father and son looking at pollution

The POP Culture – It’s Time to Ditch it Already!

No, I am not talking about music. Not even the K-pop my teenager’s been listening to, although I do not understand its appeal 😊.

This title refers to Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POP’s, and all the other man-made (yes, us women – we are not taking the blame for this!) chemicals that are prevalent in our environment today. They are present everywhere – in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, etc.

They are notorious for their persistence in the environment – hence the name POP’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants) – and were introduced into our environment by various companies without proper oversight or regulation. Even when alarms were raised by some scientists (eg: Biologist, Rachel Carson with her seminal book, Silent Spring; Dr. Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley and his research about atrazine causing reproductive toxicity which fell on deaf EPA ears), the U.S. government failed to take appropriate action. Although, the European Union seems to have paid some attention to such research.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about another group of chemicals known as “forever chemicals” which fall into the same category as POP’s. The chemicals that fall into this group are PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a.k.a. Teflon made by DuPont. These chemicals are used widely for commercial and residential purposes. According to a recent study by EWG (Environmental Working Group), PFAS contamination of ground water is present in 49 of 50 states in the U.S (Scientific American – Forever Chemicals are Widespread in US Drinking Water).

Ironically, 2020 started with so many news articles about these environmental toxins, such as Delta employees suing Lands’ End alleging their uniforms made them sick and a Johnson Controls subsidiary reporting a contaminated water spill, I thought 2020 was going to be all about them 😉. Oh! To be young and naïve 😉.

In a way, I do think these toxins are responsible for the poor response to Covid 19, that citizens of developed countries have shown. One way, these chemicals affect our bodies is by triggering our immune system and causing chronic inflammation. And, we have seen that people with chronic inflammation have worse outcomes with Covid because their immune system was creating a “cytokine storm” – an unregulated, exaggerated immune response which ultimately attacks host tissue causing a lot of collateral damage.

My goal in writing this article is to educate you about these chemicals and what can be done about it.

My work as a functional medicine and integrative psychiatrist has made me realize that toxin exposure is one of the major root causes for many psychiatric illnesses. Hence toxin exposure assessment and detoxification has become one of the corner stones of my treatment protocols.

But First, a Few Concepts Related to Toxicology

The Concept of “Precautionary Principle”

This concept basically states that, “when an activity poses threat of harm to human or environmental health, precautionary measures should be taken even if cause-effect relationships are not fully established.” This principle rests the burden of proof on the companies introducing these chemicals for widespread use rather than how it is unfortunately practiced in the U.S., where the burden of proof rests on the public to prove a particular activity or chemical is dangerous. Most often, actions to prevent harm are undertaken only after significant proof of harm is established, at which point it may be too late. We are already witnessing this sad tale unfold. That is, witnessing it, if you are aware of it.

Persistence

This refers to the tendency of some chemicals to resist environmental degradation – eg: DDT, Plastics, POP’s, PFAS, etc. This phenomenon of persistence is responsible for transfer of these chemicals from one generation to the next, typically causing more damage as the next generation is exposed to these toxins during critical and sensitive stages of early development, especially during pregnancy and infancy (via breast feeding). Although, I will clarify here that despite breast milk having high concentrations of such chemicals, it is still the best food for the baby.

(Let me take a segway here into neuro-developmental disorders. Can such rampant use of these chemicals be responsible for the explosion of neuro developmental disorders we are seeing today? Especially autism? But, we are told that autism is mostly genetic? However, we also know that genetic changes (or mutations) do not happen so quickly. Our genes cannot and do not change so rapidly as to cause such an exponential increase in autism rates (1 in 5000 kids in the 1970’s compared to the current rate of 1 in 54). If it’s not genetics, then it can ONLY be explained by the fact that our environment is responsible for this exponential rise. Dr. Mark Hyman explores this topic in his recent podcast.

