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How Environment Affects Health – Things your doctor probably won’t ask you about


A clean bill of health: The not so difficult questions your doctor may not be asking because well, who really thinks about our exposure to what we put in, around and on our bodies anyway?

“Does your child eat Brussel sprouts?  If so, did you know that the residue on vegetables not typically eaten by children can have higher amounts of pesticides on it than say broccoli.”  While that makes sense on a national risk-benefit analysis, it’s still something parents should know, but not something your doctor is likely to talk to you about.

How about this one, which could be, should be, asked by every doctor and not just pediatricians: “When was the last time you had your water checked?  Did you know your pipes can build up some nasty scale including metals?  Have you ever drained your water heater?”  The stuff that builds up on the bottom may look like a wheat-grass smoothie, but trust me.  It’s not good for you.

Why don’t our doctors ask us about these things more often?  Probably because even though our health is directly related to how clean our food and our environment are, we still like to pretend that the simple aesthetics of a clean world are too “sensitive” and “politically charged” an issue to take seriously.

For years, we have associated cleanliness with healthiness.

Discarded tires

Isn’t it time we incorporated that ethic into our daily lives?   Do we really need our religious leaders like the Pope to remind us the issue behind climate change really isn’t climate change?  It’s cleanliness. And cleanliness is, well…

We all remember the commercials with Native Americans crying when someone litters.  No matter how un-politically correct the stereotype was, the underlying philosophy, the clean up after yourself ethic, was universally understood.  And you did not have to think the world was a gift from God or from Allah, or from some where else to get the message.

Another familiar adage:  “You are what you eat.”  Our language is full of totems that signify how much we equate our health with what we eat.  “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”    And yet, when the First Lady announced that schools had a duty to provide a healthy lunch conservatives acted like she was taking away their kid’s right to drink more chocolate milk.

How about this one: “Mad as a hatter.”  Some people may not know that the phrase originated from that felt-workers, who often worked with mercury, went crazy from their exposure to it, but most of us do.   We teach children that George Washington died of lead poisoning accumulated by inhaling the white powder applied to his wig. We have a cultural awareness that what we are exposed to affects our health.

Full service gas stations are nearly non-existent because of the high costs of exposing attendants to benzene all day.  If you did not know that, next time you pump gas, look at the warning signs;  probably no one should fill up cars all day, every day.

We took lead out of gasoline so we would stop breathing it.   Lead out of pencils so kids would stop chewing it.  Mercury out of thermometers so kids would stop playing with it.   Decades later, we monitored our intake of tuna fish because the ocean’s fish supply is accumulating mercury emitted by burning coal.  And now, we are still wondering if we should cap emissions.

As individuals, we make choices based on the idea that no one would willingly put poisons in their bodies.  Bleach is put in a separate bag from milk by your grocer.  We keep chemicals out of reach of children.  But we wonder if we can afford to make those choices as a society, you know because of the need for jobs.  Should we really require companies to keep emissions to the lowest reasonably achievable levels.

Speaking of jobs, have you seen how much of your pay check goes to health care?  Do you know how much of that goes to treating respiratory diseases across the country?  How about the cost of cancer?

We all say things like “there’s something in the water” but that a water resource could ever really be chock full of bad stuff is something we would rarely believe without a string of cancers followed by a full length feature film.  As a society we doubt the science that says pollution causes anything.  But as a culture, we don’t.  We don’t “eat fruit from the poison tree.”  We don’t “drink water from the poisoned well.”

At the individual level, it’s apparent from the moment we walk into our pediatrician or general practitioner’s office that while what we put in our bodies is key to health, we aren’t always mindful of that.  Questions abound about your family tree, but nothing about your diet and never anything about your environment.  But it matters.  Do you live on well water; do you live on a diesel bus route next to a gas station; do you live by the ocean in a high rise condo; do you eat fish-fries from the gas station next door or fish from the market downstairs?

My husband worked in restaurants—he would mop down the floor at night with degreasers.  Our veterinarian pointed out that he should take his shoes off before coming in the house, not our pediatrician.  True, kids don’t lick their dad’s shoes (most anyway), but they crawl around on the floor and these are the very things our physicians should be talking about with us.

At the global level, we have the Pope of the Catholic Church recently reminding us that climate change is a moral issue.  Whether you “believe” in the science that states man-made forces are changing the global climate is irrelevant; man-made pollution is rampant.  Failing to regulate corporations is allowing them to litter and improperly dispel poisons.  No matter why a company should filter their emissions or use fuels that require less filtering, it should be doneand it seems clear they won’t police themselves.

If you’re not a believer in climate change, how about asthma?  If you don’t think asthma is caused by pollution, do you really want to live in a world where we don’t regulate ourselves for that real possibility?

Can we afford to wait for a wasteland?

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