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How Travel Mitigates The Health Risks Of Environmental Pollution and Toxins

Want to reduce the effect of environmental pollution and food contaminants? Keep traveling.

Traveling the world means being exposed to the full gamut of pollutants, contaminants, chemicals, heavy metals, fungi, bacteria, radiation, toxins — pretty much all the bad shit that you can consume, inhale, absorb, or otherwise be exposed to environmentally that can screw you up little by little. Trying to avoid pollutants and toxins in countries like China and India is like trying to run through a brick wall. It’s just not going to happen. So either you say wotthehell wotthehell and decide not to worry about the heavy metals in your rice, the aluminum in your noodles, the air that’s so polluted that you can’t see the other side of the street, the beef that’s really additive laden pork, the rats gnawing behind the walls, the cockroaches on the floor, the potentially mycotoxin producing mold on the walls of your room, and whatever pernicious chemicals that are in the water or you retreat back to the bosom of your local profiteering health food haven at home.

The flip side is that there is a major benefit to traveling in this regard:

Unless exposed to an acute catastrophe — like a nuclear plant melting down — if you keep moving you’re probably not going to be exposed to enough of any particular type of environmental pollutant or contaminant for it to do any real damage. Sure, you get a taste of all toxins when moving across continents, but it’s generally always in such small samples that it’s not worth getting too concerned about. In China, you breath in polluted air for a while, then you move onto Thailand and eat toxic shrimp, then you go to India and breath in incredible amounts of two stroke motorcycle exhaust, then you travel up to Nepal and eat food laced with untypically harsh pesticides, then maybe you go to the mountains and live clean for some months etc . . . on and on all around the world. You mix up your intake of pernicious health influences, and in a strange sort of way stay healthy.

It’s the sedentary people that need to worry about environmental pollution, as they expose themselves to the same contaminants daily for years and years. Travelers can just leave the moment something doesn’t smell right. If there is mold on the walls of your hotel room, just go to another hotel; if the air in a city is too polluted, just get on a bus and go; if the food somewhere tends to be laced with toxic substances, don’t worry, you’ll be gone soon; if you don’t feel well somewhere, just go somewhere else. Traveling gives you an amount of control over your life unlike any other lifestyle: you stick around the places that are good, get out of the ones that are not.

It’s stupid to live long term in an environment that degrades your health. Unfortunately, most people in this world are resigned — or have chosen to resign themselves — to just accept the pollutants and toxins in their environment, as there seems to be few other options.

I grew up in a house in the countryside that was in between two big farm fields. The crop dusters would fly overhead, virtually spraying my house with pesticides. The well water I drank was heavily laced with farm chemicals and types of bacteria I would prefer not to mention. We accepted this because this was a just part of where we lived, and, when it comes down to it, there are few places in the world without pollution/ contamination problems.

Apart from going out in the mountains, there is really nowhere to run to escape all types of toxicities that we’ve created, but it’s my impression that it’s far better to just keep running. Don’t stay in any location for too long and there is no need to worry about the effects of long term exposure to a particular set of contaminants and toxins. The problem comes when you set up in locations abroad for the longer haul.

pollution-yangtze-river

Over the past year and a half I’ve been making longer term commitments to staying in cities in China. Life is good here, my wife can do her Montessori thing and, as China is currently basking in the spotlight of the international media, my work gets exponentially more attention and coverage. Though I’m often out traveling, I do spend a considerable amount of time in my bases of operation, and a new difficulty arose from this strategy: I’ve lost the ability to just up and leave.

I’ve exchanged the biggest advantage a traveler has for the ease of having a place set up for my family and a base for me to work out of. Leaving here would be a big enough hassle to stave off most all whims. But it is in these whims that the freedom of travel is found.

Recommended story: Why I Set Up In Xiamen

Stay some place too long and you start asking questions like:

What is this thickly polluted air doing to me?

What effect is the heavy metals in the rice/ aluminum in noodles/ pesticides on vegetables/ all kinds of screwed up meat having?

Is this bottled water really of drinkable quality?

These are onerous questions, better asked by those stuck in the same place for years than those just passing through.

I’ve found myself facing circumstances and solving problems here in China that I would normally just leave in the dust. I’m learning a lesson here. I’ve always patted myself on the back whenever I meet some poor SOB who is stuck huffing the miasma of some chemical plant, factory, or power plant that’s near his home. “Ha,” I say with an adequately snobby intonation, “that can’t happen to me, I’m location independent.”

