Grip to Eat and adding Alive: How Food Pollution is Getting U.S. Sicker by the Day?

July 19, 2019

Grip to Eat and adding Alive: How Food Pollution is Getting U.S. Sicker by the Day?

It’s about time we face food pollution squarely. Truth to tell, death is the least of your worries when taking down a Burger King - or any food for that matter. Like most Americans, food pollution may be the farthest thing in your mind; however, assuming you value your existence on the planet, it may bid you well to look at it more considerably. And fast. For what you’re eating could also be eating you alive - making you sick in the long run. Of course, at the root of it all is consumption. As a most industrialized nation and arguably the wealthiest on the planet, America is a foodie’s paradise. Where food is available and consumed by the buckets. No kidding. Scientific American details Americans consume far more food per capita than any country in the world eating the equivalent of 815 billion calories of food every day.  That’s actually 200 billion calories more than what’s needed, an amount that can feed a staggering 80 million hungry people in less developed countries.

Yes, at the heart of that overconsumption lies a silent yet persistent killer: polluted food. Come to think of it, if we’re to put together all the toxic substances that we’re taking in through our food all these years, there’s a good chance we may lose our appetite. And shun eating eventually. Consuming contaminated food is like taking in poison - in small unnoticeable doses. Centuries ago, at the start of our evolution, when 95 percent of pre-modern man had the expediency of living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, food was as fresh as you want it. Resources were available all around; you just have to find local access.

Today, that local access is translated to a brick-and-mortar grocery across the block or via online ordering. Bringing about a more complex food production process which holds dear, amongst many other things, shelf life: the preservation of food for the longest time possible.  Another culprit. Adding to the mix of pollution from all fronts: via land, sea, and air. Small wonder food pollution is causing sickness to millions. And death to thousands. In America. Read on.

 

Food Pollution: A Silent Killer Amongst Us

We don’t get to see it but it exists. Like the wind, food pollution only manifests itself mainly through the negative effects experienced by those affected. To a large degree, America is a victim of its own success as a most industrialized and most powerful nation. In this regard, putting the pollution of food to a screeching halt would need the whole nation to be effective.

 

America and Its Burgeoning Appetite

Unless you’re a NASA scientist holding unto an ample supply of food pills, food is a basic need you must contend with. And enviably, that comes right down to a usual American diet. Lucky for everyone in the superpower nation, America has command over what it wants to eat. To a lopsided degree compared to the rest of the world.

Like in most everything else, American consumption is reaching astronomical figures. Statistics show an average American will consume 53 times more goods and more services than someone living in China. And that’s just for starters. As our per capita use of fish, grains, and meat dwarf those people in developing countries, so is the ecological damage we do to our resources. A child born in the U.S. is bound to create 13 times more ecological damage over a lifetime compared to a child born in a less developed nation like Brazil.

All the consumption comes at a steep price. While satisfaction on the gut level may be high for most Americans, garbage piles up. Average American will generate 52 tons of garbage when reaching the age of 75. And nature is paying that price too as data shows the following have been destroyed in the past 2 centuries alone in the country:

  • 50% of wetlands
  • 90% of forests (northwestern old-growth)
  • 99% of tall-grass prairie

 

The Harmful Effects of Polluted Food

One thing’s for sure, food pollution did not happen by chance. It happened by choice. As America established itself as a foremost nation in the world, the prospect of food that’s healthy seems to have become a side topic - going dimmer by the day.

In general terms, food pollution is the presence of harmful substances in the food we eat. These substances are mostly composed of toxic chemicals and/or biological contaminants. As such, these are not in any way naturally present in food and are therefore way beyond their natural levels.

But consumers beware, food pollution can be harmful to any man on the planet. Depending on the situation, it can cause food illness - from mild to severe. If unchecked, the illness can spiral to the eventual development of more serious health issues. We’re talking about metabolic problems and a handful of cancers. Yes, sir. The big C.

To date, cancer ranks as the second-highest cause of death in America, second only to heart failure. WHO (World Health Organization) data shows every year about 14 million people get diagnosed with cancer while 8.2 million die of the disease. For the land of Subway and MacDonald’s, it is estimated:

  • 1,735,350 new cases of cancer get diagnosed
  • 609,640 deaths due to cancer

That’s in 2018 alone, as stipulated by the National Cancer Institute.

Studies show the presence of artificial sweeteners (e.g., cyclamate, neotame), for instance, in the foods we take every day can induce damage of our body’s cells, making them cancerous in the process.

