Polluted Environment: Toxins and Their Effects – Part 1

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD

Environmental toxicity is possibly the greatest unaddressed epidemic of modern times. There is literally nowhere you can go to escape our polluted environment and its toxic effects on your body.

Living in a Polluted Environment

a polluted environment caused by processed foods Our bodies are becoming reservoirs of toxins that are prevalent in every corner of our living space. In the air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we consume, and even the ground in which many of those foods are grown. Over 77,000 chemicals are actively produced in the United States. Three thousand plus chemicals are put in the foods we eat. Over 10,000 chemicals are utilized in the solvents and emulsifiers used in industrial processes, additives and preservatives in our food processes, packaging, the wrappings around foods, and storage containers.

We are ingesting small particles of these chemicals in one form or another on a daily basis. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says we are exposed to more than 20,000 chemicals we can’t metabolize. If we can’t metabolize them, we can’t get them out of our bodies. They’re stored in fat cells in our bodies and continue to build up over time.

It is this accumulation of all these chemical toxins and their very active metabolites called reactive metabolites that lead to the ill effects of the chemicals on our bodies.

A major problem with many of these chemicals is that they are used without adequate safety testing. Plus, not enough research has been conducted with these chemicals to even know what effects they will have on our bodies, in many cases.

The United States has more toxic chemicals in use than any other nation. This makes it imperative that we understand and control the effects of these chemicals so we can counter the significant illnesses they are likely to trigger.

What Are the Toxins in Our Polluted Environment?

Sometimes called biotoxins because of their biological origins, toxins are compounds produced by living organisms. They are poisonous, and some are exceptionally so. Man-made chemicals that are poisonous are called toxicants. They cause their dangerous effects in a number of ways in our bodies. Some are considered mutagens or carcinogens because they bring about mutations or DNA damage that lead to cancers. Others disrupt metabolic pathways, leading to dysfunctions of liver, kidneys, nervous system or other systems of the body.

There are two classes of toxins that can be a product of chemicals that pollute our environment: exotoxins and endotoxins. Exotoxins are those that are excreted into the surrounding tissues by microorganisms. Endotoxins are not released until the microorganism is killed by your immune system. Exotoxins are proteins and among the most potent poisonous substances known. Clostridium bacteria are the most frequent producers of exotoxins. Some resulting illnesses include diphtheria, botulism, and tetanus.

Standard American Diet

One of the most common ways toxicants enter your body is by consuming what is called the “standard American diet”. This describes the foods we ingest on a daily basis, such as fast foods, genetically modified organisms, and foods that have been treated with pesticides and other agricultural products found in our polluted environment.

Contaminants, polluted environment, and microorganismsContamination by microorganisms is always a possibility in the foods we eat. On a regular basis, there are articles you can read or hear about on the evening news programs describing outrageous things people have found in their food products. Other articles appear regularly regarding whistleblowers who come forward with stories of the unclean practices used by major manufacturers of leading food brands.

Also a major concern is the contamination of foods by pesticides, left-over chemicals or other products used in food processing, prescription medications improperly disposed of, and even industrial waste products. Toxic heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium have been released into the environment in such amounts that they have made their way into food sources as well. Causing a polluted environment within the body.

Even the preparation of food can lead to toxins being ingested. Using Teflon-coated utensils can potentially release carcinogenic chemicals into foods. Compounds that contain nitrogen found in meats and cereals can be converted into benzopyrene and acrylamide under high temperatures. Some cheeses and smoked fish contain precursors to toxins called N-nitroso compounds (NOCs), which can become mutagenic when metabolized by bacteria in the colon.

Due to the levels of mercury found in some fish, the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have advised women who are pregnant or nursing to stay away from fish that are high in mercury and to limit the amount of shellfish they eat. For the same reason, young children should also avoid these kinds of fish. Young children and fetuses are highly susceptible to the effects of mercury because of their developing nervous systems. Most other people are able to handle the mercury levels in fish and shellfish with no problem.

An emphasis on the toxins and toxicants in our polluted environment and consumed in our diets is important because diet-related chronic diseases are the greatest cause of mortality around the world. The potential of toxins and toxicants contributing to the epidemic of obesity and related health conditions is also important because these conditions and complications from them continue to grow.

The United Nations and many researchers believe the introduction of processed foods and the sedentary lifestyle of so many people have contributed to many chronic diseases seen in the Western world. These dietary and lifestyle changes have come about so quickly the human genome hasn’t had time to adjust.

One of the most commonly used chemicals sprayed on our foods is glyphosate. It is sprayed on wheat as a way to speed up the harvest. This allows wheat farmers to harvest crops earlier than they otherwise could. A major problem with this practice is that glyphosate is a known carcinogen and makes its way into our food products because wheat is the most common ingredient in processed foods.

There appears to be a strong correlation between the increased use of glyphosate and the dramatic rise in the incidence of breast, pancreatic, kidney, thyroid, bladder, and liver cancers. a polluted environment caused by GlyphosatesThis toxic substance, once it’s in the body, makes it harder for the body to detox the chemical.

Glyphosate is also toxic to our gut microbiome. It damages the microvilli in the gut and thus decreases the ability of our bodies to absorb nutrients. Glyphosate can also attach to gliadin, often found in wheat, making a molecule large enough that the body has difficulty breaking it down. This is likely to be a contributing factor in the development of celiac disease.

Water, Wells, and Water Systems

Not only are the toxins from our polluted environment found in the food we eat, it also is in the water we drink. One article from USA Today reported over 500 different chemicals in the water from the average U.S. city.

