The percentage of US children between 12 and 19 with diabetes or pre-diabetes increased from 9% in 1999 to 23% in 2008. That’s a staggering 2.5x increase in just 10 years, and is an alarming public health problem. What’s at the root? Dietary choices and sedentary lives surely figure in, but those two factors alone do not explain the increase. What else is there? Evidence is mounting that everyday chemical exposures from our air, food, water, clothing, furniture, homes and workplaces are also to blame.
Even though pesticides, plasticizers, antimicrobials, and ﬂame retardants have had benefits, the side effects on human and environmental health are a growing concern. Literally. We now know that many chemicals can disrupt our normal hormonal functions. We call them “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” (EDCs). Scientific studies linking EDC exposure with obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes are piling up, and now the term “metabolic disruptor” is becoming common.
What common chemical exposures are known to increase the risk of obesity and diabetes? It’s a blizzard of bewildering names that include: Organochloride pesticides (like DDT), dioxins (PCBs), flame retardants (PBDEs), PFCs (found in oil-resistant fast food packaging, Teflon, Gortex, Scotchgaurd and stain-resistant products), Phthalates (found in soft plastics and “fragrance”) and BPA (found in hard plastics). These are just the major groups we know about. Without a doubt, more gruesome discoveries about chemicals we use every day will come.
Where has governmental regulation been on this? I wish it were a stretch to suggest that “regulators” have been essentially walking the 400-pound gorilla of the Big Chemical lobby around—wherever it wanted to go. The première U.S. chemical protection law us is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. TSCA was rendered toothless because it grandfathered in the 62,000 chemicals already in production and did not require meaningful safety data on most of the 22,000 new chemicals put into production since then.
Because it usually takes decades to learn the full negative effects of chemical exposures, the damage is often severe before regulators even begin to take action to ban offending chemicals. Worse still is that banned chemicals are replaced with newer alternatives—not necessarily because they are safer, but because we know less about how unsafe they are.
In the past 35 years, only five classes of synthetic chemicals have been banned due to concerns about human and environmental health implications. One of these chemicals was the organochloride pesticide, DDT that was restricted from use inside the United States in 1972. This popular pesticide was found to be accumulating in animal tissues and concentrating in animals higher on the food chain, and threatening endangered species including the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.
Unfortunately, stopping use of these persistent organic pollutants (POPs) is insufficient to safeguard human health. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Fourth Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals indicated that although it’s use was banned (in the in the U.S.) in 1972, DDT was detected in 73.8% of population. DDT’s primary metabolite DDE, which is also toxic and bio-accumulative, was found in 99.7% of the sampled population—including those born after it’s domestic use was banned.
Why are some chemicals more harmful and accumulative than others? We know that the most harmful chemicals are “fat-soluble”—meaning that they accumulate in our body fat. Body fat is not limited to our waistlines. Every cell membrane in our body is made from fat and our critical organs are loaded with fat including the brain, liver, kidneys and our digestive systems. So what happens when we loose weight? Burning fat releases fat-soluble chemicals and leads to spikes in the blood levels of many metabolic disruptors.
Once back in circulation, these nasty fat soluble chemicals can go to back work: slowing down our metabolism (making us tired and prone to regaining the weight), promoting diabetes and heart disease (by decreasing insulin sensitivity and increasing cholesterol levels), and otherwise make us tired, irritable, mentally foggy. Sound familiar? The toxic flood associated with weight loss appears to be a major factor behind yo-yo dieting and people failing to keep weight off. This is one reason why I never recommend serious weight loss without taking clear steps to support the body’s detoxification systems.
The take home message: As a society, we have effectively been entrusting our health to profit-driven chemical manufacturers and compromised lawmakers and regulatory agencies. The result: we have essentially granted synthetic chemicals the rights of innocent until proven guilty. Effectively, the process has been that companies create new chemicals, report minimal safety data to regulatory agencies, production begins and then, as a society, we all wait to find out if these chemicals have adverse health effects. It’s not a stretch to suggest that we are inadvertently running a worldwide, haphazard toxicology experiment on ourselves.
In this age of “better” living through chemistry, one sobering fact is clear: to safeguard our health from chemical exposures, it is foolhardy to wait for the protection of the government of the chemical industry. Skyrocketing rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes are just one highly likely effect of chemical exposures. Other human diseases with strong links to chemical exposures include: autoimmune diseases like MS and lupus and neurological disorders like Parkinsons disease.
How do you know if you have high levels of toxic chemicals? Numerous “body-burden” studies have shown that if you are alive and are wearing a body, then you’ve probably got high levels. What’s even more shocking is that studies of umbilical cord blood have shown that considerable exposures begin before we are born (through maternal transfer) and soon after (through breast milk).
Practically speaking, Metametrix Laboratory (now owned by Genova) can now test for levels of various toxic chemicals in blood and urine samples. One limitation of these tests is that they are somewhat expensive and don’t tell us much about what’s stored in the all important body fat.
A common liver enzyme test called γ-glutamyltransferase (GGT) can be used to help determine if you have had high levels of toxic chemical exposures and help determine your risk of developing diabetes. I can run this test for $5 (plus a $10 draw fee).
Another more advanced test is the Genova Diagnostics “detoxigenomic” panel that identifies 28 key genetic variations in detoxification enzymes. The test is not cheap ($450), but if you are already sick, cannot tolerate drug therapy, and conventional medical diagnosis has not uncovered what’s wrong with you, it may be a valuable place to look.
Medicine has come a long way, but it is lagging behind on investigating the effects of chemical exposures. Modern ailments with likely links to chemical exposures include: multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and fibromyalgia—not to mention attention deficit disorder (ADD) and autism. Conventional medicine generally doesn’t have a clue about what to do with these “medical refugees” who may well be suffering from conditions with toxic connections.
Thankfully, being mindful of the products we bring to our homes and cleaning up our diet goes a long way towards limiting our chemical exposures. With a little education, this is something we can all take some control of. The next most important measure is to support our body’s detoxification and elimination systems through diet & lifestyle measures. Specific nutritional supplements can help boost your body’s detoxification systems, but as a naturopathic doctor (ND), I always recommend the foundation of a clean home and a clean diet. This way, your body can transform and eliminate the stored toxins more effectively.
May we all be well!
Dr. T.R. Morris is a licensed naturopathic medical doctor (ND). He is currently serving as faculty and consultant to the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). The IFM mission is to revolutionize medicine by teaching the latest genetic, nutritional, hormonal and other biochemically-based integrative medicine techniques to MDs and other practitioners looking for new tools to prevent and treat chronic disease. In the past, T.R. served as the medical director of a large integrative clinic and taught (genetics, physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, cellular & molecular biology) for 10 years for various medical programs in the Puget Sound. He sees patients in person (or long-distance via Skype consultations) from his home office in Seattle.
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