Eye on Public Heath: A New Year’s Resolution We All Need

Susan Lamontagne is an advocate for children's health and environmental protection. Courtesy photo

Eat better. Exercise more. Lose weight. These were the top three New Year’s resolutions for 2019 according to a survey of 2,000 people in Inc.magazine. Others included drinking less alcohol, saving money or spending less, and finding a new job. But there is one resolution we should all be making that was nowhere to be found on the list: Detoxing.

If you think I’m talking about those bizarrely colored drinks that may or may not remove toxins from your body, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about reducing or removing toxic chemicals in your home that are quietly and insidiously engaged in a seriously creepy experiment.

Take, non-stick pans, a mainstay in every kitchen. What we didn’t know while we flipped pancakes and baked cakes is that a chemical in those pans, PFOA, was contaminating water supplies and leeching into our food. While industry will tell you it’s safe, many scientists and health advocates recommend steering clear of non-stick as PFOA stays in the body for long periods of time and attacks the liver. Even low doses are linked to testicular and kidney cancer.

So, for 2019, toss the non-stick and use safe alternatives such as cast iron or ceramic pans instead.

While you’re tossing, we need to have a serious conversation about plastics. Milk, eggs, yogurt, water, peanut butter, even organic vegetables all come in plastic containers or are wrapped in plastic. Our addiction to plastics, especially single-use plastics, has littered our oceans, killed whales and sea turtles, and are being absorbed into the foods we eat. It’s fairly well known that when plastic heats up, the chemicals contaminate the food and drink, but did you know that recent studies have found that these chemicals are leeching into the food even when plastic packaging is not heated? (Think potato chips.)

Why does this matter? Chemicals in plastics such as BPA and phthalates are known endocrine disrupters that are linked to health problems that range from ADHD and autism in kids to lower fertility and thyroid disorders. We’re seeing this play out in headlines like “As overall school enrollments decline, special education enrollments climb” (New York School Board Association’s On Board 12/10/2018) which attributes increased need for special education services to the dramatic rise in ADHD and autism; and “Sperm counts are falling. This isn’t the reproductive apocalypse – yet,” (Vox, 9/17/2018) which explains that the major reason behind the drop “is thought to be the rise of the 20th-century chemical industry.”

As for the thyroid, it controls just about every system in the body, including heart rate. So when chemicals are messing with the thyroid, they mess with one’s whole system.

Then there are the chemicals in vinyl that scientists at Mount Sinai have just discovered are linked to verbal delays in children and drops in IQ. (Even minor drops in IQ matter because that is linked to long-term health and income.) Meanwhile, vinyl floors are frequently used in day care centers, hospitals, and in some homes. So when a pregnant woman works (or lives) in a setting with vinyl flooring, higher levels of these chemicals are found in her system and those chemicals are crossing the placenta and affecting her baby.

The bottom line is this problem won’t be solved simply by removing non-stick pans from our kitchens and buying eggs in paper cartons rather than plastic. We need to resolve to use our purchasing power and our voices to change the marketplace.

A few ways to do that include:

  • If the brand of milk or eggs or yogurt come in plastic, let the company know you plan to use a different brand until they move away from plastic packaging.
  • Stop using plastic containers to store food and use glass instead.
  • When you go out to eat and order a drink, ask that they not put a straw in it. Better yet, ask that they stop using straws altogether.
  • Reduce your use of take out food, and when you do order, ask that they only use paper or aluminum containers and stop using Styrofoam and plastic.
  • When you buy furniture, mattresses, or rugs ask whether the company uses flame retardants or formaldehyde and only buy from companies that have stopped using those chemicals in their products.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is rolling back dozens of environmental rules and regulations that were designed to protect the water you drink and the air you breathe. The chemical industry is thrilled. You shouldn’t be. However, in the next few weeks, Congress will hold oversight hearings that will shine a spotlight on how Trump’s policies are protecting polluters over people. In other words, there is hope. Happy New Year!