On the other end of the spectrum, pesticides can have serious health effects on anyone taking in fruits and veggies which have been highly contaminated with harmful pesticides. Among the many diseases mentioned in these cases are:

  • Kidney
  • Lung ailments
  • Cancer

Worse, children are sitting ducks. As their organs are still developing, they are dangerously prone to catching various illnesses and infections. Direct exposure to these toxic chemical residues could lead to a host of health problems for children.  Foremost amongst them are:

  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Other mental health issues
  • Cancer

This gets even more complicated for pregnant women. A woman who consumes a fruit with pesticides residue could face undue birth complications - putting her baby in harm’s way in the process.

But that’s not all that food pollution does. Nervous system issues can come up when ingesting food polluted with harmful pesticides. And in rare cases, serious food poisoning resulting in death can happen, in matters of minutes.

It’s true. Contaminated food can lead to minor discomforts or worse, to life and death complications. Don’t look now but statistics show a very scary picture when it comes to food pollution. In the U.S. alone, these are:

  • Cases of illnesses that are food-borne: 70 million cases/year
  • Resulting deaths: 5,000 deaths/year

 

At the Heart of the Nation’s Food Pollution Woes

We can’t really point a finger to just one cause for food pollution. It’s a result of a thousand and one decisions that combined together puts contaminants in the food we eat. To note, it just takes a single pollutant for food to be harmful. The problem is, for the most part, we won’t get to see the harmful effects of contaminated food in one sitting. It takes time.  

 

Environmental Factors

Unlike humans, plants and trees do not have a direct say on how they’re fed. Vegetables, for one, are very susceptible to contamination. As groundwater or the soil itself becomes polluted, toxic bacterial strains can bring about toxic bacterial strains to veggies. To make matters worse, these pollutants cannot be destroyed by regular heating. It takes high temperatures for contaminated food to be rid of these pesky pollutants.

As plants are immobile by nature, they are very much prone to pollution from their environment. Their powerful roots give crops, vegetables, and fruit trees the ability to extract needed water and nutrients from the soil. However, when the soil is contaminated, environmental pollutants are absorbed by plants just as easily as nutrients.

 

  1. Land Pollution

As the United Nations data show, land pollution is a major cause of alarm for everyone in the United States. The problem is that more than half of America’s solid waste is thrown into landfills. All in all, that’s over 110 million tons in weight of waste materials year in year out.

While land pollution brings harm to the planet in general, it is also negatively affecting humans as well. This is especially the case for skin cancer, America’s most common form of cancer. Every day, over 9,500 Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer, the American Academy of Dermatology details. Though most of these cases are attributed to UV light exposure, research shows polluted food affected by toxic chemicals and/or pesticides do increase the risk factor of skin cancer. Such harmful chemicals can be traced to fruits and vegetables raised in polluted soil.

Generally overseen by a federal agency, landfills looks safe on the outside following environmental compliance. However, the clay or plastic liners which act as safeguards for all the garbage leaching out their toxic contents into the soil will fail over time.

An example of how treacherous a landfill is is Love Canal, a canal-turned-landfill project in the 1950s. Later, in one tricky move, the chemical company who run the place turned it over to the local school district for a mere $1. It only took a few years, within which time a booming school and playground along with multitudes of homes were built, for toxic chemicals from down under to sabotage the water table. Public clamor started to heighten as oily and smelly water become the norm in the area around Love Canal. Full investigation reveals a host of inorganic hazardous chemicals present. Among them:

  • Chloroform
  • Benzene
  • Dioxin
  • Toluene
  • PCBs

  But not before a series of unfortunate events have transpired in the so-called Love Canal residential nest. Among these observed were:

  • Nervous disorders
  • Miscarriages
  • Birth defects and deformities (unusually high incidence)

As hazardous material has been introduced to the water table and the soil, every plant grown in the area are at high risk of becoming polluted food. That includes fruits and veggies eaten on a daily basis.

Another key contributor to land pollution is mining. Specifically, we’re talking about strip mines which constitute over 40 percent of the world’s mines, the United States mines including. What makes these mines hazardous is strip mines take away the topsoil, where needed nutrients for plants are found, allowing erosion to take place. Worse, such underground mining brings to the surface waste materials (e.g., rocks and soil) which in turn becomes toxic upon exposure to water and air.

Other key factors to land pollution are the following:

  • Urbanization
  • Agriculture
  • Deforestation
  • Industrialization

As America’s population is exploding, humans must clear out forests and ‘green space’ to give way to structures and plantations. In the process, over 50 percent of the country’s topsoil has been modified. It’s an environmental disaster as it takes no less than 500 years to get back naturally 2.5 cm of topsoil.

