ENVIRONMENTAL POISONS IN OUR FOOD
"Fourteen million or more children less than seven years of age are exposed to lead in the environment in the United States. Seventeen percent have blood levels sufficient to cause serious deficits in intelligence and disorders of behavior that persist through adolescence to adulthood. Lead is just one of many poisons that contaminate our food and water and pose potential risks to the health of both children and adult populations."
This quote is from a new book* by J. Gordon Millichap, MD, professor emeritus of pediatrics and neurology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. The book provides us with a superb reference that gives sources of contaminants with the specific poisoning symptoms in people of all ages, infants through adults, as well as problems with fetal syndromes. Often specific nutrients are listed that can reduce and, in some cases, they actually can increase the toxicity of a particular poison.
Toxicity from metals is covered. Some minerals, for example, cobalt, iron, selenium, and zinc are essential to our health. Consequently, Dr. Millichap describes both the symptoms of deficiency and those "when consumption is in excess of normal requirements." Toxicity from excessive ingestion of certain vitamins is covered and also some drug and vitamin interactions. Food additives, irradiation, pesticides, and other environmental poisons are mentioned, plus many food and water-borne infections. Also, he deals with the neuropsychiatric and other effects from both alcohol and caffeine consumption. Finally, he covers serious symptoms resulting from individual food sensitivities. The following review will touch a few highlights from this book.
Summarizing the sources of lead: contaminated water can affect all of us. Infants can ingest lead from formula prepared with the lead-contaminated water; "toddlers are prone to 'pica,' a craving for unnatural items of food," paint chips, house dust, and garden soil "are the major sources of exposure to lead in young children in the United States, and the hand-to-mouth activity common to toddlers is the predisposing factor in this age group." Sniffing gasoline for pleasure can poison older children and adolescents. "Aerosol exposure is especially hazardous, since approximately 40 percent of inhaled lead is absorbed. Organic tetraethyl lead in gasoline has a proclivity for the nervous system, causing an acute lead encephalopathy manifested by coma and convulsions." Adults are exposed to lead in many occupations, including pottery making and printing.
Lead content, sampled in foods, was highest in canned tomatoes with lower amounts in other canned foods. Among raw agricultural products lead residues were highest in "corn, wheat, soybeans, and tomatoes." In sampled baby foods the highest lead content was in orange juice, followed by apple juice, applesauce, and peaches. Vegetable and meat mixtures had the lowest lead content.
In our industrialized society every child may be poisoned by lead and "it is recommended that all children be screened." Those children with high levels need to be quickly treated with chelation therapy, where a chemical chelates (claws onto) the lead and the two are excreted together. Survivors of acute exposure can be "mentally retarded and suffer from seizures and paralyses. Prevention or early diagnosis and effective therapeutic measures are essential for improvement in the prognosis of this common environmental hazard," called a "silent epidemic."
Elemental mercury and mercuric sulfide (cinnabar) have been used for "at least 2000 years" in medical prescriptions, including the treatment of syphilis and leprosy and as an aphrodisiac. Mercury is seldom used medicinally now and much is known about its toxic manifestations. However, many occupations involve exposure to mercury, one example being medical personnel when mercury thermometers are broken.
Inorganic mercury compounds are absorbed much less into the gastrointestinal tract than certain other compounds of mercury, especially the extremely toxic methylmercury, which is 90 per cent absorbed. However, "all forms of mercury can be converted to methylmercury and are potentially hazardous as food contaminants." Some dental offices have "excessive mercury vapor levels. The slow intraoral leakage of mercury from dental amalgams is also a concern."
In the beginning of this century many people had moved to cities and were no longer close to the source of their food. Also, there was no governmental control of filthy contamination. For example, "it was relatively common for floor sweepings to be added to pepper, ash leaves to tea, copper and lead salts to cheese and candy, copper salts to pickles and peas, prussic acid to wine, alum to bread, acorns to coffee, and brick dust to cocoa. Fruit jams were made with water, dextrose, grass seed, and color." Upton Sinclair's expose of the meat-packing industry inThe Jungle shocked people and pure food laws were passed in 1906. Much of this obvious contamination is in the past. However, now we have many newly invented additives, some of which are labelled on the food. Interestingly, an amendment in 1960 to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act "allowed foods treated with pesticides to be supplied to consumers without their presence listed on the label."
Food additives were excluded from coverage under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which "required testing for carcinogenesis, mutagenesis, teratogenesis, and behavioral disorders caused by chemicals."
Nitrites are used to preserve meats. Unfortunately, in our bodies nitrites ordinarily change to nitrosamines, which are potent cancer-causing substances. However, if an antioxidant, vitamin C or vitamin E, is also added to the cured meat, this conversion is inhibited. Other antioxidants, especially BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are widely used to prevent fats from turning rancid in prepared foods, such as baking mixes and cereals. Both have been "linked to cancer in laboratory animals."
Sulfites many compounds of sulfur, including simple sulfur dioxide "inhibit bacteria and prevent undesirable browning in fresh fruits and vegetables. They are also used as preservatives in dried fruits and dehydrated potatoes and in wines." Some people, especially those with asthma, can have exceedingly severe reactions to sulfites. After several deaths sulfites were removed in 1986 from the GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe) and "products containing more than 10 parts per million must have the term 'sulfiting agents' declared on the label" However, eating fresh, unlabeled produce, for example, in salad bars, can result in an inadvertent exposure. Sulfites, used as a fungicide, "are still allowed on grapes."
The artificial sweetener, aspartame (NutraSweet®) is composed of an alcohol and two amino acids. One of the amino acids (phenylalanine) can be extremely toxic to certain people, those with phenylketonuria (PKU), and a warning to this effect appears on aspartame products. With this exception the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has approved aspartame for general consumption. However, many scientists feel that there should have been more studies before approval. "In recent years, several studies have demonstrated that headaches may be exacerbated [by consuming aspartame] in patients suffering from migraine. Children with petit mal epilepsy have an increased frequency of electroencephalographic seizure discharges when aspartame-containing drinks are permitted."
Many color additives are known carcinogens and some have been banned from use in foods. However, "most are currently listed for use in cosmetics and drugs."
Food packaging with plastics can result in numerous toxic chemicals migrating into food. Some of the worst plastics have been banned or have had their levels reduced by better technology mandated by government authority. For example, acrylonitrile (ABS), an animal carcinogen, which accumulates in significant amounts in beverages and foods during prolonged storage was banned by the FDA in 1977 for soft drink and other beverage bottles.
"Alcohol is perhaps the most frequent toxin consumed regularly and in relatively large quantities by humans." Alcohol is deleterious to the fetus when the mother drinks during pregnancy. Especially in the early part of the first trimester, even just one drink per day or less can cause fetal growth retardation and many other abnormalities. Complete abstinence is sensible.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Beer contains some protein. However, all the calories in distilled spirits are from alcohol, only "empty calories," which are quickly absorbed and suppress the appetite for any real food, resulting in primary malnutrition. The alcohol also damages the liver and the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in malabsorption of any foods consumed and thus in additional malnutrition. Tests with healthy, nonalcoholic volunteers showed that ingestion of alcohol caused net losses of "zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, and potassium, while sodium was unaffected." Severe muscle cramps in alcohol withdrawal "may be related to the decreased magnesium levels."
Male alcoholics suffer from many "feminizing signs, including breast enlargement and sterility."
*Millichap, J. Gordon, MD, Environmental Poisons in our Food, PBN Publishers, Chicago, Illinois, 1993.Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Summer 1993, pages 1-3.