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Our Toxic Environment and How We Can Protect Ourselves

by Joanne Baker(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 85 - February 2003

Balance Between Man and the Natural World

Many people today are turning to modern complementary therapies based on holistic and often ancient philosophies which equate the health of the human body and mind with the health of the natural environment. For example, Chinese medicine is based on the Tao, 'the Way', which saw the whole universe as following an immutable course, manifested through night following day, the changing seasons, patterns of growth and decay. Humans in their dependence upon nature could do no better than emulate its balance and rhythms.[1] In the Ayurvedic tradition man is viewed as a microcosm of nature, reflecting elemental law, physically, emotionally and spiritually.[2] Even the European medical tradition up until the time of the industrial revolution, was based upon natural lore and the creation of homeostatic balance. Medical knowledge came not only through spiritual teachings but was based upon keen and often scientific observation of the natural world. Whereas science in the past acknowledged a living 'within' nature, science today aims at controlling nature.


Health Consequences from our Polluted Environment

The balance between the human and the natural world has been tipped. Yet however much we try to 'control', it remains true that we cannot attain health and well-being within a diseased and polluted environment. If we monitor the air we breathe, the water we drink, the pesticides on the food we eat, we find a terrifying cocktail of chemical and radioactive substances. The majority of these are man-made and our bodies have had no time to adjust to them. About 60,000-70,000 synthetic chemicals are currently in use[3] and since the beginning of atomic age, background levels of radiation have increased substantially. We may be living longer, but many of us are suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses. Conditions such as cancers, leukaemia, allergies, heart disease, ME, MS and infertility are on the increase. According to the October 2002 edition of the British Medical Journal, by 2020 the vast majority of illnesses in the world will be chronic.[4] A survey in America showed that in a ten year period, from 1981-2 to 1991-2, the incidence of cancers, both malignant and benign, increased by 77%; diabetes in males increased by 61%, and asthma in young males and females by 114% and 165% respectively.[5]

In September 2000 the Project Trans European Environmental Educational (TREEE) Health Network met on the island of Kos to discuss the alarming increases in cancer. They reached agreement on the following points:

1. A worldwide cancer epidemic, resulting in 8 million new cases each year, is underway;

2. In industrialized countries this epidemic, especially for non-smoking related cancer, is in large part due to environmental carcinogens. Environmental exposure in this context should be understood as exposure to anthropogenic chemicals and radiation in water, air, soil, food and consumer products. Consequently this exposure is involuntary.[6]

Despite the fact that most research funding for cancer goes to search into genetic causes, it has been discovered that: "Although all cancers might be described as genetic, inasmuch as they are the consequence of altered DNA, opinion varies as to the levels of genetic predisposition to a variety of cancers. Olah, suggests only 1% of cases have a hereditary genetic component (which even then he suggests usually have to be triggered by environment or lifestyle co-factors) while Lindblom and Nordenskjold put the figure at around 5%."[7]

Humans have always had to deal with the risk of illness and death. In the past, the risk was often seen as the result of natural forces - storms, lightning, drought, earthquakes, plagues and so forth. The irony is that the age of science and reason, which hoped to understand, control, or mitigate these natural forces, has resulted in creating an environment of increasing danger and risk.

We are dealing with pollution every day, in our homes, in our streets and in our work places. That price of consumerism and technological progress is the accumulation of man-made chemicals that make up the products we buy and use. Household cleaners, detergents, soaps, cosmetics, paints, solvents, air fresheners and formaldehyde from cheap furniture are all creating problems for our health. A study by the US Environmental Protection Agency, found that people were breathing in two to five times more hazardous chemicals indoor than outdoors and in 1990, it put indoor pollution at the top of the list of 18 sources of cancer risk.[8] Some of us are more sensitive to toxins than others but the increase in allergies of all types amongst all age groups is unsurprising. It has been estimated that women absorb up to 2 kg of chemicals every year just through the use of cosmetic and toiletries.[9] Many products contain fragrancies. 95% of the 5000 chemicals used in fragrance production are made from petroleum and all fragrances cross the blood-brain barrier. They can cause psychological and emotional as well as physiological changes within the body.[9] Chemicals can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin and it is advisable to avoid any form of spray, including spray-on deodorant, furniture polish, window cleaner, paints etc. unless they are definitely toxin-free.

