A world of chemicals
We have reached a turning point in evolution. Humanity has finally come up against the constraints of a limited planet, and rampant consumerism and self-interest are fuelling wealth inequality, financial instability, climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, species extinction, environmental toxins and an epidemic of lifestyle-related chronic diseases in an ageing and increasing human population.
We now live in a world where one third of all people are starving, one third are well fed and one third are overfed, and everyday 25,000 children die from malnutrition-related disease while 75,000 people die from the results of over-consumption of sugar, fat, salt, alcohol and tobacco. In addition to voluntary consumption of toxic substances, the entire human population is being involuntarily exposed to a toxic cocktail of industrial chemicals, which are routinely found in our food, air, water, soil, breast milk, human tissue, and indoor and outdoor environments.
While chemicals can be toxic, they can also be extremely addictive and profitable, and our global society has become addicted to cheap, readily available fossil fuel and the 120,000 commercial chemicals derived from it. Chemical industries currently run the world with a handful of Big Oil, Agriculture, Pharma and Food companies controlling the majority of the world’s energy, food, health and security. Control of the media has further fostered a culture of rampant consumerism and conspicuous consumption, with a focus on economic growth at the expense of the environment and quality of life.
Our body burden: suffer the children
Our widespread use and dependence on industrial chemicals has contaminated the entire biosphere including our own bodies. We are all chronically exposed to a toxic cocktail that traces our life history and living environments, and vast human populations and geographical areas have been inadvertently exposed to toxic materials through catastrophic accidents that have occurred in every stage of chemical processing including extraction (BP oil spill), transport (Exxon Valdez), manufacture (Bhopal), use (Chernobyl and Fukishima) and disposal (Love Canal).
The world’s most comprehensive environmental chemical biomonitoring study is the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the Center for Disease Control in the United States. The most recent report examined 212 chemicals and found chemicals such as PBDEs and BPA in nearly all participants tested. This study also confirmed previous reports suggesting that children bear the brunt of the toxic burden, with children being found to be more toxic than adolescents, who are in turn more toxic than adults .
Children are not just little adults; they have higher food, fluid and air intake per kilogram of body weight and a higher metabolic rate and higher absorption of toxins than adults, as well as having immature detoxification and immune systems, developing organ systems and a longer latency period in which to develop chronic disease . Children are also exposed to higher levels of environmental toxins with exposure beginning in utero with multiple carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals being delivered through umbilical cord blood . Toxic exposure continues after birth through residues in breast milk (which is still the best possible food for infants) as well as in food, water, indoor and outdoor air and contaminated house dust.
Children’s exposure to environmental toxins is compounded by their frequent hand-to-mouth activity and the products and environments surrounding them. Toxins such as BPA and phthalates are found in everyday items such as cleansers, computers, toys, lotions and perfumes, cookware, clothing, and carpets  and are features of childcare environments, children’s toys, feeding implements, clothing and play environments . Children also reside closer to the ground and play on grass where pesticides have been applied, or on floors and carpet where they are exposed to toxins from dust, cleaning chemicals, fire retardants and out-gassing from synthetic materials.
Understanding our toxic legacy
It is undeniable that we are leaving a toxic legacy for future generations; yet the full impact of toxic chemicals on human health is unknown. Of the thousands of environmental chemicals used, most have not been tested for their impacts on human health or their particular impacts on children and the developing foetus. We do know, however, that many toxins can directly interfere with biochemical pathways and organ function and induce genetic and developmental abnormalities and cause endocrine disruption with epigenetic and transgenerational effects . We also know that fat-soluble toxins undergo biomagnification up the food chain and bioaccumulate as we age and that chemical cocktails may be synergistic and produce harmful effects even when the level of each contaminant causes no effect by itself. Furthermore, we know that chemicals such as pesticides and plasticisers (such as BPA and phthalates) can have non-monotonic dose response curves so that extremely small exposures can lead to the development of latent chronic diseases such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, many cancers, asthma, ADHD, and learning and behavioural problems .
