Select Page

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.

A Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

A Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure – There are over 9 million known chemicals – many of which are man-made. In the United States, there are some 90,000 chemicals licensed for use; In Canada and the European Union – that number is around 25,000.

There can be great discrepancies country by country, in terms of how these chemicals are regulated. As we saw in the previous article about pesticides and the “forever chemicals’ used as fire retardants, it can take time to document adverse effects. The needed regulations are thus implemented too slowly, often exacerbated by industry delay tactics.

Health effects from toxic chemicals are especially consequential in the following circumstances – a) from occupational exposure – farm workers, firefighters, factory workers; b) from proximity exposure – living in an area near heavy industry and thus dealing with contaminated water and air; and c) living in a city with highly polluted air – cities in China and India are ranked the worst.

Most of us, especially in developed countries are not facing such consequential exposures and therefore may not be all that concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals. This is valid to a point. Unfortunately, many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. They are present in everyday products such as furniture, clothing, food, water, hygiene products etc.

Here are some examples of our day-to-day exposures – not necessarily in any particular order and without specific details about health effects; each bullet point below could be the subject of a full article. To be clear – the information presented is not meant to be alarmist. It is likely that the health risks for many are minimal. But the health risks are also not zero. A little knowledge about these exposures will be useful especially for parents with young children.

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

  • Air pollution – Globally, air pollution causes about 7 million premature deaths a year. For the most part, this is due to the inhalation of particulate matter (PM2.5) – less than 2.5 microns (about 1/30th the width of a human hair. These tiny articles can also “carry’ toxic chemicals such as by-products of combustion. Air pollution is mostly prevalent in heavily industrialized cities in China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. However, due to the increasing prevalence of forest fires in North America, Russia, Europe and Australia, exposure to PM2.5 is increasing even in rural communities.
  • Smoking – The dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke are very well documented.
  • In the kitchen – Cooking with natural gas produces nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and formaldehyde (CH2O or HCHO). All these pollutants are health risks. As such it is critical to use a hood fan when cooking. Also of concern is PFAS (yes them again) when cooking with Teflon coated cookware. It should not be a big concern if the pans are newer than 2015. See a previous blog on this web site.
  • Indoor air – As discussed in the previous article, fire retardants are everywhere in our homes. PFAS – scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been called ‘forever chemicals’ because they take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. Exposure to these chemicals can be in the form of breathing in off-gases but also microfibers that can flake off furniture and carpeting.
Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), have been called ‘forever chemicals’ due the fact they take hundreds of years to break down. There are over 4700 different PFAS molecules.

  • Tap water – PFAS – a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit advocacy organization, reveals a widespread problem: the drinking water of most North Americans likely contains traces (parts per trillion) of PFAS – because they are so widely used. The problem is widespread in Europe as well, but efforts are underway to ban many of these substances.
  • Tap water – Lead – Another concern in water, is lead exposure – the lead leaching from galvanized pipes. Flint, Michigan was a recent example that was widely covered by the media.  Flint changed its water source from treated water from Lake Huron to water from the Flint River without adequate use of corrosion inhibitors. Water samples tested in a number of Canadian cities, including Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Rupert, were found to contain elevated lead levels. Lead in drinking water is regulated and should thus be frequently monitored
  • Tap water – by-products from chlorination – The vast majority of drinking water systems use chlorine to disinfect the water supply. Natural organic material such as tannins and lignins, when present in the surface waters, reacts with chlorine which can create chemicals called ‘trihalomethanes’ including chloroform – a banned chemical. Trihalomethanes in drinking water are regulated and must be routinely monitored.
  • Canned food – the aluminum cans used are lined with plastic films – some (or many formulations of which contain Bisphenol A, or A 2017 study carried out in California tested a variety of canned products. Forty percent showed detectable levels of BPA. An earlier Canadian study revealed similar findings. BPA exposure is linked to multiple health effects including fertility issues, altered brain development, cancer, and heart complications. It is thus banned for many uses – especially baby products.
  • Bottled beverages – Most bottled water as well as other beverages are sold in plastic #1, also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Research shows that PET may be an endocrine disruptor, altering our hormonal systems. Although this type of plastic is BPA free, phthalates (plasticizers) in bottles can still leach into the water, especially when exposed to high temperatures or stored for an extended period of time. Basically, phthalates are practically in all products stored in plastic. Also of note – bottled water can contain significant amounts of microplastics.
environment matters
environment matters

It’s shocking how widespread the PFAS contamination is across many types of makeup products – especially considering obvious ingestion of these chemicals when used in  lipstick and lip gloss.

  • Cosmetics – There is such a variety of cosmetics on the market with products coming from around the world. In general, the cosmetics industry seems to be very poorly regulated. Indeed, toxic substances may not even be listed in the ‘ingredients” panel. Here are some examples – formaldehyde in hair straightening products and nail polish // coal tar in eye shadow // parabens in skin and hair products // dioxane in dyes and shampoos. Of particular concern is the use of PFAS (AGAIN) -to make lipstick, lotions, cosmetics, and hair products more water-resistant, durable and spreadable as well as the use of benzene, despite the fact it’s a banned carcinogen
  • Pesticides in food – For the most part – pesticide use in the USA, Canada, and Europe, is well regulated. However – According to a recent (2019) study by the Environmental Working Group, there were several fruits and vegetables that contained detectable levels of pesticides – such as strawberries, spinach, kale, peaches, etc. Although, the levels detected, were below published health guidelines, this may not be of comfort to those wanting to completely avoid exposure.
  • Antibiotics and other chemicals in Meat – Industrial agriculture to supply the world’s growing demand for meat protein involves animals ‘farmed’ under very crowded conditions. This then, requires the use of antibiotics used in ‘sub-therapeutic’ doses to prevent disease. This in turn raises the risk of transmitting drug-resistant bacteria to humans either by direct infection or by transferring resistance genes from agriculture into human pathogens. A separate issue with meat is caused by grilling – no doubt a favourite way to cook meat.  Meat cooked this way exposes us to by-products of combustion – chemicals called Poly-aromatic hydrocarbons – PAH
  • Fish – Mercury – Different types of fish and other seafood contain varying amounts of mercury. Larger fish such as tuna usually contain higher levels. They eat many smaller fish, which contain small amounts of mercury. As it’s not easily excreted from their bodies, levels accumulate over time. This process is known as bioaccumulation.
Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure
  • Fast food – PFAS (again!!) – A variety of PFAS compounds are commonly used to keep your burger from sticking to its fast-food wrapper, your salad from turning its fiber-based bowl into a soggy mess, and your popcorn bag from bursting into flames in the microwave.
  • Household products – cleaners, paints, paint thinners, etc. are generally toxic and must be used in accordance with the instructions. Of particular concern are paint strippers. The active ingredient in the most effective paint strippers is dichloromethane, also called methylene chloride. Dichloromethane has serious health risks including death, is likely a carcinogen, and is banned in some countries for consumer use.
    This list is not exhaustive. There are more ways in which we can be exposed to toxic compounds. This area of environmental science is indeed understudied. It can certainly seem overwhelming with almost no options to avoid exposure. As well, it is not possible to comment adequately on the various health risks as there is insufficient data to prove (or disprove) the risks.

In the next article (Part 3), I will outline the challenges in linking illness to exposure and thus ensuring adequate regulations. Buy it is not as bad as it seems. 

In the final article (Part 4), I will outline options for avoiding, or at least minimizing risks.