A large share of America’s serious health problems are not caused by bacterial and viral infections but by exposure to toxic chemicals and other environmental threats, public health experts say.
A summer marked by intense heat and drought, with widespread beach closings due to ocean pollution, has revived public concern with environmental hazards, but some experts argue that an even broader range of ills could be solved with large-scale toxic cleanup.
And unlike diseases that proliferated during the first half of this century, many of today’s deadliest ailments could be eradicated quickly with the control or removal of the offending chemicals, they say.
“Tuberculosis still exists. It’s been around for centuries. But chemically induced diseases stop immediately when you stop chemical exposure,” Dr. Rick Irvin, a toxicologist at Texas A&M; University, said recently.
Diseases Linked to Life Style, Toxics
“Most of the major causes of death in the Western world, up until about 1950 or 1955, were mainly diseases of microbial origin--influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis,” he said. “If you stop and think about the major diseases during our grandparents’ time, they’re pretty much under control, thanks to better public health practices, sewage control, immunizations and drugs to fight those diseases when we get them.
“Now the major causes of death in this country--heart disease, cancer, diabetes and birth defects--don’t have microbial origins and are mostly associated with life style, like diet and smoking, and environmental causes,” Irvin said.
About 80% of all cancers are believed related to toxic chemicals and diet, agreed Dr. Lawrence Garfinkle, chief epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society.
Irvin noted that environmental agents--many from the boom in toxic chemical production of the last few decades--may work with hereditary or viral factors to produce disease. He is now trying to see if such agents play a role in promoting acquired immune deficiency syndrome after infection occurs.
‘Hodgepodge’ Public Health System
Dangerous chemicals are ubiquitous, turning up in food and water supplies, at the workplace, and in the general environment, though they represent just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of known chemicals, said one environmental health expert.
The expert, Dr. Bailus Walker Jr., is president of the American Public Health Assn. and a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel which released a report in September criticizing the public health system as a “hodgepodge.”
The 218-page report on the future of public health called toxic substances one of the “time bombs” that the public health system has been ill-equipped to handle.
“Although recent attention has been focused mainly on cancer, the range of adverse human health effects of exposure to chemicals and other toxic substances is broad. Exposure to high levels of some substances for even short periods may produce acute, though often temporary, effects, such as rash, burns or poisoning. Prolonged exposure to low doses can cause lung disease and neurobehavioral disorders. There is growing evidence that environmental toxicants can cause reproductive problems including miscarriages and birth defects,” the report said.
Shift in Responsibilities Urged
The 22-member panel of leading medical experts recommended that public health departments, rather than environmental agencies, be made responsible for determining the health risks of pollutants and helping people exposed to such toxins.
Walker, an environmental sciences professor at the State University of New York in Albany, suggested health officials might be more aggressive in responding to toxic waste exposure than environmental regulators who deal directly with offending companies.