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Doctor with diabetes speaks out about chemicals in plastics

Doctor with diabetes speaks out about chemicals in plastics


Dr. Nathan Ravi, now 64, was living on the East Coast, working as a chemical engineer; he was a father, husband and in excellent physical condition as a hobby runner — 5Ks, hours of gym time and the like.

So why at 28 did he develop type 1 diabetes? He sums up the answer in one word: bisphenol, more commonly known as BPA, for bisphenol-a. It’s the best known and possibly the most harmful culprit in a family of chemicals known to, or suspected of harming people.

It has been accused of causing conditions from autoimmune diseases, to harming brain cells to birth defects.

In the 1970s, before becoming an ophthalmologist, he was a chemical engineer with a biotech company in Virginia. This was before the suspicions of BPA emerged. He worked with raw quantities seeking uses in consumer and industrial products.

The symptoms came on — fatigue, weakness, blurred vision. His doctor gave him the news. It was a surprise. Type 1 diabetes normally strikes people so young, the condition got the name juvenile diabetes. It’s an autoimmune disease where the immune system destroys the pancreas, which produces insulin vital to the body burning energy.

In most cases, the cause is a faulty pancreas at birth that fails after a few years.

He continued in the discipline, and even got his doctorate in polymer science in 1980. Still, the mystery of contracting the disease nagged him, so he switched careers and became a physician, graduating in 1988.

The condition differs from type 2 diabetes, which is more lifestyle ailment that often can be addressed with exercise, diet and oral medications. The pancreas doesn’t necessarily shut down; it’s overwhelmed.

Healthful living can make people with type 1 diabetes feel better but has no effect on the condition, Ravi said.

Since his diagnosis, he has discovered that two co-workers from the biotech facility also developed type 1 diabetes. The only thing the three had in common was working closely with bisphenol and related chemicals called endocrine disrupters; they interfere with hormonal systems in humans. About 10 years ago, when BPA began being demonized by activists, Ravi felt his suspicions were confirmed.

Consumers come in contact with BPA in flexible, plastic containers such as beverage and food containers. After an outcry by consumer advocates a couple of decades ago, most manufacturers began to mark their containers “BPA free.”

Ravi has become an activist to tell people how to avoid BPA and other endocrine disrupters. Federal regulators don’t support his or other suspicions.

The U.S. Food and Drug administration insists: “… based on its most recent safety assessment … (the FDA) continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging.”

The European Union and Canada have banned BPA use in baby bottles. U.S. manufacturers have stopped using it in baby bottles but still use it in other consumer products.

Ravi says he’s encouraged that the food and beverage industry has voluntarily removed most BPA from its containers. But as many as 12 BPA-type chemicals continue to lurk in the molecular structures of flexible plastic containers sold to consumers, and conditions such as heat and deterioration can cause them to contaminate consumables.

Ravi wants to alert people to take precautions when dealing with plastics, despite the FDA’s disavowal. When Ravi gives public talks he tells his audiences to avoid drinking or eating from plastics. “Use glass or ceramic whenever possible,” he said. “Every flexible plastic has an endocrine disruptor.”

In addition, the chemicals are used in some fragrances and vanity chemicals.

And never microwave food or drink in flexible plastic because the heat can cause a degree of leaching of the chemicals into the food or drink, he insists. And the effect can be cumulative.

“I’m trying to come up with a movement to get plastic out of day-to-day activities,” he said. He admits it’s unlikely that plastics with the family of chemicals including BPA will be banned or abandoned anytime soon.

But he can tell people to learn how to use containers more safely and avoid contamination of their food and drink, he said. His talks range from the St. Louis region to as far away as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Mumbai in India.

“I don’t say I’m an expert,” he said. “I just tell them my story.”

Meanwhile, he has taken his type 1 diabetes in stride, literally. He’s a distance runner. He was a runner before, but he has since taken it to another level at the urging of one of his daughters who told him to try marathons.

He’s training for the Boston Marathon less than two weeks away. He runs marathons and has under his belt 50- and 30-mile races in the U.S., South Africa and elsewhere. More international ultra races are in his future, he says.

His diet is strict: 40 percent protein, 40 percent carbs and 20 percent fats. “I’m fortunate to have learned so much about my body,” he says, “what to eat, when to eat …”

He practices on treadmills several days a week and when there’s time, runs laps around Forest Park.

“And I like to sleep,” he said.

As for the water bottle he carries while running? “I carry steel.”

He has reacted to condition with optimism.

“I’m glad I got diabetes,” he said. “Without it, I wouldn’t be a physician, and I wouldn’t be telling people my story.”

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Harry Jackson is a health reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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