Amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, most of us don’t pay much attention to the food we eat. We trust that government agencies are protecting us from harmful chemicals in our food. However, the chemicals present in both our food and the environment are a global health crisis. As a result, we are accumulating toxic chemical pollutants in our bodies.
An old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” This may sound simplistic, but it is exactly why contamination of the food supply is critically important. Food safety is a concept that includes food quality, traceability of origin, and the absence of allergens, pathogens, or other contaminants, according to “We Are What We Eat: Food Safety and Proteomics” by A. D’Alessandro and L. Zolla.
So how are chemicals in our food affecting our health? Many clinical, physiological, pathological, and epidemiological studies have highlighted negative roles nutritional factors can have in relation to complex inflammation-related disorders like allergies, asthma, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer, according to D’Alessandro and Zolla. In the U.S. alone, 1 in 10 children are born prematurely, 1 in 11 have asthma, 1 in 10 have a learning disability, 1 in 100 have autism or are on the spectrum, and 1 in 10 white girls and 1 in 5 black girls begin sexual maturation before the age of eight, according to Sandra Steingraber, author of Raising Elijah.
Although environmental factors are not the only causes for these shocking statistics, they are contributors, and the effects of these chemicals are entirely preventable, says Steingraber. Not only is the composition of food critical to our health, it is clearly important in preventing health issues.
What are these harmful chemicals and how did they get into our food supply, you may ask. In An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage explains how during the twentieth century, scientific and industrial methods were applied to agriculture. Fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation created a huge expansion of food production. Nitrogen fertilizers were used to feed almost half the world in 2008. This so-called green revolution caused an increase in population, helped millions out of poverty, and allowed China and India to industrialize. However, the first green revolution actually caused such environmental damage that it created the need for a second green revolution. Standage argues that conservation agriculture would be the most promising approach for a second green revolution, however, our world now depends on these large amounts of food.
In the past decade, the number of outbreaks of human infections related to raw fruits, vegetables, and unpasteurized fruit juices has increased. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1973 and 1992 produce-related outbreaks per year doubled in the United States. The cause was unknown in more than half, say D’Alessandro and Zolla, but not knowing what needs to be avoided is the scariest part about chemicals in our food supply.
According to scientists Kristin S. Schafer and Susan Kegley, the contamination of the global food supply is primarily caused by persistent organic pollutants (POPs), a class of chemicals known to be the most dangerous compounds ever produced. POPs include many organochlorine pesticides like chlordane, dieldrin, and DDT. The reason POPs are an urgent global environmental health problem is because they are not only hazardous, but they stay in the environment for years; they concentrate in fatty tissues, so they bioaccumulate as they travel up the food chain; they travel long distances in the air and water; and they have been linked to serious health issues in humans (as well as other living organisms), even at very low levels of exposure, according to Schafer and Kegley.
POPs have spread throughout the environment in just a few decades. They are found in all living organisms. Even sea mammals have been found to contain levels high enough to consider them hazardous waste. POP contamination can be found in human blood and breast milk worldwide. It seems obvious that something must be done, and one may wonder why these harmful chemicals even still exist in our food supply.
The problem is that even though most POPs have been banned in many countries, their environmental persistence, coupled with their ability to travel, leads to the contamination of the world’s food supply. Schafer and Kegley conducted a study to show the amount of dietary exposure to POPs in the United States. Typical daily diets were designed for four regions of the U.S. The diets reflected normally eaten foods in each region. The analysis determined the number of occurrences of one POP chemical in a single food item that a person would have in a typical day. The results were astounding.
A typical daily diet in the United States could include between 63 and 70 “hits” of POP exposure. According to the FDA’s Total Diet Study, POPs residues occur at less than 100 parts per billion usually; however, there is evidence that even low levels of exposure are concerning. This is especially true for children who eat more than an average adult on a pound-for-pound basis. Additionally, children’s bodies are going through a variety of hormone-directed developmental processes that are extremely susceptible to POPs chemicals, according to Schafer and Kegley.
The United Nations Environment Program recognized the health risks from POPs cannot be managed by individual countries, so they sponsored an international agreement called the Stockholm Convention. Signed in May 2001, the agreement aims to phase out production, use, and release of 12 POPs. Effects of phasing out POPs may not be seen immediately, but stopping their use will provide future generations a life without the dangers of toxic chemicals.
Is it also possible to eliminate the health risks associated with POPs and other chemicals by eating organic food? A study was released in the Annals of Internal Medicine that tried to address the controversy over the benefits of organic foods. People buy organic because the crops are grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and livestock raised organically are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones – so these products are believed to be better both for the environment and safer for us. Organic produce was found to contain 30 percent less pesticide residue than non-organic foods, according to Stephanie Watson in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch. However, 30 percent less does not mean that these residues do not exist, and as stated earlier even minuscule amounts of certain chemicals can have serious health effects.
As we go about our lives, it may seem nearly impossible to avoid all the chemicals present in the food we eat, however it is important to be educated about what is happening politically to protect us from these harmful chemicals. The Stockholm Convention took a huge step toward decontaminating the global food supply, however there is still a long way to go. As an individual, you can make a great impact on the environment and your health by buying organic foods and reducing your fossil fuel consumption, but we must all be involved in pushing governments to protect the world.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the January 2016 Teen Ink Environment Contest.