Everyone is affected.
Toxicity is everywhere. Toxic chemicals travel the globe and have entered every habitat on earth. Toxic exposures affect all living things and can be found in our water, food, air, buildings and soil and in all our body organs, tissues, umbilical cord blood and breast milk.
The full extent is unknown
Tens of thousands of toxic chemicals are produced commercially and even more are created as pollutants. These chemicals are often invisible, produce toxic metabolites and have delayed effects, yet very few chemicals are ever tested for toxicity and even fewer are monitored in humans.
Tiny doses have big effects
The dose makes a poison, yet extremely small doses of endocrine disrupting chemicals can have large, non-linear effects. We are all part of a global human experiment that has led to an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cancer, neurodevelopmental conditions, psychiatric diseases and reproductive problems.
Levels increase up the food chain
Persistent organic pollutants last for decades in the environment, accumulate in fatty tissue and magnify up the food-chain. This bio-magnification leads to much higher levels in predatory species and higher exposures for human infants who sit at the very top of the food-chain.
Combinations are worse
Combinations are much more harmful than individual chemicals. Mixture effects can produce ‘something from nothing’, with toxic effects occurring even when the level of individual chemicals has no effect, yet when chemicals are tested for safety, they are tested one at a time, if at all.
Toxic load increases as we age
Our toxic intake exceeds our capacity to excrete. As we age toxic chemicals accumulate in the brain, breast, prostate, bone marrow and other fatty tissues. This toxic body-burden crosses the placenta into the fat-laden brain of the unborn foetus which are born ‘prepolluted’.
Timing is critical
Exposure and its effects differ over your lifespan. Exposure during rapid periods of development or other critical times can have irreversible effects that may remain hidden until later in life. Early exposure can impair intellectual development and contribute to metabolic syndrome, cancer and other chronic diseases.
Effects last generations
Exposure to industrial chemicals not only affects us when we are exposed, toxic effects are transgenerational and impact on our offspring and future generations. Industrial chemicals can induce genetic and developmental abnormalities, and epigenetic effects can lead to lasting toxic effects in our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Exposure is unequal and accidents happen
Exposure is not equal and varies with age, income, education, occupation, location, lifestyle, mitigation measures and proximity to industrial accidents. Catastrophic accidents have occurred at every stage of the industrial chemical lifecycle and have exposed wildlife and vast human populations to toxic chemicals.
Risk is unequal, unjust and greater for the young
Risks vary with your physiology, genetics, geography and income. Children are most vulnerable due to their higher metabolic rate, immature organ systems and greater exposure through contact with the ground, hand-to-mouth behaviour, and longer time in which to develop disease.
The following article, which goes into a little more depth about the Ten Toxic Truths appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Organic Gardener magazine.
Ten Toxic Truths
By Professor Marc Cohen
It is widely recognised that the greatest underlying cause of death among humans today is lifestyle-related chronic disease. The world is in the grip of an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia and more, fuelled by a high intake of sugar, fat, salt, alcohol and tobacco, and a lack of physical activity. In addition to this voluntary consumption, the entire human population is exposed to a toxic cocktail of industrial chemicals. The impact of industrial chemicals on human health was recently highlighted by the World Health Organisation, which forecasts a “tidal wave of cancer” (International Agency for Research On Cancer 2014).
Meanwhile, public health researchers suggest we are experiencing a “silent pandemic of neuro-developmental disorders” and a “chemical brain drain” brought about by the exposure of an entire generation to industrial chemicals (Grandjean 2014). There are many actions we can take to avoid voluntary and involuntary health risks and, rather than becoming despondent, we need to become more aware and vigilant.
Since the 16th century when Paracelsus stated “the dose makes the poison”, this idea has formed the basis for the regulation of toxic chemicals, including the use of pesticides and pharmaceuticals. We now know that this truth is incomplete. It is not only
the dose, but also the type of chemical, the timing of exposure, the combination of chemicals and individual risk factors that combine to produce toxic effects (see ‘Toxicity Depends On’ on page 49). These factors give rise to what I call the “10 toxic truths”.
TOXIC TRUTH 1:
Everyone is affected
Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, industrial chemicals have permeated the globe and it is clear that the world will never return to the conditions that existed prior to this period. Many toxic chemicals are carried throughout the world dispersed as atmospheric aerosols, while billions of tons of chemicals and plastics have entered the oceans, resulting in plastic microparticles being reported in nearly every litre of ocean water. Toxic chemicals have now entered every habitat and ecosystem on earth, from the most arid deserts to the deepest seas, and virtually all living creatures now contain pollutants at or near harmful levels.
Toxic chemical exposure has become an inevitable part of modern life and everyone is affected. Toxic chemicals are pervasive in our food, soil, air, water and indoor environments as well as in all human tissue, including umbilical cord blood and breast milk.
Only a few countries such as the US, Canada and Germany have programs that aim to monitor toxic chemicals in their general population. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes the world’s most comprehensive assessment of human chemical exposures. The most recent NHANES report examined only 212 chemicals and found chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), used as fire retardants, and bisphenol A (BPA), a component of epoxy resins and polycarbonates, in the vast majority of participants (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2009).
