The Autoimmune Epidemic

by: Donna Jackson Nakazawa and Dr. Douglas Kerr

People who know me well will probably tell you--happily!--that I have a tendency to have my favorite hobby horses, jump on them, and ride them to death. Or least to exhaustion.

One of them in recent years has been my suspicion that we're seeing an increase in auto-immune disease and behavioral issues (like autism) because we've been overloaded with chemicals. A few years ago, I realized how many people in my relatively small circle of friends had, or had someone in their families, autoimmune disease (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, fbromyalgia), or other previously rarely diagnosed issues, like autism, aspergers, or the ever-popular ADD. What was going on?

The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if we simply weren't asking more of our bodies than they could possibly handle, and that people born in the 40s and 50s, from their development in utero throughout their entire lifespans were being subjected to massive doses and untrackable quantities of chemicals, from industrial output, to plastics, to medicines, food additives, cosmetics, synthetics, pesticides--it's a list too long to begin to enumerate.

I don't say that with a bug-eyed fear of chemistry. Any single substance might not be all that bad, even, on balance, beneficial. Even in large doses over long periods of time, any one of them by itself, might be manageable. In bunches--and who knows what particular "bunch" any one of us might have be exposed to?--they might not be so harmless.

I remember my mom describing an incident from her young adulthood. She and my dad were living in the south for a time, before we children were born. She developed a weeping skin condition, and nothing would clear it up. She finally traveled home to Buffalo, NY, to see a specialist. As she traveled, her skin began to clear up. By the time she arrived home, it was nearly healed. After being back in Alabama for a week or so, and it was back, as bad as ever. Eventually, it turned out that something in the output of a factory was causing her skin to react violently. She and my dad moved "upwind" of the factory, and the problem cleared up. (And I should point out an important point: she was the only one in her acquaintance who had this reaction--more on "vulnerability" later!)

Needless to say, when I saw this title on autoimmune disease, and read the book's description, I was eager to read this journalist's deep dive into the whys and wherefores of the wildly increasing number of cases of autoimmune problems people are reporting to their doctors.

Imagine my chagrin when, in the introduction to the book, Dr. Kerr wrote that he suspects that the same people who would pooh-pooh this very important topic were the people who probably disregarded the "incontrovertible science" of global warming, and Al Gore's valiant ride to the rescue with his book and movie, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Given what has been demonstrated about the validity of the "science" of Gore's book and movie since, I can only hope that this book was written with a bit more concern for the facts, and a bit less eagerness to prove a point at the expense of honesty.

I want to buy the argument that the author quite painstakingly makes, if for no other reason than it validates my own thinking on the subject.

She reminds us of the East Ferry neighborhood in Buffalo, NY (not too far from where I grew up!), where two out of every three homes turned up a case of lupus; eventually the neighborhood learned it was sitting on top of toxic waste (nothing was really deliberate here, unless you want to call a SuperFund running out of money "deliberate"). Too late to help those people who were already dead, or suffering from this very nasty autoimmune disease, the neighborhood was cleaned up. But in the meantime, a connection was made between the chemicals and overloaded autoimmune systems that switched on and simply wouldn't switch off.

The definition of "autoimmune" is an immune reaction against the self--the body's natural defense system fails to identify its own tissue as "self," seeing it instead as an invader, attacking, and efficiently destroying its own lung tissue, skin, nervous system, brain, or any other, often vital, organ or tissue type.

Researchers, she learns, were able to cause the mouse form of lupus in susceptible mice by exposing them to levels of certain types of chemicals at a level no higher than a worker routinely exposed to said chemical. It's that "susceptible," evidently, which makes a huge difference, both in how "provable" the argument is, and in how vulnerable any individual is--explaining why everyone who is exposed to the same raft of chemicals doesn't end up with an autoimmune disease (or the identical autoimmune disease). We all have differing original constitutions. People have always gotten autoimmune disease--rheumatoid arthritis has been around as long as we have medical records, and long before the industrial revolution. In other words, there have always been people prone to autoimmune problems. But where in times past a person with a tendency escaped because nothing switched on the immune system with such force, today, researchers suspect, vulnerable individuals are being overwhelmed with alien substances that cause the body to react with an immune response so vigorous that, in these susceptible people, simply doesn't shut off, but attacks the body itself.

Or, so goes the speculation. One conclusion I couldn't help reaching as I read was that this will be a monumentally difficult case to prove. "Total load" is great conceptually, but hard to quantify, much less link to a result, scientifically. And add to that the aforementioned "vulnerability" factor (and the fact that everyone doesn't respond with exactly the same form of autoimmune disease), and you have a topic fascinating to discuss, but incalculably difficult to add up as a practical matter. (Still, isn't that what computers are good at? So perhaps one day...)

The comparison to the inconvenient book aside, the writer seems to have done her homework, and if nothing else, the book is worth a read by anyone whose life has been impacted by these unforgiving, and incurable, diseases.


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