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Protecting Ourselves From An Invisible Danger: Environmental Toxins

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A couple of years ago, I went in for a routine checkup with an orthopedist to inquire about some shooting pains in my left knee and shin. I suspected I had a running injury, and my doctor agreed. He recommended I get an MRI, to see if perhaps the pain stemmed from inflammation in my hip. The MRI will tell us more, he said.

And so it did. The problem, it turns out, was not a frayed ligament: It was a tumor the size of a navel orange just inside my pelvis. An oncologist suspected this "suspicious mass" was a soft-tissue sarcoma.

To say the least, this news was terrifying. Far worse than my fears for myself were my worries about my kids, who at the time were just four and 18 months old. My mind leapt to the worst-case scenario: How would they get by without a father? Trying to protect them from the initial shock of the news, my wife and I took turns taking our cell phones outside to talk to doctors and loved ones. Standing in the yard, trying to set up a date for a CT scan, I would look through the living room window to see my kids playing on the floor. I imagined the same scene, with me gone. I felt like a ghost.

Over the next four weks, as I moved through the medical pipeline, the mystery of my condition continued to deepen. It reached its most perplexing two hours before I entered the surgical suite. Sitting in the waiting room, already dressed in my surgical gown, I was approached by a pair of researchers asking if they could pose a few questions.

They pulled out their clipboards. "How much exposure had I had to toxic chemicals and other contaminants?" they asked.

"In my life?" I asked. "What kind of chemicals do you mean?"

The researchers began reading from a list, which turned out to be long. Some things I had heard of, many others I had not. "Metal filings? Asbestos dust? Cutting oils?"

I didn't think so. What's a cutting oil?

"How about gasoline exhaust? Asphalt? Foam insulation? Natural gas fumes?" they asked.

Where was this going?

The words kept coming: "Vinyl chloride?" I wasn't sure. What was that? "How about plastics?" Are you kidding? Everything is made of plastic.

Dry cleaning agents? Detergents or fumes from plastic meat wrap? Benzene or other solvents? Formaldehyde? Varnishes? Adhesives? Lacquers? Glues? Acrylic or oil paints? Inks or dyes? Tanning solutions? Cotton textiles? Fiber glass? Bug killers or pesticides? Weed killers or herbicides? Heat transfer fluids? Hydraulic lubricants? Electric fluids? Flame retardants?

My mind reeled. Finished with their questions, the researchers thanked me, and went on their way. My surgeon led me into the operating room, and I lay down under the bright lights and beeping machines. I was knocked out and awoke hours later in a different wing of the hospital, opening my eyes to the smiling faces of my surgeon and my wife. On the operating table, I learned, I had drawn the long straw. My tumor, once it was removed, turned out to be benign. "Wow," I said. "How many people get this lucky?"

"About four in a hundred," my surgeon said. "You're a lucky man."

Indeed I was. Yet I did not feel exactly at ease. My family had just been through a horrifying experience and no one seemed to know why. I left the hospital with a new determination: I wanted to know what I could do to protect myself and my children from dangers I had never really considered before. I wanted to learn more about toxic chemicals -- what they were, where they came from and what we could do to avoid them.

It turns out there is a lot to learn. In every room of our houses, in every action we take, we are exposed to synthetic chemicals. We inhale chemicals in the form of "volatile organic compounds" offgassing from paints, perfumes and synthetic upholstery. We put them on our skin, in the form of cosmetics, skin creams and shampoos. We absorb them in our food and in our drinking water, which is laced not only with agricultural pesticides but with discarded pharmaceutical drugs like anti-psychotics and erection enhancers. Once you start to peek behind the curtain, the number of chemicals we expose ourselves to becomes unnerving. If we can even stand to peek, that is. Most of us are so numb, or frightened, by this saturation that we don't have the courage to ask where all this stuff comes from or what it might do to us -- far less what we might do to pull ourselves out of this stew.

And while cancer seems to strike the loudest bells in our collective consciousness, it's not the only danger that some people believe may be traced to environmental chemicals. Cognitive development experts say learning disabilities rose 191 percent between 1977 and 1994. The California Department of Developmental Services says it saw a 210 percent jump in autism rates in the decade following the mid 1990s. One in 8 children is born prematurely; nationwide, premature births have jumped nearly 30 percent since 1981. Twenty-four million Americans have an auto-immune disease; research indicates this number has been doubling and tripling around the globe. The University of Kentucky recently reported a link between trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent known as TCE, and Parkinson's Disease. TCE can be found in more than a third of the nation's waterways.

So what actions can we take on our own to protect ourselves from -- or at the very least, limit our exposure to -- these toxic chemicals? What can we do around our homes, our workplaces and our children's schools? What should we talk to our neighbors about, and to our legislators? How can we regain some sense of control over what ends up in our bodies?

These are some of the questions I will address in this space in the coming weeks.