Pass the Pollution, Please

Pass the Pollution, Please

Sattler, Barbara A

Concerns about American food consumption are being raised everywhere-on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, on television and radio programs, within federal agencies like the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control. Low-carb, low-fat, and cholesterol-lowering diets are all competing for our buy-in. Rising obesity levels are raising the volume of food discussions and debates. However, there is comparatively less discussion about the toxic pollutants that are showing up in our foods and the health implications of these foodborne toxic chemicals or the public health risks that are created by modern-day food production. Our diet may very well be the number one source of toxic chemicals in our body.


If you purchase fruits or vegetables that are not labeled “organic,” then pesticides and herbicides were probably used in their production. Pesticides are chemicals that have been formulated to kill something-either by poisoning it and killing it outright or by preventing it from reproducing, thus preventing further infestation. For pesticides that act on insects or rodents, two of the primary modes of action are on the nervous system or the reproductive systems. Many commonly used pesticides in agriculture, and even those used for homes and gardens, have not been sufficiently evaluated for their effects on human health-carcinogenicity, reproductive or neurological risks.

The National Research Council (NRC) estimates that by age 12, in the U.S., we will have received 50% or our lifetime exposure to pesticides. That’s because children eat and drink way more fruits and vegetables than adults. Just consider the raisin-eating habits of the average two-year old, to imagine how this estimate might be substantiated. For those children who also live in homes or communities where pesticides are commonly used -for insect control in inner-city homes, pest control on suburban lawns, aerial spraying in agricultural communities-one begins to see the pesticide exposures accumulate. Additionally, in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as many other American bodies of water, alerts warn us of unhealthy levels of pesticides in the fish that are the result of pesticide run-off.

The active ingredients in many outdoor pesticides are often formulated to biodegrade in sunlight into a less or non-toxic state. That’s fine, as long as they remain out-of-doors. What happens when they are tracked into our home and are no long in direct sunlight. That’s right. They remain in their active state. And when children play on the floor and/or engage in their normal hand-to-mouth exploration, they will get yet another “dose” of pesticides.

We can reduce our exposures to pesticide residues on foods by choosing organic foods. By making this choice, we will also reduce the use of pesticides in our fields, thus reducing the pesticides tracked into our homes and the pesticide run-off into our streams, rivers, and lakes. We know that good and delicious foods can be grown without pesticides, because we are increasingly seeing organic product options in our grocery stores. Some school districts and hospitals (like the Kaiser Health Systems) are now stating a preference for pesticide-free produce when they are purchasing foodstuffs. Using our purchasing power to move the market can be an effective policy strategy. As nurses we have enormous potential to help move our hospitals and school systems in this positive pesticide-free direction.


Dioxins are a family of highly toxic chemical compounds that are created when we combust chlorine compounds: Dioxins mimic human hormones and thus can create a range of potential dysfunctions in the human body-reproductive, neurologic, immunologic. They are also carcinogenic. You won’t see dioxin listed on the, label of your meats and poultry, but all meats, fish, poultry, and dairy contain dioxins. Dioxins are lipophilic and in animals and in humans this means that dioxins can be found in our fatty tissues, including our breastmilk. Dioxins are one of the 12 really bad persistent organic pollutants (POP’s) that have been identified in an international treaty that calls upon all nations to reduce sources of dioxins and the other toxic pollutants bad pollution actors. Dioxins are a family of highly toxic chemical compounds that are created when we combust chlorine compounds. Dioxins mimic human hormones and thus can create a range of potential dysfunctions in the human body-reproductive, neurologic, immunologic. They are also carcinogenic.

Consumer Reports has tested baby food meat products and found them to have dioxin levels 100 times the Environmental Protection Agencies allowable amount. This is really unacceptable. We can’t get the dioxin out of our current meat and fish products. We can’t fry them out or steam them out or saute them out-we must get them out of the environment.

One of the manmade modes by which dioxins get into the environment is during the production of or burning (incineration) of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products. Think vinyl siding, PVC pipes, and the miles of PVC (faux-wood) fencing that are now populating our neighborhoods. Also, think PVC plastic tubing and PV bags used in health care. In every instance, there is now an alternative, non-PVC substitute. If we want to reduce the dioxins in our food, we have to pay attention to our product choices. We can do this individually and we can do this through the institutions in which we work and via policies at the state, national and even international level.


Most people don’t think about antibiotics as a pollutant, but rather as lifesaving drugs. Unfortunately, antibiotics are being used non-therapeutically in the agricultural production of meat and poultry. After discovering that the administration of low-dose antibiotics can improve the growth rates of beef cattle, pigs, and chickens, almost all such animals are now being given nontherapeutic levels of antibiotics in their feed. These antibiotics are similar and sometimes the same and similar to the ones used therapeutically for humans. You won’t see this on the food labels either.

Nurses have taken a bold stance about this issue. In the 2004 (June) ANA convention, a resolution was passed calling for the cessation of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal production and demanding that producers disclose when antibiotics are used. This resolution was easily passed given the understanding that nurses have about the preciousness of our antibiotic armament and the need to keep it safe and effective. Now we need to make sure that we actively promote state and federal policies that are consistent with our resolution.


Most heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic don’t belong in the human body. They are not like the trace elements zinc or iron that play key roles in our normal physiology. Most heavy metals are poisonous to humans. But you would be hard-pressed to find a human anywhere who does not have some lead, mercury or arsenic in their body. Food and water are major sources of heavy metal exposures for human exposure and as many of us know, fish is the foodstuff of most concern regarding mercury exposure.

A major source of mercury exposure is from the coal-fired power plants, but there are many other industrial sources of mercury exposure as well. President Bush’s “Clean Air” initiative and his suggested roll back of the air pollution regulations create the conditions that allow more mercury to be admitted into our air for a longer period of time than current standards, if inforced, would allow. Airborne mercury fairly quickly finds it way falling to earth, landing where it may. When it lands on a body of water it sinks to the bottom where microorganisms help to convert it to methylmercury, its most toxic form. Small fish eat the microorganisms, larger fish eat them and so it goes, bioaccumulating the mercury content in the fish tissue as it works its way up the food chain. The largest fish can have tissue burdens of mercury hundreds of times higher than the concentration in the water.

Once in our fish, we can’t get it out and we are once again faced with the same prevention solution -getting it out of our environment. This means choosing mercury-free products, mercury-free energy sources or better environmental protecting controls on our current energy-producing sources. And once again there, is a need for us to make both individual and collective action. As nurses we need to advise our patients to limit their fish consumption (for the large fish like tuna and swordfish); we need to make sure that our hospitals are choosing mercury-free products; and we need to engage in state and national policy wok that calls for the reduction of mercury sources. Sandra Steingraber, the author of Having Faith, a wonderful dual story about her own pregnancy and the potential environmental risks to the embryo, fetus, and young child, calls environmental protection good prenatal care.

As nurses, we care deeply for our patients, families, and communities. We defend them fiercely and feel a powerful obligation to those we serve. Now is the time to put some new tools in our nursing toolbox to prevent illness. The tools include knowledge about environmental risks, informed individual and institutional choices that will prevent further environmental health risks, and collective action to create policies that insure full disclosure on our food products and policies for good prenatal care . . . I mean environmental protection.

by Barbara A. Sattler, RN, DrPh, FAAN

Barbara Sattler, RN, DrPH, FAAN is the Director of the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing-the home of the first graduate program in Environmental Health Nursing.

Copyright Georgia Nurses Association Nov 2004-Jan 2005

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