Twentieth-century disease
enters the new millennium
by Sheila Cole
UPdate December 1999

     Discussion involving the interrelations between environment and health are not new to Nova Scotians. In our province we have the dubious distinction of having had what was known as the sickest building in North America-Camp Hill Hospital. And now we have what some claim is the most toxic waste site on earth-the Sydney Tar Ponds. To our credit we also have the only government-funded environmental medicine centre anywhere in the world.

     Environmental illness is a disease we have come to be very familiar with here in Nova Scotia. It was first brought to our attention in the early 1980s when Dr. Gerald Ross, a highly respected member of the medical establishment fell critically and mysteriously ill. He was finally diagnosed with environmental illness and treated at the Environmental Health Centre in Dallas, Texas. His illness was traced to residual amounts of dry cleaning effluent in the drinking water in New Minas where he lived.
When Dr. Ross recovered, the provincial government provided funding for him to establish an environmental medicine clinic on a pilot basis at the Victoria General Hospital. There Dr. Ross tested and treated hundreds of patients in a makeshift setting that was a beehive of activity, providing a light at the end of the tunnel for those suffering from the dreaded disease that was sometimes called simply twentieth-century disease.

     In the early 1990s, Dr. Roy Fox and several hundred professionals at Camp Hill Hospital were out on sick leave due to environmentally induced health problems at the hospital. Many of these people are still out on long-term disability struggling to regain their health. Some are so ill they will never be well enough to return to work of any kind.

     Why are so many people here and across our country becoming environmentally ill? One of the factors is surely the overwhelming use of synthetic chemicals. Since the second world war, over 70,000 chemicals have come into common daily usage. Where do we find them?
     In our food they are found in the form of flavour enhancers, dyes and preservatives, steroids, antibiotics, and hormones. Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used in commercial agriculture contaminate the air, soil, and water when applied to our food crops and remain as residues on our food when it reaches the table. These same chemicals are used in the forest industry and the contamination continues. In our towns and cities these chemicals are again used in large volumes in the cosmetic management of our lawns and gardens.
     Materials used to construct our homes, offices and public buildings are another source of synthetic chemicals as are the furnishings, carpets and other finishes that go inside these structures.
     Our personal care products have a long list of synthetic chemicals in them, as do our home and industrial cleaning supplies. Then there are the plasticizers in the containers we put our food in which migrate into our food and drink. And the plastics in our computers and other appliances off-gas and are absorbed into our lungs. Of course, we cannot overlook all of the pollutants that come from industry.
     It is the small amounts of toxins from each of these sources that add up to what environmental specialists call the “total load.”
     However, we do not consider synthetic chemicals in light of the total load concept. Rather we measure them individually and decide upon allowable levels based on a single substance studied under ideal laboratory conditions. And no one is looking at what happens to these chemicals when they combine; what is known as the synergistic effect. Substances are often more toxic in combination and some are at their worst when they are at work inside our bodies.
     When problems become evident and we do decide to test an environment to track down a potential problem, we only have the capacity to test for a few chemical substances. The problem here is that you only find what you test for. Of more than 70,000 chemicals in regular everyday use, most of them rarely get measured again once they have left the laboratory.
     It is really quite startling when one considers the number of chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis. Is it then any surprise that people develop environmental illness and multiple chemical sensitivities?
     But, there has been a reluctance on the part of the medical profession to recognize these disorders. People have disputed definitions of the diseases and have refused to accept them because of the lack of standard tests with which to prove a diagnosis. And as yet there are no established treatment modalities.
     Unfortunately the Nova Scotia Environmental Medicine Centre has chosen to focus on research, leaving little capacity for treatment. This policy has left hundreds of Nova Scotians still waiting for treatment, many of whom are forced out of province and some out of the country for treatment. Premier John Hamm has promised to act on Bill 115, unanimously passed in the spring 1998 sitting of the Legislature, recommending a full external review of this Centre.
     Insurance companies compound the problem by regularly rejecting claimants who have not been given an acceptable diagnosis and standard treatment plan. Drug plans offer little financial remuneration because these disorders cannot be addressed with pharmaceuticals.
     The cost to individuals with these disorders is clearly very high in every facet of their lives. The cost to society is as yet difficult to measure but can be examined in terms of lost employment and long-term disability; weakening family structure as families struggle to cope and often disintegrate under the stress of the illness; cost to employers for sick leave; time and cost to train those who replace the ill, etc.
     Years ago canaries were taken into the mines as a method of testing the air quality. If they died it indicated that harmful gases were accumulating and the miners would leave the mine. Today we have human indicators of our toxic conditions-the environmentally ill are our modern-day canaries. This is an ominous but extremely fitting analogy. As a society we must stop avoiding the truth that environmentally ill people represent-the truth that we are slowly but inevitably poisoning ourselves.
     To date we have chosen to believe that the benefits outweigh the risks of using so many chemicals. It is time to face up to the fact that the benefits are too costly. We now have an environmentally-related health crisis on our hands and it is a crisis of our own creation.
     Let us take full advantage of the opportunities that the dawning of this new millennium provides to return our ecosystems and ourselves to a balanced state of equilibrium and vibrant health.


Sheila Cole B.A., BEd. is Program Chair of the NSAEHA. She is an environmentalist and an environment and health educator. These are excerpts from a paper she presented to the National Roundtable on Environment and Economy in August 1999.