Outdoor Pollution

Outdoors we are breathing in air filled with pollutants from car exhausts, industrial waste burning and particulates from nuclear power stations. In the UK, our government allows industry to burn toxic waste as fuels, a practice which is allowed nowhere else in the European Union.[10] In January 1998, a senior Department of Health official, at a Health and Safety Executive conference in London, said that premature deaths caused by air pollution in the UK were a price worth paying as they helped keep production costs down and made Britain more competitive.[10] The pollutants from some of these wastes include dioxins which can cause endometriosis, insulin-dependent diabetes and cancers.[10] Waste fuel oils burnt in incinerators release particles of toxic metals into the atmosphere, including cadmium, nickel and vanadium. Vanadium and nickel are both linked to asthma and cadmium causes cancer of the lung, breast and prostrate. Dr Van Steenis, a GP who has studied the toxic effects of incineration fallout, has traced many high levels of respiratory disorders back to their source. He found that in schools downwind of air pollution, one in every three children suffered from asthma.[10] Infant mortality rates have as much as doubled in some areas in Wales following Environment Agency demands that local councils dump toxic wastes in landfill sites. In the Rhondda Valley and Merthyr Tydfil, infant death is now on a par with Belarus after the Chernobyl fallout.10 Often, the people most subjected to pollution are those with the lowest income. Friends of the Earth discovered that 662 of the largest factories in Britain were in areas where the income was less than £15,000, and only five where the average income was over £30,000.[10]

Outdoor pollutants in urban areas are mostly from car exhausts and the burning of fossil fuels. In car-clogged cities, motor vehicles are responsible for 80 -88% of the air pollution.8 A study made in 1993 showed that pollution levels inside cars could be 18 times greater than pollution outside of the vehicle.[8] A young toxicologist, Simon Wolff, estimated that road transport in the UK emits around one million tons of carcinogens every year.[11] As we tend to spend most of our time indoors or in vehicles, the health risks from exposure are magnified.

Pollution of the Food Chain

Our health is very linked to the food we eat and our food is becoming increasingly chemicalized. In Britain we consume approximately a quarter of a million tons of food chemicals every year. Our farmers spray our crops with 21,000 tonnes of pesticides, insecticides, growth regulators and fungicides and ply the soil with chemical fertilizer.[12] Many of these chemicals are possible carcinogens, mutagens, irritants or nerve agents. Food imported from the majority of the world is often grown with even less regulated pollutants, which have been off-loaded by western corporations. Genetically modified foods are a cause for concern for many people, mainly because they are a threat to bio-diversity and ecological balance. Buying organic food is important not only for our personal health but for the health of the land, and by buying local produce we lessen the pollution caused by transport and refrigeration.

Radioactive Pollution

Radioactivity occurs naturally in the earth and in the cosmic rays which reach the earth. Since the first atomic weapons testing in Alamogordo, New Mexico, however, we have also been subjected to a whole range of man-made radioactive isotopes which have substantially raised the natural background level of radiation. Radioactive pollution is spread by rainfall and from nuclear waste products discharged into the sea, soil and air. Those living in northern temperate climates are particularly at risk. The novel isotopes produced by the nuclear industry often mimic natural substances in the body . For example strontium 90 mimics calcium, which the body naturally stores in the bone. In 1991, it was discovered that bone cancer in Wales had risen by 350% relative to the average for Wales and England combined. This is due to high rainfall areas and correlated exactly with Strontium 90 pollution from the fallout from Chernobyl.[13] Another example is iodine, which is part of a protein hormone called thyroxine. It is synthesized by the thyroid gland and used to control our metabolism. If radioactive fission products iodine 132 or 131 enter the body, the thyroid cannot distinguish them from the stable iodine 127. The radioactive iodine decays, emitting beta and gamma radiation which is known to cause thyroid cancer.[13]

