As clinicians, we are in a frontline position to assist people to be more physiologically capable of interfacing with an increasingly toxic world.
During the last century, we have seen an unprecedented chemical revolution as we are becoming more reliant on synthetic and often toxic chemicals to meet the needs of modern society. Industrial pollutants, petrochemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, food additives, pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, hygiene products and cosmetics, and plastic compounds are now part of everyday life.
Every tissue and system in the body is susceptible to influence or damage by these toxins and more alarmingly, emerging research suggests that these toxins not only have an immediate and significant impact on us as individuals, but they may also have an epigenetic trans-generational inheritance of adult-onset disease in subsequent generations following ancestral exposure .
Whilst the human body has a natural capacity to process toxins, those systems are now under immense pressure from the level of assault inflicted from modern-day life.
What are the frequent sources of toxins in Australia?
Even though the air quality in Australia is good compared with other places around the world, large cities still experience days of high air pollution. Government-released data states that :
Air pollution is responsible for 2.3% of all deaths in Australia.
Between 640 and 1400 people die prematurely each year due to air pollution in the Sydney greater metropolitan region alone.
Air pollution causes almost 2000 hospitalisations per year in the Sydney greater metropolitan region.
In addition to outdoor air pollution, we are exposed to a vast amount of airborne toxicants indoors (leaching from furniture, floor coverings, building materials, printers, cleaning products etc) in our homes, schools, public buildings, offices and cars. The US Environmental Protection Agency and its Science Advisory Board have consistently ranked indoor pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health. Australians are estimated to spend 90% or more of their time indoors .
Pesticides, including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, are widely used in Australian agriculture. Pesticides are an "unseen" toxin to which we have constant, repeated, and accumulative exposure via our dietary practices.
Pesticides have been found to affect the nervous system (causing neurodegenerative disease), mental and emotional functioning, and the reproductive system (causing birth defects, fertility problems, foetal/neonatal death and intrauterine growth retardation). A positive association between pesticide exposure and solid tumours, haematological cancers, and genotoxic effects have also been reported .
Recent research suggests that even low levels of pesticide exposure can affect neurological and behavioural development in children. Evidence has shown a link between pesticides and neonatal reflexes, psychomotor and mental development, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) . Pesticide residues are also implicated in causing childhood cancer and endocrine effects .
Organohalogen compounds, such as polychlorinated bisphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl esters (used as fire retardants), plastic residues and dioxins, are highly persistent both in the environment and the human body. One significant concern with exposure to organohalogens is endocrine disruption.
A growing area concern is exposure to components in plastics, in particular those that leach into our food supply, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. BPA is known to be oestrogenic, and can cause liver damage. It can also disrupt pancreatic beta-cell and thyroid hormone function and exert obesity-promoting effects . Phthalates are linked to reproductive issues in both males and females.
Another frequent source of toxins in our environment are heavy metals, particularly lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic . Although acute heavy metal poisoning is relatively rare, chronic low-grade heavy metal toxicity may be one of the most pervasive factors contributing to chronic disease .
In addition to exogenous toxicants, an individual’s toxic burden also comes from within, including microbial compounds and end products of metabolism.
Endogenous sources of toxicity is often overlooked. While some are created during normal metabolic processes, a large portion may also originate from an unhealthy gastrointestinal system.
Over time, poor dietary habits and lifestyle choices, as well as emotional stress, can lead to the disruption of the intestinal microflora. Consequently, an overgrowth of undesirable microbes may adversely affect digestion and cause production of endogenous toxins. Many of these metabolites are increasingly identified as neurotoxic and immunotoxic .
Other bacterial, fungal, protozoal or helminthic organisms and endotoxins may result in degradation of the gut epithelium causing translocation of microbes across the gut wall leading to gut inflammation and increased permeability, all of which contribute to the total toxic load .
What are the warning signs of toxicity?
There are two types of symptom profiles caused by toxicity: specific and non-specific. Specific symptoms can be directly related to exposure to a particular compound and are therefore relatively easy to diagnose.
Non-specific symptoms, on the other hand, can present a real challenge for the clinician as they are poorly defined and greatly overlap with many other clinical issues.
These may include (but are not limited to):
• allergies, intolerances or sensitivities
• fertility issues
• menstrual irregularities
• mood disorders, irritability
• muscle/generalised aches and pains
• poor concentration and short-term memory
• recurrent infections
• runny nose, sinus congestion
• skin rashes, hives
• nausea, vomiting.
A constant focus on minimising the toxic burden, both through reductions to exposure, but also through supporting the body’s own house-keeping processes is an important factor in mitigating toxin-induced disease. Complementary medicine approaches seek to correct dietary and lifestyle choices, whilst employing strategic use of herbal and nutritional therapies to support specific detoxification processes.
- Manikkam M, Tracey R, Guerrero-Bosagna C, et al. Dioxin (TCDD) induces epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult onset disease and sperm epimutations. PLoS ONE 2012;7(9): e46249. [Full Text]
- New South Wales Ministry of Health. Air pollution and health: key facts for the media. [Link]
- Australian Government; Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Indoor air. [Link]
- Cohen M. Environmental toxins and health; the health impact of pesticides. Australian Family Physician 2007;36(12):1002-1004. [Full Text]
- Liu J, Schelar E. Pesticide exposure and child neurodevelopment: summary and implications. Workplace Health Saf 2012;60(5):235-242. [Full Text]
- Lang IA, Galloway TS, Scarlett A, et al. Association of urinary bisphenol A concentration with medical disorders and laboratory abnormalities in adults. JAMA. 2008;300(11):1303-1310. [Full Text]
- Jarup L. Hazards of heavy metal contamination. Br Med Bull 2003;68:167-182. [Full Text]
- Lyon MR. Functional toxicology. In: Pizzorno JE, Murray MT (eds.). Textbook of natural medicine, 3rd ed (pp. 593-607). St Louis, Missouri: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2006.
- Lyon MR. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. In: Pizzorno JE, Murray MT (eds.). Textbook of natural medicine, 3rd ed (pp. 1533-44). St Louis, Missouri: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2006.