The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non profit organization devoted to protecting the public from one of our greatest health threats, pollution in all of it’s forms. The EWG supported a study in which newborn infants were tested for known industrial and agricultural toxic chemicals. All of the infants had > 200 and some up to 300 toxic chemicals found circulating in their blood at birth. These babies were not born to parents living in or near toxic waste dumps, or working in dangerous industrial environments. They were born to parents living like you and me. You can read about this and many other issues here.
The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act grandfathered >70,000 industrial and agricultural chemicals already in use as “safe” and provided for no effective standardized testing requirements for the introduction of new chemicals. Heather White, Executive Director of the EWG was recently interviewed for an Autoimmune Summit. I have attended this health related summit on-line while recovering from my surgery and was shocked to hear and then read about out environmental exposure and lack of protection.
We often think about pollution and environmental toxins as contributing to cancer, birth defects, asthma and similar problems but auto-immunity is another problem with links to our toxic exposure.
During the Auto-Immune Summit Aristo Vojdani, Ph.D., M.Sc., M.T. scientist and editor of a peer-reviewed journal on auto-immunity, estimated that 60% of auto-immune diseases are “triggered” by environmental toxins, 30% triggered by dietary components, and 10% triggered by infectious disease. He distinguished triggers from predisposing factors which represent the physiologic milieu that leads to auto-immunity. This terminology of triggers vs. predisposing factors may seem confusing and arbitrary. In a nutshell, underlying the molecular mimicry theory of auto-immunity is “leaky gut”. The “gateway to autoimmunity” is “leaky gut” (increased intestinal permeability) which allows foreign substances to cross the intestinal barrier, enter the circulation and challenge our immune system. Leaky gut has many contributing factors including but not limited to diet, stress, gut dysbiosis and infections. Although the % of auto-immune disease that is “triggered by” environmental toxins (versus diet and infections) remains speculative, there is mounting evidence that all of these factors contribute to greater or lesser degrees in various patients.
The paleo community has often stressed the importance of eliminating specific foods and replacing sugar laden flour foods with nutrient dense foods. But emphasis has also been placed on eating organic foods to avoid pesticides, herbicides and hormones.
Dr Vojdani has suggested that in addition to the gut-immune related mechanisms of molecular mimicry, environmental toxins, especially heavy metals, BPA and organic solvents, act not only has foreign invaders stimulating the immune system but also stimulate the immune system by causing tissue damage directly and thereby presenting damaged or transformed tissue to the immune system as foreign. Environmental toxins do not require a leaky gut to enter our bodies. Many are absorbed through our lungs and skin, and many are directly absorbed through our guts even in the absence of a “Leaky gut”. Heavy metals including mercury, lead and cadmium do not require a leaky gut for intestinal absorption, nor do pesticides, herbicides or hormones administered to the animal we consume. They wreak havoc not only by directly damaging our organs but also by altering our immune system.
Dr Noel Rose, Director of Center for Autoimmune Research (John’s Hopkin’s University) and Dr. Ahmet Hoke, Director, Division of Neuomuscular Disease (John’s Hopkins NIMH Center) opine that our rising rates of auto-immune disease are the result of our “unsuccessful adaptation to new environmental agents”. (See Forward written in Last Best Cure | Donna Jackson Nakazawa.)
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the Federal Government’s internal watchdog agency. A GAO report ( U.S. GAO – Environmental Justice: EPA Needs to Take Additional Actions to Help Ensure Effective Implementation) revealed that 85% of the new chemicals introduced into our environment are not accessed for safety. The Environmental Protection Agency receives 90 days notice prior to the introduction of new chemicals (industrial, agricultural, etc). Industry does not have the burden of proof relative to safety. Instead, the EPA must determine, within 90 days, if a new chemical is “safe”. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Beyond that issue we have the problem of multiple low grade simultaneous exposures. If a given level of toxin is “safe” based on short term studies of animals or humans, how do we know that a combination of hundreds or thousands of toxins over many years are “safe”. Likewise, if air concentrations or water concentrations of a single toxin are deemed “safe” how can we possible test the combined effects of hundreds and thousands of environmental toxins in our air, water, soil and food?
