Vancouver naturopathic doctor Alex Chan didn’t wait until adulthood to begin minimizing her exposure to toxic chemicals and metals. When she was a child growing up on the North Shore, her parents insisted on eating organic foods, which meant she came in contact with fewer pesticides.
Chan’s father, also a naturopathic doctor, and her mother, a massage therapist, ensured that she never had amalgam fillings in her teeth to avoid any leakage of mercury, a known neurotoxin. The family selected household cleaning products carefully, preferring greener alternatives over products laden with synthetic chemicals.
“I was granted a lot of knowledge in the ways my parents raised me,” Chan said in an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “I realized that wasn’t the way most people looked at health.”
In addition, Chan took supplements to promote optimal functioning of her kidneys and liver, organs that process toxins in the body. She was also taught not to use plastic wrap in the microwave.
Nowadays, this seems like common sense, but it wasn’t the case in the 1980s. During Chan’s lifetime, scientists have made enormous strides in understanding the impact that synthetically produced chemicals have on human health. There have also been great advances in determining how higher levels of mercury, aluminum, and lead can interfere with brain functioning—and how to prevent this.
“The problem with lead and mercury is they both can cross that blood-brain barrier,” said Chan, who works at Integrative Naturopathic Medical Centre on Vancouver’s West Side.
SFU researcher examines lead's impact on children
SFU health-sciences professor Bruce Lanphear has devoted his career to researching the effects of toxins on children’s brain development. In a phone interview, he pointed out that lead, for example, impairs the formation of synapses, which allow neurons to communicate.
He also said that lead, mercury, PCBs, and bisphenol A (found in plastics) are “dopaminergic toxicants” because they alter the release, uptake, or metabolism of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter thought to help regulate emotional responses. The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, doesn’t mature until young adulthood. That’s why exposure to neurotoxins in childhood can have long-lasting effects.
“Many of these toxins appear to contribute to the development of ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], which is linked back to the prefrontal cortex,” Lanphear said.
Last year, he testified as an expert witness in a high-profile U.S. court case. Ten California cities and counties sued five corporations that had sold paint and pigments containing lead. Three were held liable in a $1.15-billion judgment that’s now under appeal, according to Lanphear.
“First, they had to show children were still being harmed by lead in those jurisdictions,” Lanphear explained. “Second, they had to show that the industry knew their product was toxic when they were legally selling it, and that was pretty clear. Then, there had to be some sense that the different companies were involved in selling a product in that particular area.”
In a paper published in this month’s Environmental Health Perspectives, Lanphear and eight other researchers zeroed in on polybrominated diphenyl ethers, known as PBDEs. They’re used as flame retardants in carpet padding, furniture, car seats, and other products.
The researchers concluded that prenatal exposure to these chemicals is associated with lower IQ and higher hyperactivity scores in children.
Meanwhile, a study published earlier this year in Chemical Research in Toxicology linked another common household chemical, the antimicrobial agent triclosan, to the development of human breast-cancer cells in a laboratory setting.
Triclosan is in approximately 1,600 products, including antibacterial soaps and toothpastes, according to the Toronto-based organization Environmental Defence.
Lanphear said that more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals have been developed over the past century. In many cases, he added, it’s still unclear how they disrupt the endocrine system.
“At best, I can keep up with five or 10 of them—I mean thoroughly keep up with them,” he said. “In the end, it’s up to the federal government to revise the regulatory framework for these chemicals.”
Phthalates also elevate risks
Another family of chemicals called phthalates are found in cosmetics, upholstery, perfumes, plastics, paints, adhesives, and other products. Studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals have linked some of them to reproductive disorders, behavioural changes in children, asthma, allergies, pregnancy loss, and metabolic disorders, according to Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our World (Knopf Canada, 2013).
So is it possible to rid yourself of these toxic substances once they’ve entered your system? The Toronto-based coauthor of Toxin Toxout, Bruce Lourie, has conducted experiments on himself to see if this is possible.
“The most important thing is to avoid putting chemicals into our bodies in the first place,” Lourie emphasized to the Straight over the phone. “It’s a lot easier to avoid chemicals than it is to get them out of our bodies once they’re in there.”
Lourie writes about how he underwent various purification treatments and then tested the impact they had on the levels of metals and chemicals in his urine, sweat, and blood.
In the book, which he wrote with Broadbent Institute executive director Rick Smith, Lourie describes how he drank water containing Zeta Aid crystals, ingested a capsule of Phyto5000 said to contain 42,000 units of antioxidant power, underwent chelation therapy to reduce metal levels, and used sauna treatments to sweat out toxins.
“The idea that chemicals are not only harming our bodies but are in fact preventing our bodies from detoxifying properly is critical,” Lourie writes. “If toxic chemicals are compromising our immune systems, our bodies are constantly fighting just to stay healthy and our major detox organs, such as our liver and kidneys, can’t focus on their main job of removing toxins.”
