from their environment – the chemicals, the air, chemically laced food, the lead paint, the pesticides.  What I didn’t see until more recently was the (perhaps obvious) truth that my efforts would only be enhanced by valuing and protecting the planet around us, since it’s all so darn interconnected.  As in: Stop burning coal for cleaner air and less mercury in the fish we eat.  And stop farming with pesticides for clean water and fewer neurotoxins on our fruits and veggies (and in our farmworkers).

What if I convinced my neighbor to stop using pesticides on her median strip, started biking instead of driving, or ate only organic fruits and veggies?  I wouldn’t just be protecting the vague “environment” as a whole, I would also be protecting my family’s health.  Two birds with one stone!  So whether your passion is people or the planet, these steps improve the health of both.  Reducing local pesticide use can improve drinking water quality and reduce human exposures to neurotoxins (especially for farmworkers), biking instead of driving reduces carbon emissions and petroleum extraction and makes us exercise, and eating organic whenever possible improves drinking water quality and farm health and significantly reduces our dose of neurotoxins.

So we are all responsible for the health of one planet (all for one…), and it, in turn, supports the health of us all (one for all).

Achieving environmental health

The increasingly common term “environmental health” is more than just a trend.  It’s an emerging field of health and science that actually takes the environmental causes of sickness and health into account in an effort to prevent the former and promote the latter.  It is defined by the World Health Organization this way:

Environmental health addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.

You know, polluted air causing asthma, lead causing IQ damage, phthalates disrupting endocrine systems.  But it’s also  – very clearly  – about the environmental causes of good health (clean air & water, organic food), and the impact we have on what kind of health the planet can offer us.  Because if it’s sick, we’re sick.  And if it’s well, so are we.  So let’s take care of it, so it’s healthy enough to take care of us – and all earth’s inhabitants – for a long time to come.

Learn more about environmental health in NWEI’s newest course, “A World of Health: Connecting People, Place & Planet” and from two Portland authors:

  • Nena Baker, The Body Toxic: The Hidden Chemicals in Everyday Things
  • Elizabeth Grossman, Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health & the Promise of Green Chemistry