Date Published: 22/6/01
Author: Lynne McTaggart
Twentieth Century Plague
If anything has changed the complexion of our health over the last 30 years, it is the virtual plague of strange new chemicals that surround us, in our homes, our air, our water, our food – indeed, in virtually every product we use in our modern lives. Toxic chemicals have now become what viruses were a century ago – the hidden source of most illnesses. In our everyday life, we are now so immersed in chemicals – at the last count there were 70,000 of them out there – that some of the latest medical conditions – sick building syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity – are even being named after them.
The latest estimate is that the farming industry worldwide produces some 50,000 different pesticides derived from some 600 different active ingredients. Researcher Tuula Tuormaa, in a study on behalf of Foresight, the Association of Preconceptual Care, worked out that every year nearly half a kilogram of chemicals are released for every man, woman and child in Britain. Something like 350 different man-made chemicals have been detected in British tap water.
Pesticides aren’t simply used in our crops and lawns. Local authorities spray recreation areas of all varieties – parks, golf courses, commons – to keep a pretty lawn. Railway workers spray kilos of the stuff on railways and embankments.
Staying indoors provides even less of a safe haven from chemical overload. In the last 30 years, many strange new man-made materials and chemicals have made their ways into our homes. In one study conducted by America’s Environmental Protection Agency, comparing indoor and outdoor pollution, the population studied breathed two to five times more hazardous chemicals when indoors than if they had sat in their gardens – even those living in highly polluted cities (Environmental Res, 1987; 43: 290-307).
Heading the list of chemicals that make up a virtual chemical soup of our indoor air are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), derived from petrochemicals, which are invidious in virtually every aspect of building and home furnishing – paints, carpets, particle board, wood panelling, many fabrics, even adhesives. These chemicals slowly leach out toxic vapours at room temperature – a process called outgassing. Carpets alone can contain some 120 chemicals by the time you add up the pesticides, rodenticides, fire retardants, stain-resistors, anti-static elements, backing glues, dyes and other features which make them last longer and easier to clean.
And then there are the toxic chemicals which go towards making up our arsenal of personal hygiene. A single bottle of shampoo, for example, can contain a cocktail of 10 or more toxic chemicals, such as sodium laurel sulphate, used in toothpastes and most soaps as well as shampoos, which is also a detergent used to clean industrial engines.
Despite increasing evidence that chemicals are making many people ill, the medical establishment stubbornly hangs onto microbes as the one and only source of illness, considering any other problem the stuff of the sufferer's fevered imagination. This was the conclusion of the 1996 Royal College’s report on chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity.
Understanding all the most puzzling 20th century degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis or ME, or even cancer and AIDS, requires that modern medicine dispose of the notion of all illness having a single cause and begin thinking in terms of toxic overload.
Although good scientific studies abound that prove these chemicals can damage human health, the crux of the problem is discovering exactly how. There is no way to determine, for instance, if a single chemical disrupts hormones simply by examining its molecular makeup.
A bigger problem concerns the effect of these substances in tandem. We now know that the combined effect of two or three pesticides at the low levels that might be found in most ordinary modern environments magnifies by up to 1,600 times the effect of any of the chemicals on its own (Science, 1996; 272: 1489-92). That would argue for the sense of testing these chemicals in combination. But as Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly pointed out (13 June 1996): ‘To test just the commonest 1000 toxic chemicals in unique combinations of three would require at least 166 million different experiments.
‘Even if each experiment took just one hour to complete and 100 laboratories worked round the clock seven days a week, testing all possible unique three-way combinations of 1000 chemicals would still take over 180 years to complete.’
That staggering notion requires all of us to shout a little louder at industry to avoid the use of all but well-studied chemicals and to insist that manufacturers have the burden of proof, to prove that a chemical is safe before it can be circulated. At the moment, most chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.
Perhaps most important, we must no longer allow the deadly triad of the medical, pharmaceutical and chemical conglomerates to pretend that the beginnings of a full-blown environmental plague are all in our heads – a pretence that allows them to get away with murder.