Clusters of cancers and leukaemias in populations downwind from nuclear installations at Seascale near Sellafield, Dounray, Hinkley Point and others, have been noted, but nuclear apologists still claim that there is no direct causal link and that the radiological pollution is at too low a level to cause harm. These statements are based on a model of radiological risk based on the findings of the International Commission of Radiological Protection (ICRP) after the Hiroshima bombing of 1945. It is a model based on physics rather than biology, and attempts to create a linear relationship between high, acute, external levels of radiation and subsequent cases of cancer and leukaemia. The model was developed before the discovery of DNA and fails to consider the biological impact of internal radiation. Independent scientists, such as Dr Chris Busby, are now arguing that low-level radiation particles, once inhaled or ingested, can lodge in the body and irradiate local cells. This will cause chromosomal breakage leading to genetic mutation. Busby's second event theory shows how cells can be damaged then hit again during their repair cycle when they are most vulnerable to mutation.[14]

The conventional model also ignores the routes these particles take within the body, their concentration in vital areas such as the lungs, the tracheo-bronchial lymph nodes and bone marrow, and their chemical effect on the bowel, kidney and reproductive areas. The health impact of internal radiation is currently being reviewed. Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment, has established the CERRIE committee (Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters), which is due to report at the end of 2003,[15] and the European Committee for Radiation Risk, set up by the Greens in the European Parliament, will shortly be publishing a document on The Health Effects of Ionising Radiation Exposure at Low Doses and Low Dose Rates for Radiation Protection Purposes.[16] The development of this debate will be of particular importance regarding the discharge, storage and use of low level radioactive materials.

Another aspect of the nuclear industry is the long term storage of high level waste. Science has as yet come up with no solution and this waste will have to be stored and minded by future generations for tens of thousands of years.

Electromagnetic Pollution

While non-ionizing radiation is supposed to be less harmful than ionizing radiation, it can have a potentially devastating affect on our health. Our bodies use both electrical and chemical communication, and non-ionizing radiation such as microwaves and electricity from power lines can seriously interfere with homoeostasis in the body. Around 35% of the population now suffer from a form of electrical sensitivity(ES), about 5% seriously.[17] Symptoms range from eye and skin problems to headaches, sleeping problems, heart problems, aching joints, fatigue, breathing and digestive problems. According to a Swedish trade union, the number of people suffering serious side effects from exposure to sources of EMF in the workplace doubled, from 10 % to 20 % between 1993 and 1996.[17] The increase could be due to the fact that our environment is becoming increasingly polluted by radio frequency radiation from new developments in mobile telecommunications technology.

Mobile phone safety is an area in itself which requires far more research. A recent study in the US found an increased risk amongst phone users of a rare tumour in the periphery of the brain "precisely where there is maximum penetration of radiation from the mobile phone".18 Children are particularly at risk form the non-thermal effects of mobile phone radiation because of their thinner skulls. Important work has been done by Dr Alan Preece from Bristol University and by the optometrist Ann Silk, yet neither of them are able to get funding for their research. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of pounds goes to scientists who will give the all clear on the matter. The funding is administrated by the National Radiation Protection Board (NRPB) and much of the money goes to its own employees.[18]

Not only are mobile phones a potential risk, but digital cordless phones give off constant high levels of microwave radiation whether in use or not. This has been described as similar to having a mobile phone mast in your own home! Mobile phone masts in public places are of general concern. Dr Hyland of Warwick University warns that a major contemporary health threat is 'electrosmog'.[18] He believes that existing safety guidelines afford 'no protection' against non-thermal influences of various kinds.

The studies made by Dr Preece show how high voltage power lines increase exposure to air pollution. The buzzing heard near power lines comes from a process known as ionization. It creates electrically charged particles called corona ions which are carried away from the cable by the wind. These attach themselves to pollutants in the air and the static charge makes the particle more able to cling to surfaces. These can be carried up to 400 metres or occasionally several kilometres downwind, and if the particles are breathed in, they are more likely to remain trapped in the lung. This makes diseases from air pollutants more likely in people who live near electric power lines.[19] The research concluded that around 3000 deaths a year, particularly from lung and mouth cancer, could be caused in this way.[20]

Whose Science is it Anyway?

