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Our Town by William Kelly: ‘Songbirds’ III to focus on health impacts of toxic chemicals

Palm Beach residents will have a chance on Monday to hear directly from experts about the link between human exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Physicians with expertise on the health impacts of pesticides and other toxic chemicals will be the guest speakers at the third “Where have all the Songbirds Gone?” program at 2 p.m. at Town Hall.

The program is co-sponsored by the Palm Beach Civic Association, Citizens’ Association of Palm Beach, Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, Garden Club of Palm Beach, and the Town of Palm Beach.

The panelists are Dr. Bruce Lanphear, who is 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.

The program will be moderated by Katie Carpenter, a documentary filmmaker specializing in environmental subjects who has worked primarily with National Geographic and Animal Planet. Carpenter is a Palm Beach resident.

Elizabeth Dowdle, who co-chairs the Civic Association’s Environmental Committee along with Linda Beaty, said the speakers are leaders in their fields of neurology and pediatrics.

“They are life-changing communicators, passionately committed to preventing needless illness from things we can change in our environment,” said Dowdle, a Preservation Foundation trustee who also chairs the Garden Club’s Conservation Committee.

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 propelled federal agencies to conclude that no amount of lead is safe for children.

In an interview with the Civic Association, Lanphear said the regulatory system that is supposed to make sure pesticides are safe has not kept up with science and is broken.

Each year, more evidence is discovered about the harmful health impacts of toxic chemicals applied to lawns and gardens, Lanphear said. For example, paraquat, a herbicide widely used to control weeds, is associated with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system. Glyphosate, another herbicide, is associated with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, he said.

Lanphear said we need to rethink basic assumptions made about the safety of these chemicals in our environment, and reconsider how they are regulated.

“We rely too heavily on studies from the pesticide industry itself, or on them telling us these are safe,” he said. “We can no longer trust that. We’ve seen too much evidence where they misrepresent the studies. They’ve hidden data on toxicity.”

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 directed the Movement Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins and co-authored the book Ending Parkinson’s Disease: A prescription for Action.

Dorsey said the number of people with Parkinson’s has doubled in the last 25 years and is poised to double again.

“Parkinson’s is the world’s fastest growing brain disease,” he said. “We can slow the rate of progression by stopping exposure to certain pesticides, dry cleaning chemicals or air pollution. Most powerfully we can create a world where these diseases are increasingly rare, not increasingly common.”

Dorsey said the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE), commonly used in dry cleaning, is fueling the alarming rise of Parkinson’s cases. Western European nations have banned TCE, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it poses an unreasonable threat to human health. Yet it hasn’t been prohibited in this country.

“Use of TCE is still permitted in the United States even though it’s known to cause various cancers and research indicates it increases the risk of Parkinson’s by 500 percent,” Dorsey said. “It’s time to ban this chemical.”

Monday’s program is open to the public, with seating on a first come, first served basis. A reception with the three panelists will follow in Pan’s Garden.

Those who are unable to attend in person can watch the program live through the town’s website,

“We are so pleased that our Environmental Committee is instrumental in making an impact on this community through greater awareness of important matters including the use of pesticides and other chemicals,” said Mary Robosson, president of the Civic Association.

The Songbird programs are aimed at promoting the restoration of a healthy, toxin-free Palm Beach.

The first one in 2019 presented experts that focused on how lawn-treatment chemicals affect children, pets, pollinators, and birds. It promoted the use of native plants, instead of exotics, and healthier, toxin-free gardening methods.

Songbirds II in 2020 featured authorities that discussed how to transition to a greener, toxin-free environment.

Dowdle said Palm Beach is fortunate to have such active non-profit organizations who have joined hands to make the Songbird programs a reality.

“The robust network of civic organizations is one of the greatest attributes of the town of Palm Beach,” she said. “We all come together to collaborate and learn together.”


Sponsored by:

Cleveland Clinic Florida