TOXIC TRUTH 2:
The full extent is unknown
While we are all chronically exposed to a toxic cocktail of industrial pollutants, the full impact of industrial chemicals on human health remains unknown. There are more than 80,000 industrial chemicals that are commercially produced with more than 3000 produced in high volume and many tens of thousands more being inadvertently produced from industrial processes. Yet while the number of industrial chemicals increases every year, in most cases it is not possible to determine a chemical’s ‘safe level’, or ‘toxicity threshold’. And even when levels are measured, it is often difficult to interpret their clinical significance.
The measurement of the body’s toxic load is still an emerging science (Sexton 2004, Committee on Human Biomonitoring for Environmental Toxicants, 2006). There are very few laboratories that currently have the facilities to perform comprehensive
measures of toxic chemicals and, as yet, there are no general assessment measures that doctors can request to assess the ‘toxic load’ or ‘body burden’ of their patients. Thus, even though the signs and symptoms of overdose or overt toxicity are known for some compounds, the relationship between toxic load, individual susceptibility, clinical symptoms and chronic disease is incredibly complex and far from understood.
TOXIC TRUTH 3:
Tiny doses can have big effects
In the past it was thought that dose-response curves were linear, displaying a direct relationship between dose and toxicity. It is now known that dose-response curves can be non-linear or ‘non-monotonic’. This occurs when chemicals disturb the body’s regulatory processes rather than just impacting on target organs or tissues. By disrupting the endocrine system, the potential to reap metabolic havoc is greatly increased and extremely small exposures – orders of magnitude below recognised safety levels – can have dramatic effects. The hazards of endocrinedisrupting chemicals and their potential for irreversible, latent effects was first brought into the public spotlight by Theo Colborn and Pete Myers in the mid-1990s with their book Our Stolen Future. In it they highlighted the science that shows that many chemicals, which are still being used, can impair reproduction, behaviour, intellectual capacity and the ability to resist disease in current and future generations.
The book also suggested that: “World-wide exposure to endocrine disruption has thrust everyone into a large-scale, unplanned, unintended experiment with health, the outcome of which may not be known for generations.” While at the time of its release Our Stolen Future was seen by many as alarmist, a 2013 joint report from the World Health Organisation and United Nations Environment Program on the ‘State-of-the-Science of Endocrine Disruptors’ confirms many of the book’s findings and suggests that exposure to industrial chemicals with endocrine-disrupting actions are contributing to the global increase in obesity, cancer, psychiatric diseases, birth deformities, ADHD and neuro-developmental problems in children, with current findings being “the tip of the iceberg”.
TOXIC TRUTH 4:
Biomagnification occurs up the food chain
Many toxic chemicals are fat soluble and last for decades in the environment where they undergo biomagnification (tissue concentrations increase) as they pass up the food chain. The toxicity of DDT and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (see ‘The rise of pesticides’ box on page 47) was first brought to the public’s attention in 1962 by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring. In May 2004, the Stockholm Convention on POPs came into effect, banning the use of nine of the most dangerous pesticides along with dioxins, furan and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These so-called legacy chemicals were all known to persist in the environment; undergo long-range environmental transport; be toxic to humans; and biomagnify up the food chain.
Even though the use of most POP pesticides is banned in agriculture, these chemicals now permeate the global environment and lodge in the fatty tissue of animals where they biomagnify millions of times as they travel up the food chain. Being a precious biological resource, fat is seldom excreted, except for special situations such as breastfeeding where valuable fat (along with fat-soluble pollutants) is transferred to infants who sit at the very top of the food chain. POPs are also absorbed by micro-plastics in the oceans and are found in high concentrations in marine mammals, with some beached whales being classified as toxic waste.
TOXIC TRUTH 5:
Chemical cocktails are synergistic
While exposure to individual toxic chemicals can be harmful, exposure to chemical mixtures is even more harmful. It has been shown that chemical cocktails can produce ‘something from nothing’ with toxic mixture effects arising even when the level of each contaminant in the mixture is below its specific ‘NOAEL’ (no observable adverse effect limit). Such mixture effects are not accounted for when determining chemical safety, which is assessed one chemical at a time, if at all. A 2009 ‘State of the Art Report on Mixture Toxicity’ commissioned by the European Union found that “there is consensus in the field of mixture toxicology that the customary chemical-by-chemical approach to risk assessment might be too simplistic. It is in danger of underestimating the risk of chemicals to human health and to the environment.”
While mixture toxicity is currently not accounted for in chemical risk assessments, it is actively used in pesticide formulations to increase their potency. In order to kill pests, pesticides contain active ingredients with their own inherent toxicity, yet when pesticides are packaged and used, they are prepared as formulations. Pesticide formulations include the addition of often unnamed and unlabelled adjuvants that are designed to make the active ingredient more potent by acting as surfactants and cell penetrants.