We know that post World War 2, a huge number of chemicals were dumped onto the public under the guise of “better living through chemistry.” What we are exposed to today, our ancestors were not exposed to, just 70 years ago. So, why is it that most of the research dollars are spent on understanding genetics which has such a small ROI? Maybe the forces that benefit from the status quo do not want to change the way things are today, irrespective of who is getting hurt from it???)

Bio-magnification

This is the process by which chemicals move up the food chain. For example, pesticides are sprayed on the grass, which is eaten by live-stock, which are then consumed by larger birds, animals and ultimately humans. In this process, the chemicals become increasingly concentrated in tissues and internal organs as they move up the food chain.

Bioaccumulation

This refers to substances that accumulate within a living organism from continued exposure to a contaminated environment.

Bio-magnification and bioaccumulation concepts explain why big fish in the sea and big mammals on land carry the most toxic burden in their fat tissue and internal organs. When humans then consume such fish or meats, we are exposed to a high toxic load right away. The concept of bio-magnification explains clearly why low levels of contaminants in air/water/food can easily pose a threat to animals high up the food chain, like humans.

Bio-concentration

Bio-concentration is defined as increasing concentration of chemicals due to uptake from the environment being greater than the excretion. This concept specifically brings our attention to the organism-environment interaction. When people are equipped with a functioning detoxification system within and are consuming a nutrient rich diet, they are able to ward off the negative consequences for some time (although not completely). But people with methylation gene polymorphisms – I regard them as canaries in a coal mine – have an impaired detoxification systems, it renders them at high risk for toxin induced diseases.

These are people who react to most things in the environment. For example, psychiatric patients who never react well to any drug, and who, co-incidentally, also are the “sensitives” in this world.

I, too, am such a canary. When I first moved to the US, I would react to so many smells around. I could not step into a Bath & Body Works store without getting a headache. Back then, I thought the problem was with me! Now, I know better. I avoid such stores, cosmetic stores and the fragrance/cosmetic section in big stores.

Biomagnification refers to uptake of chemicals across the food chain whereas bioaccumulation/bio-concentration occurs within an organism.

How are We Exposed to These Chemicals?

pollution of the body


Some 80,000 chemicals are in widespread use today. And many of which have not been proven to be safe. We are exposed mainly through the food we eat, but also through the air we breathe – indoor/outdoor air pollution, including at schools/workplace.

There are many occupations today that routinely expose workers to the harmful effects of such toxins. This includes, but is not limited to, janitors, cleaning service workers, nail salon workers, city/county park workers, welders and metal workers, etc.

Many products used in our daily lives may contain POPs, such as flame retardants or surfactants. Other toxic chemicals can be found in products we use daily – from toothpaste to the night cream you may use for your eyes. They are everywhere. Due to their easy dispersing abilities through wind and water, even sparsely populated areas of the world are showing signs of contamination in their ground waters and soil.

A Quick Intro to Some of These Chemicals

It Will Be Helpful for You to Know about Them, so You can Avoid Them

Common air pollutants: Nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, VOC’s (volatile organic compounds found in artificially scented candles; air, car and room fresheners, etc.), heavy metals (mercury, lead, etc) and particulate matter. A major contributor to indoor air pollution is from off-gassing of formaldehyde from furniture, solvents, cleaning solutions, carpets and pesticide residue in household dust. This is from using outdoor shoes indoors; from use of pesticides and other ‘cides for lawn and home care. Given this scenario, indoor air pollution is also known to be a problem in conventional hospitals that rely on chemical cleaners and solutions.

For this reason, right from inception, Trinergy Health was and is committed to an indoor-outdoor chemical/toxin free policy within its premises.

Water Pollutants: Pesticides, arsenic, VOC’s, pharmaceutical residues (hormones from birth control pills, antibiotics, psychiatric medicines especially antidepressants, statins, etc.) and industrial pollutants being dumped without regulatory oversight in our water systems. For example, PFAS dumped from Teflon manufacturers (please watch the 2019 movie: Dark Waters – which is based on a real story) and PFAS from firefighter foam. In fact, elevated levels were found in ground water in Marinette county, WI. This one is close to home!

