body toxins
Photo: Joseph Elsbernd

In 2013, researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School plowed through a decade’s worth of health and nutrition data on Americans to find out how socioeconomic status affects exposure to chemical contaminants in the environment. Their analysis was based on NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), the world’s most comprehensive environmental-chemical biomonitoring study.

That poverty can undermine your health is not exactly news; environmental justice researchers have investigated the chemical burden of the poor for years. What is interesting about the study is it shows that wealth, too, can undermine your health, at least when it comes to environmental toxins. Both poor and rich people are harmed by biohazardous chemicals in their food and environment—but not by the same ones.


Buying Into Toxicity

The long-term effects of chemical accumulation in the human body are just beginning to be understood, but scientific evidence of the carcinogenic—cancer-causing—effects of chronic chemical exposure is growing, according to the Physicians for Social Responsibility. The scientific health advocacy group says between 75 and 80 percent of cancer diagnosis and death in the U.S. is related to environmental factors. Today, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting 1 in 4 Americans.

Although it would seem the rich could afford to buy their way out of this mess, wealth, at least in the United States, does not actually insulate more privileged folks from environmental toxins. In fact, wealth often entails discretionary income, much of it spent on things—consumer products, from lead-laced lipstick and nickel-leaching jewelry to cars lined with brominated flame retardants.

The Health and Sustainability Issues of Eating Fish

Lower-income individuals, for their part, are more likely to absorb plasticisers like BPA and certain phthalates found in cheap plastics and personal care products. The poor also have more lead and cadmium in their bodies. These chemicals correlate with the trappings of low socioeconomic status—hazardous occupations; non-nutritious food; and cigarette smoking.

In contrast, wealthier people can and do eat more fish, which partly explains the group’s disproportionate uptake of mercury, arsenic and thallium, the researchers noted. Mercury is a deadly neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor, while arsenic and thallium are highly carcinogenic. Environmental toxicologists say these heavy metals commonly concentrate in the bodies of larger, more expensive fish such as tuna, marlin and swordfish.


The Lifestyle Gap

Environmental toxicology is a multi disciplinary field specialized in by a small number of zoologists. Research in this area has helped show that certain kinds of chemical exposures are linked to specific cancers. Now, the University of Exeter’s latest research shows the distribution of those exposures is mediated by diet and lifestyle choices directly circumscribed by class.

Conventional environmental justice theories say exposure to environmental contaminants is largely the burden of the poor, but the latest research sketches a more complex picture. While poverty does increase exposure to specific environmental toxins, so does wealth. The poor are at risk due to their disadvantages, but it is also true that the rich are at risk, even with lifestyles afforded by greater financial privilege.

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