Archive for the ‘Poverty’ Category

What if poverty was conceptualized as a toxic chemical?

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Epidemiologists and public health researchers tend to talk about poverty as it being a risk factor or an independent agent affecting behavioral or treatment related health outcomes, something to be controlled for when conducting research.  This is important,  the breadth of things that poverty is associated with is astounding.  In most studies, if poverty status and/or income are not controlled for, the research js fundamentally flawed.

But consider, for a moment, that poverty was like a toxic chemical such as benzene or dioxin rather than a social construct.  As environmental epidemiologists, we are concerned with characterizing exposures:  who is exposed? what is the magnitude of exposure?  Dose is related to exposure over time.  Considering poverty to be a toxic chemical would lead to the realization that exposure to poverty should be limited because it is highly toxic and bad for morbidity and mortality., The longer one is exposed to poverty, the worse for health. One might even conclude that poverty is like a cancer causing agent:  there is no safe level exposure.

Toxicologists would want to identify how does poverty enter the body?  What are the target organs of poverty?  How is poverty eliminated or transformed into something less toxic? Is there a dose/response curve for poverty? One could come up with a range of  severity of poverty: destitute refugees, the homeless, very poor, those at the poverty line, the working poor, and the near poor.  This would be the equivalent of high to low exposures. Clearly poverty is related to other toxic exposures, the poor are more likely to live near toxic waste sites, for example.  This suggests that there may be potential problems with synergistic effects between poverty and other toxic exposures.

The risk assessment people would take this information and try to identify what is the do  about the levels of poverty In this country. Should poverty be regulated? Banned? Are there special populations that are more at risk to poverty?  It might mean that children are especially at risk to poverty exposures, as are the elderly.

Obviously, this is not how poverty is really thought of.  But maybe if we did talk of poverty as a toxic agent, there would be more attention to the problems of the poor.