While knowledge of the mechanisms by which toxin exposure can lead to chronic disease is accumulating, the measurement of the body’s toxic load is still in its infancy. Measurement of various toxins such as organic solvents, herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, phthalates, polyfluorinated compounds, BPA and PCBs can be performed in different body tissues including blood, urine, hair, sweat, fat, saliva, breast milk, and semen, yet very few laboratories have facilities to perform these measures and they are seldom used clinically. It is also difficult to interpret their clinical meaning, for although the signs and symptoms of overt toxicity are known for some compounds, the relationship between toxic load, clinical symptoms and chronic disease is far from being understood.
Detox: science or sales pitch?
While it may be difficult to determine a person’s toxic load and its clinical significance, in recent times a growing community awareness of environmental toxins has led to ‘detox’ becoming a consumer buzzword, and consumer demand has led to the proliferation of many untested commercial detox products and practices including juices, diets and nutritional supplements, saunas, scrubs, purging, fasting, colonics, exercise, oral, rectal and intravenous chelating agents, and the emergence of detox programs and retreats that combine multiple modalities . Such products and practices are supported by the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) consumer market and form a significant part of the burgeoning $2 trillion wellness industry which continues to expand rapidly in a climate of global economic downturn.
Despite the abundance of commercial detox measures, none is yet based on any clinical scientific evidence. No studies have yet examined the ability of detox measures to reduce toxins and improve measurable health outcomes. Some studies, however, do demonstrate that reducing or removing toxins is possible through simple lifestyle measures. A recent study reported that families eating fresh unpackaged, organic food for only three days were able to drop their BPA levels by 66% and phthalate levels by 55% . Similarly, American toddlers eating mostly organic food were found to have one sixth the pesticide residues in their urine [10, 11], and reduction in urinary excretion of antibiotics and phthalates is reported with consumption of a vegetarian diet .
Food for thought
We are what we eat: thus our greatest exposure to toxic chemicals is likely to be through our diet. The greatest impact we have on the environment is also through our food choices. The globalised industrial food system uses more fossil fuels than any other industry and is the largest global contributor to water contamination, deforestation, soil depletion, and climate change.
There is a growing realisation, however, that there is another way and that a SLOW (Seasonal Local Organic Whole) food diet offers solutions to growing food insecurity and reliance on chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, plastic packaging and excessive food-miles. Such a diet will require a radical reorganisation of the current food system, which is possible if we embrace biodiversity and sustainable ecological farming practices and support local food economies through cooperative social networks and community supported agriculture.
The way of wellness
We are begging to learn that everything is interconnected, that individual actions have planetary consequences and that if we are to survive we must adopt conscious consumption patterns that transform corporate behaviour and create communities of informed and engaged citizens. It seems ironic, however, that at a time when mobile devices give us unprecedented ability to connect with the world, we have never been more out of touch with the earth and each other. Yet there is cause for hope; for while the need has never been so great, the tools at our disposal have never been more powerful.
It is said that the currency of wellness is connection, but if wellness results from connection between internal and external worlds, how can we be well in a toxic world? Certainly knowledge of the devastation that our current chemical-dependent lifestyles is having on our health, the earth and future generations can easily lead to despair. It is possible, however, to use knowledge of the tragedy unfolding around us to inform and motivate positive responses and join with others in devoting our lives to effecting positive change. In doing so we can fully embrace our human potential and work together to break our addiction to industrial chemicals and become saviours of our world. Such actions can imbue our lives with purpose and meaning and, through reconnecting with the earth and each other, we can be well.
Prof Cohen will be one of the keynote speakers at the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association 18th international conference in Melbourne 31st August to 2nd September.
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Marc Cohen is a medical doctor and Professor in the School of Health Sciences at RMIT University where he leads an online Master of Wellness Program and conducts research into detoxification, organic food, yoga, and various complementary therapies.
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