Even though public water systems are regulated by the EPA, you still should know for sure whether it’s safe to drink. Chlorine is the typical chemical used to kill dangerous bacteria in water, and chlorine isn’t safe for humans to consume in any quantity. Many municipalities are now adding fluoride to drinking water to reduce the chances of developing cavities in teeth, but fluoride is also dangerous for humans to consume.

From time to time, local agencies will detect some dangerous microorganism that has leached into the drinking water and issue a boil order for an area. Be sure to follow these boil orders and don’t use the water otherwise until told it is safe.

If you have a well, you should make sure its water comes from a safe source. If your well is close to the leach field of a septic system, there may be contamination.

Even if you use only bottled water, you have no guarantee the water quality is any better than ordinary tap water. The FDA has standards for manufacturers and producers of bottled water, but it does not regulate the production the way the EPA does for municipal water. In addition, bottled water typically comes in plastic bottles that may contain bisphenol A (BPA). This BPA can leach out of the plastic bottles into the water to be consumed by you. Studies have shown a possible connection between this chemical and heart disease. It also may have some effect on the behavior, brain, and prostate gland in fetuses and young children.

In the Air

Everyone is familiar with toxins in the air causing a polluted environment. Smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes is dangerous not only to those smoking but also to those inhaling second-hand smoke in enclosed spaces. Some experts report up to 90 percent of all cancers are caused by smoking. Breathing secondhand smoke can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

a polluted environment caused by air toxinsChildren are especially prone to developing wheezing, coughing, and excess mucus due to secondhand smoke in our polluted environment. Ear infections from a buildup of fluid in the inner ear due to inhaling secondhand smoke are prominent in children. The risk of pneumonia and bronchitis, especially in babies and young children, is significantly increased when they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. Sometimes, these infections are bad enough to necessitate hospitalization.

Sudden infant death syndrome brought on by secondhand smoke is an increased risk for babies with this exposure. Asthma attacks may be more frequent and more severe in children with asthma who live in an environment polluted with secondhand smoke.

Sadly, the place where we are exposed most to non-dietary toxicants is in our own homes. The air in our homes becomes yet another place where our environment is polluted by the off-gassing from common materials.

Building materials such as particle board, carpet, wall coverings, adhesives, and paints can emit toxic fumes into the air in our homes. One study conducted by the EPA showed 98 percent of the human subjects to have a benzene derivative from deodorants and disinfectants in their blood streams. Another study by the EPA showed 100 percent of the subjects to have traces of three additional toxic solvents in their tissues.

One of the greatest of the indoor environment polluters is the carpet we walk on daily. One study tested 400 samples of carpet, finding 90 percent of them to have neurotoxins present in sufficient amounts to kill mice.
Carpets can also trap environmental pollution tracked in from the outside. The “Non-Occupational Pesticide Exposure Study” (NOPES) found 12 types of pesticide residue in the samples of carpet studies on average. This may be the likely route of exposure for infants and toddlers with non-dietary exposure to substances like DDT, Aldrin, atrazine, and carbaryl.

Indoor environmental air pollution can be worse in winter when the buildings you frequent are closed up. Less fresh air circulates then, increasing your risk of asthma symptoms, allergies, and even lung cancer. Three pollutants commonly found in houses may have the greatest effects on your health: Formaldehyde (released by some building materials), acrolein (from cooking oil heated to high temperatures and cigarette smoke), and respirable particulates from tobacco smoke and diesel exhaust.

Wood stoves and gas ranges can be hazards in the home as environmental pollutants, as well. If wood stoves aren’t properly maintained and vented, they can give off particulates and gasses like carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and hydrocarbons. Children in this atmosphere are more at risk of respiratory problems. Gas ranges that are not well vented can give off nitrogen dioxide. This increases the risk of respiratory problems.

Other Home Toxins

New home and mobile homes may have more of a problem with toxins. Many household products give off formaldehyde, leading to polluted environment symptoms such as; nausea, eye irritation, dry skin, and respiratory problems.

Molds and other polluted environment factorsAcknowledging issues related to environmental pollutants indoors, some experts use the term “sick building syndrome” to describe illness symptoms that only occur during the time spent inside certain buildings. No specific disease or cause can be defined from symptoms like a headache, dry cough, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, concentration problems, and sensitivity to odors. Most of the time, these symptoms resolve once you leave that particular building.

Poor ventilation may be one cause of “sick building syndrome”. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can come from carpets, building materials, adhesives, even cleaning fluids. If the levels of these VOCs is high enough, they can cause cancer.

Chemicals can also be brought into these buildings from the outside environmental pollution. Exhausts from cars, trucks, and plumbing vents or building machinery can be brought into the building through its vents.

Bacteria and molds can grow in the water that builds up in humidifiers, drain pans, or ducts. Even places where water soaks into carpet, ceilings, or insulation can be sources of bacteria and mold. An illness called humidifier fever is caused by toxins from microorganisms growing in the humidifiers in both large buildings and in homes.

There are viruses that can survive on hard surfaces like counters or floors. These viruses can be carried through the indoor air when people cough or sneeze, spreading infections. Pet dander, dust mites, pollens, and molds are allergens that circulate through the house and cause polluted environment symptoms.

If the environmental pollution indoors is high enough and children are exposed early enough, this exposure can lead to an increased risk of asthma and allergies. Molds especially increase this risk. Allergies to molds increase the symptoms and severity of allergic responses.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

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