The news last May that a fresh inquest will be held into the death of a nine-year-old British girl, Ella Kiss-Debrah, after new evidence showed that her fatal asthma attack may have been linked to high levels of air pollution near her home, has sparked fresh worries about the effect of the ever-present chemical pollution around us.
But the evidence is far from new. Nearly 20 years ago, the biologist Joe Thornton published a thoroughly researched and lucidly written analysis of the global build-up of toxic chemicals known as organochlorines in his book, Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy (MIT Press, 2000). These compounds are now found in the environment, in our food supply, in wildlife and, increasingly, in our own bodies.
They include the notorious pollutants DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), but Thornton also discusses many lesser-known chemical hazards. The book even noted that it was printed on paper manufactured without chlorine gas, chlorine dioxide or any other chlorine-based bleaching agent, demonstrating that printing can be done without polluting the environment further.
Currently, an estimated 80,000-100,000 chemicals are registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency. However, toxicity data is only available for a few thousand of them, and there is little to no research on the effect of these chemicals
There is now no dispute that these ubiquitous chemicals are doing us great harm. The noxious contaminants typically fall into one of three categories (although there is a good deal of overlap): air, water and soil pollutants; industrial pollutants; and organo-chemical pollutants, such as paint, which release chemicals into the air.
Pollution produces minuscule particulate matter, which spreads and is then found in air, food, soil and water—in fact, just about everywhere. Particles that are 10 micrometers or smaller in diameter (PM10) are the ones that get inhaled into your lungs and then quickly spread elsewhere. The smaller the particles (PM5 or PM2.5), the more easily they're absorbed by the body.
Much of this particulate matter ultimately ends up being distributed throughout our bodies (and in other living organisms), leading to a multitude of disorders primarily involving the lungs, livers, kidneys and reproductive organs, as well as the immune system, and they can cause or aggravate everything from atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) to asthma and even heart attacks.
In fact, it's now estimated that worldwide, one in every six deaths is caused by air pollution—that amounts to three times more deaths than the combined impact of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and 15 times more than from wars and violence.1
DDT is now known to cause preterm births in humans with associated infant mortality,2 PCB has been shown to induce DNA damage and gene mutations that can lead to cancer,3 while dioxins impair immunity, disrupt hormones, modify the genetic mechanisms of cells, cause nervous system disorders and are also carcinogenic (cancer-causing).4
And it's not just babies and young children who are at risk. In fact, pollution may also be a factor in many 'lifestyle diseases' of the middle aged. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis tracked the health of over 1.5 million US veterans for an average of 8.5 years as a function of their exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, and based on their results calculated that pollution could be responsible for some 3.2 million cases of diabetes worldwide every year. Overall, they estimated that 14 percent of diabetes cases globally are due to pollution. 5
Although for many years scientists claimed that they did not have the means to properly assess any potential harmful effects of air pollution, new technology and advances in chemistry have enabled scientists to isolate the chemicals and particles within an air sample and to examine how they interact with and alter the body's various systems.
As a result, a wave of new research has been published in the past decade detailing how pollution might be linked to a wide range of ailments, from the flu to autism.
One of the leading researchers in the field is Dr Stephania Cormier, a biochemist and molecular biologist at Louisiana State University who studies how particulate matter creates a harmful class of chemicals called environmentally persistent free radicals (EPFRs) and what this does to human health—particularly whether exposure in early life leads to the development of respiratory diseases in adulthood.
Cormier and her team have studied patterns of asthma in the metropolitan area of Memphis, Tennessee, a state with a particularly high incidence of childhood asthma, and discovered that rates of emergency department visits and hospitalization from asthma attacks quadrupled between 2005 and 2015.6
Closer analysis showed particular geographical hotspots in the metropolitan area. "High-risk case patients," her team concluded, were "clustered in close proximity to air-polluting/exposure sites," including "diesel-releasing sources on the busily traveled major roadways, indoor allergens, and other US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-designated toxic locations."
One of those areas is southwest Memphis, which researchers from the University of Memphis School of Public Health described in a separate study as "a residential region surrounded by fossil fuel burning, steel, refining, and food processing industries, and considerable mobile sources whose emissions may pose adverse health risks to local residents."
