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As hard as it may be to believe, even 100 years ago, allergies were almost unknown. An early American historian of medicine noted that in 40 years of practice he had only see five cases of hay fever. Allergy-like conditions such as contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and asthma were also rare, but that is hardly the case today.
Asthma was also once a rare condition. Today in the United States, nearly 7 million children and 16 million adults suffer asthma. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide nearly 300 million people suffer asthma, which causes as many as 250,000 deaths each year.
What has caused this plague of allergy and allergy-like diseases? One culprit is drinking water, contaminated by agricultural runoff containing pesticides such as the organophosphates and RoundUp.
Pervasive Poisoning by Organophosphates
Organophosphates, as their name suggests, are chemical compounds that link phosphoric acid and an organic, carbon-based compound. All organophosphates are nerve agents, tying up an enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, causing insects to twitch, seize, and die of paralysis.
The first mass-produced organophosphates were the nerve gases Sarin, Tabun, Soman, and VX. Although some nations, notably Syria, are believed to stock nerve gases even today, these deadly chemicals were banned by international treaty after the world wars.
After World War II, chemical manufacturers began to look for new products to make with the old processes used to make nerve gas. In the 1950's and 1960's, farmers first in the United States and then around the world began to use diazinon, fenthion, ethion, malathion, parathion, chlorpyriflos, and dichlorvos. Like the nerve gases before them, organophospate pesticides caused so much damage that they have been largely phased out, at least in North America and in the European Union. Both American and European companies still sell them in other parts of the world.
The problem with parathion and similar products is that they leached out of the soil and into the water table. Even where organophosphates were banned 20 years ago, the chemicals can still be found both in produce grown in contaminated soils and in drinking water.
Organophosphate Poisoning and Allergy
As nerve toxins, organophosphates are well known as causes of nerve and brain damage. But organophosphates also have proven toxic effects on the immune system.
- Studies at the Institute of Environmental Toxicology in Japan have found that exposure to parathion or methoxychlor increases allergic reactions to dust mites, which also trigger rosacea.
- Studies at National University of Costa Rica found that Costa Rican women exposed to organophosphate pesticides were up to 7 times more likely to experience wheezing.
- Studies at the Jimma Institute of Health Sciences in Ethiopia found that when villagers left their organic subsistence farms and moved into the cities where organophosphate pesticides such as malathion were commonly used, allergies, wheezing, and skin rashes such as eczema became up to 3 times more common.
Although there are other issues with adding chlorine and fluoride to drinking water, modern treated water has lower levels of organophosphates than untreated water, such as the well water available even in North America in rural areas. Municipal water supplies, however, retain organophosphates for up to 72 hours even after treatment, so safe drinking water requires a savvy purification plant operator.