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Wellness Corner - March 2017 - C’mon, Are We Still Worrying about Dioxin and Mercury?


C’mon, Are We Still Worrying about Dioxin and Mercury?

By Dr. Gary Pace

Environmental exposures are in the news again. Actually, I guess they never really left. With the new administration taking charge, questions about the role of government in protecting the health of the population become important to consider.


I have been doing work on the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona and a controversy has been bubbling there for years that was recently covered in the LA Times. It appears that an herbicide related to Agent Orange was extensively sprayed on the reservation for about ten years in the late 1960s to eradicate “water hungry vegetation” that might interfere with the needs of the exploding population downstream in Phoenix. Significantly increased cancer rates resulted for the people that were exposed. After an extended legal battle, the US government settled for a large amount of money with some of the local white population due to these increased cancer rates. The Native population, on the other hand, has met with roadblocks to getting adequate information and compensation for damages. New discoveries of leaking storage barrels on the reservation, and persistent worries by residents about the disappearance of complete families due to the cancers, has led to an EPA investigation that is now in process.


Closer to home, persistent problems with mercury in beautiful Clearlake are documented in a PD article from 2/5/17. Mines from the late 1800s continue to leach this toxic mineral into the lake, even after several cleanup attempts. Mercury can cause nervous system problems, and consumption of contaminated fish should be limited, especially in pregnant women, children, and older folks. This can be a challenge for low-income people in areas like Clearlake, where fish can be an important part of the diet. In a study a few years back, of 20 fish taken, 14 contained mercury levels above the safe limit. Largemouth bass, a particularly tasty fish, registered up to 5 times the limit.

Anecdotal evidence of increased kidney and liver problems is common amongst the Elem Pomo people who are native to the area. Even more daunting is the deterioration of the tribal culture with severe infighting and divisions between factions. Only 8 homes are left now, when the tribe once had over 200. “… some have dubbed the Elem Pomos the ‘Mad Hatter tribe,’ referring to the mental deterioration from mercury vapor poisoning documented with the hat makers who used the substance in the 19th century.” It seems particularly stunning that these people who have lived in the region for 10,000 years are now getting poisoned by the fish that have historically been such an integral part of their diet.

“Protect our children’s brains” (in the NYT 2/3/17)

Chlorpyrifos is a widely used pesticide that has been coming under increasing scrutiny for links to disruptions in fetal brain development. The EPA was making plans to restrict the use of the pesticide, when Dow Chemical began trying to block the impending regulations. Part of Dow’s campaign was the donation of a huge sum to Trump’s inauguration. Now the EPA has a hostile director, is facing potential staffing cuts of over 50%, and the regulations now seem unlikely to become a reality.

Some Closing Thoughts:

• As evidenced in Clearlake, environmentally-related health problems can last for multiple generations.

• It is particularly troubling to recognize that people’s ability to think and manage their emotions is a common effect of some of these exposures.

• These environmental poisonings tend to affect the most vulnerable first: the very young, old, feeble. People who are poor and people of color have much more contact with environmental toxins in their communities, but the simple fact is that environmental poisoning impacts us all.

• Proving causation can be difficult because of the long time lag of most chronic health issues from exposure, and due to the wide variety of factors that contribute to cancers and neurologic disorders.

• Clearly, it is much cheaper to prevent exposure, rather than clean the spill or deal with the eventual health effect.

• The EPA has played an important role in minimizing environmental exposures. In the heavily industrialized world we now live in, more oversight and protection is needed, not less.