The Age of Toxic Anxiety
By Kevin Williams
It’s 2011, and the science of developmental biology is finally shining a light on the cause-and-effect relationship between toxins and public health—specifically, children’s health. There is an ever-expanding body of damning evidence gaining traction from health institutions and the media. More significantly, it’s spreading like wildfire through social networks of concerned parents.
In an attempt to navigate the shifting trends, regulatory bodies are slowly righting the institutional ship—reconsidering the criteria by which they set the standards designed to keep us safe. Stronger tides are rising. Bolstered by the publication and proliferation of information via the web, we’ve given up waiting for institutions to protect our children and taken the responsibility into our own hands.
This convergence of forces is creating a profound societal mind-shift. Everywhere we turn, there is an increasing awareness of the hidden risks of nearly everything we touch. Some will say this has been a long time coming, and it has; but we’re about to reach the tipping point, where toxins are no longer a subject reserved for academia or Birkenstock-wearing radicals, but a pervasive phenomenon so profound that we will find ourselves frozen by the fear of threats we’ve grown blissfully accustomed to ignoring.
It was once the prospect of nuclear annihilation that had Americans on edge. People feared the bomb, yes, but more importantly they feared the loss of control over their own lives. It was the Age of Atomic Anxiety—with homeowners scurrying to build fallout shelters and students diving under desks at school. The bomb’s threat loomed large, invisible yet deadly. Now, half a century later, there is a new “bomb” that is much more insidious. It has already exploded, and with it, we have awoken to find ourselves in…
The Age of Toxic Anxiety.
Welcome to the Age of Toxic Anxiety
The conscious shift that’s happening is expressed in a mounting public toxic
anxiety. It is a societal change as profound as any yet experienced, and it marks the beginning of a new era.
How is it evident that we’re entering the Age of Toxic Anxiety? Pure Research, a division of Pure Branding, identifies four key indicators:
1. An increased awareness of the serious health risks posed by everyday products, including epidemics of birth defects with high-level scientific studies pointing directly to toxins as the cause.
2. A series of high-profile national studies recently launched that will shortly prove out the extent of those risks.
3. Government institutions publicly acknowledging the correlation of environmental toxins and leading epidemics.
4. Millions of moms leveraging social networks to say what’s safe and what’s not.
There is a growing awareness in our society that is gaining fierce momentum in health institutions, regulatory bodies, media and most significantly in peer-to-peer networks where parents share information. Our children are not safe. The very institutions that we have relied on for every aspect of our consumer society have not been looking out for our best interest and the children are paying the price.
1. Increased Awareness of Health Risks of Everyday Products
Let’s take a look at the first indicator: the increased awareness of the health risk posed by everyday products. Toxic chemicals can be found in every category, from clothing, bedding and cleaners, to toys, cosmetics, personal care and food. These toxins are now in our bodies and wreaking havoc on the health and future well-being of our children. Shocking evidence of this emerged in a recent study from The Environmental Working Group (EWG) in collaboration with Commonweal in which the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies was tested and found to contain 287 industrial chemicals and pollutants.
The “Silent Epidemic” Lurking in Food
To understand the effects of toxins on children, the Pure Research team interviewed Dr. Phillip Landrigan, one of the world’s leading advocates for children’s health and a revered figure instrumental in both passing the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 and spearheading the effort to remove lead from paint and gasoline.
Dr. Landrigan recounted his five-year study at the National Academy of Sciences to examine whether the accepted standard for pesticide exposure—meant to protect a 150-pound adult—was adequate to protect the health of children. In 1993, the Landrigan Committee released a report, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. This represented the first irrefutable proof that children are uniquely susceptible to the adverse effects of pesticides and called for standards ten times more stringent than those in effect at publication. Subsequently, two major pesticides were banned from the residential market.
