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William Spear

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Adapting to a New World of Invisible Toxins

Posted: 04/24/11 07:14 PM ET

It's a whole new ballgame, folks. Nearly every community in the modern world is facing an invisible enemy. Constant exposures to toxic loads in our environment carry far more serious consequences than ever before. Survival of the fittest, when the best-suited mutations become dominant, may mean carefully rethinking your place in the modern world.

When we were children, my sister and I used to go to Little's Shoe Store in Pittsburgh to get properly fitted for our next pairs of Buster Browns. The Adrian X-Ray Company from Milwaukee had outfitted the store with the shoe-fitting x-ray unit that was quite common across the country at the time; more than ten thousand such instruments dotted the U.S. landscape. A fluoroscope, mounted near the floor and enclosed in a shielded box, revealed an image of our feet within the shoes on a fluorescent screen that we could see, assuring a proper fit while radiation leaked into the surrounding area. Despite a 1949 article in the New England Journal of Medicine declaring the danger of X-raying children's feet, subsequent laws forbidding the use of these devices had little effect as they remained in many stores until as late as the early 1980's. Thankfully, my sister and I can still play a decent game of tennis, having suffered no apparent irreparable damage from placing our feet in that strange box.

Like many Americans, I grew up eating Velveeta "processed cheese spread, Trix, and an occasional glass of Coke (until John Glenn drank Tang in space in 1962). While Mother miraculously had the wisdom to choose brown rice over white much of the time, we heard little about nutrition other than the importance of protein (also known as animal food), Vitamin C (orange juice, of course) and eating our vegetables. An aversion to milk spared me from the recommended daily allowance of three cups, but somehow I managed to inhale ice cream every chance I could. It would not be until I was away at college, almost one hundred pounds overweight, that I started to pay attention to what I was putting in my body. It was primarily thanks to my strong ancestors and the genes they passed to me that I was able to get away with eating so poorly.

I thought Calcium and Vitamin C were the same thing, that all sugars were the same and that diet soda was actually good for me. I had no clue what a complex carbohydrate was. While living in Denmark, I slowly became ill from the accumulation of massive amounts of delicious Danish pastries and cheeses, finally ending up in the hospital with acute renal failure. Hours before what would have been my first dialysis treatment, friends told me about an alternative -- one that included acupuncture, Chinese herbs, brown rice, vegetables, miso soup and seaweed. Macrobiotics entered my life and changed the playing field forever. Returning to the US thin and clean-shaven two years later, my mother walked by me at the airport, not recognizing her trim, healthy son.

In the forty years since, studying the relationship between food and health has been among my most gratifying pursuits. Like others who came to Macrobiotics in the '60s and '70s, I have counseled thousands to recover their health by changing their diet and lifestyle. Much of my focus has been on the quality of the food we eat, choosing local, seasonal and organic wherever possible. Of course, many people who came to Macrobiotics could not be helped for a multitude of reasons, but the principles simply cannot be refuted; it is each individual's interpretation and practice that ultimately makes the difference and therefore needs to be carefully studied. Macrobiotics is not a nutritional science; rather, it is an ideology of understanding our relationship with the environment and eating according to a particular purpose. Properly applied, heart diseases can be reversed, diabetes easily prevented, cancers sent into remission: what people refer to as miracles become even more common. For many who go the alternative route and take personal responsibility to change, improvement comes from an understanding and application of the laws of nature, which lead us to a diet and way of life closer to what has been the foundation for human evolution for hundreds of thousands of years. Cesium is not one of the daily requirements.

In the days when my feet were being x-rayed, Jonas Salk was administering polio vaccines in my elementary school. Like virtually everyone we knew, my sister and I got the required protection that everyone believed were essential despite the fact that the incidence of polio began to decrease markedly even before the administration of the vaccine. I remember locking myself in the bathroom of the doctor's office begging not to have the needle jab; our mother was so terrified we would contract polio that nothing could stop her from protecting us. Thankfully, we did not have to endure the more than thirty-six immunizations now recommended before a child is six years old. We survived without noticeable damage and very possibly avoiding polio as a result of vaccine; I often wonder what the effect of four times as many immunizations will be on the present generation.

Pittsburgh's air quality, still among the worst in the US, was abominable. Every day, windowsills would blacken with soot from the thick smoke billowing out of the nearby steel mills. Gasoline was eighteen cents a gallon and our car cost $1,500. No one wore seat belts, filtered their water or recycled. Virtually every adult in my family carried a pack of cigarettes, the secondhand smoke present in every room. Chemicals, plastics, artificial sweeteners and food preservatives predominated our daily intake, but nowhere on the list of toxins was there ever a concern for radioactive isotopes. Even though we inhaled all those toxins, we somehow became accustomed to the toxic soup in which we grew up. Whenever I expressed my concern about these dangers, my mother would quote a proverb, reminding me that everything is temporary. "This, too, shall pass," she'd say, until she took her final breath.

The environmental challenges we now face are exponentially far greater than at any time in my life. More than fourteen thousand synthetic chemicals and preservatives are now a part of our daily food. We are only guessing at the impact of genetically modifying our food and irradiation much as we did with cigarettes. Cell phones are another great "modern" experiment, unconsciously placing them next to our skulls for hours at a time. Body scanning devices in more than 60 US airports are common now, x-raying far more than our feet when we bought those new shoes. Cesium-137 is in our drinking water now; radioactive iodine-131 is in fish. The new symbol on food packages may very well soon be the familiar yellow triangle for radiation with a line through it, bragging "This food has no radioactivity."

But that, too, cannot last, as the entire planet is being poisoned with the gradual release of radioactive elements from Fukushima and other nuclear facilities still in operation. While the levels we are seeing may still be very low, they are certain to slowly increase - like the price of gas at the pump, inching up while we hardly take notice until it's too late to do anything about it.

The world is not getting any smaller; we are just beginning to realize how close together we really are. The seas are not separate; the air we breathe passes through no border control. The new poisons are far more lethal than food additives or secondhand smoke, and there is less we can do to protect ourselves from the consequences of our ignorance and greed that got us here.

Ironically, it is the Japanese phrase shin do fu ji that rings truest for me: human and soil are not two. And now, as governments join together to seek solutions to this crisis, we each become more aware of the fast-growing, invisible toxic load on earth, in the atmosphere and in our bodies. We can no longer just ignore what is taking place before our eyes, pretending that some environmental agency will provide the solution and it will all get better; to the contrary, every sign seems to point to the reality that life on earth is changing at a rapid rate, that biological degradation from pesticides, plastics and chemicals is increasing in every part of the ecosphere.

Through social media and community networks across the globe, we must all find ways to share equally - and without blame -- useful knowledge even from the Japanese experience in Nagasaki as well as answers from modern science that provide effective ways to detoxify, strengthen our immune systems and adapt to the sobering impact of the nuclear age. Like so many other challenges of our lifetime, "this too shall pass" - but not without gargantuan consequences.

 

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