Chelation and saunas expel toxins
Lourie also interviewed Edmonton physician and researcher Stephen Genuis, one of Canada’s leading authorities on detox medicine. After reviewing detox therapies, Genuis has concluded that “proven” approaches include chelation to address heavy-metal poisoning and sauna therapy to rid the body of toxins through sweating.
According to Genuis, exercise and fasting have “limited” effectiveness in terms of detoxification. These activities do, however, break down fat cells, freeing toxins stored in this tissue. Genuis has also noted that ingestion of prebiotics, probiotics, and herbal supplements can enhance natural detoxification processes.
Lourie told the Straight that when he tried infrared-sauna therapy, he ended up passing out because he overdid it. The lab required him to collect 250 millilitres of sweat and he allowed the heat to be set too high.
“I was literally sweating out plastic, which was quite fascinating,” he said with a laugh.
His BPA levels shot up in the fourth week of his five-week sauna-therapy regimen, which he attributes to eating canned tomatoes. Even though Lourie had avoided scented soaps for a long time, his urine still contained metabolites of diethyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalate.
Intriguingly, BPA was more likely to be expelled through sweating, while phthalates were mostly excreted through urine.
“It drives up the circulation, warms up the tissues, and, of course, produces sweating,” he said. “Toxins are water-soluble; they come out in sweat. And then you take a nice shower afterward.”
Lourie spent an hour in a sauna each day as part of his experiment, but Lahti said Finlandia’s sauna can be booked for half-hour sessions.
“I had one young man who came in and we detoxed him from methadone,” he said. “He used a sauna two to three times a week for two years. He eventually rid himself of the residue.”
By phone, Lourie described chelation as “probably the most invasive [detox] treatment”.
He noted that people have died during these treatments, which is why he recommends medical oversight. Chelating agents inserted into the bloodstream bind themselves to metals and minerals, including nutrients such as calcium and sodium, which are then flushed out through urination.
“The absolute evidence of how it removes mercury from your body is very, very clear,” Lourie said. “So if you are someone that has been diagnosed with high levels of mercury, chelation is, in fact, the best course of action.”
Chan explained that chelating agents can be injected or taken orally, describing them as “substances that act like large claws” in the way they remove heavy metals.
In her practice, the process begins with taking a hair sample followed by a urine sample. Practitioners check that the person has intact kidney functioning to ensure that the chelating agent can be excreted.
“It grabs more selectively for heavy metals, but not just heavy metals,” she said. “So you are losing some essential minerals as well. The way around that is we…recommend a pretty comprehensive oral multimineral supplementation.”
Feds criticized for not addressing triclosan
Lourie said the good news is that corporations are removing certain chemicals from their products. But triclosan remains a major concern for environmentalists such as Maggie MacDonald of Environmental Defence.
Over the phone from her Toronto office, she explained to the Straight that the federal government concluded in 2012 that triclosan was toxic to the environment but not to human health.
She noted that studies have suggested triclosan may have harmful effects on the human thyroid hormone and may be contributing to the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
She also said that when triclosan is dumped in waterways, it breaks down into dioxins, which pose a deadly threat to humans and marine life.
“Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble are committed to removing triclosan from their products in 2015,” MacDonald said. “That’s a step forward.”
In 2012, Environmental Defence conducted triclosan-level testing on eight volunteers across the country, including Vancouver midwife Alison Humphrey. Her blood was found to contain 28.9 nanograms per millilitre, which was the second-highest level.
“I’m shocked it’s so high,” Humphrey is quoted as saying in the group’s report. “I avoid buying antibacterial soaps with triclosan, but I did accidentally buy antibacterial soap a couple of months ago and wanted to use it up rather than throw it away. I’m amazed that one product put my levels at almost double the average. I will be extra careful next time I buy soap.”
Toxins are unavoidable in 21st century
Chan said it’s inevitable that people are going to be exposed to these chemicals while living in an urban environment. She explained that cosmetics, deodorants, hair products, paints, carpets, and household cleaning products can all increase the burden of toxins in the body.
“The bigger effect might not just be the accumulation and sum total, but the way those toxins interact,” she said. “But we really don’t know the effects.”
She advised consumers to visit the U.S.–based Environmental Working Group’s website, which provides information about toxins in products that are on the market.
Lanphear, whose research focuses on children, recommended the same website while acknowledging the impossibility of monitoring everything they come in contact with.
“In terms of what parents can at least attempt to do, first, as a general rule of thumb, if we didn’t evolve with it, avoid it,” Lanphear advised. “Things like fingernail polish, we don’t need it. Avoid it. Some women, I know, disagree, including my daughters.”