Toxic chemicals are everywhere – in the food we eat, the air we breathe, products that we buy, and, in many cases, the ground we walk on, two experts told a Palm Beach audience at an environmental forum on Monday.
Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, and Dr. Ray Dorsey, professor of neurology at the University of Rochester in New York, were the panelists at the “Where have all the Songbirds Gone?” III program at Town Hall.
Lanphear and Dorsey are both physicians with expertise on the health impacts caused by human exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals in our environment.
Katie Carpenter, a Palm Beach resident and documentary filmmaker specializing in environmental subjects, moderated.
More than 100 people attended the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Palm Beach Civic Association and its Environmental Committee, the Citizens’ Association of Palm Beach, Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, Garden Club of Palm Beach, and the Town of Palm Beach.
There is a clear link between human exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and diseases including various cancers, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and brain disorders in children, according to Dorsey and Lanphear.
We cannot rely on the companies that manufacture these chemicals to disclose the health risks they pose, or on government regulators to protect us, Dorsey and Lanphear both said.
“For many years, we have regulated these chemicals as though there are safe thresholds,” Lanphear said. “What we’re finding is, there are none.”
Lanphear has conducted research on the impact of pesticides, lead, and other toxic chemicals on children’s health for more than 25 years. He led studies used by federal agencies to set standards for lead in air, water, and house dust. His studies were the impetus for federal agencies to conclude that no amount of lead is safe for children.
Dorsey’s research on brain diseases is published in leading medical journals and featured in news outlets including NPR, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He director the Movement Disorders Center at John Hopkins and co-authored the book, “Ending Parkinson’s Disease: A Prescription for Action.”
Cancer rates in the United States are rising among people under 50 years old even though smoking rates have declined. Dorsey said that’s because our environment has become increasingly saturated with man-made toxins over the last 50 years.
Trichloroethylene, or TCE, which is used in dry cleaning, is linked to a 500 percent increase in the risk of developing Parkinson’s, he said. There’s also evidence that it causes various cancers.
Western European nations have banned TCE, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed that it be prohibited here. Yet its use remains legal in this country.
“Simply by living near a dry cleaner, you can be inhaling this chemical and never know it,” Dorsey said. “It is everywhere.”
Paraquat, a toxic chemical widely used as a herbicide, is associated with an elevated risk of Parkinson’s. It’s banned in more than 150 countries, including China, but remains legal in the United States, where it is sprayed on corn, cotton, vineyards, and sugar cane fields, Dorsey said.
Lawsuits, filed by farmers who used paraquat and developed Parkinson’s, led to a treasure trove of information about what companies knew about the chemical but kept quiet, Dorsey said.
Regulators act in the interest of the chemical companies instead of the public, he said.
Disorders in children
Lanphear said exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals contributes to many behavioral and mental health problems in children.
Three percent of American children now meet the criteria for autism. Anxiety affects one in five. Conduct disorders, ADHD and depression are occurring in greater numbers.
Many factors affect brain development, including nutrition, genetics, social stressors, and exposure to toxic chemicals, Lanphear said. But toxic chemicals are often overlooked as a cause because they aren’t as easy to detect.
All Americans have lead in their bones, and it will be there for the rest of their lives, Lanphear said. Lead exposure is known to result in brain disorders like ADHD. Federal agencies agree that all levels of lead exposure are unsafe.
Mercury is found in 89 percent of children. Lead is in the blood of all children. Flame retardants, known as PBDEs, are found in 100 percent of children, Lanphear said.
Studies show nearly all Americans have some level of PFAs. These “forever chemicals” build up in our bodies but never break down in the environment. Hundreds of millions of people are believed to have been exposed to PFAs through their drinking water. PFAs are linked to cancers, and reproductive and immune system harm – even in very small doses.
In the United States and Canada, chemicals are released into the environment before they are tested for their effects, Lanphear said. In Western Europe, by contrast, manufacturers are required to demonstrate chemicals are safe before they are introduced into the environment.
“We could require the industry to prove the chemicals they use aren’t toxic before they enter the market,” Lanphear said.
Glyphosate, a commonly used herbicide linked to lymphoma, was approved for use in the United States based on two small lab studies, Lanphear said.
“Once it has that seal of approval, it takes dozens of studies to get that approval overturned,” he said.
Nearly all research dollars are devoted to developing medical treatments. Dorsey and Lanphear both said we can save many more lives by devoting more effort and resources to prevention.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are primarily caused by environmental factors and are largely preventable, Dorsey said. But if we don’t act, we can expect incidents of these diseases to continue to increase. About 1 million people have Parkinson’s and that number is rapidly growing. About one in nine Americans 65 or older has Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That’s nearly 7 million people.
What can we do?
Moderator Katie Carpenter asked the panelists, “What can we do to make it better for the next generation?”
As a start, Lanphear suggested that residents, over the next year, find a way to eliminate the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers around their homes.
Monday’s program was organized by Elizabeth Dowdle, co-chair of the Civic Association’s Environmental Committee, a Preservation Foundation trustee, and chair of the Garden Club’s Conservation Committee; Linda Beaty, co-chair of the Civic Association’s Environmental Committee; Susanne Durst, member of the Civic Association’s Environmental Committee and Town Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay.
Monday’s program was the third “Songbirds” program since 2019. The original program featured experts who focused on how lawn-treatment chemicals affect children, pets, pollinators, and birds. Songbirds II in 2020 promoted the use of native plants and toxin-free gardening methods.