Tuesday, December 7, 2010

MISUNDERSTANDING POISON


The FDA has approved new warning graphics for cigarette packs which could be more explicit only if manufacturers splashed bloody sputum onto the box. Here’s a sample:
WARNING: Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease


One wonders why people pay good money for a potentially suicidal product. It’s easy to rationalize, of course, that cigarettes aren’t sure to kill you, only skyrocket your risk. (Matter of fact, ten to fifteen percent of lung cancers occur in nonsmokers.) But a more compelling reason is that people don’t generally understand how poisons work, and that’s a serious public health hazard.
We popularly think of poisons as working instantly: Socrates sips his hemlock and falls over dead. True, there are a few poisons, like cyanide, that are that fast, but most toxins we’re exposed to are slow-acting and cumulative.

We navigate a sea of these slow-acting, cumulative toxins. They pervade almost every aspect of consumer culture, including food flavoring and preservation, cosmetics, sunscreens, and pesticides. Many are synthetic organic molecules, of which there are now hundreds of thousands. Some are heavy metals. Some are the breakdown products of plastics. Together, they’re implicated in a range of disorders from birth defects to asthma to cancer.

Socrates could drink any of these and not be affected because a single exposure is almost innocuous. Almost. But regular assault by hundreds, year after year, can and does evolve disease. And when you eventually get sick, you can’t point to one causative agent, since there were so many and over so long a time. For those who produce and distribute these chemicals, this phenomenon is a liability dream. In very few cases can anyone prove who injured them.

Don’t believe for a moment that the government protects you from these agents. Of the massive number of potential chemical offenders, only a few have ever even been tested for hazard, and of that number a handful have been banned. One obstacle to more universal testing is expense. The cost of thoroughly evaluating every compound would occupy the entire federal budget. It would make sense, then, to compel manufacturers to test their products on their dime…but you see the quandary here: manufacturers tend eternally to find their products not only harmless, but boons to humankind. Funny how that works. So the FDA labels most untested chemicals “Generally Recognized As Safe,” or GRAS, meaning we haven’t the slightest idea, but what the hell, we’ll give them a pass.

That’s why our family reads labels carefully. We don’t buy any body care product that contains parabens. We don’t eat meat treated with nitrates or nitrites. We avoid plastic containers made with bisphenols. I chronically appeal to our local school boards to avoid Roundup on school lawns.

Are these chemicals really carcinogens? It’s hard to know. Research sponsored by independent groups casts abundant suspicion on them, but that’s countered by the chemical industry’s opposing publicity plus the effect of its lobbyists on legislators. The impasse is why so many chemicals are labeled GRAS. I suppose that’s a way of applying our judicial “innocent till proven guilty” ethic to inanimate products.

Canada does it a little differently. Through its “precautionary principle,” chemicals are considered harmful until proven harmless. Earlier this year I took walks around neighborhoods in Ottawa and Montreal. Official-looking signs on lawns here and there announced that those homeowners were using pesticides. They couldn’t just flop a few bucks onto the counter at Chemicals-R-Us and walk out with a tub of Roundup. They had to get a permit and put up the sign to inform their neighbors, and yes, there is some social stigma attached.

For those of us who abhor government intervention, there’s always the marketplace. Read labels. Learn what’s harmful in food and body and landscaping products. For a start, take a look at http://www.preventcancer.com/consumers/cosmetics/Tables_cospcp.htm
Don’t buy anything with ingredients that look like a high school science project. Today I read a canned soup label that listed—I counted them—fifty-one ingredients. Only a few were edible; the rest were shelf-life extenders and artificial doodads. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan advises against buying any food whose ingredients you can’t explain to your grandmother.

I take the title of this blog seriously. People do matter. Shelf life extenders don’t. Whatever we buy and apply and ingest is a vote for a particular way of living, and at the same time assertion of personal responsibility for our health.

3 comments:

  1. A couple years ago I was prepping for a visit from our toddler grandson. I dutifully gathered up all the toxins to lock them up and suddenly had an epiphany: If this shit is bad for Joshua, how is it any better for our pets or for my husband or for me (on my 2nd recurrence of cancer)? I replaced them with a whole lot of baking soda & vinegar, a few essential oils, a bottle of enzymatic gunk that HAS been tested, not much else. The poinsons are still gathered up, awaiting the annual toxics intake day at the dump. People tell me to just pour them down the sink and it'll be taken care of down the line. Um ... I don't think so. Our river used to be on the list of 10 Most Polluted in North America. I'd like to keep that in the past tense.

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  2. Another vote for sane and healthy products!!

    We'd washed our granddaughter's hair with "baby shampoo" her first six years, till I finally read the ingredients on the label. Most were pretty benign--as far as I knew--but there were a couple of artificial colors in it. I looked those up online. They were reported to be "Generally recognized as safe."

    Ha. We switched immediately to another brand, identical to the first, but colorless. I wrote to the company that used the colors, asking why they didn't just drop them. What's so important about coloring a shampoo? They responded with an offer of a free bottle of their, ahem, tainted product. OK, folks, peddle your stuff, but without my dime.

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  3. The foot in this photograph is chilling, indeed. Combine that with a line in your previous post, "The body can't lie, but the mind can, indeed."---and it leads to my latest epiphany in this mind-body connection...
    As nurses, many of us have chronic foot pains, and are ever in search of the perfect shoe.

    This weekend at the hospital, as usual, I was several hours into one of my back-to-back 12-hour shifts, and a new habitual pain that has been plaguing my right foot returned. I loosen and adjust my shoe, and hang my heel out of the low back. But for the first time in ages, more than a year, I had a memory from Vipassana meditation courses (S.N Goenka) I had taken some 20 years ago--which focuses on accepting and understanding and observing the reality of your thought and bodily sensations as they are, not as you would like them to be. For a moment or two on Sunday, I simply observed the pain hounding me in my foot--what is this that I am reacting to so violently? And there were some stabs and arrows and heat and tingling and "buzz"--language is inexact, of course...
    but this was the miracle: as soon as I did that, and was able to stop reacting, just observe, even for a mere moment or two...not only did the pain vanish in that moment, and for the rest of the day, but I keep waiting for it to come back, and it hasn't: something that has been bugging me for months, and I thought was "permanent." Aha...perhaps it was my _mind_ that has been telling my body it was "permanent..."

    So just as the labels on products we use are insidious, and accumulate in our bodies with our lack of awareness, so mental poisons that condition us into habitual reactions to our bodies keep us in pain...totally without our awareness, because these habits of mind and our reactions are buried deep in our unconscious.
    I have been running for decades from my meditation practice....there are so many excuses and impediments that are easy to come up with....but I have to say, in terms of any medicine, any solace in any activity or group or way of life I have ever tried, it cannot be beat: it helps me immediately as soon as I practice again. Even for a fleeting 10 seconds in the middle of a busy shift at the hospital.
    I keep meaning to return to a 10-day class and resume a daily practice in earnest (there are centers all over the world, and many states in the U.S.). I intermittently sit an hour morning and evening, but not regularly enough, by any means. The subtleties and interplay of mind and body defy language... Blogs such as Dr. Kane's are brimful of compassion, wisdom, and a desire to help people...beautiful to behold...but I am reminded time and again that as comforting as our words are to each other, there is no comfort deeper than a practice that allows one to unfold one's own wisdom and truths on a level that is completely beyond language to describe, but is abundantly healing in every possible way....

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