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Every person on Earth is polluted—even newborns.
That’s according to Dr. James Siow, of Australia’s National Institute of Integrative Medicine. He claims that global pollution is now so bad, every human being on the planet is contaminated with hundreds of human-made toxins—and neither the world’s governments nor its health care providers are doing anything about it.
Even infants come into the world tainted with 232 potentially fatal industrial chemicals and pollutants, said Siow, citing the Environmental Working Group. And that body pollution can be carried forward three generations, he says.
These pollutants come from consumer products like cosmetics, food, packaging, cleaning agents, pesticides, even bedding. The 275 worst global pollutants are listed here—the top three are arsenic, lead, and mercury.
The conclusion that environmental toxicity can have negative health effects isn't controversial. Siow is reiterating data from a series of studies, including ones from the Lancet, the University of Washington, and President Obama's Cancer Panel. What is controversial, according to Siow, is that nobody has taken action, even though governments and the scientific community have known about the problem since the 1980s.
I got in touch with Siow to discuss what this toxicity is doing to us, why no action has been taken, and what people can do to minimize the effects of living on a poison planet.
Motherboard: Hello, Dr. Siow. You’ve suggested that everybody on Earth is polluted. Where’s this pollution coming from?
Siow: Mainly from superfund sites, which are leftover waste sites of their respective industries. It also comes from industries that put out air pollution; the US… has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol that deals with the gradual reduction from these industries.
Everywhere humans go, so do tons of industrial chemicals.
Who are the main offenders?
Industries involving power generation from fossil fuel—coal, oil and natural gas. Any industries that have an industrial exhaust silo.
What are the long term ramifications of this toxicity going to be? And what diseases and disorders are we seeing now—or are going to see in the future—that are directly caused by or aggravated by these toxins?
The accumulation of toxicity will lead to a toxic body burden from combined exposures. This concept has been addressed through the World Health Organization, the International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) Harmonization Project, the EPA and the Council of the European Union, so there is general consensus on the severity of the problem.
Diseases related to air pollutants are diabetes, cardiac failure and cardiac ischemic events, lung cancer, and asthma.
For example, diseases related to air pollutants are diabetes, cardiac failure and cardiac ischemic events, lung cancer, and asthma. There are many studies currently assessing the effects of pollutants on human diseases.
Are doctors trained to look for the symptoms of chemical poisoning?
The study of clinical toxicology is a post-graduate medical course. The training is still available from specific post-graduate organizations. However, the training takes around three years, and isn’t as popular as other post-graduate courses. Undergraduate medical courses will be lip service at best, as most undergraduate curriculum is already quite condensed as it is.
How persistent are the toxins?
It’s dependent on the type of toxins; some radioactive substances like uranium have different long half-lives depending on the isotope.
Another factor in humans is the ability to clear the toxins from the body; there are large genetic variations in the ability to clear toxins depending on the effectiveness of the metallothionein system in each individual. The nutritional factors that contribute to this clearance are also dependent on the how healthy a diet the person adopts.
Toxins can access the human body via three main routes: What we eat, drink and breathe. Other exposures depend on specific circumstances. For example, if a worker is exposed to a specific toxin at work and keeps getting re-exposed on a daily basis, then the body burden and persistence will be high. For example, in the past, when many miners were exposed to asbestos, the long term accumulation led to asbestosis many decades down the line, and some [miners] went on to develop mesothelioma, a form of cancer affecting the lining of the lung. But the delay between the exposure and onset was separated by many decades, and it took a while to decipher the cause-and-effect relationship.
Today, we have evidence of newborns having some 200-plus chemical toxins in their cord blood; these can only come from the persistence of these chemicals from the mother, and through the placental circulation over the nine month in utero period.
I truly believe that this persistency will cause epigenetic issues and affect health adversely. Not every chemical will be removed from this baby in its lifetime, especially if awareness is not forthcoming. The persistence of these toxins in the environment has been extensively studied.
What evidence do you have that the toxins can persist for three generations?
A brief analogy: If you consider the cord blood study, you can appreciate that the 200-plus chemical toxins in the cord blood can only be contributed by the mother via placenta blood circulation—hence two generations. Now what are the chances that all of these toxins will be cleared by all ten babies before they become parents? (Another generation.) Now think where the toxins of the mother that gave birth to the tested baby may come from? (Her own mother would be a likely contributing source—another generation.)
You've called the lack of action on this issue "inexplicable." But what do you think is going on? Why have governments and health care professionals been slow to act on this? Is it just incompetence, or are there wider issues?
In one word: funding. There is truly a lack of funding and appreciation of global pollutants affecting diseases. Most funding has been directed towards remediation of polluted sites and environmental research by scientists, not clinicians.
The key issue that has contributed to the lack of action or understanding in the past has been the time lag between the cause and effect of specific toxins. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has mentioned delays of around 10 to 40 years for the onset of diseases.
In the current age, however, there is really no excuse for not being aware of the issues of toxicity and the contributions these have to diseases. Unfortunately, most undergraduates and post-graduates in medicine have never been taught about these matters, and as such are quite alienated from the available data. Many chronic diseases in our current society are not satisfactorily managed, and addressing the issues of toxic burden together with currently known factors will certainly contribute to better standards of management.
At the national and global level, the US EPA and the WHO do recognize the importance of toxic chemicals and their impact on diseases. However, this knowledge has been slow in adoption into clinical practice. I guess I’m in favor of giving the benefit of the doubt to patients in circumstances where the question of toxicity arises, and chronic diseases have not responded to routine measures, because of my qualifications and awareness of these issues. However, in routine practices, I feel many cases are missed on a daily basis, and in the light of our current knowledge and understanding of health impacts due to pollutants, this is most unfortunate.
What action would we need to take to begin reversing the situation?
Managing the body's toxic burden is a preventative medicine issue in the main. Of course, there are cases of acute and chronic toxicity that are managed in emergency situations and in clinical practices as well.
All humans from birth to tomb have some degree of pollutants in their internal environment, and are also exposed to pollutants in the external environment. Christopher Wild has proposed the concept of the Exposome. This is the sum of exposures from all sources.