Why Doctor Doesn’t Always Know Best and Three Ways You Can Change That

Doctor looking questioningly out a window

One of the things I hear the most when I talk to other parents and concerned individuals about toxic chemicals is that people are frustrated by their doctor’s lack of information on the topic. Whether it’s your pediatrician or obstetrician or oncologist, its clear that the medical community in general has lagged significantly in this area. The general gist of what I’m hearing is:

“My doctor just stares blankly at me when I ask him for advice on chemicals”

“I asked my pediatrician about chemicals and she had no idea what I was talking about.”

Why is this? How could doctors not know how toxic chemicals influence disease in children and adults? Well, when l I started investigating this issue of chemical toxicity a decade ago, I was stunned to discover that doctors do not know about this issue because it isn’t covered in their medical training.

There are some leading American medical practitioners like Dr. Alan Greene, Dr. Leonardo Trasande of New York University in NYC, Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana of Seattle Children’s Hospital and Dr. Phillip Landrigan of Mt. Sinai’s Hospital in New York that are world class leaders in this field of environmental medicine, but for the most part the majority of doctors practicing in the US find themselves on the back foot of this issue. (Interestingly all of the above mentioned are pediatricians.)

Indeed a study surveying obstetricians published last year by the University of California San Francisco revealed how obstetricians struggled to advise their pregnant patients on the issue of chemical toxicity. Lynne Peeples of the Huffington Post interviewed me about this study when it was released and I told her how challenging it was to find medical professionals who could speak knowledgeably to their pregnant patients.

Last year I had the incredible opportunity of interviewing the pioneering research scientist Dr. Theo Colborn before she passed away. Theo is a legend in the research community for being the first to piece together the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals and she had this to say about the training doctors get in chemical toxicity:


Theo doctors not trained from Penelope Jagessar Chaffer on Vimeo.


Indeed, this is the situation in Europe as well. Here pediatric consultant Dr. Gavin ten Tusscher, who has advised the European Union, elaborates on his training as a doctor. He also raises the fact that pharmaceutical companies that sponsor many medical studies do not sponsor toxicity research, so it can be very difficult for doctors to get involved.

Dr. ten Tusscher on why doctors know so little about environmental chemicals from Penelope Jagessar Chaffer on Vimeo.


Of course the other aspect of this is how conservative the medical profession is. I spoke with Professor Janna Koppe, a prominent Dutch neonatologist, who gives a little perspective on how slow the medical community has been to change.


Untitled from Penelope Jagessar Chaffer on Vimeo.


The great news is that whilst medicine has been slow to change, we are seeing changes. The Endocrine Society, one of the leading medical societies in the world is at the forefront of this awareness. Here Theo Colborn discusses how the Endocrine Society has moved to the forefront of the medical community with regards to chemical toxicity awareness and research. I’ve been working with the Endocrine Society and I can tell you we will see some interesting movement on this issue this year.


Theo the Endocrine Society from Penelope Jagessar Chaffer on Vimeo.


Last year, I spoke with the excellent Dr. Jeanne A. Conry, President of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and I’m thrilled to report that the issue of chemical toxicity in pregnancy is of concern to the society and that we should expect to see more involvement from the Congress on this issue. Indeed a BPA study was presented at last year’s annual meeting and there is a BPA in pregnancy advisory.

So what can we all do to move things along? Here are three ways we can all nudge the medical community forward:

  1. Discuss your concerns about chemical toxicity with your practitioner. Acknowledge that it’s a new science that is moving at lightning speed and that it’s hard for practitioners to keep up. Remind your physician that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists the American Nursing Association are all members of the Safer Chemicals coalition seeking better regulation of toxic chemicals.
  1. Support any initiatives your doctor or practice might make towards disseminating information and share trusted resources with them. If you don’t have that kind of relationship with your doctor contact the practice manager or speak to a nurse. The nursing community has moved far more quickly and in fact Theo Colborn says her faith is in the nurses.

At Seattle Children’s Hospital it was the nursing leadership that brought in DEHP (phthalate) free medical devices to make the hospital a cleaner place for newborns in intensive care.

Theo nurses from Penelope Jagessar Chaffer on Vimeo.


  1. If your doctor is unreceptive to discussing your chemical concerns find a doctor and a practice that will take you seriously and is making efforts to be as knowledgeable as they can be. And make sure you tell the doctor you are leaving why you are leaving his practice and why this is so important to you. If patients insist on better medical advice they will get it.


When you see doctors like Dr. Greene discussing this issue, know that he has that knowledge because he’s made the effort to know as much as he can, which involves a considerable investment not the least in time. We need to encourage all of our doctors while we wait for medical training to evolve. As Theo Colborn says here we don’t have one hundred years to change the medical community like we had to with cigarette smoking. We need change, now.

Theo medical training 2 from Penelope Jagessar Chaffer on Vimeo.


Is your doctor knowledgeable about chemical toxicity? Have you ever had concerns that your doctor dismissed or do you have a rockstar practitioner who is receptive and aware of the issue? How did you deal with the situation if they were difficult? Let me know in the comments. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Penelope Jagessar Chaffer

Penelope Jagessar Chaffer is a multi award winning documentary filmmaker, writer, feminist, children’s environmental health advocate and global environmentalist. She is the director, producer and writer of Toxic Baby, a feature documentary that looks at how chemicals in the environment affect the health and development of babies and children.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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  1. R. Smith

    My wife went to an OBGyn because this doctor happens to be the wife of our general practitioner. Her office had plug-in air fresheners in every exam room and in outlets up and down the hallways. We had a talk with her about the plug-ins and gave her a pamphlet about fragrance toxicity, she smiled and nodded, and the next visit nothing had changed. We asked the office staff to unplug the dispenser in the exam room we would be using, which they did, but this was a pointless gesture given the amount of chemicals already in the air and distributed throughout the whole place by the A/C system.

    My wife was not pregnant at the time of the second visit, so she decided to tough it out and have the scheduled procedure. But this is a place that has pregnant women coming in every day, getting dosed with unregulated, undisclosed chemicals which include known teratogens, neurotoxins and carcinogens. We tried to inform this doctor, but she blew us off.

    Needless to say my wife will not be seeing her again.

  2. Anna@Green Talk

    I feel the same as Micaela. I don’t even bother since my doctors don’t seem to care about those issues. Or at least, they never bring up the subject.

    However, given the rise of cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity, medical schools should start teaching about the risks of chemicals in our society.

  3. Micaela Preston

    I have to admit that I don’t often bring up topics like toxic chemicals at the doctor’s office – because I don’t think my doctor is any more knowledgeable than I am on the topic (probably less so actually). I’m really hoping this will change as information about the negative health impacts of chemicals gets more mainstream.

  4. Flour Sack Mama

    So glad to see more and more journalists & advocates spreading the word about this! Excellent information that we all need to share!

    • Penelope Jagessar Chaffer

      Thanks Flour Sack Mama! It’s very sad to see our doctors lagging behind like this but hopefully we can show how important it is to get the medical community on board!

  5. Sarah

    I think it’s hard for people to get over that mental hump of, “Doctor knows best.” But it’s just not true!

    • Penelope Jagessar Chaffer

      Sarah, you are SO right! And the sad thing is that for a long time, people didn’t take this issue seriously because doctors didn’t take it seriously so the medical community have some responsibility in this general lack of accountability regarding toxic chemicals. I’m SO glad we live in the age of the internet so it’s so much more easier to find these things out!!


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