Natural Health Equity with Anna-Liza Badaloo is a monthly opinion column that examines disproportionate health impacts on equity-deserving communities. Learn more about Anna-Liza and her work here. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of INM.
On December 3, 1984, an incident planted the seed of my current environmental justice activism. Over 40 tons of toxic gas leaked from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killing over 3,800 people. Thousands more died prematurely. Half a million people were exposed to the gas, with many experiencing significant health impacts, including respiratory, digestive, and psychological. Reduced fertility and genetic changes (thus potentially impacting the next generation) were also reported.1
At the time, I was seven years old. The news was full of graphic images of the survivors. I will never forget seeing the dead and disfigured brown bodies emerging from that disaster. And I couldn’t help but notice that they looked just like me.
Bhopal opened the world’s eyes to the dangers that those living near chemical plants may face and sparked a new global era in environmental safety and disaster preparedness. Nearly 40 years later, we rarely hear of chemical disasters on this large scale. But what happens when people are exposed to lower levels of harmful chemicals over long periods? As naturopathic doctors know, even small amounts of toxins can contribute to big health impacts. We are regularly exposed to low levels of toxins in our daily lives through the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe in our homes, workplaces, and communities.2
Naturopathic doctors use the concept of cumulative toxic load3 to explain that even low levels of toxins can accumulate in the body. We don’t all deal with toxins in the same way. Genetics plays a role in how each individual stores and processes toxins and how quickly they can exit the body. Lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise play an even greater role. Naturopathic doctors are trained to be ‘health detectives,’ asking in-depth questions about personal and family history, as well as lifestyle, and can perform a range of lab tests to assess toxic load.
It’s no longer possible to avoid all toxins in our day-to-day life. But a naturopathic doctor can help identify your potential sources of toxic exposures and work with you to reduce them.
Some toxin exposure sources are easier to reduce than others. For example, replacing non-stick cookware with cast iron could be a simple change to help avoid PFAS (‘forever chemicals’) exposure. But what happens when life’s most essential needs are poisoned – like water?
For years, environmental justice activists have noted that equity-deserving populations (such as BIPOC and lower-income people) are at higher risk for drinking water contamination. But research demonstrating this link has been relatively limited – until now.
A new study led by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health4 reveals why lack of access to clean water is an environmental justice issue. Researchers found that people living in areas with more Black/Latinx communities are more likely to be exposed to harmful levels of PFAS in their water supplies when compared to people living in other communities.
PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are a broad category that includes literally thousands of chemicals, some of which have been linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. They have been dubbed ‘forever chemicals’ because they break down slowly over time.5
Even low levels of exposure mean that they can accumulate in our bodies over time, contributing to adverse health impacts including lowered fertility, increased risk of cancers (such as prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers), imbalanced hormones, reduced immune system function, and various developmental delays in children.6
This research is vital because it’s the first peer-reviewed study demonstrating the link between socioeconomic disparities and PFAS in drinking water.4
Second, it’s the first study to make strong links between PFAS water contamination and nearby industrial sites, including airports, landfills, major industries, military fire training areas, and wastewater treatment plants.7
Building polluting industries in these locations is no coincidence. With the understanding that many equity-deserving communities do not have the technical knowledge or community capacity to fight back, industrial and manufacturing sites are often deliberately located near areas with high proportions of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx residents. Dr. Ingrid Waldron’s book There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities (now also a Netflix film featuring Elliot Page) details the impacts on residents from landfills and treatment facilities while demonstrating the importance of localized policy and community initiatives to address the health impacts of environmental racism. In the film, Dr. Waldron notes that “in Canada, your postal code determines your health.”8
The siting of these industries also reflects longstanding patterns of discrimination and segregation in the U.S.7
When it comes to making access to clean drinking water for all a priority, data matters. This study is quite timely, just two months after President Biden announced the first-ever national drinking water standard for PFAS. Recognizing that PFAS pollution disproportionately affects equity-deserving communities, his administration plans to invest $9 billion over five years to help communities on the frontlines of PFAS and other contamination to reduce levels in drinking water.9
