Ewww…chemicals!

At NP/AP websites and messageboards, you’ll often read claims that society is being “poisoned with toxic chemicals” by Big Business, especially Big Pharma. These claims manifest themselves in myriad ways, such as how fluoride in our water and pesticides and preservatives in our food have caused cancer rates to skyrocket, how vaccines cause various diseases as the result of “toxins being injected into little babies”, or with false promises by snake-oil peddlers to rid your body of these toxins via herbal supplements, colonic irrigation or what not.

Unfortunately, even smart people sometimes fall for such scams – just look at the proliferation of “organic” produce*, or those scary emails about that horrible poison, aspartame. I hope to provide a few ground rules and reliable sources to separate the wheat from the (organic) chaff, so to speak.

Toxins are everywhere. There’s no getting away from the fact that everything (including us) is made of chemicals, and small dosages of frightening-sounding ones are prevalent in the air, water, soil and food. Humans aren’t to blame for much of it, either; elements such as mercury, aluminum and arsenic are all over the place and ingested by a variety of animals humans like to eat.

Not everything with a scary-sounding name is actually that scary. Keep that in mind next time you see an anti-vaccination website that claims vaccines contain “sodium chloride”, since you do too. And so does everyone who’s ever ingested…table salt. Next thing you know, you might be asked to sign a petition to ban that awful chemical, dihydrogen monoxide (chemical formula: H2O). Which brings us to

Rule #1 of toxicology: the dose makes the poison. As the DHMO website illustrates (all the information in it is 100% true, by the way), even necessities like water and oxygen can be highly toxic in the wrong doses. The rule holds for all chemicals, and the reverse is also true: minute doses of known poisons in our environment are generally harmless. In general, the EPA’s maximal allowed concentrations of different chemicals in water or air is much, much lower than doses known to cause toxic reactions. In fact, when the level of mercury via thimerosal in vaccines might have exceeded the EPA levels in very small infants, thimerosal was removed from vaccines, even though there was no evidence (and still isn’t) that the chemical caused any harm to babies, and in fact, the form of mercury in thimerosal (ethyl mercury) has since been shown to evacuate from the body in significantly less time than the mercury the EPA was referring to (methyl mercury), most probably making it even less toxic.

Nature is chock-full o’ toxins. No, I’m not referring to naturally derived drugs and poisons like curare, vinca alkaloids (used in chemotherapy) or digitalis, though those are certainly interesting. I’m talking about the formaldehyde in your apples, cyanide in your spinach…that sort of thing. Both are examples of naturally-occurring toxins in food (yes, even “organic” food) that we eat every day.

To quote Dr. Bruce Ames, developer of the Ames test to determine carcinogenicity of various toxins:

About 99.9% of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant foods are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99% are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.

Each plant produces a different array of such chemicals. We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues. Even though only a small proportion of natural pesticides have been tested for carcinogenicity, 37 of the 71 tested are rodent carcinogens. Naturally occurring pesticides that are rodent carcinogens are ubiquitous in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices.

Humans are blessed with a great natural detox system which usually needs no outside help. Folks, meet your liver and kidneys. 😉

Most cancer incidence rates (and even more so, cancer death rates) are actually decreasing. See here and the continuation of the trend, here

Some more useful reading: Health scares and the art of scaremongering.
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*Organic=carbon-based. In fact, almost all foods and all pesticides are organic.

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