A clear example is Amazon rainforest in Brazil. It is reported that an area equivalent to the size of a football field is cleared by loggers per second. As a result, the ecosystem of the forest is disturbed. Not only wildlife loses a home and its respective food source, but the soil also gets barren as it becomes prone to erosion, stripped of the roots of trees which hold precious topsoil in place. Without the protection of a forest canopy to buffer from the heavy rains and without the strength of the roots as streams of water passes by, forest floor gets washed away - along with all the nutrients. Nutrients that prove to be essential for plants to grow.

The same happens when agriculture sets in and forests and grasslands have to be cleared. To set the record straight, 80 percent of deforestation is attributed to agriculture. While natural vegetation has strong deep roots which hold the topsoil in its place, replacement farming brings in farm plant varieties (e.g., coffee, cotton, wheat) which do not carry deep roots - thereby allowing soil erosion.

This way, flooding becomes more common as the land won’t have the capacity to absorb excessive rains. This brings about another menace to food pollution: runoff fertilizers and toxic chemicals.

To ensure better yields that are resistant to pests and predator insects, farmers apply routinely highly-toxic chemical compounds to their crops. These include:

  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • Fungicides
  • Insecticides

While these chemicals are intended to make the crops grow better, a lot will eventually become runoff toxic materials - going to the land and to target species (e.g., insects, organisms) and weeds in the process. In short, there is an amount that goes back to the earth. This is the dangerous part as these chemical compounds are still very much toxic.

A 2010 study on the herbicide Atrazine made this all obvious. It revealed that of the 36 million kilograms that were applied yearly, about 225,000 kilograms were washed back to the soil by the rains, to an area as far as 1,000 miles away from the immediate source.

That kind of toxic water can be taken in by fruits and vegetables in the nearby area carried via streams of water during rains or via from the water bed processed by water distribution. These kinds of chemical changes can affect negatively the composition of rivers and streams.

 

  1. Water Pollution

Water is vital for plants to take in their nutrients. Unfortunately, it can also be a key contributor to plant pollution. This is really alarming as water flows through vast terrain carrying with it everything toxic along the way.

Fertilizer runoffs, for instance, from agricultural farms are one culprit - and very much well-documented. For one, these toxic chemicals bring about dead zones in the water, where no single plant can live.

Such is the dead zone documented at the Mississipi River’s mouth brought about by fertilizer runoff from nearby cornfields cultivated along the banks. So massive is this dead zone it blankets an area of 7,700 square miles (roughly 20,000 square km) into the Gulf of Mexico. Worse, such a dead zone may only increase as the demand for corn for cattle feeding rises.

So destructive is this the herbicide atrazine that it has been shown to change the reproductive system of frogs - from male to female. If unabated, these killer pesticides not only kill microbial life but also insects or even much larger life forms when compounded into greater concentrations. Imagine what would happen if your daily fruit and veggies contain a toxic amount. Which is entirely possible given the fluid nature of water.

Another aspect is the water table which is constituted by large aquifers underground. These aquifers store most of the needed fresh water. However, we must remember that water from the surface goes to and fro thanks to the water cycle. When such surface water carries toxic substances as when affected by agricultural pesticides, the water table can be contaminated. As each aquifer service several American states, a large number of people can be affected. Such contaminated water could also be used to water plants giving another dent to the vicious cycle.

The same toxicity could be carried by fish. Fish swimming in polluted water gets polluted too. You may not eat fish directly but it may be carried to plants in the food cycle. Birds could eat the contaminated fish for instance. Consequently, these birds can be consumed by other animals and as the cycle of food chains goes, it could reach humans - affecting us in the process.

Worse, the concentration of these toxic substances could multiply along the way, bringing about greater danger to humans even more.

Then there is a great threat from microplastics polluting our seas and oceans. For the uninitiated, microplastics are broken-down plastic wastes - coming from synthetic fibers and all sorts of plastics thrown by people all over the world and ending up in the oceans. These harm the planet’s marine life as they are mistaken for food. However, microplastics may also bring us great harm as we consume seafood or take in tap water.

The tiniest of these microplastics which can go as small as 63 microns (roughly the width of a human hair) could enter our bloodstream and bring about toxicity. It is estimated over 5 trillion particles of microplastics are in the ocean, a number of scientists think as a major underestimate.

Even worse, new studies published in Nature Geoscience point out microplastics can be air-borne. Becoming atmospheric pollutants and causing air pollution.