While these so-called ‘inert’ adjuvant chemicals are excluded from safety testing, recent research suggests they are far from inert and that they make formulations hundreds of times more toxic than the active ingredient alone (Mesnage 2014).
TOXIC TRUTH 6:
Bioaccumulation occurs over the lifespan
Over a human’s lifespan, exposure rates to fat-soluble chemicals often exceed the excretion rate leading to their accumulation in fatty tissue. Exposure begins in the womb with fat-soluble chemicals in umbilical cord blood crossing the placenta and lodging in foetal fat, which is mainly in the developing brain. A Canadian report has begun to document the extent to which children are born “pre-polluted” (Group 2005, WWF 2005, Canada 2013).
Throughout a person’s lifespan, combinations of persistent chemicals accumulate in fatty tissue such as the brain, breast, prostate and bone marrow, which are often the tissues that develop cancers in later years. In addition to persistent fatsoluble chemicals, there are many other water-soluble endocrinedisrupting chemicals such as BPA and organophosphate (OP) pesticides that
are ingested continually throughout a person’s lifespan, making them pseudo-persistent.
TOXIC TRUTH 7:
Windows of development are critical
The toxic effects of chemical exposure during critical periods, such as early childhood, can be irreversible. This became tragically evident in the 1970s with the birth of thousands of children without limbs and other birth defects after being exposed in utero to thalidomide. More recently, in-utero exposure to OP pesticides has been shown to impair children’s intellectual development in later life (see Ref 1).
TOXIC TRUTH 8:
Effects are trans-generational
Parental exposure to industrial chemicals can affect offspring and future generations. Many chemicals interfere with biochemical and
endocrine pathways; induce genetic and developmental abnormalities; and produce trans-generational epigenetic effects that may lead to abnormalities in the third or fourth generation post-exposure. This can influence all aspects of an individual’s life history.
This has recently been demonstrated experimentally with a single exposure to a commonly used fungicide being shown to alter the
physiology, behaviour, metabolic activity and brain development in offspring three generations later, changing how they perceive and respond to a stress (see Ref 2).
TOXIC TRUTH 9:
Risk is unequal, unjust and greater for the young
The health risks of chemical exposures differ according to individual risk factors that include health status, physiology and genetics as well as demographic and social differences. Children are most vulnerable due to their higher dietary exposure, contact with the ground, hand-to-mouth behaviour, higher metabolic activity, immature organ systems, longer latency period for developing disease and sensitive development windows so that exposures lead to lifelong consequences (Landrigan 2005).
The US-based Pesticide Action Network recently published a review of the scientific literature titled ‘Generation in Jeopardy: How
pesticides are undermining our children’s health and intelligence’, which reports on the many studies that demonstrate that pesticide
exposure compromises children’s cognitive function and leads to later chronic disease (Schafer 2013).
TOXIC TRUTH 10:
Exposure is unequal and unjust and accidents happen
Everyone is exposed to industrial pollutants, yet exposure risk is not equal. Exposures vary with age, income, education, ccupation,
location, lifestyle, public policy and proximity to industrial activity and accidents. People living in poverty and lower socio-economic conditions often have the greatest exposure, which then compounds the effects of wealth inequality (Wright 2009). This makes environmental justice an important issue.
Industrial accidents raise further justice issues as catastrophic accidents have inadvertently exposed vast populations of humans and wildlife to industrial pollutants. These accidents have occurred at every stage of the chemical-production cycle including mining (BP oil spill); transport (Exxon Valdez); manufacture (Bhopal); use (Fukushima and Chernobyl); and disposal (Love Canal). What’s more, often accidents are associated with minimal, delayed and inadequate compensation and remediation measures.
Here are the detailed references for this article including ‘Ref 1’ and ‘Ref 2’ for Toxic Truths 7 & 8 respectively.
Ref 1: Bouchard, M., Chevrier, J., Harley, KG., Kogut, K., Vedar, M., Calderon, N., Trujillo, C., Johnson, C., Bradman, A., Barr, DB., Eskenazi, B. (2011). “Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and IQ in 7-year-old children.” Environ Health Perspect 119(8).
Ref 2: Crews D, G. R., Scarpino SV, Manikkam M, Savenkova MI, Skinner MK. (2012). “Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of altered stress responses.” Proc Natl Acad Sci 109(23): 9143-9148
Baillie-Hamilton (2002). “Chemical toxins: a hypothesis to explain the global obesity epidemic.” J Altern Complement Med. 2002 Apr;8(2):185-92.
Bouchard, M., Chevrier, J., Harley, KG., Kogut, K., Vedar, M., Calderon, N., Trujillo, C., Johnson, C., Bradman, A., Barr, DB., Eskenazi, B. (2011). “Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and IQ in 7-year-old children.” Environ Health Perspect 119(8).
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Crews D, G. R., Scarpino SV, Manikkam M, Savenkova MI, Skinner MK. (2012). “Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of altered stress responses.” Proc Natl Acad Sci 109(23): 9143-9148
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