This investment is part of the EPA’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which aims to control PFAS at its sources, hold polluters accountable, ensure science-based decision-making, and address the impacts of contamination on equity-deserving communities.10
Meanwhile, in Canada, the matriarch of Canadian environmental legislation (CEPA) is undergoing its first major review in decades. Top of mind for many environmental justice advocates is putting stricter regulations on PFAS, among other harmful chemicals.11
Pointing to the inadequacy of Canada’s toxics laws to keep all people safe from harmful chemicals, Cassie Barker (Senior Program Manager, Toxics, at Environmental Defence) notes, “Thousands of PFAS remain unassessed for safety, yet they are found in many products, from cookware to cosmetics and food packaging. Due to the long-range movement of these chemicals through the ecosystem, we are seeing these substances build up in species and people at alarming levels in Northern Indigenous communities. This environmental injustice cannot continue to be left unaddressed.”11
Proposed legislation C-226 (dubbed the “environmental racism bill”) could also have a substantial impact on protecting racialized and Indigenous communities from the effects of harmful chemicals, requiring the government to examine the links between racialization, socioeconomic status, and environmental risk and develop Canada’s first national strategy on environmental racism and environmental justice.12
Now, communities are speaking out against this environmental injustice and making their voices heard. And industry is taking note. Just recently, three major chemicals companies reached an agreement (in principle) to settle claims they contaminated US public water systems with PFAS for $1.19 billion. 3M has also struck a tentative $10 billion deal with US cities and towns to resolve the PFAS water pollution lawsuits it is facing.13
Ultimately, it’s about ensuring that all people, regardless of their zip code, have the right to a safe and healthy environment. If you suspect you have been exposed to PFAS in water or other sources, consider seeing a naturopathic doctor. Naturopathic doctors have long understood how endocrine-disrupting chemicals like PFAS can contribute to a wide range of health issues. NDs can help assess your body’s toxic load, determine what is contributing, and work with you to reduce toxic exposures, help toxins exit the body, and thus improve overall health.
1. Broughton E. The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review. Environmental Health. 2005;4(1):6. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-4-6
2. What do Naturopathic Doctors do to Treat Toxic Exposure? Institute for Natural Medicine. Published February 22, 2022. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://naturemed.org/what-do-naturopathic-doctors-do-to-treat-toxic-exposure/
3. Pizzorno J. Conventional Laboratory Tests to Assess Toxin Burden. Int Med. 2015;14(5):8-16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4712864/
4. Avenue 677 Huntington, Boston, Ma 02115. Communities of color disproportionately exposed to PFAS pollution in drinking water. News. Published May 15, 2023. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/communities-of-color-disproportionately-exposed-to-pfas-pollution-in-drinking-water/
5. US EPA O. PFAS Explained. Published March 30, 2016. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-explained
6. US EPA O. Our Current Understanding of the Human Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS. Published October 14, 2021. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/our-current-understanding-human-health-and-environmental-risks-pfas
7. Liddie JM, Schaider LA, Sunderland EM. Sociodemographic Factors Are Associated with the Abundance of PFAS Sources and Detection in U.S. Community Water Systems. Environ Sci Technol. 2023;57(21):7902-7912. doi:10.1021/acs.est.2c07255
8. www.jasonpomerleau.com JP. Climate Blog: Fighting environmental racism – a conversation with Dr. Ingrid Waldron. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://windsorlawcities.ca/fighting-environmental-racism-a-conversation-with-dr-ingrid-waldron/
9. House TW. FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Takes New Action to Protect Communities from PFAS Pollution. The White House. Published March 14, 2023. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/03/14/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-takes-new-action-to-protect-communities-from-pfas-pollution/
10. US EPA O. PFAS Strategic Roadmap: EPA’s Commitments to Action 2021-2024. Published October 14, 2021. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/pfas/pfas-strategic-roadmap-epas-commitments-action-2021-2024
11. Barker C. The toxic reality of PFAS “forever chemicals” contamination in Canada. Environmental Defence. Published May 29, 2023. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://environmentaldefence.ca/2023/05/29/the-toxic-reality-of-pfas-forever-chemicals-contamination-in-canada/
12. Gray P. MPs pass long-awaited legislation to tackle environmental racism in Canada. Environmental Defence. Published March 30, 2023. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://environmentaldefence.ca/2023/03/30/mps-pass-long-awaited-legislation-to-tackle-environmental-racism-in-canada/
13. Reuters. Judge delays trial in 3M PFAS lawsuit as parties eye settlement. The Guardian. https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/us-states-withdraw-objections-3ms-103-billion-pfas-settlement-2023-08-29/ Published June 5, 2023. Accessed June 8, 2023.