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Linking Illness to Chemical Exposure

Linking Illness to Chemical Exposure

My wife of over 50 years suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Were toxic chemicals used on the family farm a possible causative factor? We will never know. The linking of illness to chemical exposure is extremely complex as the following article explains.

On March 18, 2021 – we (friends and family) lost a beautiful soul to Alzheimer’s disease. After my wife Margrit’s diagnosis in 2014, we struggled to accept the inexorable loss of her most precious assets that defined who she was. Of course, we also asked why. How could this happen? The assumption – genetics was the main factor. Afterall, her mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1987 and her youngest brother is now in a care home for the same illness.

But then – there are indications that genetics may be only part of the story. There have been no recorded cases of dementia among Margrit’s many Swiss relatives. Moreover, it is early onset dementia, that is typically linked to genetic factors. So the question arises – could exposure to chemicals used on the family farm be a factor? Margrit and her siblings would describe the arial spraying of their crops with pesticides (including DDT in the early 50s) and even running behind the low flying planes! They grew mushrooms which could have exposed them to a variety of chemicals as well as mushroom spores which have been associated with illness, most notably lung inflammation. Their water supply was a shallow well that could have been contaminated with some of the farming chemicals. It’s a legitimate question to pose. Evidence from recent studies shows a possible association between chronic pesticide exposure and an increased prevalence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD) dementia.

THE CONCLUSION? We will never know the full answer. The linking of illness to chemical exposure is incredibly complex, even in the most extreme cases in which the exposure has been properly measured and the illnesses well documented. Consider 3 examples that demonstrate these challenges – especially when cases go to the courts for which the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Linking Illness to Chemical Exposure

Smoking – In the early 1950s, the tobacco industry had sufficient evidence that smoking could be associated with cancer. By the 1970s there were scores of lawsuits associated with illnesses from smoking, but the tobacco industry was generally successful at defending itself mainly because the cancer link was not unequivocal. Industry could claim that other factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and exposure to other toxins, could have been factors. It was not until the late 1990s that the tobacco industry was held accountable and faced massive financial settlements.

Chromium – Hinkley, California is a small town in San Bernardino in southern California. In 1952, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) installed a compressor station near the town as part of a gas pipeline system linking Texas to California. Chromium (hexavalent chromium) was used as a corrosion inhibitor in its cooling system. The contaminated water was discharged into unlined pools, thus leaking into the aquifer serving Hinkley’s residents water needs.

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brockovich

The residents of Hinkley experienced a wide range of illnesses – asthma, nosebleeds, miscarriages, and several cancers. Medical research at that time did indeed demonstrate that Hexavalent Chromium could be associated with many of those illnesses. Erin Brockovich, a clerk at a local law firm, was instrumental in initiating legal action against PG&E in 1993. The case was featured in a blockbuster movie starring Julia Roberts as the law clerk Erin Brockovich.

In defending PG&E, lawyers tried to de-link people’s health problems from exposure to chromium. They likely would have been successful except for the fact that the plaintiffs had evidence that the company knew about the water contamination since 1965 but did nothing about it. PG&E eventually managed to take the case out of courts and reach a settlement through mediation, paying the plaintiffs a total of 333 million dollars, one of the largest settlements of that nature, in US history.

Teflon Manufacture – From 1951 to 2013, Teflon was produced by Dupont’s plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The manufacturing process used Perfluorooctanoic acid, (or PFOA or C-8) – one of many of a class of fluorinated hydrocarbons now known as forever chemicals due to their long-term stability. In 1998 multiple lawsuits were filed against Dupont.  Local farmers, residents and company workers claimed to have suffered illnesses and livestock mortalities linked to pollution from DuPont’s Parkersburg plant. DuPont was forced to provide millions of dollars for medical monitoring of over 70,000 people.