There are more advantages to traveling than just seeing the world. Live this lifestyle long enough and you start to realize not only the benefits of travel but also the drawbacks of living sedentary that you once simply took for granted. I fear the sedentary life, and this isn’t because I would miss visiting new places, but because I fear losing control. Living in one place and embedding yourself withing a web of work, debt, property ownership, possession upkeep, social connections, etc . . . is to peddle away your self-determination. You lose the ability to just leave when things become less than ideal.

Leaving is a powerful thing to be able to do.

“There is one thing I’ve always been good at, and that’s leaving,” my friend Andy Hobotraveler.com once said to me.

Perpetual travel, as in the lifestyle not just the act, is a way of gaining and keeping control of your life by falling between the cracks, by micromanaging what places and situations you want to be, by having your choice of people you want to be around, by learning what it is that you enjoy most in life and getting it daily, and by maintaining the option to just leave when you realize that things are not as you would like them to be.

It’s the philosophy of leaving, the song of the open road, the common sense of setting up the menagerie of life to be exactly as you want it, the notion that life is a fleeting gift to be enjoyed.

All life should be experimentation, and this Xiamen experiment probably won’t be upgraded into a model. There are benefits to all lifestyles and drawbacks, but once the benefits are suckled dry it’s time to leave.

Filed under: Health, Perpetual Travel, Travel Philosophy, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3547 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

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  • Jack September 21, 2013, 1:28 pm

    I’m surprised that this will be the first comment on this post. I read this a few days ago on my phone and was waiting for time to reply. I think this could be one of the most profound posts on this blog….it starts talking about environmental problems but later it talks about what I think it’s really about…the ability to leave/walk on that makes a vagabond a vagabond.

    I guess some people think that being a vagabond is all about traveling to other places and staying in nice places and then hitting the road to the next place or doing the same but roughing it. I think it is neither. It’s about that innate nature inside a person that tells them its time to go and try their luck in another town….or state…or country. It’s about not sinking down deep enough roots to make it difficult to make the decision to leave when you want to leave.

    I read this post first as I was getting ready to start a new job. Actually my first real job back in the US after so many years. It was a production/factory job. This week it beat my body all to hell, but I knew I wanted to do it for the experience so I took the punishment. If I hadn’t convinced myself I was doing it for the experience then I probably would have lost it through heavy depression. More on this.

    I got to sit through the orientation and the safety instruction. I got to talk to the people who were taking the job. Out on the floor, I talked to long term workers. I got to hear their stories. One man shared his life: He is single so he’d go home after work, let his dog out, eat dinner and go to bed out of exhaustion. That was his life. Other stories were similar. No one like their jobs, they liked their coworkers and they liked the money they earned but everyone had a dream of doing something better with their life. Supervisors and leads were in charge of enforcing a work ethic of: be glad you have a job, don’t do your job and you’ll be gone.

    I talked about my travels and the people were envious but could never do it. They thought they didn’t have enough money but the truth is that they could sell everything they owned and take a paycheck and make it happen. They can’t do it because they have become slaves to what society is telling them. They’d rather be slaves to the finance company, the credit card company, and their vices.

    I wish I had your skills in telling a story because I truly believe there could be a good book in telling the stories of the people I meet through the eyes of someone who now find American culture to be a foreign culture.

    Needless to say I am not having a good adjustment back in the US and wish I could go abroad again but I am not going to do that. Not right now. Travelling for 15 years has shown me that there isn’t a place for me abroad either and I don’t want to be that 60 year old English teacher without a pot to pee in.

    But one thing I can’t be is boxed in. I’m a vagabond and it’s in my blood. I’ll go where the grass is greener and when I find that it isn’t, I won’t look back, I will look forward and try to find another place where the grass is greener. I know I’ll never find it, but as a vagabond I can’t….and when I feel things boxing me in, I will hit the road again.

    I finally got a motorhome and now I just need to save up gas money and several months of living expenses. I’m hitting the road again.

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    • Wade Shepard October 14, 2013, 2:24 am

      This is very true. Travel long enough and you realize that you’re not just doing it to go to new places. A lifestyle emerges that goes far beyond “travel” in the typical sense. Being mobile is a way of seizing opportunity, escaping danger, feeding the heart with what it desires. There is a sense of security found in having little to lose, of being able to leave at will and go elsewhere. The most stressed out people I know are those who have built up the facades of security — homes, jobs, insurance, bills, all that. I have yet to meet a continuously stressed out perpetual traveler.

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