In the last column, we started talking about detoxification and how it is the fifth and last major pillar of preventative health. Detoxification is a huge topic that will take us through several more columns. The world is fast becoming ever more toxic, an anathema to organic life forms, especially human beings and animals. If we want a long healthy longevity, not only do we need to choose carefully what we expose ourselves to and what we put into our bodies, but we need to take steps to detoxify regularly. Detoxifying regularly helps to minimize the damage of the toxic sources over which we do not exert direct control. In this column, I will focus on ways we can avoid toxic exposure in our food and air.
The word toxin gets bantered about, but just what is a toxin? According to The Nemours Foundation, “A toxin is a chemical or poison that is known to have harmful effects on the body.”
In the case of food toxins, according to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, nine of the 12 most dangerous and persistent pollutants are commonly used pesticides applied to conventionally grown food.
There is an established and accepted body of research linking pesticide exposure, through residential and agricultural application, with a variety of cancers including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain, breast, kidney, pancreatic, liver, skin, and lung cancer. According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, “This increased risk occurs with both residential and occupational exposures. Increased rates of cancer have been found among farm workers who apply these chemicals. A mother’s occupational exposure to pesticides during pregnancy is associated with an increase in her child’s risk of leukemia, Wilms’ tumor, and brain cancer.
Even more unsettling, a 2006 Annals of Neurology study found that a person exposed to pesticides has a 70% greater chance of developing Parkinson’s disease than those who were not. This study also found that 61% of those living with Parkinson’s disease reported direct application of pesticides.
So what about eating food that has been grown with pesticides? How toxic is our food? The answer is a complicated one. Many conventionally grown foods, including fruits and vegetables, contain pesticide residues even after being washed or peeled. Chemicals that are no longer in use, but take years to breakdown, may also remain in the soil and water and thus in our food.
A Cornell University fact sheet called “Consumer Concerns about Pesticide Residues in Food” summarizes a 1996 FDA study: Total Diet Studies are designed to determine pesticide residues in commonly eaten menu items such as macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, popcorn, and ice cream. The three most common residues found in such studies were the insecticides DDT, malathion, and chlorpyrifos-methyl.” Disturbingly however, DDT has been banned in the US since 1972. So how was it showing up in food in 1996? This demonstrates the staying power of pesticides in the soil.
The fact sheet also acknowledges that: “We do not have a clear understanding of how different residues interact in the body, or how the combined residues affect human health.”
Though the EPA establishes maximal tolerance levels for pesticide residues, many scientists are critical of these levels because the studies do not account for neurologic effects and also do not consider the synergistic and amplification effects of several or more chemicals in the body at once. These models are based on the average person’s tolerance to one pesticide and do not account for sensitive individuals who are harmed by these higher tolerances, such as children, the elderly, and others with impaired detoxification capacity. Moreover there are few if any long term studies on the health effects of eating pesticide laden food vs. eating organically, so we really don’t know the long term safety of eating food produced with pesticides. Yet disease rates continue to skyrocket, especially since the 1990s. Also, though the EPA continues to report that food grown with pesticides is “safe,” according to the Environmental Working Group, the EPA’s 2012 report fails to mention that 25% of all foods tested exceeded the EPA’s own “safe” limits of pesticide residue levels.
The topic of toxicity in the body and the question of whether eating food grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers contributes to toxicity in the body is a complicated one. Since food is one of the major things we can influence in terms of our choices about toxin exposure, this topic deserves a thorough exploration. Consequently, this article will be continued in my next column.