Toxins in the environment: One fact changed my mind

Dr. Michael Noonan
Dr. Michael Noonan
Posted Nov. 07, 2013, at 10:29 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 07, 2013, at 11:12 a.m.

As I have written before, I learn a lot from writing these columns. So when a patient gave me a copy of the report “ Body of Evidence,” about testing for toxins in everyday Mainers, I thought I already knew everything that was in it.

Turns out I was wrong. I did know most of the information, but not all of it. And I was not aware of the one most powerful fact.

I already knew that in the U.S., a chemical is considered safe until proven otherwise. That does not sound like a good system to me, but it was not news.

I had also heard the statistic that our bodies test positive for hundreds of toxins, from plastic-hardening agents to flame retardants to pesticides. Even newborns show these chemicals in their systems, from exposure to their mother’s blood. Organic farmers are not immune to this exposure, although their numbers for certain chemicals might be lower than the general public. No news there.

The amounts of the toxins in our bodies are usually expressed in such small numbers — parts per million, or ppm, and even parts per billion, or ppb — that it is easy to ignore or dismiss them. The chemical lobby certainly sees it that way. As does our governor, who made a joke about women growing little beards due to exposure to BPAs.

So what caught my attention? The simple fact that these small amounts are also the same levels hormones, and certain drugs, need to reach in the body to change its function. For example, the NuvaRing form of birth control only needs a concentration of 0.019 ppb (much less than one part per billion) in the blood to prevent ovulation. Paxil, an antidepressant, is effective at concentrations of 30 ppb.

That’s right, our bodies require only tiny amounts of these substances to produce a very powerful effect. A smidgen of testosterone, and yes, Gov. LePage, a woman would grow a little beard, although that would be the least of her worries.

Our bodies are designed to respond to these hormones because the body itself created them. Drugs and toxins affect us because they are similar enough to the original chemical to affect the body’s function, but different enough to disrupt it. Typically, the toxins are not broken down nearly as fast as the natural hormones, so they linger and produce a much stronger effect. A common example would be cocaine, which is similar to a chemical used by the brain (especially the pleasure centers), but causes a sustained “high” because the brain cannot break it down easily.

Toxins are plentiful enough in our environment and our bodies that The Endocrine Society, a worldwide professional organization of 16,000 members, has released a scientific statement titled “Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals” that lists the problems caused by these toxins, including infertility, endometriosis and breast cancer, and urges these chemicals be better regulated.

Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do to limit your exposure. The Environmental Health Strategy Center, based in Portland and Bangor, has some tips, but more importantly is active in lobbying for laws that better protect us and our children. They deserve our support in their efforts.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at noonanchiropractic@gmail.com.

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