Life is quite different for people who suffer health effects from environmental toxins. Severe fatigue, aching joints, headaches, irritability, chemical and food sensitivities, low stress tolerance, digestive problems, urinary system problems, asthma, tumors-I've had them all and more. This is the toxic legacy of our chemically-enriched modern society.
In my case it began on a farm where we used agricultural chemicals, including the infamous organochlorine pesticide, DDT ("Organochlorine" simply means the chemical contains both carbon and chlorine.) After multiple cases of pneumonia and infections, plus childhood anemia, I finally got away from the farm and recovered my health. Then the Army sent me to Vietnam where another organochlorine pesticide called Agent Orange was used. For months after my return to America, I was treated for a skin disease that we were told was "jungle rot." Later I heard that this was a result of Agent Orange. I also developed severe asthma and began growing a subdermal tumor on my back that was six inches across by the time I had it removed. All of these resulted from exposure to toxins-most of which are significantly present in the Willamette Valley.
An unusually high proportion of Vietnam veterans have already died before age 50 from various diseases including heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, and depression-caused suicides. All of these diseases have also been connected to toxin exposure.
Since dioxins, the most toxic part of Agent Orange, stay in one's body fat for decades, my health problems continued to evolve as my body aged. Soon I became lactose intolerant, developed many food allergies, and gradually had to avoid more and more types of food. Intolerance to gluten (wheat, oats, etc.) and lipids (both animal fats and vegetable oils) took another big chunk from my diet. Now I am down to a few varieties of beans and rice, organic vegetables, and a small selection of other foods that allow me to have a healthy and balanced diet that I must adhere to very carefully. I also have a regimen of dietary supplements, herbs, and other non-traditional health remedies that have helped a lot. Most traditional physicians seem unprepared to deal with this type of malady-although they have helped me many times with more acute health problems for which they have been appropriately trained.
I am much like the "canary in the coal mine" when it comes to detecting environmental toxins. Just as canaries were used as an early warning of poison gases in coal mines, I am adversely affected by toxins in my environment long before the average person even realizes that they are present. When I go outdoors for significant periods of time and think there might be any pesticides or other toxins in the air, I wear a gas mask with filters for pesticides. If I don't, it often means several hours of severe aching and fatigue, along with other symptoms that make me unfit to accomplish useful work.
Even being directly downwind from the Marion County solid waste incinerator, which is several miles from my house, can set off my symptoms. It is the source of airborne dioxins, mercury, cadmium, lead, and other toxins. These poisons are gradually building up in the bodies of other Salem residents, too; but most have not yet reached the critical trigger point for health effects as I have. Unfortunately, I believe it is just a matter of time for many of you before you, too, will feel the cumulative effects. Subtle effects in neurological development may already have occurred in our children since they are more susceptible than adults-especially during prenatal growth.
I have a few neighbors who believe that yards that look like a golf course or a landscape showcase should be a high priority. They have succumbed to the constant propaganda barrage of corporate interests (chemical companies, lawn equipment companies, etc.) who profit handsomely from this mind set. As a result, they make liberal use of many types of synthetic chemicals. I have to stay indoors or wear my mask much of the time so they can enjoy their picturesque landscapes. There are many types of landscaping that require no use of these chemicals; but you have to do some research and accept some nontraditional, yet pretty, botanical approaches.
Virtually all of my condition can be traced back to corporate profit motives. Our consumer-oriented society, the enormous use of toxic chemicals, an anti-environmental medicine mind set in the traditional medical establishment-all of these are promoted by large corporations whose uncontrolled appetite for profit and uncaring attitude about the consequences cause them to pour billions of dollars into their propaganda devices. Their twisting of facts and glamorization of their dangerous products are not one whit different than the methods of the tobacco industry. It's just that the tobacco industry finally got caught.
The only way this will change is by each citizen becoming informed about the real facts, taking action through the political process, educating others, and serving as a good example.
Carroll Johnston is a Viet Nam veteran who serves on the Board of Directors for the Oregon Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He helped organize the local group Citizens Against Toxins (CAT). He has lived in Salem for 20 years.