Saturday, February 4, 2017

Our health and the environment

Gadfly has been accused, in the past, of neglecting the nitty-gritty and addressing nothing less than planetary matters. Gadfly pleads guilty and sheepishly explains that grand matters matter.
For this issue of the Sylvanian, the Gadfly Revelry & Research team has investigated family farming. What could be more local than family farming?
Family farming goes back to 13,000 BP (Before the Present), but we need to go back only to mid-20th century for our story of the epidemic in cancer we see today. My residency training, 1956 to 1959, was a time of intensive medical/surgical education. I went through the pathology accession books of cases from 1945 through 1950 to identify
cases of inflammation, cysts, tumors, and relevant systemic disease — anything that
would be important for a young hospital resident to study. Among all the cases of
cancer, I found only two of prostate cancer, and relatively few of breast cancer. Re-
member, this was a large hospital with an active operating room, sending lots of tis-
sue specimens to pathology lab for analysis. Today, every man knows more than two
friends, neighbors, and relatives afflicted with prostate cancer; and every woman
knows several with breast cancer. Between those early post-war years and today, there has been an explosion in prostate and breast cancers, a literal epidemic.
Here’s the story.
During WW II, the chemical companies were busy making ex- plosives for shells and bombs. When the war ended, they were less celebratory than the rest of the country, for they suddenly had idle production capacity. Their best [amoral] minds identified any groups who might be customers for the large quantities of chemicals they could and would produce. Ah, the farmers! So, they promised the farmers of America higher yields by killing off the insect pests that ate up a goodly portion of their crops. They also promised to make farming less labor-intensive by killing off all the weeds that competed with the food crops for the nutrients of the soil.
The farmers bought it. The use of chemicals in farming soon was soon advertised as “conventional,” and the use of the farmers’ families to weed the rows and pick off the bugs from the growing food crops was disdained as crazy and called “organic.” Chemicals were advertised to bring “Miracles through Chemistry.” But, chemicals became pervasive in our air, soils, foods, and bodies. Many of these chemicals that infested our environment were harmful to our tissues and organs, and some even were proven to cause cancer. Eventually, the word chemical became associated in the public mind not with “miracles,” but “toxic.”
Still, the chemical companies — Monsanto was their poster child — would not be deterred. By the 1960s, only 20 years after WW II, chemical warfare [remember Agent Orange] was used in Vietnam. PTSD rates soared. The main culprits were: proven Agent Orange exposure and the lies behind the war.
Now in the 21st century, the chemical companies complain bitterly when Michelle Obama plants an organic garden on the White House grounds. The First Lady has stood her ground and didn’t cave in to industry demands. She, unlike her husband, is one tough hombre for the greater good. She is a model for the rest of us.
All told, there was one major change from the time when nylon was the only synthetic plastic — and when I could find only two cases of prostate cancer in five years of reviewing everything that went through the Pathology Department of a large City Hospital — until now, when prostate and breast cancer is epidemic. That change is the flooding of hundreds of thousands of artificial chemicals into the environment. All of us, were we to have blood tests, would show, literally, dozens of toxic chemicals in every system of our body and brains. Other changes — our diets, our sedentary activities, computer use — all are minor compared to the soup of chemicals in our environments since the mid-20th century.
It is time to become angry, maybe to get mad.

[Also published in the Sylvanian, Winter 2017]

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