Saturday, October 17, 2009

Environment and Autoimmunity

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I just finished reading a book that has terrified me. I'm not easily scared, but The Autoimmune Epidemic by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster, was a white-knuckled read.

This excerpt from the forward by Douglas Kerr MD, PhD, neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore Maryland, summarizes the overall concepts in the book:
You will leave this book with no reservations about the veracity of the conclusions: put simply, there is no doubt that autoimmune diseases are on the rise and our increasing environmental exposure to toxins and chemicals is fueling this rise. The research is sound. The conclusions, unassailable.
Donna begins her book by describing her own experience with autoimmune disease complete with a very good tutorial on the basics of autoimmune disease at the cellular level, then goes on to unveil some alarming statistics:
In 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a report called Progress in Autoimmune Diseases Research in which the director of NIH pronounced that nearly one hundred known autoimmune afflict 23.5 million people in the U.S., or one in twelve Americans, and these diseases are now on the rise worldwide - for reasons unknown. The statistics are stark: over the past forty years, rates of lupus, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and a range of other autoimmune diseases have doubled and tripled in Western countries around the world.
You can read the NIH report in it's entirety here.

What, then, in this book gives me the heebie jeebies? Statistics such as those found in the NIH report, above,  state that cause of autoimmune disease is 30% genetic susceptibility and 70% environmental triggers. Seventy percent. Those environmental triggers are the stuff of nightmares.

Nakazawa makes the assertion that the bulk of those triggers is comprised of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and industrial byproducts. The pervasiveness of the those nasties in our daily environment leaves me reexamining every bite of food that I ingest, every cosmetic that I use, and every cleaning agent that I slather on a sponge. This knowledge makes me want to toss out all my teflon-coated pans, and run screaming from new carpets and flame-retardant fabrics. How pervasive, you ask? She cites numerous studies that revealed escalading trends in increased environmental and industrial toxins found in healthy individuals' blood all around the world. But even more jaw-dropping was that these toxins were not limited to adults:
In 2005, a set of findings emerged that shocked toxicologists around the world. Researchers working through two major laboratories found an alarming cocktail of 287 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the fetal cord blood of ten newborn infants from around the country, in samples taken by the American Red Cross....Shortly after, investigators in the Netherlands turned up similar findings: they discovered an array of chemicals found in household cleaners, cosmetics, and furniture in the cord blood of thirty newborns.
She goes on to make an excellent point: that in spite of the overwhelming amount of evidence linking toxic waste and chemical products to autoimmune disease, science has yet to coin a phrase that identifies these agents as AI triggers. So Nakazawa coins her own term : autogen, AI's version of the word carcinogen in relation to cancer. Makes sense to me. By naming our enemy, we have made the first step in conquering it.

In Chapter Three, Nakazawa discusses clusters of autoimmune epidemics found in the US and looks closely at a specific cluster of autoimmune disease activity located in and around Buffalo, NY, coincidentally also the site of multiple toxic waste sites. Her story begins in the mid 1980s, and after literally decades of investigation, documentation, study, and nagging by a group of locals, clean up on the contaminated site did not begin until 2006:
Validation, much less help, didn't arrive until the number of people sick and dying with lupus in the area had already reached such critical mass that the cluster could no longer be ignored. For the many years that PCBs, lead, and TCE sat smoldering on these three sites, Buffalo was a disaster just waiting to be revealed.
Want to know if your community has multihazardous  sites: a combination of hazardous, toxic, and/or Superfund-classified substances and chemicals? Go to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's website, scroll down to MyEnvironment, and type in your zip code. You'll find a wealth of information specific to your city or area.

Unlike a good horror movie, this book does not provide a comforting all-is-well conclusion. Instead, Nakazawa discusses ongoing research and makes an effective argument for the need for more exhaustive research, especially research directed specifically on environmental triggers. All is not well. If unchecked, rates of autoimmune disease will continue to rise without an effective prevention and treatment program.

She offers a chapter of suggestions of ways that we can attempt to shield our immune system from this seemingly never-ending onslaught. I felt as though this chapter was anti-climactic, in that the advice offered was strategies that most of us would think were simply common sense: to eat organic foods, avoid using unnecessary chemicals in our home and gardens, avoid eating any kind of processed foods, and to avoid use of most cosmetics, among other tips.

The book seemed to spend 90% of it's pages telling us that the sky is falling, and indeed it probably is, environmentally speaking. But I would sleep much better at night if I had a better idea of exactly how to prop up my own little patch of blue.

Perhaps the value of this book is simply in raising awareness of several concepts: that autoimmune disease deserves an enormous increase in funding for research, that the effect of toxic elements introduced into our environment has global and devastating health repercussions, and that action is needed now to stem this Autoimmune Epidemic.

Read it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for another book to add to my "to read" list. What concerns me even more than the scary information given,is that governments are given this information and do zip all about cleaning up polluted sites, getting more stringent on what are safe ingredients in cleaning products etc. The proof is there, but they seem to do a great job of turning a blind eye to the messes big corporations are making and leaving behind. Maybe there is some truth in conspiracy theories,especially when we are talking big dollars with big corp
p.s. love your new blog look