Landrigan sees pesticides as akin to the lead poisoning epidemic of the 1980s. “We used to talk about lead poisoning as the silent epidemic when we came to understand that lead was toxic at low levels that produced no obvious symptoms at first. The delayed effects manifested in intelligence and ability to function in society,” he says. “Organophosphates (OP) in conventionally grown food are just as insidious.” When it comes to developmental disruptions, OPs are at the top of Landrigan’s list, followed by bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates found in personal care and plastic containers where they have the potential to leach into the products.
The Stakes Are Very High
Organophosphates are one of the most prevalent families of chemicals used as a pesticide in agriculture. First developed in the 1920s, they came into heavy use as a replacement for DDT. They are designed and used as a neurotoxin that interferes with the action of enzymes within the brain and nervous system of insects. This is also how they affect
According to Dr. Landrigan, “In the human population, the group of people most susceptible to these toxins are children, and the most sensitive are the unborn children, the fetuses. We used to think that the fetus was protected by the placenta barrier, but now we know that is not true. The chemicals pass right into the child during a very susceptible time. If a pregnant woman eats a piece of fruit with organophosphates, she will pass them to her developing baby and into the baby’s brain.”
Dr. Landrigan continues, “Based on lab studies that track children exposed to these chemicals in early development, there is clear indication of brain damage. The brain damage is not gross, meaning these children are not walking around stumbling and having convulsions, but when they are properly tested in a good pediatric center, they are found to have loss of IQ and learning problems as a consequence of their exposure in the womb to these chemicals. The stakes are very high.”
Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist of The Organic Center and an expert on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues, explains that although the EPA is moving toward eliminating organophosphates, many are still prevalent in our food supply chain. Numerous recent scientific studies correlate organophosphates with disrupting development, resulting in ADHD, autism, obesity, impaired intelligence, metabolic impairment and type II diabetes.
In the United States, nearly 3 million people have been diagnosed with
autism. While in 1994, 1 in every 1,000 children was diagnosed with the disease, today there is 1 for every 110. Jeff Sell at the Autism Society says numbers around the world are similar. “Genetics alone cannot explain that type of increase in prevalence.”
An unsettling example of how dangerous chemicals remain in our products is chlorpyrifos, a high-risk organophosphate. It was due to be banned. Facing regulatory action by the EPA, Dow Chemical who markets it as Lorsban and Dursban withdrew it for home use. Yet they continue to sell it for agricultural use. So is the EPA saying, “Keep it out of your home, but it is fine to eat”?
Nowhere to Hide
Another “bad player” that Benbrook estimates Americans are exposed to up to twice a day is endosulfan, a member of the most toxic agricultural chemical family, persistent organic pollutants (POP), which includes DDT, the chemical featured in Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring. Endosulfan, like all POPs, has the characteristic of disrupting development at levels below detection and being persistent, meaning it does not break down quickly and therefore accumulates in our bodies.
POPs are lipophilic, which means they attach to fatty tissue. So as the cattle that we depend on for our dairy products are ingesting endosulfan-treated feed, they are building it up in their fat stores, which wind up concentrated in cream-based products such as butter.
The EPA has imposed a voluntary ban on the use of endosulfan in U.S. agriculture, but the phaseout will not be complete until 2016. Benbrook describes this as the “Circle of Poison,” a phrase coined in the 1980s for banned toxins sold to other regions that are then imported back into the U.S. via the global food network. The risk of exposure in the U.S. will continue after the bans go into effect. The majority of endosulfan is sold to India, Latin America and Asia, where the exposure levels are much higher. Until the EPA cancels the tolerances for this pesticide, the American public will still be exposed through reliance on imported food.
Today, according to a study done by Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), a typical holiday dinner menu of 11 food items can deliver 38 “hits” of exposure to POPs, where a “hit” is one persistent toxic chemical on one food item. Kristin Schafer of PANNA, who co-authored the study, warns that even though these chemicals have since been banned in the Stockholm Convention that took effect in 2004, due to their persistence, these POPs are still in the food supply today.
