glenn ellis

Glenn Ellis

*From the mouths of babes, comes Truth.

The old adage played out recently, when a your girl started a petition, that resulted in PepsiCo to remove a dangerous chemical form some of it’s beverage drinks.

Sarah Kavanagh, the 15-year-old girl from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Kavanagh started a petition on, an online petition platform, to ask PepsiCo to remove BVO from Gatorade. It received more than 200,000 signatures, and on Friday, the teenager declared victory.

Seems that while Mayors and Governors around the country were fighting to tax soda because of the sugar, an even more deadly and sinister threat to our children’s health was “fizzing” beneath the surface.

The ingredient, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), is a chemical containing bromine, which is found in fire retardants. Small quantities of BVO are used legally in some citrus-flavored drinks in the United States to keep the flavor evenly distributed.

Just recently, a California study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day. These hazardous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the dust we touch and the couches we sit on. Many flame retardants raise health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, and harmful effects on brain development. It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe. Infants and toddlers who spend much time on the floor are at higher risk for exposure.

This brings to mind consideration of the myriad of chemicals that are allowed, legally, to be used in our food supply, and yet pose deadly harm to us all.

Over the past century humans have introduced a large number of chemical substances into the environment. Some are the waste from industrial and agricultural processes. Some have been designed as structural materials and others have been designed to perform various functions such as healing the sick or killing pests and weeds. Obviously some chemicals are useful but many are toxic and their harm to the environment and our health far outweighs their benefit to society.

Cancer is caused by changes in a cell’s DNA – its genetic “blueprint.” Some of these changes may be inherited from our parents, while others may be caused by outside exposures, which are often referred to as environmental factors. Environmental factors can include a wide range of exposures, such as:

  • Lifestyle factors (nutrition, tobacco use, physical activity, etc.)
  • Naturally occurring exposures (ultraviolet light, radon gas, infectious agents, etc.)
  • Medical treatments (chemotherapy, radiation, immune system-suppressing drugs, etc.)
  • Workplace exposures
  • Household exposures
  • Pollution

Substances and exposures that can lead to cancer are called carcinogens. Some carcinogens do not affect DNA directly, but lead to cancer in other ways. For example, they may cause cells to divide at a faster than normal rate, which could increase the chances that DNA changes will occur.

Carcinogens do not cause cancer in every case, all the time. Substances labeled as carcinogens may have different levels of cancer-causing potential. Some may cause cancer only after prolonged, high levels of exposure. And for any particular person, the risk of developing cancer depends on many factors, including how they are exposed to a carcinogen, the length and intensity of the exposure, and the person’s genetic makeup.

The alarming truth is that this phenomenon impacts our society in disproportionate ways.

It’s a statistical fact: people who live, work and play in America’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor. Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts — say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls “environmental racism.”

Toxic chemicals in our environment, such as mercury, lead, and certain manmade chemicals, have been linked to cancer, birth defects and brain impairments. Reducing or eliminating the load of these dangerous chemicals in the products we buy, the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink can help reduce the toll of human disease and suffering.

Reports show that as many as 80,000 different chemicals are bombarding us in one way or another, every single day.

For my money, one of the most treacherous of them all is Dioxin, the name given to a group of persistent, very toxic chemicals.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completed its first health assessment of dioxin in 1985. The agency’s estimate in this report of the cancer risk to humans from dioxin exposure was by far the highest defined for any chemical by any government agency anywhere in the world at the time.

In 1985, “We are the World” won song of the year; The Color Purple and Rocky lit up the silver screen; The Cosby Show, Dallas, and 227 were must-see TV; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would assess the health risks of dioxins.

“We are the World” hasn’t been heard on the airwaves in years, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a young person today who is familiar with any of those 1980s movies or TV shows. Yet 27 years later, Americans are still waiting for the EPA to fulfill its promise on examining dioxins.

Meanwhile, the evidence highlighting the chemicals’ impacts continues to pile up. Studies link them to health maladies like endometriosis, fertility problems, birth defects, learning disabilities, immune system deficiencies, and diabetes, just to name a few. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers dioxins to be a human carcinogen. The chemicals served as a toxic contaminant in Agent Orange, a substance used during the Vietnam War as part of the U.S. military’s herbicidal warfare program.

The really scary part is that dioxins are also everywhere, particularly in the food supply. The noxious chemicals are an unintended byproduct of industrial processes that burn chlorine, especially chemical factories and garbage and medical waste incinerators. Dioxins get spewed into the air, where they eventually settle into soil, water, and plants. Animals ingest dioxins as they graze, and the chemicals build up in the creatures’ fatty tissues.

That’s bad news for animals—and for the people that eat them. People regularly consume a helping of dioxins whenever they eat eggs, fish, meat, and dairy products. According to the EPA, a whopping 96 percent of human exposure to dioxins occurs through the food supply. A person eating one fast-food hamburger per week has a 12 chance per million risk of developing a Dioxin-induced cancer.

Studies even suggest that virtually every single American contains measurable levels of dioxins the body—including babies, who are oftentimes born pre-polluted.

The major sources of dioxin are in our diet. Since dioxin is fat-soluble, it “bio accumulates”, climbing up the food chain. A North American eating a typical North American diet will receive 93% of their dioxin exposure from meat and dairy products (23% is from milk and dairy alone; the other large sources of exposure are beef, fish, pork, poultry and eggs). In fish, these toxins bioaccumulate up the food chain so that dioxin levels in fish are 100,000 times that of the surrounding environment. The best way to avoid dioxin exposure is to reduce or eliminate your consumption of meat and dairy products by adopting a vegan diet.

According to the US EPA draft report on dioxin’s health effects, the levels of dioxin-like compounds found in the general population may cause a lifetime cancer risk as high as one in 1,000. This is 1,000 times higher than the generally “acceptable” risk level for cancer of one in a million.

Environmental justice continues to be an important part of the struggle to improve and maintain a clean and healthful environment, especially for those who have traditionally lived, worked and played closest to the sources of pollution.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.

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