Since the prehistoric era, humans have battled disease. Pathogens are almost as old as the planet itself, and as we’ve seen, novel viruses and bacteria continue to evolve. A simple cut or broken bone could lead to severe infection.
But while our ancestors’ lives were significantly shorter, they were also much less likely to develop cancer. Cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, and autoimmune conditions were rare.
Today, though, more than 19.3 million cancer cases occur every year globally. Heart attacks and strokes are among the leading causes of death. And diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are on the rise, compared to their relatively rare occurrence more than 100 years ago.
Some of these diseases are more likely to develop as we age. Thanks to modern society, we are living longer lifespans than our ancestors could even dream of. However, modernity is a double-edged sword as it has introduced many environmental toxins that raise our likelihood of disease. While our ancestors couldn’t imagine living to age 80 or 90, they also rarely developed debilitating nerve disorders or cancers.
What changed? The world did. Synthetic toxic chemicals have contaminated our environment and raised our risk of serious illness. Here are 3 emerging diseases of the modern age.
In the year 1900, lung cancer was virtually unheard-of in the United States. Physicians considered it a medical mystery. A century later, it was the most common (and deadliest) type of cancer for men in 25 developed countries Today, it is the leading cause of cancer-related death around the world. It’s probably not surprising that cigarette smoking is the top factor, with most cases being traced to that behavior.
However, we’re also seeing an increase in cases that can’t be explained by cigarettes, especially as smoking falls out of vogue. As lung cancer is usually not genetically inherited, that’s likely because known carcinogens such as radon, asbestos, and cadmium linger in our surroundings. Although these chemicals are highly regulated, they accumulate in the soil and water, eventually entering the food chain or being released into the atmosphere.
Another major risk factor in lung cancer is the inhalation of particulate matter (PM) created by combustion. Everything from coal-fueled power plants to biomass burning to, of course, automobile engines releases PM into the atmosphere. The higher the level of PM in an area, the higher the risk of lung cancer.
Cases of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma have risen significantly around the world, now reaching more than 500,000 cases per year. This type of cancer has a high mortality rate, although that has been dropping with new treatments. While the pathology of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma is not well understood, multiple studies have pointed to lawn control chemicals as a key risk factor.
In particular, phenoxyacetic acid herbicides, especially 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, appear to increase the likelihood of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma by 200 to 800 percent. Research has linked many fungicides and insecticides to the disease as well. Increased use of these chemicals correlates with the rising incidence of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. As farmers and lawn care specialists tend to have higher rates of this cancer, it seems likely that the chemicals have carcinogenic effects.
While cancer has always been around (though the incidence has drastically risen), Parkinson’s is among the world’s newest non-pathogenic diseases — and it’s become frighteningly common. Between 1990 and 2015, the global incidence doubled, and scientists believe we’ll reach 12 million by the year 2040. In the U.S. alone, 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s every year.
The disease is incurable, although it can be managed. Unfortunately, it is a difficult disability to live with.
Back in 1817 London, Dr. James Parkinson wrote about a then-unclassified disease that he observed in a mere six patients. The disease caused persistent trembling and difficulty walking. We now know that Parkinson’s is not completely new, as ancient Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian texts described something similar. However, modern Parkinson’s became wildly common less than 200 years after Dr. Parkinson documented it.
That’s partly due to increased lifespans, as older people are more likely to develop Parkinson’s. But the more insidious risk factor is industrialization. The countries with the most rapid industrialization have seen the largest increase in cases. It’s no surprise, as multiple chemicals used in agricultural and factory operations have been linked to Parkinson’s.
One of the worst offenders is paraquat. After it became a common herbicide in the mid-20th century, cases of Parkinson’s skyrocketed. It wasn’t long before researchers discovered the connection — and it was no surprise. Paraquat was the ultimate weed killer because it causes oxidation, i.e. electron transfers that power cells’ energy production. And excessive oxidation can seriously damage or mutate our cells.
Paraquat increases the production of alpha-synuclein, a protein that makes up “Lewy bodies,” which are abnormal clumps of protein within nerve cells. This is the hallmark characteristic of Parkinson’s. Lewy bodies contribute to neurodegeneration, causing the distinctive tremors.
Today, 32 countries have banned paraquat due to its significant health risks (and the fact that it became a popular choice for suicide and homicide). But not only does the United States continue to allow paraquat, but it’s also used frequently.
There are also rotenone and permethrin, which are used as pesticides and insecticides in both household products and industrial processes. Both disrupt mitochondrial activity in neurons, leading to neurodegeneration.
Among the most toxic VOCs is trichloroethylene, which is frequently found in dry cleaning and degreasing chemicals. This known carcinogen also increases the risk of Parkinson’s. It’s found in more than half of the United States’ superfund sites, including the one under Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. That’s where Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor released significant levels of trichloroethylene into the ground. (Interestingly, former Intel CEO Andy Grove developed both prostate cancer and Parkinson’s, which raises some questions.)
These are just a few of the many synthetic chemicals that have permeated our modern society. They contaminate the soil, transferring to our food and waterways. As the earth naturally breaks down material and vents gasses, the vapors come along with it. It’s little surprise that at the time Dr. Parkinson observed those six patients, London was developing its infamous “pea soup fog,” a smog so horribly thick that drivers could not see the road.
Cancer and neurodegenerative disorders may not be new, but they have certainly reached new highs in their occurrence. As multiple studies have pinpointed synthetic toxic chemicals in these diseases, it seems clear that modern society has traded shorter lifespans for a greater likelihood of illness. If and when our ancestors developed these diseases, they were genetic flukes. Today, our environmental pollution is kicking these flukes into overdrive.
While occupational exposure is a risk factor, we all share the ground and water. About 40 million Americans get their water from unregulated private wells. Because many of them are in rural areas, they’re much more susceptible to pesticide and herbicide runoff from nearby farms.
And let’s not forget that the food we eat is grown or raised on these lands or caught from these waterways. Plus, industrial and agricultural burning continue to release vaporized chemicals into the air we breathe. The problem is especially bad in the United States, which has refused to ban paraquat and many other toxic chemicals.
To prevent our species from becoming fated to longer but chronically lives, we must take action against the synthetic chemicals that drastically risk our futures. It’s time to make cancer and Parkinson’s rare again.
This article was inspired by an interview with Dr. Ray Dorsey, a physician and neurology professor dedicated to reducing the incidence of Parkinson’s disease.