In their analysis of the area, the researchers collected 60 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and aldehydes, another common pollutant from exhaust fumes. They found 39 of these pollutants in over 86 percent of the air samples, at average concentrations higher than those measured in many industrial areas around the US. In addition to their link to asthma, the cumulative cancer risk from exposure to 13 known carcinogens in the samples was four times higher than the national average.7
But there is also an effect of air pollution on our immunity—at least according to animal studies, which of course may not necessarily apply to humans. For example, Cormier and her team have found that animals exposed to EPFRs in polluted air lack the ability to fight off the flu.
After injecting mice with an influenza virus, the researchers discovered that the ones previously exposed to EFPRs were far less able to fight off the infection, and 20 percent more of them died compared to control mice. In fact, their immune systems acted strangely, switching on a number of signals in the body that actually turn off the body's defenses against infection.8
Cormier's team also found that the pollutants lowered the body's ability to detoxify from their damaging effects.
For any of the naysayers from industry who continue to claim that humans easily detoxify these chemicals, perhaps the most chilling evidence to the contrary thus far comes from a study carried out by researchers at the California Department of Health Services and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley.9
The investigators analyzed the link between pesticide exposure in areas close to agricultural sites and the incidence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by examining if there were any associations between women's time of pregnancy, proximity to pesticide application, types of pesticide used and the incidence of autism among their babies.
Their investigation revealed that living close to areas of pesticide application could increase the risk of ASD six-fold. The greatest risk was sustained during the first two months of pregnancy, and the highest correspondence between pesticide exposure and ASD was with organochlorine-based pesticides.
The study's findings were then replicated by other researchers at the University of California at Davis, but this time the worst culprits were organophosphates found in insecticides and herbicides.10
These studies, corroborated by similar research around the world, strongly indicate that every attempt should be made to avoid all such pesticides.
The good news is that there are many ways to prevent and treat their toxicity. Of course, the best course of all is avoidance, which includes staying away from food and products that contain harmful chemicals and using water filters.
Remarkably, changing to an all-organic diet flushes out pesticides from polluted food quite quickly (see page 33). In the case of air pollution, aside from masks and some ingenious new filters, there are alternative possibilities to keep yourself and your family safe.
Luckily, in many instances, nature has provided us with what conventional medicine can't: ways of detoxing the noxious substances from our bodies.
Battling indoor pollution
If you think the solution is staying at home, think again. Numerous studies show that indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air, even in industrial heartlands like New Jersey, largely due to the chemicals in building materials, home furnishings, cleaning products, toiletries and other household items, not to mention the pollutants in food and drink. Here are a few of the main problems and ways to minimize the risk.
Problem: Pesticides in food
Although our food is now overwhelmed with pesticides, hormones and other chemicals, there is a simple solution. In 2006, investigators from Emory University in Georgia, tested morning and evening urine samples from children between the ages of 3 and 11 whose homes had previously been checked to ensure they were pesticide-free. This was a longitudinal study—a research study in which the same individuals are observed over the entire study period.
While the urine samples were collected from the children, they ate control (ordinary) diets for three days. Then for five days they ate organically grown fruit, vegetables and grains, followed once more by six days on the control diet.
Meat and milk products remained unchanged during the entire experiment, as these contain less of the pesticides (chlorpyriphos and malathion) that were being monitored.1
Chlorpyriphos exposure is associated with brain abnormalities and reduced working memory.2 But as the Emory researchers discovered, when the children consumed organic food, the levels of pesticides dropped immediately and very significantly, and remained low for the five 'organic' days.
In another study, investigators from the University of Washington assessed dietary organophosphorus pesticide exposure by monitoring preschool children. Parents kept food diaries for three days before urine collection, and relied on label information in order to distinguish between organic or conventional food.
Children were then classified as having consumed either organic or conventional diets based on an analysis of the diary entries. Pesticide use was also recorded for each home.
The researchers collected 24-hour urine samples from children with organic diets and other children with conventional diets and measured their levels of five organophosphate metabolites.
The children who ate conventional food had four times the levels of these organophosphate metabolites in their urine compared to those who ate organic.
This massive difference in pesticide metabolites suggests that consumption of organic fruits, vegetables and juices can quickly reduce children's exposure levels from above safe thresholds to within a range of negligible risk.3 The same team of investigators also compared pesticide metabolite levels in adults and found the lowest urinary levels of organophosphate metabolites in people who used organically grown products most regularly.4
All this research very reassuringly shows that as soon as you adopt an organic diet, the body's chemical levels drop very quickly.
