“Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.” – Chief Seattle
Environmental medicine explores the connection that the environment has on human health. Although the field of environmental medicine is not necessarily classified as a “health system” on its own, elements of appreciating the health of the environment with respect to that of the individual are prevalent throughout the other healing systems presented in this section. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the chemicals we are exposed to, all profoundly impact every component of our being – body, mind, and spirit.
Shamanism makes it very clear that the health of Mother Earth is a crucial component of the health of the entire community, since we are all one living in balance. Likewise, Chinese Medicine also focuses heavily on all things working in balance. For instance, they see trees as earth’s lungs, in reference to the vital oxygen they produce. Finally, in Ayurveda, a core philosophy is “if you can’t put it on your tongue, don’t put it on your skin” which pays homage to the understanding that everything that comes in contact with our body must be pure and natural.
The Environment’s Connection to Health
Much of environmental medicine is a common sense, broad look at how everything we come in contact with can impact our health. When one really thinks about the many foreign elements bombarding us on a daily basis including particles in the air, contaminants in our water, chemicals in our food, and toxins in our cleaning products, it is not hard to surmise that the body could become imbalanced over time. When chemicals accumulate, the body can no longer protect itself and a variety of health problems can result. Following are just a few environmental issues and the symptoms they can cause.
Poor Air Quality (i.e. asbestos, pollution, chemicals, mold spores)
- Asthma, nasal congestion and respiratory irritation
- Lung cancer
- Rashes of the skin
- Eye irritation
Unfiltered, Impure Water
- Bacterial infections of the skin and digestive tract
- Metal toxicity (mental confusion, headaches, motor impairment)
Contaminated Foods (i.e. tainted with bacteria, hormones, preservatives, or pesticides)
- Digestive problems (diarrhea, gas, bloating)
- Disorders of the skin (acne, rashes)
- Changes in mood (depression, anxiety)
- Changes in growth and development
Chemical-Laden Personal Care / Beauty Products (i.e. BPA, parabens, dioxins, phthalates)
- Nasal and throat irritation
- Skin irritation and rashes
- Disruption of the endocrine system (menstrual disturbances, slowed metabolism)
Environmental Health Concerns
We often fall into the trap of thinking what we don’t know can’t hurt us, or we become lax by believing we are protected by regulations and environmental restrictions. The truth is that there are 80,000 chemicals in our environment, yet only 10-12,000 have ever been studied. Even when we do study chemicals, we are only looking at the LD50 – the lethal dose that kills 50% of the population. We don’t look at the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple compounds or respect that sometimes chemicals can have a damaging impact at smaller amounts well below the threshold (similar to the concepts of homeopathy, whereby smaller amounts can be more potent). Just because we can purchase air fresheners, chemical cleaners, plastics and other ubiquitous products doesn’t mean they are safe, or that we should be using them without considering their potential impact on our families, our environment, and ourselves.
Reducing Health Risks from the Environment
- Drink filtered waters using a filter certified by the NSF International.
- Avoid obvious sources of air pollution such as cigarette smoke and mold spores, utilizing HEPA filters and air cleaners when necessary.
- Use paints with low or no VOCs.
- Avoid using harsh chemicals like fertilizers, ammonia, bleach, air fresheners, and cleaning products. Use natural alternative instead (i.e. white vinegar for cleaning and disinfecting, and essential oils for naturally freshening).
- If you must use chemicals wear gloves and a face mask to prevent direct contact with the skin and mucous membranes.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
- Choose organic, non-GMO, whole foods whenever possible.
- Bolster the body’s internal defenses by consuming a diet rich in antioxidants from organic fruits and vegetables.
- Be aware of off-gassing from plastic-based products such as rugs, electronic equipment, and shower curtains, choosing natural fibers or recycled materials.
- Avoid fluorescent lighting whenever possible.
Environmental Medicine Resources
Environmental Health & Safety Organizations
American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) – www.aaemonline.org – an international association of physicians concerned with the environmental connections of human health. Their site contains a list of health advocacy organizations.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – http://www.safecosmetics.org/ – an organization dedicated to protecting consumers from harmful chemicals in cosmetics by working on legislature, research and education initiatives.
Center for Health, Environment & Justice – http://chej.org – a nonprofit working to help communities stand up to the dangers of “hazardous waste sites, chemical plants, and other polluting industries, as well as, eliminate unsafe chemicals in products used in homes, schools and institutions.”
Environmental Health Association of BC (EHA BC) – http://www.ehabc.org/ – a Canadian group focused on resources for “Environmental Sensitivities (ES): food, chemical and electromagnetic sensitivities.”
Environmental Working Group – http://www.ewg.org/ – One of the most popular and active nonprofit organizations fighting for consumer protection from environmental pollutants. They provide the Skin Deep database of chemicals in consumer products and the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce .
Pesticide Action Network North America – http://www.panna.org/your-health/food – an organization working to find alternatives to the use of harmful pesticides.
TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc.) – http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/ – nonprofit founded by Dr. Theo Colborn aimed at reducing the endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – www.epa.gov – the government agency responsible for protecting the environment. Their site features research and resources on green living, environmental issues, and tools for health.
Environmental Health Videos & Information
America’s Children and the Environment: Measures of Contaminants, Body Burdens, and Illnesses (2003, Second Edition) – http://www.epa.gov/envirohealth/children/publications/ace_2003.pdf – a comprehensive report from the EPA.
Contaminated Without Consent – http://www.contaminatedwithoutconsent.org/ – a video and educational campaign on the chemicals we are unknowingly exposed to. The site also includes link to additional environmental health agencies.
ToxRefDB – http://www.epa.gov/ncct/toxrefdb/ – The Toxicity Reference Database from the EPA which reports the research on animal toxicity studies over the past 30 years.
Girman, A., Vigna, L., Lee, R. (2004) Chapter 16: Selected Issues in Environmental Medicine in Integrative Medicine. McGraw Hill Companies.
[Last Updated: 12/23/15]