The disturbing connections between chemical pollution and chronic inflammation

(This is the first of a series of 3 weekly posts about chronic inflammation)

Chemical pollution affects us all in ways you may not realize. It is responsible for a significant amount of chronic illnesses in the U.S. While the poor are disproportionately affected, even the wealthy can’t escape some of the effects that chemical pollution is having on our collective health.

This is, at least in part, why agencies like the EPA were formed: to step in and address the problems that are not only harming the environment, but the health of ordinary, everyday people. That may end if the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts to the EPA are passed.

The cuts-- which aim to slash the agency’s budget from $8.2 billion to $5.7 billion -- would virtually eliminate the EPA’s ability to track and monitor toxic chemicals in the environment. When you consider that an estimated 2000 new chemicals come into the market each year, and that there is already very little oversight of the potential harm they cause to humans, animals, and the environment, it stands to reason that you will be exposed to an even greater number of toxic chemicals in the future.

Imagine this: the pollution of drinking water by lead and other cancer-causing chemicals, as happened in Michigan and other places in the US, would continue unchecked. And even if it became public knowledge that people were drinking and bathing in contaminated water, or that children were developing behavioral and learning problems, anemia, hearing disorders and ADHD from drinking lead-filled water, that the EPA could do little to combat this problem, or prevent it from happening again.

What if the Keystone XL Pipeline leaked toxic tar sands oil onto your property? Where would you seek redress if you found out that your house was located on a Superfund site after many of your neighbors started dying from the same kind of cancer? What could you do if the local power plant, free to pollute once again, began contaminating your local rivers and lakes with toxic runoff? Now imagine you tried to get the government to do something about it and were told time and again that they just didn’t have the budget to deal with these kinds of problems anymore.

You’d be on your own, left to pick up and move, or to deal with the problem yourself in the best way you could.

If you didn’t have health care, you’d be up the proverbial creek. And even if you did have health care, it might not be able to help you deal with your medical problems, because they’d just keep coming back.

Chemical pollution has major health effects, not all of which are acute like the ones described above. And with less preventive medical care available (not just a function of the problems inherent in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) or the existing health care markets, but a trenchant problem that will only be resolved with a massive shift away from the predominant medical model of reactive care), it’s more important than even to be proactive about your health.

Last month I wrote about some ways in which you could be more proactive in combating chronic inflammation, which affects a majority of adults in the US (and which is responsible for ailments like asthma to hypertension, heart disease, and cancer).

None of that advice, however, will be of any use if you are continuously being exposed to harmful chemical pollutants that undermine your body’s ability to mobilize the disease-fighting properties in some of the foods I mentioned in that post. In other words, foods that are normally very effective in combatting or offsetting the effects of chronic inflammation are not readily bio-available if your body can’t use them because its defense mechanisms are too impaired.

For example, when the body’s immune system is compromised through poor nutrition habits, it is unable to fight off illness and disease. Highly processed foods, especially those containing refined sugars, suppress phagocytosis, which is the process by which white blood cells destroy viruses and harmful bacteria in the body. When you eat high-glycemic foods (i.e. foods that convert to sugar very quickly in the body (e.g. bread, highly processed food), they not only cause your blood sugar to spike and crash, they also activate microglia. Microglia are cells that are located throughout the brain and spinal cord and that work as an immune defense system. It’s important to recall that inflammation is the body’s natural response to foreign invaders in the body. On other words, while microglia help defend your body against disease, when overactive, they produce inflammatory responses that lead to chronic illnesses.

These kinds of inflammatory responses are not just produced by lack of nutrition or the regular ingestion of inflammation-causing foods. They are also produced when particulate matter enters the body. Several studies have established that there are links between air pollution (which enters the brain as particulate matter) and dementia.

So even if you are leading a healthy lifestyle, you may be exposed to chemical pollutants that are producing inflammatory responses in your body.

There are 3 types of chemical pollution in particular that you should be concerned about: the pollution that is found in household cleaning solutions, the pollution that is found in personal care and beauty products, and the pollution that is found in the air (particulate matter outside and indoors).

Fortunately, there are also things you can do to reduce your exposure to these chemicals and decrease your chances of developing chronic inflammation as a result.

First, purge your home of toxic cleaners. Use eco-friendly alternatives, which you can find widely at health food stores and even superstores like target. You can also make your own. Try these recipes for easy alternatives to toxic household cleaners, which contain ingredients you probably already have at home.

Second, look for personal care and beauty products that do not contain harmful substances. Many of the chemicals used in these products are known to be endocrine disruptors, which interfere with normal hormone functions and lead to a number of disorders including infertility and chronic fatigue syndrome, among others). Look at the ingredient list and avoid products that contain chemicals like phthalates and parabens (both of which have been linked to certain cancers); quaternium 15, ureas, and DMDM hydantoin (all three of these are formaldehyde releasers and “probable carcinogens” according to the EPA).

If you want to become more familiar with these chemicals and their effects, check out the toxic chemicals cheat sheet on the Free Resources page (requires a sign up). You can also find out a lot more information in the first book in my series of green guidebooks.

Finally, put pressure on policymakers to push down acceptable levels of harmful chemicals so that they are under or at the levels established by bodies like the EPA or WHO. Don’t know where to begin? Check out our links to campaigns and calls to action to find out more.

Next week’s post will look at how urban gardening can help in the fight against chronic inflammation. It investigates some of the ways in which a gardening revolution has been unfolding in countries of the Global North and South to tackle some of the world’s most acute health crises.