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Pique N' Your Interest

Tales from a lab rat

The less you know, the better off you are

I’m not a hypochondriac. There’s a difference between being sick all the time and just thinking you’re sick all the time. Any attempts to label this column as the work of a hypochondriac will be answered with a full and graphic description of my recent trips to the doctor, complete with a full accounting of the organisms that have set up camp in my sinuses that I can’t seem to kill off with antibiotics. So careful what you ask for.

The specifics of my health are not the point of this column. I don’t want to get in a battle of one-up-man-ship with anyone’s dyspeptic grandfather.

My point is that I often don’t feel well in a variety of different ways, and I’m not sure it’s entirely the fault of my genes or my constitution – I run, I bike, and I eat pretty well for a guy who spends most of his time chained to a desk. I do everything a person can to be healthy.

So who do I blame for my health issues? After going through round after round of antibiotics and other treatments I don’t want to get into, I’ve come to my conclusion that not all of my health problems can be explained away.

Instead, I blame the fact that I’m pretty much a lab rat, part of a great experiment in the name of progress and capitalism that nobody really understands in any long-term kind of way.

I grew up in Toronto. I remember the first smog warning that the city ever had, and how the collective exhaust from a million cars, trucks, buses and buildings hung yellow in the air one summer day. It was about the same time that they finally got rid of leaded gas.

It was also a time when I rode my bike every day, played a lot of rugby, worked outside and went for jogs to build up my aerobic capacity.

Needless to say it wasn’t the last smog warning in T.O. – they’ve become a regular occurrence in southern Ontario, as they have in the Fraser Valley.

A short time later I got my first asthma attack and I became part of a larger health epidemic that appears to be growing exponentially. In the late 1970s only about three per cent of all Canadian children aged 0-19 had asthma. By 1996, that figure was over 12 per cent. In 1998 it was 13 per cent, and by 2001 the number was as high as 18 per cent. There are no recent figures, but some reports are discovering that as many as one in four Canadian children have some form of asthma, accounting for $12 billion in health care costs and spending.

Is it the smog? Is it something that’s in the smog, like one of the new gas additives that countries are being forced to use by petrochemical companies? I’ve never had allergies until about seven years ago when I came home from university one semester to discover that I was allergic to the same cats I grew up with. Now I have mild allergic reactions to dust, mould, smoke, beer, chemicals and penicillin.

I was at a loss to understand why I should suddenly develop allergies this far along in life – although my mom and carnivorous friends are convinced it’s because I gave up eating meat over a decade ago. I’ve done some research into this matter, and if anything I should be healthier than the same friends who nevertheless seem to be able to do anything they want without any health effects whatsoever.

Maybe I was marked from the start. I was born about a month premature, my mom smoked during my pregnancy, and my dad smoked in the house while I was growing up – all things that generally lead to underdeveloped immune systems, allergies and breathing. No doubt it’s part of the puzzle, as is the fact that asbestos was removed from my elementary school while I was still there as a student, but there’s no way it’s the whole story.

We’re all lab rats. During my life glass bottles were replaced with plastic, which may or may not contain dioxins and other toxins. Regular frying pans were replaced with Teflon coated or non-stick pans which give off toxic fumes that kill off pet birds. Can you say "canary in a coal mine?"

Microwaves became ubiquitous household appliances in my life, and we were told it was okay to microwave plastics – which may or may not spread dioxins that can cause a type of acne I think I have (not as bad as dioxin-poisoned Viktor Yushchenko), as well as a variety of other health problems.

Every day we come in contact with so-called acceptable levels of PCBs, CFCs, PFCs, dioxins, mercury, sulphur dioxide, arsenic, and a variety of other chemicals, toxins, proven carcinogens, and heavy metals. They’re in the air, in our food, in our water, and in all of the household products we use.

Our painted walls give off fumes for years and years after the paint dries. Drywall wasn’t used in homes until the 1960s, and drywall dust has been linked to various health problems. There are serious questions about the impacts of factory farming – steroids, antibiotics, fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified seeds – that have become industry standard in the last 30 years.

But for some reason Canada and other industrialized countries continue to put public safety last. Instead of making companies prove that their products are completely safe, it’s up to under-funded government agencies to prove that they’re not.

Call me crazy, but in my mind nothing good can come out of this experiment. I also have a sneaking suspicion that this experiment is at least partly to blame for my ongoing health problems.

So I’ve taken action. I can’t control everything, but I’ve stopped using non-stick pans at home, and while I still use a microwave I only heat food in glass bowls. I also don’t use any household chemicals to clean my house, and I’m in the process of adjusting my diet to include organic foods, nutritional and mineral supplements (lost to factory farming and food processing), essential oils, and anti-oxidants to clean my blood and organs.

I confess that I still drink beer, although I’m drinking far less. The allergic effects usually go away after the third bottle anyway.

So far I’ve seen a slight improvement in my general health, although I still have a long way to go.

As far as this lab rat’s concerned, this experiment is over.




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