When society is asked to think about Chronic illnesses, most people point a finger at a patient’s lifestyle and/or genetics. That’s the culprit, they declare. Some go as far as to say that patients have created their health problems, no matter how young a patient may be. They show little empathy or interest. To be blunt, many could care less. But, in reality, these individuals are misinformed. A patient can change their lifestyle, i.e. quit smoking, diet, exercise, etc. Most do so, or at least try. But they cannot control their genetics. Nor do they have the power to create a pristine environment to live in. In fact, much of the environment is out of their hands. And the environment, more than genetics, causes Chronic illnesses.
How does this happen? That’s not completely understood. But exposure to contaminants is a start. For a moment, consider some of the well-known environmental disasters: Love Canal, NY; the Hinkley, CA, Groundwater Contamination; Woburn, MA; even Chernobyl. When the environment suffers, it eventually effects all living things. The air that we breathe enters our bodies. The water that we bathe in and drink effects us, too. More recent examples are Flint, MI, and Puerto Rico.
The water crisis in Flint is believed to have caused a deadly Legionnaire’s epidemic. It is also believed to have caused a pneumonia outbreak. Such illnesses place those with Chronic diseases at an even greater risk than the general population. Other maladies include rashes, hair loss, etc. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, 2M people are living with water contamination in Puerto Rico. Bacteria, like E.coli, is still present in the island’s water system — indicating fecal matter has contaminated the water supply. But these environmental problems go far beyond Flint or Puerto Rico. It’s national.
Bald Eagles are dying from lead exposure, in the Pacific Northwest. Fish and other forms of wildlife are suffering, elsewhere. Contaminants are toxic. Their effects on the body are widely documented. In fact, lead exposure in water is as much of an issue today as it was a century ago. And it finds its way into our drinking systems. By estimation, over 6M American homes still have lead service pipes. And over 80M homes have lead solder and lead-bearing brass fixtures. A little more than a half century ago, few chemicals were considered hazards to children (or adults for that matter). In the last 30 years, we have learned that children are especially vulnerable to such exposures.
Occupational environments can also expose individuals to risks. Mesothelioma is one example. Asbestos exposure is the main cause. Over 700,000 buildings in America, including schools, may still contain this material. Asbestos exposure has taken place in a variety of jobs, i.e. Shipyards, Manufacturing, Mines, Construction, etc. Second-hand exposure has also been noted, in family members. Our military personnel have suffered from environmental exposures, too. Agent Orange and other herbicides have been linked to forms of Cancer as well as other Chronic illnesses. A Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, in 2009, narrowed the cause of Gulf War Syndrome to: Chemical Nerve Agents, Pesticides and the use of Pyridostigmine Bromide pills.
On a global scale, approximately 1 in 4 deaths is caused by an environmental factor. This involves numerous Chronic illness, i.e. Asthma, COPD, Cancers, Heart Disease, Stroke, etc. The numbers are staggering. An Environmental illness can be difficult to diagnose. Symptoms are similar to those found in other illnesses. But it can be done, with the help of knowing a patient’s exposure history (or the possibility of their exposure). 133M Americans live with a form of Chronic illness. In a few short years, that number will exceed 150M. We really cannot afford, as a society, to ignore the facts. Those who are healthy today, may be suffering in the future. The environment effects us all.
*Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash