Theories on Alzheimer's Association
To the Editor:
It is with much happiness that I see increased focus placed on the relationship between unchecked manure runoff and the pollution in Lake Champlain. Because of the great amount of money being offered to alleviate this problem, I would like to offer a wider perspective on the situation, so that money, which is so hard to stretch, can be used to offer more than a temporary band aid to a much bigger problem.
Recently the Alzheimer's Association released a map of the USA projecting for 2014-2025 the increase in Alzheimer's disease for adults age 65 and older in each state. Looking at the map (enclosed), it is clear that the states experiencing the highest percentage increases were in the Western states and, of course, Florida. In the Northeast, however, only one state shows an increase of over 50%. That state is Vermont. Vermont is expected to have a 55% increase in this dreaded disease, much higher than any other state in New England, even though Vermonters live no longer than people in other states. (second map enclosed) I would like to share a few theories on the sources of this problem and offer ideas for steps to improve the situation.
There are three likely explanations:
1) The uncontrolled use of chemicals on large industrial farms has an influence on the health of the surrounding population. The negative effects of chronic, low level exposure to certain chemicals are gaining increasing focus in the scientific community. One 2013 paper provides evidence that formaldehyde exposure changes the folding state of Tau, a protein in the brain that has been tightly linked to Alzheimer's disease. (July, 2007, Nie, Wie, Che) Another article from 2009 argues that chemical exposure is a potent and under-examined factor in diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, NASH, and Parkinson's disease. This research highlights the potential toxicity of chemicals such as formaldehyde and formic acid from methanol in alcohol drinks, tobacco and wood smoke, aspartame, and several others.. (Rich Murray 2009.07.07) Methanol is also used on factory farms as a stabilizer for volatile liquids to keep them from becoming a gas. .On farms, there is very little control of the sale, use and disposal of formaldehyde and other chemicals. Although it is a known carcinogen, formaldehyde use and disposal is not effectively regulated; it is used in massive amounts in foot baths for cows and subsequently disposed of, along with most unwanted chemicals, by pouring it into manure pits. Mixing together various chemicals and allowing them to sit can create an enormous amount of various chemicals of varying toxicity.
An article by Texas A&M states that herbicide drift from fields miles away can produce rashes, flu-like symptoms, headaches and nausea, indicating the long-term damage of herbicides on rural populations. Physicians for Social Responsibility have highlighted rural populations as great victims of unintended exposure. The enormous amount of corn planting also means an extensive level of herbicides sprayed. The terms 'herbicide drift' and 'volatilization' of chemicals in the air are now commonly used when talking about chemicals.
When one does the math, the enormous amount of manure being spread into the air, which allow particles to become airborne, is startling. One cow produces the manure of about 24 humans. A typical large industrial farm has anywhere from 2000-3500 cows. Would one allow human waste of such capacity to be spread into the air and go wherever the wind and water takes it? But more importantly, not only manure, but a toxic stew of chemicals, medical waste and body parts are spread at that same time.
2) To be fair, to account for the increase in Alzheimer's, one could also point a finger at personal lifestyle changes of Vermonters. Mom & Pop stores, places where one could buy fresh American-made products, are disappearing. Now the stores are box stores, with products coming primarily from other countries with fewer regulations and emitting a significant amount of chemicals through clothing and toys. We have all read stories of contaminated goods coming in from foreign countries, sickening the population.
3)In addition, our eating habits also have changed. We no longer know where our food comes from and how it has been processed before it comes to our tables. Perhaps this factor also impacts the projected increase in Alzheimer's disease.
It is likely that all of these factors play a role in the health of populations. But, again, in comparison to the surrounding states, how can one explain the especially startling increase in Alzheimer's disease predicted for our supposed pristine state? Assuming that adjacent states have similar eating habits, lifestyle changes, and genetic predisposition, the one distinguishing factor in Vermont is the uncontrolled growth of farms in valleys within the population base, and the subsequent overuse and improper management of chemicals. Air pollution, both inside and out, at a chronic low level exposure is, quite possibly, a factor. Vermonters like to spend so much of the precious summer outside; in the winter we sit inside being exposed by cheap, foreign made goods with no control or knowledge of what is inside them.
What can one do? The problem is a complex one that will not be solved overnight. But as Vermonters, here are a few suggestions for positive actions that we CAN do:
Insist on manure INJECTION rather than spraying manure, thus preventing unknown chemicals and waste to be carried by wind into our nostrils, with untold long-term effects on health.
Regulate chemical use on the farms by requiring a chemical management plan of proper disposal of waste, rather than unregulated disposal into a pit.
Emphasize SMALL. Perhaps large farms could receive incentives to diversify and use acreage for raising sheep, growing grains, or grass-fed beef. Some of the 1.5 million dollar proposal could be directed to helping farmers develop a more diversified and sustainable agricultural system. It may mean, initially, a loss in profits for the individual farmers, but government incentives would help to offset this loss, at the gain of long-term health for our people and the environment.
I believe no individual or group is to blame for this complex problem. Industry and manufacturing is growing at an incredible pace. Policies in Washington have all but eliminated the ability of independent markets and farms to thrive. When initially marketed, no one expected the toxic impact of lead paint in our homes or triclosan in antibacterial soaps. But these lessons from history should not be forgotten. If current agricultural waste exposure is a source of our problems, and if we have possible solutions at our fingertips, we need to actively address the issue. That could allow a healthier world for our children, and even if but one life could be saved, we need to rethink our all-too-casual use of industrial chemicals.
Do not be deaf to me, For if You are silent to me, I will become like those who go down to the pit.