What is even more disturbing, according to Dr. Benbrook, is that POPs including endosulfan are present in mother’s milk. “No doubt they have been found in mother’s milk on all continents of the world,” he says. The Environmental Working Group has already reported on the growing number of studies that have found industrial chemicals in human breast milk. Dioxin, PCBs, flame retardants and pesticides such as DDT tend to concentrate in the rich, fatty fluid, giving vulnerable infants a dose of chemicals associated with cancer and hormone malfunction.
2. High-Profile National Studies That Will Change the Dialogue
Due to the extreme complexity of human development and the near infinite varieties of potential interaction, evidence as to the full impact of pesticides and other ubiquitous chemicals on childhood development is just emerging, and acceptance by the scientific and regulatory communities has been slow.
But a revolution is quietly beginning, and there are new studies in the works that will change the national dialogue.
The 1993 National Academy of Sciences report Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, to which both Landrigan and Benbrook contributed, marked the beginning of understanding these dangers. Until its publication, the conventional toxicological wisdom on pesticide dietary risk was the “dose makes the poison,” meaning the inherent risk a material posed was based on the level of exposure to an organism.
“We now understand that the dose for a fetus at week 12 can be 10,000 times lower than what is considered safe for an adult and can have lifelong consequences on that developing fetus,” says Dr. Benbrook. “Endocrine-disrupting pesticides have the ability to disrupt development, particularly in the first trimester, at levels below which we can measure.”
There are many studies underway on the effects of environmental toxins on the developmental health of children. The EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) is reviewing 67 chemicals, including endosulfan and 57 other pesticides, for estrogen, androgen and thyroid system interactions. The initial evaluation will be followed by a much more robust study that includes hundreds more chemicals. Results are expected later this year.
The most aggressive study underway is the National Children’s Study. The current administration has committed $3 billion to fund this study, which will include 100,000 children across the U.S., tracked in utero until the age of 21, and will form the basis of child health policy for generations to come, just as the 1948 Framingham Heart Study completely changed our understanding and lifestyles regarding cardiovascular health. The first findings are due in 2013 and will address how prenatal exposures to toxins correlate to birth defects as well as premature birth and low birth weight.
The media is anticipating the findings of the National Children’s Study, which will reveal the implications of irresponsible actions by the food industry and the effect these actions have on the health of our children. Consider how much our current attitudes toward diet, exercise, obesity, cholesterol and smoking were dramatically influenced by the Framingham Heart Study and how much greater the stakes are today for the future regarding toxins.
3. Government Institutions Acknowledging the Correlation of Toxins and Leading Epidemics
Last year, the Presidential Board on Cancer came out with a statement encouraging Americans to choose foods without pesticides to limit risks for cancer and as the science mounts, there are bound to be more governmental advisers coming forth as well.
Yet this may not happen as fast as it should. Unlike governments of other leading industrial nations, the United States does not operate under the precautionary principle (“safe rather than sorry”), and is, therefore, often not quick to enact restriction policies. Consumers are skeptical that government agencies—the FDA and the EPA—are truly looking out for their best health interests. There is concern that the regulatory agencies are too slow and under-resourced to be effective in the face of mounting data that suggests real dangers in our food supply. Due to our “prove it’s dangerous first, then recall policy,” the fear is very real that change will occur only after the irrevocable damage to our children is already done.
U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) was inspired to sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 since “parents are afraid because hundreds of untested chemicals are found in their children’s bodies.” This was an effort to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, “an antiquated law that in its current state leaves Americans at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals.”
Yet despite Lautenberg’s claim that the “EPA does not have the tools to act on dangerous chemicals and the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws so that their customers are assured their products are safe,” he was unable to secure bipartisan support and the bill was defeated.
According to Dr. Harvey Karp, world-renowned child development expert and America’s most-read pediatrician, in 1996 pediatricians and other concerned scientists persuaded Congress to order the EPA to test hundreds of chemicals for endocrine-disrupting effects. The Clinton administration began the process of designing these tests, but the Bush administration defied the law. It ignored this mandate to protect public health, and organized medicine watched impotently from the sidelines. Ten years and tens of millions of dollars later, not a single chemical had been evaluated for endocrine-disrupting effects.
