The Toxic Class Divide: Income Determines the Chemicals We Eat

We all consume toxins in our food—but some are more expensive than others.

toxins in food: socioeconomic status matters

Toxins in food and the spoils of the rich. (Photo: juliajanssen/Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Toxins in food don’t care about class. Give them a body to take up residence in and they’ll settle right into those organs, regardless of their host’s net worth.

However, a new study of chemical levels in Americans has shown that while toxicity is equal opportunity, the sources of those toxins are not. So while poorer people are more prone to high levels of BPA, which can leach into cheap canned foods, the upper classes harbor more mercury, arsenic, caesium and thallium—all associated with pricy fish and shellfish.

And the class divide in toxicity isn’t limited to foodborne chemicals. The study, conducted by the University of Exeter, found other income-specific causes of gradual poisoning after analyzing data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

For example, those of less means exhibit higher levels of lead and cadmium, thanks to a greater prevalence of smoking and exposure to industrial workplaces among the poor. And the more well-off, who are free to spend leisure hours in the sun, have higher levels of benzophenone-3, also known as oxybenzone—a main ingredient in sunscreen that some suspect encourages skin cancer.

As Quartz sums it up, “this work establishes that in some ways, in moving up the economic ladder Americans are simply trading one set of environmental toxins for another.”

How’s that for a reframing of progress and the American Dream? Work hard, and your kids can consume an entirely different class of toxins in foods than your parents did!

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