 

  1. Air Pollution

It’s ironic. While Henry Ford may have pushed America to the front with his radical approach to automobile manufacturing, his actions also hastened the prospects of polluted air. It’s no wonder California with all its automobiles and industries rank first on the list of worst air polluted cities.

Air pollution can induce lung problems for humans. On a larger scale, it can also become injurious to plants, University of Maryland denotes.

Burning of fossil fuels, gasoline included, and coals can bring about toxic chemical pollutants to the air. We’re talking about:

  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Ozone (O3)
  • NOx (nitrogen oxides)

Ozone leads the pack in inducing pollution injury to plants in the U.S. It does this by slowing down plant development and growth, causing a chain reaction of decreased yield. For instance, ozone-inflicted injury to watermelons has been widespread in the mid-Atlantic area.

Polluting gases are introduced to the plant via their leaves - specifically through the stomata. NOx once in gets dissolved in cells releasing nitrite ions or NO2 which is a known toxic substance in large doses. Sometimes, when air pollutants like SO2 attack the plant, a knee-jerk reaction happens. Trying to protect itself, the stomates close - preventing the entry of harmful air toxins. At the same time, however, this action put photosynthesis into a screeching halt slowing down the plant’s overall development.

Many crops in America have been harshly affected by air pollution. Among these are:

  • Strawberries
  • green peas
  • Potato
  • Tomato
  • Alfalfa
  • Squash

Vegetables and fruits affected by air pollution exhibit various symptoms. Among these are:

  • Flecks (irregular-shaped spots on leaves)
  • Stipples (pigmented areas on leaves)
  • Reddening
  • bronzing

 

  1. Tricky Shelf Life

To ensure food lasts longer, various means of preservation methods are implemented by manufacturers over the years. The problem is many of these chemicals and methodologies applied, though effective in extending the shelf life of a product, can bring about harmful effects on humans. In the long run.

Designed to prolong the shelf life of foods, preservatives prevent bacteria growth (antibacterial) while some slow down oxidation that can lead to the state of rancidity. For one, EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) for one preserve canned vegetables.

But preservatives can have a dangerous effect on humans - polluting food in the process. For example, sodium nitrates which are commonly used to preserve and add color to meat (e.g., bacon, sausage, ham) can turn into nitrites when mixed with acids in the stomach. These can increase the risk of certain cancers (i.e., colon, pancreas). Worse, it may induce fainting or loss of consciousness which could be fatal for infants.

Sulfites which are also commonly used to preserve dry fruits and canned fruits can lead to various health complications. Amongst these are:

  • Allergic reactions (asthma, rhinitis)
  • Palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • cancer

Then, there is the case of hydrogenated palm oil. In its fresh form, palm oil is considered a heart-healthy option for consumption and cooking. At this form, it can minimize the risk of getting arterial thrombosis which can lead to heart attack or strokes.

However, natural palm oil does not lang long. To promote better shelf life, palm oil is oxidized in which case it becomes hydrogenated palm oil. In this form, the oil contains high saturated fat and low polyunsaturated ones, a lethal combination that poses a danger to the heart.

 

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The good news is humans have increasingly been creative at finding ways to combat food pollution. Changing the way we do things by doing a paradigm shift so to speak.

One alternative, for instance, has been explored in Japan. This involved growing vegetables inside specially-designed factories which takes away harmful factors. Amongst these factors taken into consideration are:

  1. Unpredictable weather
  2. Environmental pollution
  3. Harmful pests

Moreover, the growth of plants will be monitored via computers in this endeavor making the process even more secure.

Consequently, it is worth noting that today one product has become the epitome of all these spot-on changes. We’re talking about the Aspara smart hydroponic grower, a globally-awarded invention which has made the cultivation of superior fruits and veggies in a controlled environment available for everyone.

Top-quality greens are grown minus the soil. Minus the sun. Most importantly, minus the hassle. Right at the comfort of one’s home.

In a sense, this product shows man has definitely learned his lesson from food pollution well. Really well.

 

Sources:

  1. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/american-consumption-habits/
  2. https://www.environmentalpollutioncenters.org/food/
  3. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics
  4. https://www.aad.org/media/stats/conditions/skin-cancer
  5. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/18/science/what-are-microplastics.html
  6. http://ijpsr.com/bft-article/artificial-preservatives-and-their-harmful-effects-looking-toward-nature-for-safer-alternatives/?view=fulltext
  7. https://www.stylecraze.com/articles/harmful-food-preservatives-and-their-side-effects/#gref
  8. https://extension.umd.edu/learn/air-pollution-effects-vegetables


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