Fighting the Chemical War

Over the last century there has been an enormous increase in the number of chemicals that we come into contact with throughout our everyday lives.

Chemicals are present in the houses we live in, the food we eat, the water we drink, the toiletries and cosmetics we use, even in the air that we breathe. With over 70,000 in existence, escape from contact with chemicals is impossible, as they now exist in virtually every facet of our modern lives.

Therefore, it may come as a shock to discover over 85% of the commonly used chemicals that we encounter so regularly have not even had minimum safety testing and there is no obligation on the chemical industry to properly assess the chemicals they sell or to use safer alternatives.

Scientists and doctors tell us that life today is healthier than ever before. The main killer diseases of the past have been eradicated, people have a longer life expectancy, mortality rates are lower and our hygiene conditions are better than those of previous generations. However, in the face of the increasing numbers of new disorders that are appearing, should we believe them? Occurrences of cancer are now more common than previously and there has been an increase in asthma, heart disease, allergies, infertility and chemical and pesticide poisonings over the past fifty years.

While controversy still rages as to whether or not chemicals are causing these conditions, there is growing evidence from the UK’s Environmental Medicine Foundation to demonstrate that it is highly likely chemicals are causing many people to become ill and the EEA (European Environmental Agency) and UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) Annual Message 2 on the State of Europe’s Environment states that widespread exposures to low doses of chemicals may be causing harm, possibly irreversibly, especially to sensitive groups such as children, pregnant women and parts of the environment. What you have to decide is that while we are waiting for the scientists to make their mind up, do you really want to take the risks?

More than 300-500 man-made chemicals have been found contaminating our bodies 1 and links have been found between man-made chemicals and illnesses such as testicular and prostate cancer 2, both of which are on the increase. Worryingly, there are now so many chemicals in our environment that it has become difficult to identify which of them might be the cause of a particular environmental or human health problem.

Synthetic chemicals are appearing in alarming places – for example, a 1999 study by the World-Wide Fund for Nature showed that samples of British mothers’ breast milk were contaminated with more than 350 chemicals from products including perfumed suntan lotions and pesticides and the effects on various animals, birds 3 and fish 4 include birth defects, cancers and damage to nervous, reproductive and immune systems.

The key to the problem is that the government has to prove a chemical poses a threat before it is removed from the market – which is a difficult and expensive process. However, chemical manufacturers are still allowed to introduce most chemicals onto the market without having to prove that they are safe.

Cancer Research Campaign data from 1998 shows a large increase in testicular cancer and there has also been a rise in the numbers of girls entering puberty earlier 5 . In both cases it has been suggested that exposure to hormone altering chemicals could be the cause. Most concern has been shown over the chemicals that accumulate inside our bodies (‘bioaccumulative’ chemicals), which may be disturbing our delicate hormone systems. Our bodies are ‘fooled’ by these toxins, which can bind to the same sites as natural hormones, thereby altering, magnifying or blocking the function of the natural hormones.

Scientists are now investigating the role of oestrogen as a trigger in these growing levels of cancer and fear rising levels of hormone-altering chemicals in the environment that mimic this hormone may be to blame.

What is apparent is that there has been: 
• An increase in testicular cancer by 55% between 1979 and 1991 in England and Wales
• One in six girls in Britain starting to show signs of puberty at the age of eight, compared to one in 100 girls a century ago
• Lower sperm counts in young men in Denmark. A survey conducted there concluded that more than 40% of young Danish men have reduced sperm counts, which is associated with decreased fertility
• An increase in breast cancer by one percent per year since the 1940’s in the USA and by 50% in Denmark between 1945 and 1980
• An increase in prostate cancer by 40% between 1979 and 1991 in England and Wales

Although experts are currently undecided as to whether chemicals are the cause of falling sperm counts and increase in cancers, manmade chemicals are certainly in the frame. While some chemicals can be linked to particular health problems it is difficult to provide unarguable proof that a specific chemical from a specific source is the cause of a particular disease or health problem. Even when it has been proven that chemicals are dangerous action is not always taken; for example evidence of human health risks from toxic chemicals in cigarettes emerged more than four decades ago and the cigarette industry is still flourishing.

1. Study by Dr Howard, Liverpool University’s Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology
2. Study by Samuel Epstein, Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois
3. Campbell & Cook, 1997, ‘The Indirect Effects of Pesticides on Birds’
4. Cameron & Berg , 1994, ‘Biological Monitoring of the North Sea Employing Fish Embryological Data.’
5. US Center for Health, Environment and Justice Environmental Health Monthly Vol. 11 No. 3 December, 1998

Reproduced with kind permission from Natural Collection and dotguides: © 2001 Green Dot Guides