Food Pollutants: Food pollution occurs not only in the production phase – eg: industrial production of food, which is chemical intensive with the use of pesticides, antibiotics/hormones for live-stock, etc.; and also from the processing of food (use of chemicals to extend shelf life, use of artificial dyes, flavors) and ultimately in the packaging of food. Some examples include BPA lined cans, plastic or styrofoam containers from which leaching of plastics/styrene is common.

A very important source of food pollution is the unregulated use of genetic modification of crops and now, even salmon. We have not studied the effect on human health of consuming such transgenic species. A genetic code is simply information. When we eat food, its genetic code survives cooking and digestion, and is then shown to “talk” to our genome!!! This is how we are intimately connected to the food we eat. This “cross talk” between species can enhance the expression of ‘good’ genes or do the opposite. It all depends on the quality of the ‘genetic code’ we are ingesting.

So, how do GMO’s feature in this scenario? We do not know. But the public is expected to accept such foods without question. Industrial production of food is routinely shown to be devoid of nutrients while being toxic, thus laying a double whammy on our physiology.

Health and beauty product pollution: Phthalates are used in many different products, such as nail polish, deodorants, fragrances, shampoos, soaps, hair spray, skin lotions etc. SLS (Sodium Laureth Sulfate a known neurotoxin) is also used widely as a foaming agent that can be found in toothpaste, soaps, shampoos, etc.

Health Effects of the Pollutants

These pollutants cause many different harmful effects on various organ systems of the body. They can cross the placental barrier, and are found in human breast milk. They can cross the blood brain barrier; thus, increasing risks for various diseases during pregnancy and in infancy.

Air pollutants are linked to asthma, airway hyper-reactivity, cardiovascular disease and related adverse outcomes. POP’s are linked to obesity, weight gain, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and diabetes (references 1 to 13). VOC’s, PFAS, pesticides, plastics, phthalates etc have been linked to endocrine disruption due to biologic mimicry of estrogen and can hence lead to a wide variety of illnesses – eg: breast cancer in men and women, infertility in both men and women, PCOS, early puberty especially in girls, menstrual disorders in young girls, acne, thyroid disorders and cancer (PFAS), low sperm count and small penises in male infants exposed to these chemicals, ADHD, learning disabilities, autoimmunity, increased risk for anxiety/depression/autism and other mental illnesses. As you can see, this list seems never ending.

One of my hypothesis is that these EDC’s (endocrine disrupting chemicals) could also be responsible for the increasing incidence and prevalence of gender dysphoria phenomenon that we are seeing in today’s youth. When a developing fetus is exposed to the EDC’s (especially atrazine), the exposure may be small enough to not cause noticeable external genital abnormalities but may be big enough to cause estrogenic effect on the developing brain. This hypothesis can explain the disconnect some young kids are experiencing between what their physical gender is and what their psychological gender feels like. To some extent, this explains the boy to girl transgender phenomenon, although I do not yet have a physiological explanation for girl to boy transgender phenomenon. It could be from an androgenic effect of yet unknown environmental toxins.

Just as we surmised about androgenic effect of environmental toxins…we learn from this new study that the culprit is none other than the ubiquitous Roundup. This study finds glyphosate causes androgenic effect on developing babies…Here is the missing link I was looking for to explain female to male gender dysphoria.

Sadly, like with most research, even in the arena of gender dysphoria and transgender phenomena; most money is spent on understanding the genetic underpinnings whilst ignoring the elephant in the room (i.e. environmental toxins and their effect on the developing fetus and baby).

Finally, mitochondrial dysfunction has also been associated with these toxins, resulting in chronic fatigue like syndromes.

