A New Paradigm for Growing up in Today’s Toxic World
BY BETH LAMBERT, MA
For most people, the word “epidemic” recalls the idea of infectious disease outbreaks, and this is how the word has been used in common language throughout the latter part of the 20th century. This term may bring to mind the current COVID-19 pandemic, differing in definition by its global level of impact, in comparison to an epidemic which is more specific to a certain geography or population.
While the term “epidemic” often connotes infectious disease, it can also be more generally applied to a phenomenon where something (e.g. obesity, drug addiction, corruption) is spreading rapidly among a population of people. Right now, the United States is facing an epidemic of chronic conditions in children. It is estimated that more than half of U.S. children have at least one diagnosed chronic health condition. That’s over 30 million kids. This is up from the 1960s when an estimated 2 percent of children were diagnosed with a chronic illness. These numbers help explain why it seems as if nearly every child has some kind of health condition or diagnosis – from asthma, obesity and allergies, to ADHD, depression and anxiety.
According to the CDC, 1 in 6 children in the U.S. has a developmental disability, approximately 1 in 10 has ADHD, and some estimates put the rate of autism as high as 1 in 40 children (that’s at least a 300 percent growth rate in just 10 years.) These skyrocketing diagnoses aren’t limited to conditions like autism, ADHD or allergies – we’re also observing escalating rates of childhood cancers, too.
This epidemic of chronic conditions in children is real. And its effects extend beyond kids, their parents, and health practitioners. Mission Readiness, an organization comprised of 750 retired admirals, generals, and other top U.S. military leaders, considers the health of our children a major national security concern. According to their 2017 report, we simply do not have enough healthy young people to meet our military needs:
When weight problems are combined with educational deficits, criminal records, and other disqualifiers such as asthma or drug abuse, 75 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old are unable to join the military for one or more reasons. The military will need to have more fit young men and women if it is going to find enough recruits with the excellent qualifications needed for a modern military.
At the Documenting Hope Project, we believe society has reached a critical tipping point and there is an urgent need for practical solutions that can be applied immediately in order to address the health of our children.
Genetics and Environmental Cues
We are accustomed to explaining away health problems with assumptions about our genes. Profound breakthroughs in genetics during the 20th and early 21st century gave us great hope that we would find all the answers to health and wellness in our genes. However, new science and new discoveries about gene-environment interactions, epigenetics, and more tell us that this epidemic is influenced by much more than our genes alone. Genes, of course, are hugely important to our health, but genes are not the full picture.
The DNA in our cells does not exist in a vacuum. It is continuously interacting with components of the cell, which are continuously interacting with myriad environmental inputs. As the expression goes, “genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.” Unfortunately, by focusing only on genes rather than the things in our environment too, we completely ignore the big, ugly and inconvenient elephant in the room: Our modern ways of living are making us all sick, and especially our kids.
Thus at Documenting Hope we recognize the need for a new paradigm that instead focuses on environmental cues, inputs, and surroundings, and how they influence the cells of your body, your gene expression, and the many complex and interwoven systems that make you, you.
A New Health Paradigm
There is such a new paradigm. In short, this new paradigm looks at the body as a whole complex system that is exquisitely responsive on a moment-to-moment basis to each and every environmental input: food, water, air, toxicants, thoughts, beliefs, and more.
This complex system has only so much capacity to handle environmental stressors like carcinogens, endocrine disrupting chemicals, stressful situations, harsh synthetic light, etc. And when the cumulative impact – called Total Load – of the many environmental influences in our lives reaches a tipping point, we can get sick.
And when this tipping point is reached during critical developmental times (like infancy and toddlerhood), we can get ADHD. We can get sensory processing disorder. We can get autism.
It is the Total Load of living in a toxic, modern world, removed from nature and distant from the environment in which our bodies have evolved to thrive, that is impacting this generation of children.
Today’s More Toxic World
Not so long ago, our grandparents had no organophosphate pesticides on their fruits and vegetables; there were no endocrine disrupting chemicals on every piece of furniture they touched; there were no toxic phthalates in all of their soaps, shampoos and personal care products. There are so many sources of chemical exposure now.
What’s more, we know that there are very real synergies among different chemicals we encounter every day, making them more toxic as a combination than any chemical would be on its own – such as between aluminum and fluoride (found in deodorant and toothpaste, respectively). Plus, our grandmas didn’t have their internal ecosystems, our primary detoxification system, wiped out by rounds of antibiotics for every ear infection and sore throat. (Yes, besides our skin, our internal bacteria are our first line of defense against environmental toxins!)
Simply put, this generation of kids just has more stressors with fewer bodily resources to be able to handle the stressors.
Need more evidence that today’s world is way more toxic than just a generation ago? Check out the graphs published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in 2017 by Dr. Emily Bernhardt, professor of biogeochemistry at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
The graphs show the increase in the use of synthetic chemicals in recent decades. Imagine what a graph would look like if it included all the other stressors we know about like poor nutrition, sugar consumption, antibiotic use, sedentary lifestyles, etc.
This is why at Documenting Hope, we believe we must use a Total Load lens to see and address the chronic illness epidemic. There is just too much today for our kids’ bodies to handle.
