Medical practitioner and RMIT University Health Sciences Professor Dr Marc Cohen says a massive overload of chemicals in our food and environment is killing most people before their time.
He says while chemicals can be toxic, they can also be extremely addictive and profitable.
"Our global society has become addicted to cheap, readily available fossil fuel and the 120,000 commercial chemicals derived from it," Professor Cohen said.
"Chemical industries currently run the world with a handful of big oil, agriculture, pharma and food companies controlling the majority of the world's energy, food, health and security.
"Our widespread use and dependence on industrial chemicals has contaminated the entire biosphere including our own bodies."
Professor Cohen said the world's most comprehensive environmental chemical biomonitoring study was the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control in the United States.
"The most recent report examined 212 chemicals and found chemicals such as PBDEs and BPA in nearly all participants tested," he said.
"This study also confirmed previous reports suggesting that children bear the brunt of the toxic burden, with children being found to be more toxic than adolescents, who are in turn more toxic than adults.
"Children are not just little adults; they have higher food, fluid and air intake per kilogram of body weight and a higher metabolic rate and higher absorption of toxins than adults, as well as having immature detoxification and immune systems, developing organ systems and a longer latency period in which to develop chronic disease."
Question: What chemicals in our foods and environment are killing most people before their time?
Professor Dr Marc Cohen: There is an enormous range of chemicals and that's one of the issues, it's not just one lot of chemicals. The chemicals can roughly be separated into two groups: one is the fat soluble chemicals which accumulate over our life span and they include PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and they are called persistent organic pollutants.
Question: What foods contain these chemicals?
Professor Dr Marc Cohen: Mainly fatty foods and animal products although all foods contain some level because the whole planet has become contaminated.
Ten years ago at the Stockholm Convention all the countries around the world got together and agreed to ban the production of these chemicals (the dirty dozen) as they had existed in the environment for decades and they are still present in virtually all environments on the planet. To count as a Persistent Organic Pollutant at the Stockholm Convention the chemical had to be known as toxic, persistent in the environment, accumulate in the body and mobile through the air. These fat soluble chemicals don't respect national boundaries and they often precipitate in the colder and high altitude areas. We know these chemicals can cause cancer and reproductive effects.
Question: How can we avoid the chemicals in the environment?
Professor Dr Marc Cohen: There are ways you can avoid them and there has been quite a lot of research. For example BPA is used for making polycarbonate plastic which is used for some water bottles and recyclable reusable water bottles as well as the lining of tin cans. A study conducted at Harvard University last year showed having one can of soup a day would increase BPA levels by ten times. These chemicals also make plastic soft and are found in a lot of food packaging; simple measures are to not put plastic in the microwave or try and avoid plastics all together in contact with food.
Another study, published last year, showed just by having three days of organic, unpackaged food you could reduce your phthalate by two thirds and your BPA by half.
There are a list of the ten most toxic products that you don't need and that includes canned foods and plastic water bottles. By avoiding plastic water bottles and canned foods you will reduce your BPA and phthalate considerably.
Question: Are most of the chemicals in foods addictive?
Professor Dr Marc Cohen: The toxic chemicals themselves are not addictive but the lifestyle that they represent is addictive such as the idea of using packaged foods and microwaving them and that convenience is addictive. Most of these chemicals come from petrochemicals and nearly everyone in modern society is addicted to the use of petrochemicals as they power our electricity, our transportation and most of the products around us such as computers and phones.
We know these chemicals are also contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. As a whole planet we have to reduce our use of fossil fuels and petrochemical based products; what is happening inside our bodies is a reflection of what's happening in our environment at large in that it's becoming clogged with the output of industrial chemicals and pollution.
Question: How are these chemicals killing most before their time?
Professor Dr Marc Cohen: We're just beginning to understand this but they have endocrine disrupting effects which contribute to things such as diabetes, obesity, many cancers, reproductive effects such as infertility and learning disabilities. As of 2005 we know that more than half of all the deaths, on the planet were due to preventable lifestyle related chronic disease (heart disease, diabetes and obesity). Certainty in the western world most people will die of preventable lifestyle related chronic disease and these chemicals are implicated not only in causing those diseases but in priming the next generation for those diseases. Women who are exposed to many of these chemicals (such as BPA, organic phosphate and phthalate) during pregnancy when the foetus is in a very susceptible state (as the organs are growing and developing) can effect epigenetic changes which changes the genes and the way the genes are expressed and these chemicals can make the child more prone to be obese, diabetic or prefer bad foods and then develop these chronic disease. The effects of these chemicals on a foetus may take 20, 30 or even 40 years to appear.
A recent study showed the level of phthalate in the mother's urine in the third trimester of pregnancy correlated with her child's intellectual development at the age of three which is why it's even more important for pregnant women to avoid these chemicals than the rest of us.
Question: What lifestyle measure can we implement to reduce the effects of these chemicals?
Professor Dr Marc Cohen: There are pretty simple lifestyle measures we can do to reduce our exposure to these chemicals; a simple measure is hand-washing. Another class of chemicals that falls under the Persistent Organic Pollutants banners are PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or brominated flame retardants) these flame retardants are put in plastics to stop plastics burning they are in computers, soft furnishings, carpet, curtains, polystyrene foam, mattresses, cars, airplanes ect. These PBDEs are spread around the environment through the air and land on dust and we ingest the chemicals from our hands; by washing our hands we can reduce PBDE exposure.
We can't totally avoid these chemicals but there are simple measures we can implement such as: washing hands before eating, not putting plastics in the microwave, eating organic food rather than food that has been sprayed with chemicals, avoiding the use of can foods and plastic drinking bottles. It's much more important to have organic animal products than vegetables because these chemicals accumulate up the food chain.
Most people aren't aware of the extent of the problem and that it's a big factor not just with us but the next generation; we are living a toxic legacy for our children. Australian children have higher levels of PBDEs than adults do because they eat more dust as they are closer to the ground, than adults.
Interview by Brooke Hunter