The EPA, created under the Nixon administration, was decimated during the Bush administration when budget cuts resulted in the loss of > 50% of it’s senior scientists. With that executive action most of the EPA’s institutional memory was lost and along with it many of the already limited safeguards we had in place.
The concept of “eating clean” minimizes exposure to the potentially harmful effects of anti-nutrients and immune stimulants (harmful plant lectins and saponins, excess phytic acid, excess omega 6 fatty acids) and more importantly encourages the consumption of nutrient dense foods (lots of colorful vegetables, grass fed meats, wild seafood). But “eating clean” also requires avoiding environmental toxins, including pesticides and herbicides.
To achieve that goal within a budget you can consult the EWG’s lists of foods that have the most and the least amount/variety of pesticides/herbicides. These lists are called the “dirty dozen” and the “clean fifteen”.
To avoid heavy metal exposure (especially mercury) eat seafood that is low on the food chain (less opportunity to accumulate mercury in their tissue). Many people do not realize that most of the mercury in our seafood comes from burning coal. Multiple heavy metals are present in coal. When coal is burned to generate electricity the heavy metals are released into the air and are then washed into our rivers, streams, lakes and oceans where they can accumulate in fish. As the heavy metals work up the food chain they accumulate in tissues. The best/safeest sources of healthy omega three fats are in smaller cold water fish (sardines, anchovies, small mackeral, salmon, trout). And do not forget oysters, scallops, mussels, and clams which may have less amounts of omega 3 fats but are safe with respect to heavy metals being low down on the food chain.
The concept of “living clean” involves more than being selective about food and cooking techniques. It involves avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals which can be found in our water (drinking and bathing), air, soil, clothing, furniture, make-up, deodorant, toothpaste and household cleaners. You can learn about these exposures at the EWG’s website. Consumer Guides | Environmental Working Group
Here is a fact that might get your attention, 90% of red lipstick has mercury in it. That’s right, 90%. Every day women around the world are painting their lips with lipstick that has mercury. The average American uses 10-12 personal care products per day which exposes us to 120 or more toxic ingredients. The law that regulates personal care products was written in 1938 (after a woman became blind from using mascara). It needs to be updated and there is much lobbying against better regulation (lots of money in personal care products an make-up). In the meantime we need to be more aware about what we put on and in our bodies.
Our environment is filled with “endocrine disruptors” which mimic and interfere with our hormones. The most common one is BPA (plastic) which has estrogen like effects.
What are our greatest exposures to BPA? Answer: plastic lids on coffee/tea to-go cups, plastic bottles of soda and plastic bottles containing citrus juices. Heat and acid both leech BPA (and probably other toxins) out of plastic into the liquids we drink. The most acidic beverage by far is SODA (as low as pH 2.2). So toxic chemical exposure is yet another reason to avoid soda. Do not serve your guests soda or water in plastic containers at parties. Set an example. Store your foods in glass containers and especially do not put warm or hot food into plastic containers. Get a water filter for your drinking water. Some even go so far as to get a water filter for their showers and baths.
Finally, flame retardants (furniture and clothing) required by law represent major health hazards by filling the air of our homes and exposing our skin to toxic substances. Mothers and toddlers have an estimated 3 times greater risk for this exposure which has been linked to neuro-development disorders, ADHD and endocrine disruption. Firefighters have very elevated levels of toxic chemicals derived from flame retardants. Some patients with a variety of illnesses have seen improvement in symptoms by having their furniture re-upholstered with coverings that do not contain flame retardants (anecdotal reports). Consider getting a HEPA air filter for your home and office. Remember hurricane Katrina? Remember the great number of illnesses reported by families made homeless by Katrina who were relocated to live in temporary portable housing. Those buildings were releasing formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals and produced illness within just a few days.
In my next post I will provide the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” lists to help you make decisions about organic food purchases if you cannot afford to purchase 100% organic. In the meantime check out the EWG website. Also coming soon is a recipe for tumeric-ginger tea/marinade as an anti-inflammatory alternative to NSAIDs.
Live Clean and Prosper
Bob Hansen MD.