In 2012, a science panel concluded (from these studies) a “probable link” existed between C8 and six diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol. Since then, there were numerous individual lawsuits from victims of PFOA-related diseases. In February 2017, DuPont settled over 3,550 lawsuits for 671 million dollars.


environment matters

A pattern emerges – The above examples exemplify the challenges in linking illness from exposure to chemicals – even in the most egregious of cases. The 3 points that become clear are –

  • Evidence denialism – The industries that should have been responsible had access to credible knowledge concerning the health impacts of exposures but resorted to tactics to suppress such knowledge.
  • Decades to prove – It took decades to eventually reach the point to when the offending industries were held financially accountable.
  • Delinking – In court proceedings, the industries were initially able to argue cases de-linking the people’s health problems from exposure to chemicals. However, the court cases eventually succeeded in large part because of the proven cover-ups and delays.

Fortunately, there are some notable examples in which compensation is provided on the presumption of a link. A very important example — Firefighters die of cancer at significantly higher rates than the public. One of the largest studies involved examining nearly 30,000 urban U.S. firefighters over a span of almost 60 years. The study confirmed that firefighters have a nine per cent higher chance of developing cancer at some point during their lives, and a 14 per cent higher probability of subsequently dying from cancer than the general population. In most jurisdictions – firefighters are properly compensated and rightly so. For example – in British Columba if a firefighter develops one of the listed cancers after a certain period of employment, it is presumed that the cancer arose from their employment. The firefighter is then eligible for workers’ compensation benefits without having to prove the cancer is work-related. 

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

So – where does this leave the general population? As presented in the previous blog, many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. Man-made chemicals are everywhere: in water and dust, food packaging, personal hygiene products and household cleaners, furniture and electronics. Recently (this May 2022), an international group of scientists analyzed more than 1,200 scientific studies where chemicals had been measured in food packaging, processing equipment, tableware and reusable food containers.

This is clearly wrong. These chemicals are introduced without sufficient study and their use is often not even justified as has been recently exposed in the case of widespread use of fire retardants in furniture and carpets. The chemical industry must be much more effectively regulated. There are ongoing legislative initiatives in this direction but industry, through various channels (think tanks, associations, etc.) are unrelentingly directing massive financial investments towards lobbying and financing the campaigns of sympathetic political candidates. It is frustrating to observe. We can only hope that evidence-based decision making will eventually prevail.


As a respite from this rather gloomy picture, the final article in this series on toxins – coming soon — will outline ways in which we can minimize toxic exposure in our everyday lives.


BY – Allan Maynard – July 24, 2020

The international CoVid-19 crisis demonstrates – in real, fast forward time, stark lessons about the consequences of unsustainable development, the limitations of our economic systems and the critical need for informed, evidence based leadership. We have learned the harsh lesson that our dependence on animal protein has placed humans and animals (farmed and in some cases wild) in close proximity allowing viruses to jump from animals to humans who have limited immunity to the new (novel) infections. We have also learned that air pollution is an important contributor to deaths from respiratory viruses such as Covid-19. 

On the positive side, we did observe, for short time – that the tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery did indeed give Planet Earth a much-needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, especially oxides of nitrogen and fine particulates, were drastically reduced around the world. In Beijing, residents were able see the stars at night, an impossibility for the past number of years. 

We also have seen how rapidly some governments were able to mobilize human resources, infrastructure and financial measures in response to a crisis whilst simultaneously gaining the confidence of their citizens to ensure full cooperation. But, unfortunately we have also seen the dire consequences of bad leadership that has resulted in deadly delays and muddled communications. 

RECOVERY – BUSINESS AS USUAL IS NOT AN OPTION –It is clear that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess

The ever changing nature of the CoVid crisis and the politics involved has, for the past number of months, pushed news about a host of environmental crises (climate change, accelerated extinctions, toxic exposure, micro-plastic pollution and more) off the front pages. This is understandable but also unfortunate. Environmental issues are, and will continue to be, orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. For example, the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and massive human migrations and more are even more worrying but harder to quantify.  

Some facts re climate change:

Carbon Dioxide 280 PPM in 1970 // 420 ppm in 2020
Temperature 1 degree C higher globally since 1900 / over 7 degrees warmer in parts of the Arctic
Sea Ice Shrunk by over 1,000,000 sq. miles (2.6 million sq. km)
Sea levels Have risen over 20 cm since 1900 – flooding in many cities
Fires 2019 – tens of millions hectors lost – unprecedented – each year is worse
Heat waves Each year – more days of extreme heat and more deaths due to the heat
Ocean acidity Increasing due to carbon dioxide dissolving – threats to sea life / coral bleaching

There are many more stark examples. The main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage and health consequences due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year. 

