Last updated: January 3, 2012 5:07 pm
Health problems not simply the result of lifestyle choices
Researcher points out issues in our environment ‘that create the conditions for disease’
WATERLOO (CUP) — 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 the environment's effect on health, there are some factors that people have little control over and of which they may not even be aware.
Dr. Lanphear has been involved in research for almost 20 years and while he focuses on industrial pollutants and environmental chemicals, 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 [somebody lives] to the highway or an industrial plant, and the industrial pollutants that are emitted which they can’t control.”
Factors that affect health and can lead to problems such as heart disease — the leading cause of death worldwide — include air pollution, lead exposure, blood lead levels and tobacco exposure.
“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," said Dr. Lanphear. "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.”
Lead exposure is also much more damaging than is commonly believed and is also linked to heart disease and other health issues. “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.
Lanphear suggested some simple short-term solutions to help people reduce the potentially harmful effects of their environment, advising people to buy fresh foods to avoid pesticides that 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.”