Some individuals will probably always be more affected than others by chemical, biological and electromagnetic pollution. But each and every one of us will benefit, to varying degrees, from the reduction of environmental contamination. Reduced exposure would positively impact the health and quality of life not only of those with environmental sensitivities, but also of people with respiratory or heart problems, migraines, etc. These are just a few examples. However, the list of medical conditions linked to environmental contamination, or those that are worsened by it, continues to grow.
In many parts of the world, there are initiatives that aim at reducing exposures to contaminants in the environment. In Quebec, in large part due to the efforts of the founders of the Environmental Health Association of Québec (ASEQ- EHAQ), the government has adopted a province-wide policy banning home lawn-care pesticide use, thereby reducing exposure to harmful products for the entire population.
In addition to government regulations, increasingly more programs are being put in place to promote the responsible management of contaminants. “Smoke-free” hotels are opting for the use of fragrance- free and non-toxic cleaning products. Event organizers are asking people not to wear perfume, to avoid the use of cell phones and Wi-Fi, and organic and vegetarian food is made available on site. Governmental and non-governmental organizations are advocating the construction of healthy buil- dings.
The high number of people with environmental sensitivities is but one clue among many that we must re-examine our current way of managing the risks associated with the industrial production of chemical substances and the development of new technologies. Our exposure, albeit at low levels, to an array of known toxic substances - e.g. benzene found in cologne, paint solvents, or volatile organic compounds in vinyl - is permitted by law. But people with environmental sensitivities and the skyroc- keting number of chronic diseases linked to exposures challenge that approach. We don’t really know how low-level exposures to a multitude of physical and chemical contaminants will affect us as they accumulate over time.
This is the first time in history that everyone is contaminated with and exposed to a multitude of pollu- tants that didn’t exist or existed only in small quantities a mere sixty years ago. Traditional toxicology is not equipped to deal with this kind of contamination. To tackle all these uncertainties, we advocate an approach based on the precautionary principle, rather than one that assumes exposure to environmen- tal contaminants is safe until proven otherwise. What if our health and that of our children depend on taking this new approach?
Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency recognizes people with environmental sensitivi- ties as belonging to a vulnerable population. Both the Quebec Human Rights Commission (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) and the Canadian Human Rights Commission reco- gnize environmental sensitivities as constituting a “handicap” entitling sufferers to reasonable accommo- dation. Yet, much work remains to be done to ensure that people with environmental sensitivities receive appropriate treatment and continue to work and maintain their quality of life as much as possible.
Small gestures made individually can add up and benefit everyone. Examples include asking grocers or pharmacists to sell fragrance-free products, educating health care professionals or employers on the positive outcomes of establishing fragrance-free areas, requesting reasonable accommodations, etc. The more the general population hears about environmental sensitivities, the more open they will be to fin- ding accommodations for sufferers. On a much larger scale, groups such as the Environmental Health Association of Québec (ASEQ-EHAQ) have been working for years to have the condition recognized.
Alone, the task at hand may seem insurmountable. But by joining together, we can change things for the better.