What’s gotten into us?

Miracles happen to people. We  call them miracles because they can’t be replicated on someone else. That’s what happened to McKay Jenkins, an English professor at  he wrote a book about it entitled, What’s gotten into us? 

As a runner, Jenkins was having trouble with his left leg and thought he had some orthopedic problem. Diagnostic tests showed that he had an orange-sized tumor in his abdomen that was pressing on his femoral nerve and there was a chance that it might be cancerous.

 The miracle is that it was not cancerous, had not spread to or damaged other organs, was isolated and surgically removed. But what caused the tumor in the first place? His was growing out of a nerve cell and the surgeon was able to peel it off the femoral nerve (which runs down the leg from the spinal cord.)

 Jenkins became obsessed with figuring out what caused the tumor in the first place. That quest took him to the 1918 birth of synthetic chemicals when a German scientist, Fritz Haber, figured out how to make synthetic nitrogen. Since then, petrochemicals have been used to make plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, clothes, personal care products, cars, bedding, cooking utensils, home cleaning products, and more. As they ushered in the Synthetic Century, products have proliferated faster than our ability to monitor their effects on our bodies or our environment.

 The good news is that our bodies come equipped with an immune system organized to get rid of any foreign matter. Hence the orange-sized tumor, a benign collection of stuff the body needed to get rid of. Sometimes, a powerful immune system will actually break the unwanted growth up and get rid of it. The bad news is that sometimes the tumor has damaged a vital organ beyond repair or become invasive elsewhere. In Jenkins case, the fact that his body warned him with pain, and his surgeon’s timely skill was able to remove it safely, gave him a miracle.

 However, Jenkins wanted to know the root causes, why this century spawned so many deaths whose roots related to insecticide and pesticide exposure. Tumors previously related to old age now are being found increasingly in children.

 Rachel Carson’s question was, “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for life?”

 Just as Michael Pollan has advised us not to buy any food with more than 5 ingredients listed on the label, we need to also check ANY product we buy and realize that the synthetics we’ve become so dependent on may be contributing to our health problems. Skin products are easily absorbed: lipstick, skin creams, toothpaste, sun block, soaps. Cleaning products like detergents, furniture polish, tile cleaners, car wash. Toys like rattles made of plastic, teething rings, and small plastic animals, stuffed animals made of synthetic material and stuffed with more synthetics. Clothes for active sport and work breathability. Fabrics for drapes and stuffing for furniture and pillows. Building supplies like insulation, paints, plastic woods and blowing sawdust.

 Compound this responsibility with the fact that labeling often only includes an “active ingredient” and may or may not include all the chemicals in the product. In theUS, corporations control what is allowed on labels. Unless we buy organically grown foods, we have no guarantee that the food is synthetic free. Plastic containers have taken over most cooking oils and products. Even a can of organic food my be lined with bisphenol A, a plasticizer known to cause hormone imbalances that can then lead to breast and other cancers.

 So, what’s the bottom line? To reduce medical bills and the inconvenience of health problems, we need to begin taking small steps and consciously simplify our food, clothing and shelter needs, monitor our water supply, and push for clear labeling in English with appropriate warnings as needed. We need to shop smarter and vote better. Every small step counts.

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