The problem is not with science per se, but with how science is funded and controlled. Agencies which should have public well-being at heart, such as the Environment Protection Agency, the World Health Organisation and the National Radiation Protection Board, are in fact increasingly on the side of 'business as usual', i.e. the corporations and political bodies whose concern is short term profit rather than long term health. Independent scientists find it almost impossible to get funding, whilst scientists working for corporations are awarded phenomenal amounts of money. More sinister still, many scientists are being fired from their university posts or subjected to harassment and even death threats if their work is seen to be threatening to corporate or military interest. A great challenge before us is to reclaim science for the public good.

How can we Protect Ourselves?

Pollutants are everywhere and their effects are accumulative. Cause and effect are not often easy to trace. The illness may appear years after initial exposure, and conditions like cancer may be the result of a cocktail of carcinogens. We can however consciously minimize some areas or pollution by a considered change in lifestyle. For example, by eating organic food, especially anti-oxidant food and nutrients which mop up pollutants in the body. These are mainly vegetables and fruit containing considerable amounts of vitamins A and C.[21] Some household pollutants we can minimize by taking care to use only eco-friendly products or natural cleaners like vinegar or soda crystals. The use of cosmetics can be reduced and only natural creams and skins cleansers applied. We can avoid using organophosphate-based lotions for children's lice problems or our pets' fleas. Those of us sensitive to VDUs or television screens can try to reduce the amount of time spent in front of them. This applies particularly to young children. We can try to manage life without a car or experiment with car sharing schemes. For those already chronically ill, careful attention to nutrition and the use of complementary therapies can often help to enhance the immune system and maintain balance in the body, as well as relieving stress.

If we really care about our own health and the health of our environment, then the action we take needs to be collective as well as individual. A group of committed parents from Hinkley Point in Somerset recently made a unique doorstep survey of their own community and discovered high rates of cancer just five miles from Hinkley Point nuclear power station.[22] The group looked at the incidence of cancer over the period 1996 -2001 and discovered cervical and kidney cancer over five times the national average, leukaemia four times and breast cancer two times.

Our whole environment is becoming increasingly like the 'poisoned well'. If we do not take action to clean it, we ourselves will invariably become sick. The positive side is that in taking action, we empower ourselves and feel more in control of our lives. Much of modern day depression comes from the feeling that problems have become too vast and complex to deal with. By working together we find that there is in fact a great deal we can change especially within our local communities. There is no magic pill to ward off chronic illnesses but we can start to tackle the causes.


1. Veith I. The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. University of California Press. p11. 1972.
2. Lad V. Ayurveda. The Science of Self Healing. Lotus Press. p21. 1985.
3. MacTaggart Lynne. Doctor's Handwriting: deciphering the medical truth. The Ecologist. January, 2001.
4. BMJ. October, 2002.
5. Walker MJ. Home Sickness. The Ecologist. April, 2001.
6. Nicolopouiou S. Is Cancer Predominantly an Environmental Disease?
7. Walker MJ. Money or your life: Britain's Cancer Charities Shirk Responsibility.
8. Miller GT. Environmetal Science. Brooks/Cole. p246. 2001.
9. Walker MJ. Home Sickness. The Ecologist. April, 2001.
10. Bunyard P. Blowing in the Wind. The Ecologist.
11. Walker MJ. The Great Outdoors. The Ecologist.
12. Courteney H. Lettuce Pray. The Ecologist. 32(6): 30.
13. Busby C. Wings of Death. Green Audit. pp248- 50. 1995.
14. Busby C. Second Event Theory.
17. Electrical hypersensitivity.
18. Edwards D. Hold that Call. The Ecologist. 31(8): 26. 2001.
19. Brown P. New Cancer Links to Power Lines. The Guardian. 21 September, 2000.
20. Walker MJ. The Great Outdoors. The Ecologist.
21. Mansfield P. Cancer genes kicked into touch. The Ecoloist. 32(6):31.
22. Citizens' Epidemiology discovers cancer cluster.


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About Joanne Baker

Joanne Baker, B Ed, MRQA, Diploma LSCMA, Cert SSH (Part 1), is a highly experienced practitioner of aromatherapy, Chinese massage and acupressure at the Natural Health Clinic in Bristol, Tel: 0117 974 1199.

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