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Science Writer’s Talk Explores Links Connecting Environment, Race, and Cognition

September 17, 2019

When science writer Harriet A. Washington first set out to study toxins in the environment, she was discouraged from focusing on topics of race and socioeconomic status. After all, recent studies have found that 95% of people have been exposed to and harbor toxins in their body without even knowing.

But Washington knew another fact as well: “In this country, you find the heaviest assaults from toxic substances in areas where people of color live.”

That topic was the focus of her talk, “The Brain Thieves: Heavy Metals, Pathogens and Other Enemies of Cognition,” which took place at Yale Child Study Center on Sept. 5. Sponsored by the Program for Humanities in Medicine, the talk was one in a series of events that explore the relationship between history, philosophy, art, music, literature, and medicine.

To illustrate her assertion, Washington described an assault on communities of color by toxic industries and pipelines, noting scenarios in which Native Americans experience the side effects of an industry in their own backyard without accessibility to its benefits. For example, a telecommunications line might run through land owned by these communities, yet they have no access to telecommunications. Washington cited water as another case in point, saying, “They will have pipelines of toxic fluids going through their community. They have water like the water restoration products in their community but they have no access to fresh water…”

Washington also spoke about the phenomenon of food deserts. The term refers to communities with largely low-income families, often African American, who are unable to access nutritious foods. Stores in the immediate vicinity of such neighborhoods sell vegetables at prices that exceed the cost of a fast food meal. “Access to food is scarce but there is more going on than that,” Washington said. “What’s not scarce is access to very potent forms of alcohol — things you are hard pressed to find outside of the hood, fortified wines and malt liquor, for example.” Furthermore, these communities are often affected by highly targeted tobacco campaigns, Washington noted.

Yet environmental threats, from lead, for example, can be mitigated by good health, a commodity many communities cannot easily access. “If you have really good health, that won’t protect you from poisoning, but it gives you a leg up. If you’re living in an area where there is no chance of having nutritious food and you’re assailed by lead poisoning, your harms are going to be greater. And then, of course, there are pathogens.”

Washington calls pathogens, “potent but unrecognized,” sources of toxicity that negatively impact cognition. Rodents, for example, carry hantaviruses which have been linked to hypertension. “We’ve known for a long time that cockroaches contribute to asthma,” Washington said. “Asthma contributes to lots of bouts of anoxia where you don’t get enough oxygen to the brain. Hypertension has [also] been shown to decrease cognition.”

The combination of food deserts, pathogens, and heavy metals found in environments is something Washington described as synergy. “I think one of the great failures of environmental health is the difficulty and the failure to quantify and recognize synergy. We're actually being inundated by a combination of these and we have no idea what kind of potentiation is being offered by the combinations we’re exposed to.” For example, “23 IQ points are lost per year to lead poisoning,” Washington said.

Toxicity’s affects can be, “quite acute for the fetus or a child,” Washington says, as they have not fully developed. Add the synergy of race and poverty and housing to toxins in the environment, and “we're looking into a network of vulnerability.”

Washington, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, has authored six books. Her affiliations as a fellow and researcher include Harvard University, Nevada Black Mountain Institute, Tuskegee University, Stanford University, and the New York Academy of Medicine. She is currently a professor of bioethics at Columbia University.

Submitted by Robert Forman on September 18, 2019