Solution: Switch to a fully organic diet whenever possible.
Problem: Pollution and heavy metals in fish
Many people are turned off from eating seafood because they imagine that fish is now polluted beyond recourse. Supporting this fear, in risk-benefit assessments, the US and UK governments, among others, have urged women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to avoid eating certain types of fish and fish caught in particular regions.5
Yet research has shown that you can reduce your intake of the principal contaminants of some oily fish like salmon or trout simply by removing the skin before you begin cooking.6
Solution: Remove the skin from oily fish before you cook and eat it.
Problem: Flame retardants
Besides the chemicals in food and drink, brominated flame retardants (BFR) are applied to textiles, foam in couches and baby products, building insulation, carpets, bedding, drapes, car dashboards and seats, plus electrical cables and many electronic gadgets.
Because they're not chemically bound to the material but incorporated during manufacturing or sprayed on afterward, they routinely escape as vapor or airborne particles that tend to stick to surfaces or settle in dust. Friction and heat generated through normal use of a product—sitting on a couch, for example, while watching TV—will accelerate their release.
The use of BFRs has increased dramatically in the last quarter-century in order to provide fire safety. A variety of chemical products are used. The most common are the enzyme disruptor tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), which alters thyroid homeostasis, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE)—compounds that can cause cancer, kill brain cells and have deleterious effects on development.6
Solution: Use natural wool for all soft furnishings like sofas and bedding like pillows and duvets. Wool has no need for chemical flame retardants because it is extremely flame resistant on its own.7
Problem: Electronic gadgets, such as e-book readers, computers, tablets and phones
All these products also contain flame retardants because they heat up during use, and the heat they generate causes them to release the same volatile BFR compounds used in furniture.
Solution: Frequently air the rooms in which such equipment is used. It's also wise to fully shut down electronic equipment at night, especially if these devices are present in the bedroom.
Problem: Bisphenol A in plastic packaging and bottles
There has been a good deal of searching for the major cause of the growing epidemic of obesity in industrialized nations. Although sugar and artificial sweeteners have been implicated, one other important culprit appears to be the absorption of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which leaches from plastic food wrappings, plastic bottles, and the plastic linings of cans used for vegetables, soups, fish, beverages and more.
BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical (affecting hormones such as insulin and estrogen), and urinary BPA levels have consistently been associated with obesity in population studies and experimental models.8
Solution: Avoid prepared meals and packaged food, and purchase all drinks in glass bottles. It also pays to avoid plastics and to carefully read the package inserts of all pharmaceuticals and every food label, which have become more comprehensive and inclusive in recent years. Drink water in glass bottles or filter tap water.
Problem: Chemicals in baby diapers
There is a wealth of scientific evidence about the dangers of the pesticide glyphosate (commercial name Roundup), Monsanto's notorious weed killer.9
But in 2016, a French magazine made waves when it reported that baby diapers contained glyphosate, formaldehyde and a number of other chemicals known to have carcinogenic and other deleterious effects. The French government launched its own investigation and, in January 2019, published its results confirming the preliminary tests and demanded that manufacturers take measures to eliminate these toxins from their baby diapers.10
Solution: Revert to washable diapers until this matter is resolved and all supplies of disposable diapers are cleared of glyphosate.
Problem: Talcum powder used for bathing babies and in adult toiletries
Talc (which contains asbestos) is used as a filler in paper-making, and it has many other industrial applications in the production of plastics, as well as in paint and coatings, rubber, food, pharmaceuticals and ceramics.
Baby talcum powder also contains asbestos, which can increase the risk of a type of lung cancer called mesothelioma as well as ovarian cancer later in life.11 For adults, cosmetic-grade talc is found in most kinds of makeup, including foundation, creams and moisturizers, eye shadow, blush, mascara, lipstick, loose and compressed makeup powders and deodorants.
Solution: For babies, replace talcum powder with corn flour, which works just as well. For adults, use alternative healthcare and beauty products.