There is recognition that America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken. According to Alexandra McPearson of the NGO Clean Production Action, since World War II over 80,000 industrial chemicals have been introduced through the manufacture of the goods we use daily.
Of these chemicals, less than 10 percent have been assessed for their effects on the population and only a handful banned. These restrictions are based on the criteria of toxicity for a 150-pound adult male, and not on the growing understanding of the effects chemicals have on children.
4. Millions of Moms Leveraging Social Networks
While the government is slow to make statements against toxins and take action to stop them, when it comes to the health of children, modern-day moms are fast.
Unlike in 1996 when dairy consumers first learned about rBGH, today the public is networked, and advice on what’s safe and what’s not spreads very quickly. Armed with data from the mounting studies on the effects of toxins, moms are among the first to take to Facebook and Twitter to spread the message.
New York Times journalist Karen Bannan, a mom-blogger at Natural as Possible Mom, expressed the conviction that there is a core group of people committed to eliminating toxins from their family, and as the topic grows, social networking will rapidly bring in more participants. She explained that between Facebook and Twitter, moms’ social networks are playing a key role in helping to disseminate this information. According to Bannan, she can reach 2,300 other people with a tweet, who then push her message out to their networks of engaged people. Considered the “mom’s community support network” since its inception in 2006, Twitter has grown to 100 million registered users with 50 million tweets a day. The growth in EWG membership and traffic to their site has exploded as well, with 200 million visitors to its cosmetic database in the past four years.
The influence—and purchasing power—of moms is staggering. In the U.S. there are 80 million moms who spend $2 trillion annually. An estimated 35 million moms are online, and of these, 75 percent go online to research purchases, 86 percent engage in social media and 69 percent are likely to purchase a product based on what they hear in their social network.
An example is the mom networks’ sudden shift to glass baby bottles. The explosion of concern surrounding bisphenol A (BPA) in baby products is specifically around their role as endocrine disruptors and the effects on developing infants. The awareness of BPA moved rapidly through the parent community to create an industry-wide change.
During their field research, Pure Branding spoke with Janelle Sorensen of Healthy Child Healthy World, who explained: “The tipping point came in November of 2008 when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published research on BPA leaching in infant products deemed ‘microwave safe.’” BPA had been known since the 1930s to mimic estrogen in the body and had potential to cause harm, yet, as noted, the conventional wisdom dictated that the dose makes the poison. However, the Journal Sentinel’s analysis revealed that an infinitesimal amount in the bloodstream could affect the neurological development of babies. These new revelations raised concern among parents and they began to share the information via blogs and Twitter. A “black market” of glass baby bottles developed overnight as mothers sought out replacements to what was available on the market.
It took less than one year for consumer demand to create an industry shift away from BPA in baby bottles. No regulation was imposed, no bans, merely the power of consumers connecting. Imagine what will happen as this network is informed of the true effects of pesticides.
As the Social Studies Group’s report, The Green Mom Eco-cosm, revealed, the life-stage change of motherhood can be a prime motivator for women to live greener lives. “For some, it moves them to make drastic changes, and triggers concern over not only safety issues posed by, for example, ‘toxic’ products and plastics inside their home, but the broader environmental implications of the cars they drive and the quality of their drinking water.”
It is recognized that the life-stage change of motherhood represents an awesome responsibility and a high degree of uncertainty. Historically, this has been addressed by the local presence of extended family. The dismantling of the multigeneration family resulting from a more mobile society has increased the isolation new moms feel, living far afield from their support system. The virtual network fills this vacuum, providing the advice they might otherwise have close at hand.
With “mommy bloggers” at the helm, we can expect a rapid movement of empowered consumers networked through social media to drive change and increase demand for safer products they can trust.
