If I am completely honest, at the end of some days, after I’ve cleaned up from dinner and gotten the kids into bed, I sometimes wonder if civilization’s problems with exposure to toxic chemicals and climate change are just so vast that we won’t be able to solve them. I hate to admit this, but it’s true. Then Covid struck, only adding to my concerns.
Over the last year I’ve asked myself: Does avoiding these harmful chemicals actually still matter in the time of a global pandemic and a warming planet?
In a conversation with Dr. Leonardo Trasande, M.D. and M.P.P., and author of SICKER FATTER POORER: The Urgent Threat of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Our Health and Future…and What We Can Do About It, he reminded me that we, as human beings, always thought that we could do whatever we wanted to the earth. Perhaps we thought that humans are so small and the earth so large that it wouldn’t matter. Or, that one human simply couldn’t have an outsized effect, or any real effect at all, on this great blue marble we call home. But, he said, we now know that indeed people are having an impact. Perhaps not one individual so much as our collective mass and actions. Current science shows that humankind has impacted the world, and that our actions have, in fact, largely spurred the climate crisis we now face. Including, but not limited to, the increased frequency and strength of storms and fires, and even the spread of diseases.
Dr. Trasande has spent his career fusing the practices of medicine and epidemiology, researching and publishing on a variety of topics including the role of environmental exposure in childhood obesity and cardiovascular risks. He has examined the impacts of chemicals on the hormones in our bodies and has shown policy makers the cost to society of not addressing these health impacts. He understands that there is a cost to society from the (mostly) unregulated, unrelenting exposures to environmental toxins.
During our conversation, Dr. Trasande expertly connected climate change, environmental exposures, and the spread of disease. Although Covid-19 is the first disease in a century to reach pandemic status, he said, there are concerns, over how other vector borne diseases such as Ebola are growing and spreading. He emphasized that such viral pathogens will spread even more quickly if we don’t deal with the climate crisis as temperatures rise and human migration patterns change. Compounding the spread of diseases is the fact that people with more environmental health and toxic exposures tend to become sicker or have worse illness outcomes.
Relatively early on in the pandemic it became clear that people with certain “co-morbidity factors” fared less well than others. These factors include diabetes, obesity, heart disease, high-blood pressure, asthma and other immune issues.The CDC states that air pollution worsens the outcomes for people with Covid-19. Although all of these conditions can take years to come about, the likelihood for them to develop can be increased by exposure to a certain class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors.
This is where Trasande’s work and mine overlap. I help people learn about and find products that don’t contain toxic ingredients. Manmade substances including PFAS chemicals, PCBs, chemical flame retardants, bisphenols, phthalates, high-risk pesticides and more all fall under the umbrella of endocrine disruptors. These are the chemicals about which Pete Myers, PhD, and global expert on endocrine disruption says, “thousands of scientific papers have been published in the last 20 years linking endocrine-disruption chemical exposure to the very comorbidities that increase the risk of dying from Covid-19.”
I’ve long understood that to have an ecosystem that can withstand warming and endure changes, you must start with a healthy and adaptive ecosystem. Meaning, all parts of the ecosystem must thrive so that there is resiliency. It’s the same for the human system. A healthy person is not as likely to get seriously sick as someone who starts off at a health deficit. As a scientist-practitioner working in New York City, Dr. Trasande sees the importance and connection that avoiding harmful chemicals plays on our general health both in the short and long-term.
Thus, our conversation served to re-cement my notion that we can make ourselves more resilient and better able to fight, sustain and survive illnesses if we cultivate our health.
While we are all eager for society to return to a new, post-Covid norm, even with a new President who has prioritized fighting climate change, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But there is a prescription: We can take action to elevate our health and to simultaneously help the environment. Perhaps our own actions alone won’t be the solution, but our collective actions add up.
For people who want to improve their health, avoiding these chemicals is a certain path. Or as Dr. Trasande says of the harmful impact from endocrine disruptors, “Prevention is the cure.” We can improve our health when we reduce our exposure to harmful substances that negatively impact our immune function.
The more we raise awareness of avoiding toxic chemicals, the more corporations feel the pressure to change. As an illustration of this, Trasande cites the example that many companies have moved away from Bisphenol A as a result of consumer refusal to buy products with it. Trasande remains hopeful that the more consumers know, the more companies will feel the market pressure and respond to consumer demands for safer products. This is exactly what makes my work all the more important during this pandemic and beyond.
Having fewer harmful chemicals in the world means the ecosystem can begin to recover and become more resilient too. Turns out that helping improve the health of the ecosystem can help our polluted world.
We can’t prevent another pandemic, but we can begin to take action to protect ourselves, and the ones we love to protect and preserve our planet right now. Here are 5 ways to get started:
- Eat organic, whenever possible.
- Stop using pesticides, in and around your house. These chemicals are found in household cleaner, as well as in most insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides.
- Reduce and remove as much plastic from your life as possible. Elimination of single-use plastic is key.
- Avoid nonstick pans for cooking and stain resistant clothing or furniture.
- Read up and become informed. Start with SICKER FATTER POORER by Leo Trasande and OUR STOLEN FUTURE by Pete Myers and visit madesafe.org for more information.