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What images come to mind when you hear the word “pollution?” Do you picture smoke stacks billowing with black clouds, lakes covered in a layer of toxic sludge, and landfills brimming with waste? What you probably don’t picture are the millions of human lives tragically cut short because of pollution. But if you paid attention to the headlines in recent weeks, you may have heard the shocking statistic that pollution is one of the leading causes of death globally. More specifically, exposure to pollution in air, water, and soil caused 9 million premature deaths in 2015, three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. That equates to one in six deaths worldwide. This startling data came out of the Lancet Commission on pollution and health, which stated that the causes of these pollution-related deaths were mainly due to cancer, lung disease, and heart disease. The majority of deaths were associated with air pollution (6.5 million), followed by water pollution (1.8 million), and 92% of all pollution-related fatalities occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Dr. Philip Landrigan, co-leader of the commission, stated that the problem lies in the fact that so little is known about how chemical exposure from pollution affects human beings.
So do those of us in wealthy countries have anything to worry about? While the pollution responsible for deaths in poverty-stricken countries is mostly due to poorly ventilated indoor cook stoves and contaminated drinking water, we do have our fair share of chemical pollution exposure here in the United States, too. And pollution generated in other countries can have an affect on us. In fact, there is evidence demonstrating that particulate matter in the air can travel—one study showed that emissions from manufacturing plants in China can end up polluting the air in Los Angeles. Water pollution is still a problem in many parts of the country, such as the water crisis currently taking place in Flint, Michigan, where cost-cutting measures led to contamination of the drinking water with toxins such as lead.
Since we can’t stop breathing air or drinking water, what can we do to minimize our exposure and mitigate the impact of pollution? A good first step is to assess the level of exposure you have according to where you live. You can visit the website www.pollution.org, which provides an interactive map showing levels of pollution, which is updated on a daily basis. This tool is offered by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution and can help you assess how high a risk you have for pollution exposure. Since air pollution is the greatest contributor to health problems, you can start where you have the most exposure—right inside your own home. Purchase a radon test kit or hire a radon mitigation company to test for radon, and then install a mitigation system if needed. This is of particular importance in Colorado, where we have naturally high levels of radon in our soils. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, and children are particularly
sensitive, so this is a relatively easy way to protect yourself and your family. Other major sources of indoor air pollution are volatile organic compound emissions from furniture, carpet, wood flooring, paint, and cleaning supplies. These household products often contain adhesives, formaldehyde, flame-retardants, and other chemicals that off-gas and pollute the air. When shopping for these products or doing any home remodeling, look for brands that use fewer chemicals and choose natural fibers as opposed to synthetic and chemically-treated materials. The EPA website offers some great tips geared toward reducing indoor air pollution. Make sure to buy the highest quality air filter you can afford for your home heating and cooling system and consider purchasing an air purifier if you suspect there is a lot of indoor air pollution in your home.
In terms of water pollution, we are lucky in the United States to have safe drinking water that is free from bacterial contamination. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely free from pollution though. If you’ve seen the movie Erin Brockovich, which is based on a true story, you know that industrial chemicals have been found in U.S. drinking water supplies, and that perhaps we shouldn’t be taking the safety of our drinking water for granted. Industrial chemicals are linked to cancer, hormone disruption, immune system dysfunction, and other health problems, and the EPA only regulates a small percentage of chemicals that end up in the water supply. We also know that pharmaceutical drugs, agricultural waste such as pesticides, and even the artificial sweetener sucralose find their way into drinking water. The best way to reduce your exposure to drinking water contaminants is to use a high quality water filter (reverse osmosis systems are thought to be the most thorough) or to drink water from a natural spring (visit www.findaspring.org to find out where to source spring water near you).
Exposure to some amount of pollution is inevitable, which emphasizes why we need to help our bodies detoxify whatever put in them. Our built-in detoxification organs (skin, lungs, kidney, colon, and liver) do a great job of protecting us from the deleterious effects of toxic air and water, but we can help them perform optimally through nutrition therapy. Here are just a few ways you can mitigate the harmful effects of pollution through your diet:
- Eat your beets. Betalains, also found to a lesser degree in the stalks of rhubarb and chard, provide the pigment that gives beets their deep red color. These substances increase the activity of phase II detoxification enzymes that aid in the neutralization and excretion of toxins. Beets also support the liver by stimulating the flow of bile. Try them pickled, steamed, juiced, or lightly roasted.
- Cruciferous veggies are your friend. Cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and other crucifers contain glucosinolates that activate phase II detoxification and mitigate the damaging effects of oxidative stress caused by pollution exposure.
- Source selenium. Selenium is a trace mineral that is a cofactor of glutathione peroxidase, which is an enzyme used by the liver during detoxification to protect you from oxidative damage. Good sources of selenium are seafood (tuna, shrimp, salmon, sardines, cod, scallops) crimini and shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, eggs, and sunflower seeds.
- Spice things ups. Using the spice turmeric (the main ingredient in curry) in your cooking will improve bile flow and encourage toxins to be safely excreted from your body. Studies have shown a component of turmeric, curcumin, can even protect the body against damage caused by mercury intoxication.
- Consider supplements. Several supplements have been clinically proven to aid the body with detoxification and could be considered when working with your nutrition therapy practitioner. For example, milk thistle protects the liver against toxins and stimulates liver cell regeneration. B complex vitamins can reverse negative impacts on the cardiovascular and immune systems caused by air pollution. Omega-3 fatty acids can modulate the oxidative stress that results from inhalation of particulate matter in air pollution.
While it may be difficult to control the exposure we have to pollutants in our environment, there is a lot we can do from a nutritional standpoint to give our bodies what they need to protect us from any detrimental effects. But remember, stress is toxic to the body as well, so try not to worry excessively about how you might be affected by pollution. There are steps you can take in your daily life to combat whatever toxins you may come across, so breathe easy.
Cadie Berrian, MNT
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