Examining the growing danger of environmental toxins

It’s been estimated that there are more than 80,000 new chemicals in our environment, but less than 5 per cent of them have been examined for human toxicity. In addition, we’re releasing heavy metals into our biosphere at an alarming rate. Anyone familiar with the scientific literature will have to agree that the evidence linking low-level exposure to these toxins to chronic disease is growing rapidly. Examples include the steep rise in those being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as well as those experiencing autoimmune and endocrine disruptions.

Detoxification was probably always part of the herbalist’s agenda, but it has become a controversial issue. The debate over its value and safety has made headlines around the world. In 2009, even Prince Charles was accused of quackery and exploitation over his company’s promotion of a herbal ‘Detox’ tincture. But the mainstream’s stubborn denial of the value of detoxification simply ignores the accumulating evidence for these chemicals’ adverse impact on human health (and even the World Health Organisation experts agree – see below).

The traditional blood-cleansing herbs

Traditionally, herbs have been used to ‘cleanse’ the blood. In the past this method was often used to address chronic skin diseases, which were felt to be a signal of inner toxicities – or an accumulation of irritants – that a body had been unable to eliminate through normal functioning.1 In European traditions, for example, skin problems were treated with ‘blood cleansers’ or ‘alternatives,’ and the more modern term ‘depurative’ is derived from this practice. In China, some herbal remedies were seen as simply good at eliminating poison: the more acute and severe the skin inflammations, the more robust the treatment used.

Unfortunately, although they are still used to treat chronic skin conditions and toxic accumulations, there’s a lack of modern research supporting the role and use of alterative or depurative herbs. Key western herbs that fall into this category include burdock (Arctum lappa), Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), clivers (Galium aparine), yellow dock (Rumex crispus) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). However, while these traditional herbs are great for skin problems, none of them (as of yet) have really been shown to play a major role in detoxing from modern chemicals.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the many types of environmental toxins we’re being exposed to.

Classifying modern toxins

The modern industrialized world we live in is constantly exposing us to toxins. These toxins can be divided into two broad categories: inorganic (mineral) and organic (molecules containing carbon).

The main inorganic toxins of concern are the heavy metals (HMs), such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. And the organic toxins that raise alarm bells are the persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These are mainly the organochlorines, which largely comprise the PCBs and DDT and its metabolites. They have been banned in industrialized countries for several decades, but they’re incredibly stable in the environment and accumulate in body fat.

POPs can act as potent endocrine disruptors, especially for insulin as well as thyroid and sex hormones. They’ve also been linked to cancer and autoimmunity problems. Because of their chemical stability and solubility in fat tissue the body struggles to eliminate this persistent menace from its tissues.

There’s also an alarmingly growing list of new organic chemicals in our environment. Because these molecules are not as stable as POPs, and don’t tend to accumulate in fat tissue, they’re readily excreted from the body, especially in urine. However, we’re being exposed to these new chemicals every day from the containers we use for food and water, the personal care products we apply to our skin, the surfaces we touch and the food and water we ingest. They’re sometimes referred to as pseudo-POPs or (pseudo-persistent compounds), because of their consistent presence in our bodies. Examples include phthalates, bisphenol A, numerous flame retardants and perchlorate. 

A global threat that should be addressed

We’re being exposed to environmental chemicals, including heavy metals, POPs and pseudo-POPs in the following ways:

  • Air and smoking
  • Water, drinks and drink packaging
  • Food and food packaging
  • Skin contact and hand-oral transfer from touching surfaces
  • Personal care products
  • Dental fillings and body implants

In Feb 19, 2013 Environmental Health News reported on a study by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme which presented evidence linking these hormone mimicking chemicals to human health issues, calling them a “global threat that should be addressed”.

Co-author of the report, Thomas Zoeller, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, spoke to Environmental Health News about these new chemicals, and was quoted as saying, “Frankly, for BPA, the science is done. Flame retardants, phthalates … the science is done. We have more than enough information on these chemicals to make the reasonable decision to ban, or at least take steps to limit exposure.”2

Our toxic modern world

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), is also conducting some interesting research into our toxic modern world. A study by the EWG in 2005 identified 287 environmental contaminants in umbilical cord blood.3 Of these 287 chemicals detected, 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. The dangers of pre- or post-natal exposure to this complex mixture of carcinogens, developmental toxins and neurotoxins have never been studied.

In another study, the urine of every one of 22 mothers and 26 children tested yielded evidence of exposure to TDCPP, a carcinogenic fire retardant.4 In children, the average concentration of a chemical biomarker left when TDCPP breaks down was nearly five times the average in the mothers. In the most extreme case, a child had 23 times the level measured in the mother. Modern treated furniture is a big source of exposure to TDCPP.

As our exposure to environmental toxins grows, so will the health consequences. While more research must be done, herbal detox solutions have already stood the test of time and are poised to play a key role in resolving this rising threat.

To your better health,

Kerry Bone
Nutrition & Healing

Vol. 9, Issue 6 • June 2015

Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.

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