How We Can Use Total Load Theory to Protect Our Kids
What if instead of looking for ways to manage the symptoms of health conditions, we focused on the root causes? What if we asked ourselves, What in my child’s environment and daily life might be causing his symptoms? What can I do to reduce my child’s Total Load?
This is the power of the Total Load Theory. If we can identify the root causes of our symptoms, we have the potential to prevent and even reverse these conditions. The best part about Total Load Theory is that it isn’t complicated. The basic idea is to take away the “bad” stuff and add in the “good” stuff.
You may have questions like, How am I supposed to know what in my child’s environment is toxic? What is considered the “bad” stuff, and what is considered the “good” stuff? How do I know which things in/around my children’s environment contribute to their Total Load?
While it may seem overwhelming to have to worry about organophosphates, phthalates, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and more, the starting steps are much simpler:
- Make more natural choices when shopping. Start by asking yourself questions that will guide you to make more natural choices. For example consider:
- Is this natural?
- Did my great-grandmother eat this or use this?
- Did my great-grandparents spend their leisure time doing activities like this? Prioritize “unplugged” leisure: walk in nature, be active, garden, play an instrument, limit screen time, read a book, enjoy a good conversation with a friend, and find other non-tech ways to unwind or blow off steam.
- Read Labels. Choose foods or products with recognizable ingredients. While not all hard-to-pronounce ingredients are harmful, this tip can help you spot better options.
Take the following labels for example: One comes from a popular leading brand of synthetic soap, the other from a safer soap. Which product contains ingredients you recognize? Which one contains ingredients that sound synthetic or “new to nature?” If you use a Total Load lens to make daily choices, you automatically will be working to reduce your child’s stressors and improving their health
- Rely on product certifications. Consult product guides like MADE SAFE, who are doing a lot of the hard work for us!
Why I care… and how you can help protect your own kids and change the future for all of our kids
I woke up to this issue back in 2009 when researching my book, A Compromised Generation: The Epidemic of Chronic Illness in America’s Children. At the time, I realized that this epidemic was much larger than anyone realized, but this awakening wasn’t just doom and gloom. I learned about hundreds of families nationwide that had drawn some of the same conclusions that I had about Total Load and were helping their own kids regain their health. This was mind-blowing. I had long believed that these conditions were lifelong and that there was little you could do outside of managing symptoms. But then I met families whose kids had gotten healthier. Some children even entirely reversed conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, MS and even autism. I have collected dozens of anecdotal cases (here and here) from these families, and I know there are many more out there.
In 2010, I founded a not-for-profit organization called Epidemic Answers. We do a lot of things to support families working to improve their kids’ health, including putting science behind the Total Load Theory and all of these families’ stories of healing and recovery. If we can scientifically demonstrate that Total Load matters to kids’ health through rigorous science, then we have the potential to really shift the way we all view children’s health. Here is what we are working on now:
- The Documenting Hope CHIRP™ Study (Child Health Inventory for Resilience and Prevention) – A pediatric survey designed to take a comprehensive inventory of the many environmental variables in children’s lives and study how those variables impact health. CHIRP™ is an IRB (Institutional Review Board) approved study that asks parents to answer questions about their child’s health and environment. Answers are submitted privately and securely online. We need as many parents as possible to participate in this study. Please consider volunteering your time to take the survey.
- As a thank you, you get a free personalized report that highlights the factors in your child’s life that might be considered “stressors” (which contribute to Total Load). Along with this report (and the good feeling that comes with volunteering your time to help kids), you’ll also get coupons and discounts to some great healthy products as well as a $50 Amazon cash gift card.
- The Documenting Hope FLIGHT™ Study (Facilitated Longitudinal Intensive Investigation of Genuine Health Transformation). A longitudinal study that seeks to answer the question: what will happen to a sick child if we reduce their Total Load, and increase their health supports? This study puts kids into an integrated, individualized healthcare environment. It will begin enrolling participants later this year. If you sign up for emails on the Documenting Hope website, we’ll let you know when this study is ready to begin enrolling participants.
I’m devoting my life efforts to these projects because, as a parent and a human being living on planet earth in 2020, I’m worried. I’m worried that if we don’t start looking at this problem with fresh eyes, and with a new lens, then we aren’t going to make it. The epidemic of chronic illness in America’s children is emblematic of a larger ecological and sustainability problem, and our kids are the canaries in the coal mine. The truth is that the way we are living in the modern world just isn’t sustainable, for humans or the planet. The good news is that we can do something about it. Today. Right now. Register to participate in and take the survey and you’ll have the opportunity to learn how to protect your children’s health AND you’ll play a part in helping us gather the data we need to protect future generations of children.
Read more about the epidemic and learn more about Epidemic Answers and the Documenting Hope Research Studies by visiting our websites: http://www.epidemicanswers.org and http://www.documentinghope.com
Beth Lambert is the Founder and Executive Director of Epidemic Answers, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the epidemic of chronic illness affecting our youth, and helping parents find healing solutions. Beth is also the author of A Compromised Generation: The Epidemic of Chronic Illness in America’s Children (Sentient, 2010). Beth is a former healthcare consultant and teacher. She attended Oxford University and graduated with honors from Williams College. She holds an M.A. in American Studies, with a concentration in American Healthcare, from Fairfield University.