So, What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves and Our Loved Ones?

there is no planet b

  1. First and foremost, we need to educate ourselves about these toxins and their effects. EWG.org is a great resource for all manner of environmental toxins. Download their “skin deep” app and check the bar code of any skin care product you are thinking of buying. This app will immediately tell you if it is clean or not. Follow the dirty dozen/cheap fifteen guide to help you make wise food choices. Nottoopretty.org is another website about dirty cosmetics.
  2. Avoid, avoid and avoid. The first rule of protecting from toxins is to avoid them as much as possible. Read the labels on everything you buy – food or body care product. Switch to companies that make clean household, health, body and beauty products. Eat organic, non-GMO, unprocessed, whole foods as much as possible. Grow your own food if possible. Use glass, ceramic, cast iron or stainless steel utensils, water bottles, etc. DO NOT USE PLASTIC for food/water storage. Filter your water – RO systems, Berkley water filters, Aqua Tru, etc. are good resources for this.
  3. When eating out, ensure that the food is not made with artificial ingredients. Support restaurant businesses that are trying to do the right thing. Support local farms. Farm to table is a great concept to follow here. I’m sad to say that most Indian restaurants unfortunately use artificial dyes in some of their most popular dishes like Tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala and Biriyani’s. Educate such businesses about the dangers of these dyes and you can personally choose to avoid such meals.
  4. Increase the nutrient density of your diet. As such a diet will support efficient detoxification.
  5. Take targeted supplements especially if your methylation gene status is known. Work with a functional medicine doctor who can optimize your nutritional status and assist with detoxification.
  6. Dust and vacuum your indoor spaces as often as possible.
    VOC filter at Trinergy Health

    VOC filter at Trinergy. The green line indicates that air quality was good and it did not need purifying.

    Use VOC filters at home and in your office space. I’m very happy to inform that we did buy a VOC filter made by Dyson for use at Trinergy Health. This was in an effort to doubly ensure our space was indeed chemical free. But this machine registered “0” VOC in the clinic environment consistently and so we returned this machine! Ask us about how we achieved this! You can do it for your home too!

  7. Be aware, be informed. Educate your friends and family. Take up advocacy of these issues. Talk to your local city/county governments and educate them about not using harmful chemicals on local park systems. This is not only beneficial for you, your children but also for your furry family members. Is it any wonder that our pets are also suffering from a range of chronic physical and mental health conditions, like their human family???
  8. Talk to your local political officers to bring about legislative change.
  9. Participate in efficient detoxification treatments. Ayurveda recommends using steam sauna regularly.
  10. Of note, most of the toxins listed above are fat soluble. They need the medium of fat to be dissolved into, for efficient detoxification. Hence in people who have a high burden of these toxins, sudden weight loss can liberate toxins from fatty tissue, increasing blood levels and leading to a host of symptoms and eventual reabsorption of these toxins. Therefore, eliminating these pollutants requires excreting the contaminated fat and bypassing enterohepatic recirculation. To my knowledge, the Ayurvedic detox known as Panchakarma (PK), which is one of the best detoxification treatments that is available today, achieves this purpose. This program removes fat and the toxins found within it together. PK is the only detox program that uses fat (clarified butter internally and herbal oils externally) as the medium for detoxification through its signature technique of internal and external oleation. Studies have shown that PK reliably reduces blood and tissue concentration of such toxins – eg: DDT and other fat soluble toxins as shown in this study.

Therefore, this is why I recommend PK for almost everyone that walks in to Trinergy for any health reason – physical or mental health concerns. I also recommend PK as a prevention tool – eg: for people thinking of having a child. Both parents will benefit from PK. As PK will reduce the body burden of these toxins and will increase the quality of the sperm and egg; and will result in a healthier womb environment for the developing baby.

In conclusion, it may seem hopeless that we are living in a cesspool of toxins.

But, there is a lot of hope… with awareness and intention, we can change these factors and positively impact our own health and that of the environment.

Using these principles, both at my home and at Trinergy clinic, levels of VOC’s and other air pollutants is zero. Anyone can replicate this for their own homes and workplaces. We at Trinergy, are here to educate and guide you in achieving this!

