Understanding the Toxins Within

by Cindy Klement

In the fall of 2013 I attended a lecture on health. The presenter at the time used the term ‘body burden.’ I assumed that the burden he spoke of was that which most of us carry, meaning either our emotional burden or the burden of excess body weight. The term stuck with me for a very long time, piquing my curiosity. As a professor I have access to thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journals through the university online library, so one day I decided to see if searching ‘body burden’ would yield any published research. Much to my surprise over 420,000 journal articles were immediately at my fingertips and as I narrowed the search to only the previous three years, the database still revealed over 123,000 results. 

As I scrolled down through the selection I began to note that many of the articles were from prestigious journals such as Food Additives & Contaminants, Environmental Pollution, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, among many others. After downloading and reading several of the studies, I realized the term had more to do with the body’s environmental chemical burden than the emotional or weight burden.

The more I downloaded and read, the more alarmed I became, and I wanted to know which chemicals might be lurking silently in my body’s tissues. I questioned whether or not there may indeed be some stored toxicant that could explain the idiopathic vertigo I had dealt with for almost sixty years, and as I learned more and more about the effects chemicals can have on our overall health, I was consumed. 

Results of My Toxicology Testing

In March of 2014, I asked my dear friend and personal physician, Dr. Lev (Ed) Linkner, if we could run a toxicant profile using blood and urine. He told me to find the test I’d like to have and he’d be glad to order it. Genova Diagnostics offered a quite pricey Toxic Effects Profile that tested for 45 chemicals found in humans, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chlorinated and organophosphate pesticides, PCBs, BPA, phthalates, and parabens. 

For a woman of 63 years who had been eating virtually organic since the late 1970s and had used the safest personal care and cleaning products for almost four decades, it came as a complete surprise when the results showed I was in the 80th percentile for benzene and styrene, the 95th percentile for PCB153, and had detectable levels of DDE, phthalates, pesticides, BPA, and parabens. Being in the 95th percentile means only 5% of other individuals that were tested exceeded the level found in my body. I am not a chemist by any stretch of the imagination so I had absolutely no idea what these chemicals were, how they got into my tissue, or if I could ever get them out.

Research Commences

I researched these chemical contaminants whenever I found extra time. From March of 2014 until the end of the year, I accumulated over 1,500 studies on the topic of the body’s environmental chemical burden. I read each one of them (mostly on airplanes and in hotel rooms) and highlighted notes I felt were pertinent. I learned what the chemicals are used for, and how many millions (and sometimes billions or trillions) of pounds are produced around the world. I came to understand how we are exposed and the health effects that can occur both in humans and in the animal kingdom. With each new chemical I became increasingly concerned about the future of our children and their children. I especially worried for the millennial generation and the hardships they will face as a result of the worldwide environmental chemical contamination.

Medical Training for Environmental Medicine

In most medical training today there is a lack of information in the curriculum regarding environmental medicine, and yet in the United States alone it is estimated that 13% of disease is attributed to the environment, amounting to almost 400,000 deaths per year from cardiovascular disease, neuropsychiatric disorders, and cancer. Exposure to environmental chemicals is rarely even mentioned in initiatives to combat chronic diseases. Distinguished Professor Emerita at University of California Davis, Judith S. Stern, stated, “our genetics may load the gun, but our environment pulls the trigger.” Health care systems are not trained to address the contribution of environmental contaminants and their effects on the health of the human body. Many clinicians are not yet even aware of the science behind toxicant bioaccumulation and related health consequences, nor how or where their patients are exposed. 

Concerns Regarding Bioaccumulation

Literature on the topic of the body’s environmental chemical burden promotes controversy and ongoing debates. New chemicals are introduced without first being fully tested for toxicity, only to be taken off the market when harmful effects are proven. 

Bioaccumulation (slow concentrating of chemicals in the body) of chronic low-level exposure from multiple chemical sources makes it difficult to demonstrate cause and effect because most studies focus on a single chemical, although we are rarely exposed to just one contaminant. Concerns are mounting that exposure to different classes of chemicals and their breakdown products may actually enhance toxicity and intensify their effects. Different chemicals have different health outcomes and continuous exposure to a multitude of chemical types on a daily basis results in a slurry of chemicals with additive and/or synergistic effects in the body. The key challenge in research is to expose oneself to multiple sources of information, learn the chemical classes and the varying concentrations, and understand the overall health of the individual.

Ethical Issues

It is not ethical to expose study participants to potentially dangerous levels of environmental chemicals. Of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals manufactured over the past four decades, little toxicity information exists. In 1976, over 60,000 chemicals were grandfathered in when the United States Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act. As of 2010, 17,000 chemicals under the exemption are still in use and remain available to manufacturers, some of which have questionable safety ratings. 

Restricting Harmful Chemicals

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants aims to restrict or eliminate the use and production of 23 classes of chemicals. A use reduction policy in the United States has been met with political resistance, due to debates concerning the impact of policies on food processors and farmers, and on the price of food. 

