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What the health: Skull and bones — and our bodies

Auckland, N.Z.— When you see or hear the word “toxic,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think about oil spills and hazardous waste? Or perhaps, something you saw in the news recently about chemical attacks or contaminated water sources in faraway places, or maybe hazardous toys from China? Do you think about the pesticides for rodents and other vectors that could carry harmful diseases?

To most of us, living in this day and age, the words poison, toxic and toxicants rarely come to mind until we either see them in the news, or when we have to go shopping for household cleaning products. Even then, do we look at the warning labels or the price tags?

Unfortunately, I think for many of us, this involuntary ignorance and lack of awareness we have of the dangers we face from toxicants could very well be one of the most detrimental risk factors to our health.

Contrary to what most of us believe and expect, many toxic and harmful chemicals are actually all around us, and we are unknowingly exposed to them every single day. From the pesticides sprayed on the fruits and vegetables we eat to the ingredients in our shampoos and cosmetics, there are literally thousands of different synthetic chemicals that we voluntarily, yet unconsciously expose ourselves to on a daily basis. So you might be thinking, “Yeah, so what? I’m pretty sure they’re safe – why else would they be available on store shelves if they weren’t?” Well, the truth is, out of these thousands of chemicals contained in nearly all of the products we use and consume, a very small number have actually been tested for any threats they could pose on human health.

Synthetic chemicals are man-made chemicals (toxicants) that are much more toxic than those naturally made and found (toxins). So just like much of our food source today, many of the products we find on store shelves have become more artificial, more synthetic and less organically based or sourced. A lot of toxicants found in consumer, commercial, and industrial products, as well as in the waste and gasses released into the environment as a result of the manufacturing process have been linked with all sorts of illnesses and diseases. These include many types of cancers, respiratory diseases, as well as birth defects and developmental impairment in children. And the list goes on.

This silent pervasive contamination of our health and well-being has intensified drastically over the past half-century, fuelled by and in unison with the increase of capitalist consumerism and our continuous search for “faster, newer and cheaper” products. In addition to the billions of dollars that are spent each year on convincing us to keep buying such products, big corporations in all sorts of industries have also colluded in the past to ensure that their products and the market are kept as unregulated by the state as possible. Yes, that’s right. It’s not government or strict laws that effectively regulate and ultimately dictate what can and cannot be used to make the products we consume every day. It’s the industries that make and sell them to us.

Much of this goes unnoticed since we are often under the impression that all products we buy or consume are 100 percent safe. This is partly because our exposure to toxicants and chemicals in the products that we use every day is minimal, meaning we probably won’t develop cancer from daily use of shampoo that contains sodium lauryl sulfate (which is argued to be carcinogenic), but the fact that we are exposed to them in the first place should be a cause for concern. Another reason why we seldom take time to ponder the harmful effects of the 200+ chemicals we use every day is that we place too much trust and reliance on the agencies that regulate them as well as the industries that produce them. We like to think that they have our health in mind and in that it’s in their best interest when producing products.

Do we really have a choice? Consider the situation we face here in Micronesia. We virtually have no say nor choice in the products we import because of our geographical isolation and the limited manufacturing capabilities. So although we are somewhat lucky that a majority of our food and consumer products are imported from the U.S. with FDA, EPA, USDA, and other authority certifications, there is nevertheless still so much more that needs to be done to effectively ensure that the products we consume are harmless to both our health and our environment.

As we wait for further testing and regulating to be done on our behalf for the sake of our health, the least we could do for ourselves is to be more aware of the chemicals we expose ourselves to every day. In addition to being smart consumers in terms of healthy food choices, we should also be mindful of the other products we buy and use on a daily basis, such as cosmetics, pesticides, toothpaste, paint, and even fluorescent light bulbs.

Even if it doesn’t have a skull and bones warning label on it, it could still be lethal and harmful to our bodies.

Gaafar Uherbelau is a social marketer for the Palau Ministry of Health and is currently studying Social Sciences for Public Health at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Send feedback

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