Vote with your dollars. Support companies that are in alignment with this philosophy. It is heartening for me that in the last 6 to 7 years of my own awareness, I see more and more shift towards cleaner, greener products and living.

And, we are here to help!

“Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavanthu” May all beings in this universe experience peace and happiness.

References:

  1. Alberti G, Zimmet P, Shaw J, Grundy SM. The IDF Consensus Worldwide Definition of the Metabolic Syndrome. Brussels, Belgium: International Diabetes Federation; 2006. https://www.idf.org/e-library/consensus-statements/60-idfconsensus-worldwide-definitionof-the-metabolic-syndrome.html. Accessed May 5, 2017.
  2. Beltrán-Sánchez H, Harhay MO, Harhay MM, McElligott S. Prevalence and trends of metabolic syndrome in the adult U.S. population, 1999-2010. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013;62(8):697-703. doi:1016/j.jacc.2013.05.064.
  3. Persistent organic pollutants: a global issue, a global response. United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/persistent-organic-pollutants-global-issue-global-response. Updated December 2009. Accessed May 5, 2017.
  4. Dusanov S, Ruzzin J, Kiviranta H, et al. Associations between persistent organic pollutants and metabolic syndrome in morbidly obese individuals. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2018;28(7):735-742. doi:1016/j.numecd.2018.03.004.
  5. Lim S, Cho YM, Park KS, Lee HK. Persistent organic pollutants, mitochondrial dysfunction, and metabolic syndrome. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2010;1201:166-176. doi:1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05622.x.
  6. De Tata V. Association of dioxin and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) with diabetes: epidemiological evidence and new mechanisms of beta cell dysfunction. Int J Mol Sci. 2014;15(5):7787-7811. doi:3390/ijms15057787.
  7. Chang J-W, Chen H-L, Su H-J, Lee C-C. Abdominal obesity and insulin resistance in people exposed to moderate-to-high levels of dioxin. PLoS One. 2016;11(1):e0145818. doi:1371/journal.pone.0145818.
  8. Aminov Z, Haase R, Rej R, et al. Diabetes prevalence in relation to serum concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) congener groups and three chlorinated pesticides in a Native American population. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(9):1376-1383. doi:1289/ehp.1509902.
  9. Cordu N, Schymura MJ, Negoita S; Akwesasne Task Force on Environment, Rej R, Carpenter DO. Diabetes in relation to serum levels of polychlorinated biphenyls and chlorinated pesticides in adult Native Americans. Environ Health Perspect. 2007;115(10):1442-1447. doi:1289/ehp.10315.
  10. Lee D-H, Lee I-K, Song K, et al. A strong dose-response relation between serum concentrations of persistent organic pollutants and diabetes: results from the National Health and Examination Survey 1999-2002. Diabetes Care. 2006;29(7):1638-1644. doi:2337/dc06-0543.
  11. Ha KH, Kim SA, Lee YM, Kim DJ, Lee DH. Can persistent organic pollutants distinguish between two opposite metabolic phenotypes in lean Koreans? Diabetes Metab. 2018;44(2):168-171. doi:1016/j.diabet.2017.12.008.
  12. Gasull M, Castell C, Pallarès N, et al. Blood concentrations of persistent organic pollutants and unhealthy metabolic phenotypes in normal-weight, overweight, and obese individuals. Am J Epidemiol. 2018;187(3):494-506. doi:1093/aje/kwx267.
  13. Genuis SJ. Elimination of persistent toxicants from the human body. Hum Exp Toxicol. 2011;30(1):3- doi:10.1177/0960327110368417.
  14. https://www.businessinsider.in/science/health/news/boys-are-being-born-with-testicles-in-the-wrong-place-and-pollution-could-be-to-blame/articleshow/81579337.cms
  15. Lesseur C, Pirrotte P, Pathak KV, Manservisi F, Mandrioli D, Belpoggi F, Panzacchi S, Li Q, Barrett ES, Nguyen RHN, Sathyanarayana S, Swan SH, Chen J.
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