No longer are the promoters of progressive change considered the hippie, radical outliers. Awareness and action are coming from all walks of life. The social trust that underscores the power of these networks permits information to be presumed credible and given immediate consideration. Mommy bloggers are moving the source of change from the outspoken edges of society directly to the parent teacher associations, community groups and social networks.
The Organic Message
Following a study that revealed evidence of the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate in samples of breast milk nationwide, Katy Lebbing, who manages the breast-feeding information center at La Leche League International, said, “All these researchers are trying to say is, we live in a contaminated world and we need to clean it up.” Naturally, the ultimate goal is to eliminate pesticides in our conventional food supply, but for consumers looking to reduce their exposure, organic is a choice that makes sense.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and researchers at the University of Washington found that people who ate a primarily organic diet had 90 percent less pesticides in their bodies as measured by urine samples compared with people who ate conventional groceries. Notably, the CDC study revealed that when people switched from conventional to organic, it took only a week for the non-persistent pesticides to wash out of their bodies. The reason for the immediate results is that most of the pesticides used in domestic production today are intended to be short-lived. This is in contrast to previous agricultural chemicals like DDT that had a very high persistence and would therefore accumulate. The new generation of pesticides is still toxic, however, they do not hang around. It’s important to note that while the use of pesticides in the U.S. has gone down dramatically in the past two decades, Americans’ total consumption of pesticides in food has changed very little, according to the Environmental Working Group. This is due, in part, to the rise in imported foods. Food that is grown overseas is typically done so with more toxic and persistent pesticides than locally grown food.
Much has been discussed regarding pesticides, however, many synthetic chemicals used during the processing of conventional foods can also cause developmental disruption. Hexane, the primary solvent in conventional soy processing, has been detected intermingling with soy proteins in products tested by the Cornucopia Institute at levels more than double what the European Union allows in comparable products. Included are energy bars, meat alternatives, soy milks and, yes, even infant products. The effects it has on early childhood development are still unclear, however n-hexane, which composes more than 50 percent of hexane use, is a known neurotoxin. The only way to purchase soy products without hexane with any degree of certainty is to buy organic.
The presence of toxins in the food system has been known for years, however, the significance has yet to be realized by the greater public. People know that pesticides are used in farming—that stirs little concern outside of the learned few. However, once consumers begin to fully understand the impact of pesticides—especially on infant and child development—we can expect a shift, not only in perception, but also in behavior.
The Age of Toxic Anxiety is upon us. This is not a situation to passively wait for a shift to occur. It’s happening with or without you. Thought leaders in organic have the edge—knowledge that empowers and engenders consumer trust and loyalty.
The organic industry has the opportunity—and responsibility—to become much more relevant. Anything that can be done to support the existing advocates of the reduction of toxins and create awareness will mean one more child not being exposed.
The role of leaders in organic is to responsibly guide consumers to healthy choices, be more forthright with what is known regarding conventional production and prevent less responsible forces from distorting the truth.
About the Writer
Kevin Williams is the principal brand strategist for Pure Branding (www.purebranding.com), a leading consultancy dedicated to brand strategy for companies in the natural products industry with clients that have included Gaia Herbs, Traditional Medicinals, Aura Cacia, Organic India, Vitamin Angels and Dr. Hauschka Skin Care.
Pure Branding recently worked on a project for a nonprofit that advocates for the reduction of toxins and the experience has been eye opening. Due in part to this, Williams has been down a toxicological rabbit hole of mind-boggling interviews, provocative reading and unsettling discoveries. With each discovery, the mounting need to relay this evidence has become clear.
Williams first experienced the negative effects of toxins when his then three-year-old daughter, Sophie, began to display the symptoms of a neurological disorder. Initially thought to be autism, multiple sclerosis or a tumor, it was later discovered she had a heightened sensitivity to environmental toxins found in our food. An organic diet was a significant factor in her recovery. The vision of organic and toxin-free living is the very inspiration for organic brands, and as we help lead the food revolution, we also usher in a new era of industrial responsibility that will benefit everyone young and old. You can reach Williams at email@example.com.