Health problems not simply the result of lifestyle choices

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The growing number of “sugar free,” “no trans-fats” and “reduced salt” products in grocery stores suggest that Canadians are trying to make healthy choices, however, according to Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)-funded researcher currently studying the affects the environment has on health, there are some factors that people have little control over and may not even be aware of. Dr. Lanphear has been involved in research for almost 20 years and suggests ways of decreasing risks of illnesses and chronic diseases.

Dr. Lanphear’s research may focus on industrial pollutants and environmental chemicals but there are many other important environmental factors that he tries to take into account. He defines the term “environment” broadly, explaining it involves “thinking about the environment as those conditions, those pollutants that either cause disease or disability or make it convenient or inconvenient to adopt healthy lifestyles.”

As the environment is often something most people have little control over, Dr. Lanphear emphasized that the federal and provincial government have a duty to correct the current conditions affecting the health of citizens. “Lifestyle is sort of a crutch. It’s easy for a federal agency or [World Health Organization], for example, to blame people for their own problems — that person chose to smoke, that person chose not to be physically active,” he said. “When we think of environment, often times in public health we think about those things that create the conditions for disease, so it’s not so much blaming people for their lifestyle choices but things like how close does somebody live to the highway or an industrial plant and the industrial pollutants that are emitted which they can’t control.”

Factors that affect health, to problems such as heart disease (the leading cause of death world wide) include air pollution, led exposure, blood lead levels and tobacco exposure. According to Dr. Lanphear tobacco, exposure to cigarettes can be damaging even without actively smoking. “There have been a number of studies that show when you ban smoking in public places there are fairly striking reductions in acute heart attacks. Even low levels, levels that we thought were innocuous even a decade ago we’re now beginning to recognize can have a profound impact on disease and even death,” he said.

Lead exposure is also much more damaging than is commonly believed, also having links to heart disease. “In other cases like with mental health problems, ADHD or criminal behaviour — anti-social behaviours as we call them — there are other factors like lead exposure again, which people have relatively little control over,” he added.

When asked who is at the most risk of being affected by poor environmental conditions he identified two groups as being particularly vulnerable. “One is children, who are developing quite rapidly particularly during the fetal period or the developmental period before earth because the organs are growing and changing so rapidly that you can imagine sticking a wrench in at the right time could be quite critical,” said Dr. Lanphear.

The second group he identified as being susceptible are those without the financial means to choose the ideal living locations. “Often times people who are poor live in areas that are in close proximity to either a smelter or a chemical plant or a highway,” said Dr. Lanphear.

Lanphear suggested some simple short term solutions to help people reduce the affect of their environment, advising people to buy fresh foods to avoid pesticides conventional produce might contain, avoid smoking and permitting smoking in their households, and finally to try to take advantage of public transportation.

“What we ultimately need to do is to find ways to dramatically reduce the allowable levels of industrial pollutants and environmental chemicals in the air and in our foods in particular but also in the water we drink,” he said. “For that we really have to rely on federal agencies or provincial government to help control those kinds of exposures because it’s really beyond the ability of most of us.”


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