Is your geography a part of your destiny?

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By Danette Vernon

Everyone knows you just have to eat your carrots and hope for the best when it comes to your genetics, but there is a bit of new math to tip the scale of longevity. The new math goes like this: Genetics + Lifestyle + ENVIRONMENT = Your Health.

How does the addition of Environment play out for a Yankee who has moved around a bit?

Well, I spent most of my school years in Uhrichsville Ohio, a small town that was neighbor to an even smaller town, Scio, Ohio. Scio had once been Clay Capital of the world. Uhrichsville was minus the illustrious title, but we still had the smoke stacks that rose up and over the receding tree line. As a child I lived just a few streets over from the local clay factory.

In 1970 my family lived in a rental home on the outskirts of town, and every day before we could use the slide in the back yard it had to be wiped free of the black crumbles of soot that had gathered in the night. A couple of years later, we moved down the road to an old two story home that was heated with a monster of a coal furnace that lurked in the back of the basement. The upper story of the house was permanently coated with the sooty belches of our coal-fired furnace.

In the 1980’s I lived in Sacramento, California. Back in the day, Sacramento, no matter its city sprawl, was considered practically “farm country” by urbanites from Los Angeles.

“Geography is destiny in medicine,” so said Jack Lord, M. D., more than a decade ago. Yet to date, no medical professional has ever done a quick calculation of how breathing clay factory or coal particulates for more than a decade of my growing up years may have affected me. Nor has there ever been any information provided on how any of the 26 chemicals now listed for Sacramento may have impinged on the quality of the air I breathed when my second son was born there, farm country or not, in 1984.

I actually lived in Scio, Ohio, when I delivered my first child. I birthed my third child in Savannah, Georgia, and while there, my new baby and I may have briefly breathed, plus or minus, 40 toxic chemicals.

I used Geo-medicine — Geographic Information System, or GIS — technology to garner information on my geographical chemical exposure through the years, much as medical epidemiologists, the front line of disease detectives, do. They use, “GIS extensively in their fight against diseases that have a clear relationship between person, place, and time. GIS has also played an important role in protecting communities from otherwise overlooked risks and toxic exposures,” reports Bill Davenhall, a health and human services expert.

While a direct line of cause and effect between environment and health can’t always be drawn, there might be corollary factors revealed through GIS that would help you and your doctor  make the most of the “new math” of longevity.

It’s only a rough sketch, but you can use Geo-medicine for yourself to find out how many toxic chemicals you may have inhaled while living “here and there” throughout your life time by simply typing in various locations into a dialog box at http://www.esri.com/industries/health/geomedicine/map.