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Living wage in BC could prevent disabilities: SFU prof

As an intern at a veteran’s hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, Bruce Lanphear became friends with two patients and their families. Both died of diseases which were preventable, but far from curable. Frustrated by his inability to help them, Lanphear realized that “while it was a noble calling to work with patients to alleviate suffering, it would be nobler and more satisfying to prevent it in the first place”.

“We can, by diminishing poverty or social inequities, give people more resources and the ability to remove themselves from exposure, to live in a maintained home, as opposed to a poorly maintained home that might contain lead hazards or other hazards.” “If you could eliminate poverty, half of the diseases, half of the mental disorders and other disorders, over a generation would disappear.”

Lanphear, a professor of Children's Environmental Health at Simon Fraser University, believes that removing social inequities and increasing the standard minimum wage are crucial in promoting positive mental health.

His research details the effects of exposure to a variety of “risk factors” during childhood development. These factors consist of toxins as diverse as cigarette smoke and pesticides, lead, PCBs, mercury, and certain plastics.

Fetal development and early childhood seem to be the time when children are most susceptible to their influence.

One of the most significant tenants of his research is that the prevention of disabilities is far more effective than their treatment, and that the best way to prevent them is by creating healthy environments.

But around 20 per cent of Vancouver’s children live in low-income households.

As one solution, Lanphear advocates a living wage. Those with an adequate wage gain the ability to provide themselves with proper nutrition and shelter, alleviating the stress caused by a life of financial uncertainty and diminish the levels of exposure to potentially dangerous toxins.

Due to increasing housing costs, as well as that of childcare and utilities, the minimum wage required for a family to achieve financial stability in Vancouver rests at $19.14 per hour, according to the Living Wage for Families Campaign. This is up 33 cents since last year. It's a particularly disquieting figure, noting just how many jobs rest at the still minuscule minimum wage.

The number of children diagnosed with an activity limitation stemming from a chronic health condition rose from 1.8 per cent in 1960 to 7.3 per cent in 2006, while the prevalence of diagnosed developmental disabilities rose from 12.8 per cent in 1997-99 to 15 per cent in 2006-08.

“Many of the levels of established toxins are lower,”. Lanphear said, “The effects of these toxins are not linear, that is, at the lowest levels what we’re finding are much steeper risk factors”. Even in comparatively small amounts, we don't know just how dangerous certain chemicals are.

Vancouver is a relatively healthy city. Smoking rates are low, he said, there is no major polluting industry, lead paint is uncommon, and a strong public transit system allows for efficient commuting.

What strikes an emotional chord with many, however, are the endemic mental illnesses, disabilities, and drug abuse which prevail throughout the downtown east-side.

It's a sad fact that poorer communities tend to face higher levels of environmental toxins. This isn't to mention the added emotional stress of actually living in such an area.

In a community of people struggling to live amongst moulding, roach infested hotels and garbage-filled alleyways stinking of urine, It's not hard to imagine what sort of things you would be consistently breathing in, not to mention sleeping on, or eating. Or how unhealthy a family in that situation might become.


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