Despite the mountains of evidence, there is still significant denial and/or ignorance of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. Around the world, many industries are advocating for even more reductions in health, safety and environmental regulations citing economic “emergency factors” due to the lockdowns.  Moreover, the fossil fuel industry is lobbying for significant portions of economic stimulus funds despite having been heavily subsidized and raking in enormous profits for decades. Unfortunately, some poorly led governments will comply without a consideration for more sustainable options. It does not have to be this way.

A SUSTAINABLE RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE – I am not an economist, but as an environmental scientist, it is clear to me that our conventional economic orthodoxy is failing us in so many ways in terms of addressing the environment (climate change, mass extinctions, water quality and quantity, habitat loss, air quality, etc.), human wellness (health, equality, access to healthy food, happiness), and a sustainable use of resources. 

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the monetary value of all finished goods and services made within a country during a specific period. GDP provides an economic snapshot of a country and thus used to estimate the size of an economy and growth rate. However, GDP does not provide information about the overall wellbeing of a country since activities that are detrimental (like deforestation, strip mining, over-fishing, prison populations, terrorism) actually and strangely increase today’s GDP.

Jonathan Aldred, an economist from Cambridge states that “conventional economic theories have had little to offer. On the contrary, they have acted like a cage around our thinking, vetoing a range of progressive policy ideas as unaffordable, counter-productive, incompatible with free markets, and so on. Worse than that, economics has led us, in a subtle, insidious way, to internalise a set of values and ways of seeing the world that prevents us even imagining various forms of radical change.

Since economic orthodoxy is so completely embedded in our thinking, escape from it demands more than a short-term spending splurge to prevent immediate economic collapse, vital though that is. We must dig deeper to uncover the economic roots of the mess we’re in. Putting it more positively, what do we want from post-coronavirus economics?”

Fortunately – there are many economic thinkers proposing sustainable ways of moving forward. A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

A related but even more progressive concept is the doughnut economy described by Kate Raworth, an English economist working for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Doughnut economics, is a visual framework for sustainable development – shaped like a doughnut or lifebelt – combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. The name derives from the shape of the diagram, i.e. a disc with a hole in the middle. The centre hole of the model depicts the proportion of people that lack access to life’s essentials (healthcare, education, equality, etc.) while the outer crust represents the ecological ceilings or planetary boundaries that life depends on and must not be overshot.  See visual below.

The framework was proposed to regard the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s ecological ceiling. In this model, an economy is considered prosperous when all social foundations are met without overshooting any of the ecological ceilings. This situation is represented by the area between the two rings, as the safe and just space for humanity.

These types of progressive concepts are not “pie in the sky’. A growing body of technological achievements along with associated financial undertakings underpins them. However there is predictable pushback from those entrenched in the traditional linear economy. The upcoming US election is providing a clear case study about the opposing forces. A ‘New Green Deal’ however it might be finally laid out, is already being branded as ‘socialist’. It is a false narrative as is commonly the case when progressive programs are initially proposed. 

Make no mistake – despite ill-informed pushback, progress on many fronts is already occurring. The price of solar modules has plummeted 99% since the 1970s thanks to forward thinking research, public policy and increasing demand. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the fastest growing occupation over the next 10 years will be solar panel installer. The second: wind turbine technician. Major financial institutions have taken note with investments in renewables growing each year accompanied by decreasing investments in fossil fuels. 

Despite these good news stories, sustainability is nonetheless a political issue. Unfortunately, this is stalling progress. We have observed this exact outcome with the CoVid crisis. Politics lead to a denial followed by a delay in needed action with a deadly outcome.

Policy shifts at all levels of government are needed to speed our transition to clean energy, sustainable and safe food production, proper use of resources and greater equality. Political will and informed planning are needed more than ever now. These goals though can be met. We have the knowledge and the financial resources. Moreover, people can adapt quickly to change once convinced that the change is necessary and even useful.