In 2012 the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organization updated their 2002 document State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals to list key concerns for decision makers concerned about the health of humans and wildlife, indicating that the vast majority of chemicals have never been tested and that this lack of data establishes significant uncertainties about the factual and accurate extent of risks that could disrupt the endocrine system. The document states that up to 40% of men in certain countries have low semen quality; that penile malformations have increased over time in baby boys, as have non-descending testes. Prostate and testicular cancer have been increasing over the past 50 years and type 2 diabetes increased from 153 million to 347 million during the past 28 years. Females are experiencing more diseases involving the breasts, ovaries, endometrium, and thyroid gland.

In 2013 the National Toxicology Program found that persistent organic pollutants, bisphenol A and phthalates, among other chemicals, were associated with diabetes and obesity in some of the populations studied. The World Health Organizations’ International Programme on Chemical Safety listed 800 chemicals capable of interfering with hormone receptors, again acknowledging that the vast majority of chemicals have not been tested. 

Complications in Research

Why one person might react to a specific contaminant and another does not has a great deal to do with multiple factors including age, nutritional status, overall health, genetic makeup, dietary and exercise habits, functioning of detoxification systems and the chemical’s target organs, as well as the developmental stages at the time of exposure, and the level and frequency of exposure.

Prenatal and Early Life Exposure

Once regarded as protective, research has firmly established that the placental barrier does not shield the unborn from toxicant exposure. Over ten years ago studies determined that newborn cord blood contained an average of 287 toxicants. Breast milk and meconium studies have also revealed the passage of toxic chemicals to developing infants. Unfortunately, a number of these toxic compounds have long induction periods (the amount of time it takes to produce ill effects) so their impact won’t be realized for many years. Because many of the chemicals resist elimination and persist in human tissue, there is an enormous potential to disrupt physiological processes. The Pediatric Academic Societies affirmed that the functioning of the current generation may be impacted by low-level exposure to environmental chemical toxicity. Some changes may extend for generations beyond that initially exposed, a type of effect known as epigenetic.

The Human Early Life Exposome Project is researching early life exposure that begins prenatally and continues through developing years. Contact to flame retardants on bedding and sleepwear; bathing in or drinking chlorinated water; the use of personal care products, breathing vehicle exhaust or chemical air-fresheners; exposure to off-gassing in building materials inside the home or child care center; plastic bottles, utensils, and dishware; pesticides, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives in foods; house cleaning products and disinfectants, all add to the body burden of children. The project’s goal is to better understand how chemical exposures influence the risk of disease.

Who’s in Charge?

Chemical policies in the U. S. are structured so that the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for cosmetics, food contaminants, medical devices and drug ingredients, yet within the FDA multiple divisions carry out their work in isolation from other departments thereby limiting their concerns to products in their own sector. As an example the Environmental Protection Agency determines whether or not to permit phthalates in a pesticide formula, while the Consumer Products Safety Commission only considers the amount of phthalates that may leach out of a toy as a child chews on it. No single agency is sanctioned to look at the big picture.  

The Paradigm is Shifting

A paradigm shift in science sometimes occurs painfully slow due in part to those who won’t give up firmly held beliefs, some of which have defined their careers. Paracelsus, a 16th century Swiss German physician, proposed that “the dose makes the poison,” however toxicologists today are challenging this outdated assumption because many of the effects of harmful chemicals observed at low doses don’t necessarily occur at higher doses, and the opposite has also been observed. Sadly, over the next hundreds of years, humans will be forced to co-exist with the chemicals found in our environment. We can’t avoid every one of them, but we can use the tools and resources at our disposal to reduce our exposure. We can also detoxify the body as best we can with what we know now. 

My Sincere Hope for Future Generations

My hope is that every one of our young millennials will get their bodies and homes as cleared of chemicals as possible before bringing children into this incredibly polluted world. It’s important for them to detoxify their own bodies as much as possible so the sperm is vital and healthy, and so females have fewer contaminants to pass on to their infants through the placenta and through breast milk.

Everyone needs to be aware of what they can do to avoid adding to the body’s environmental chemical burden, especially those contemplating future parenthood. I sincerely hope this resource guide to understanding and avoiding toxins will help guide you to the best health possible for yourself, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Cindy Klement, MS, CNS, MCHES,  has been involved in holistic health since the late 1970s and is currently an adjunct professor at Eastern Michigan University. A frequent lecturer across the U.S. and Canada, Cindy also creates health education programs for a large international firm. The author of Your Body’s Environmental Chemical Burden, Cindy has a private practice in The Parkway Center. You can reach her by phone at 734-975-2444 or visit her online at:www.cindyklement.com

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Posted on January 1, 2019 and filed under Calendar Essays, Health, Book Excerpt, Issue 71.