A number of studies have highlighted the benefits of supplementing a healthy diet with vitamin B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids to counteract air pollution.1 Particularly useful are supplements of selenium and vitamins A, C and E, as well as other antioxidants.2
Vitamin A Suggested daily dosage: 5,000 IU
Vitamin B Suggested daily dosage: B-50 complex, follow the dosing instructions on the label
Vitamin C Suggested daily dosage: 1-3 g
Vitamin D Suggested daily dosage: 4,000-10,000 IU
Vitamin E Suggested daily dosage: 400-600 IU
Selenium Suggested daily dosage: up to 200 mcg
Omega-3 essential fatty acids At least 1,000 mg of fish oil, containing 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA
If you have had a recent exposure to any known pollutant, clinical ecologists often recommend taking tri-salts (sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate and calcium carbonate) or powdered vitamin C in water as a handy first-aid treatment to cut down on a reaction.
The biggest culprits from air pollution
Air pollution encompasses chemicals from a variety of sources.
- Particulate matter from vehicle exhaust, coal and wood burning, industrial processes and solvents
- Carbon monoxide
- Nitrogen oxide
- Ozone from smog
- Sulfur dioxide from industrial and domestic burning and power stations
- Aldehydes, including formaldehyde from engine exhaust fumes
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from motor vehicles and industrial processes
- Volatile organic compounds from vehicles, industrial plants, power plants and home sources (like paint)
- Nitrogen oxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, and ammonia, all industrial byproducts
- Fossil fuels
- Perchloroethylene used in drycleaning
- Benzene from inhaled cigarette smoke
- Formaldehyde emitted from paints, adhesives and wood materials in buildings
- Nitrates and phosphates from soil fertilizers
- Phenols like triclosan and bisphenol
- Xylenes used in cleaning agents and paint thinners
For serious cases of pollution poisoning
If you have serious health issues from pollution, investigate:
Taking phospholipids, intravenously, orally or rectally via a small enema. The most important signaling molecules in the body, these fats are highly effective at eliminating toxins stored from the environment. See WDDTY November 2016 for more details.
The controversial Hubbard protocol, developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. It's been demonstrated to successfully detox chemical poisoning, including the highly toxic levels of PCBs and other chemicals found in rescue workers after the World Trade Center 9/11 disaster.1 The protocol involves exercise, extensive saunas (for an hour) and general supplements, particularly high doses (at least 100 mg) of niacin several times a week, which should only be attempted under the supervision of a qualified, experienced practitioner. Taking a chemical binder like activated charcoal or zeolite will also help clear these toxins from your GI tract.
Lowering indoor pollution at home
- Eat organic. 1
- Take the skin off of oily fish.
- Avoid sources of domestic pesticides (e.g. flea powders for pets, anti-mold sprays, insecticides, products similarly destined for garden use, etc.) and never use them near children.
- Avoid plastic food storage or water bottles.
- Clean your tap water of disinfection byproducts like chlorine with a good water filter. Jug filters such as the ZeroWater filter remove virtually all heavy metals. Clean the jug weekly and consider keeping the water in the refrigerator, which can slow bacterial growth. Or, consider a reverse-osmosis filter with an additional carbon filter, which contains a semipermeable membrane that will filter out bacterial hydrocarbons, viruses, pesticides, parasites, chloride, hormones and hydrocarbons. The extra filter will also remove chloroform and phenols.
- With new furniture, ventilate your home for up to three days to 'outgas' pollution particles.
- After building work containing lots of VOCs, carry out a 'bake-out' by heating the space to 100°F (38°C), opening a window and running your ventilation system to full capacity. Repeat this for two or three days. This is thought to aid in releasing the chemicals more quickly. For rooms with high levels of VOCs, get absorbers containing aluminum silicate or zeolite, to which VOCs are known to adhere.
- Avoid buying wall-to-wall carpets, which contain some 100 chemicals including fungicides and stain-resistant materials. Opt for hard flooring, such as wood or tiles, and choose throw rugs made of organic cotton, untreated wool or 100 percent nylon.
- Paint with low-VOC or water-based paints.
- Use cleaning products, toiletries and cosmetics made from natural ingredients. Check our Healthy Shopping Guide every month for possibilities.
- Choose solid wood cabinets and counters, or if they are made from composite bonded materials, seal all the exposed surfaces with a water-based or low-toxicity sealant. If you must buy a composite like MDF, do an outgas.
- Take your shoes off when you enter your house to avoid tracking in pesticides and other chemicals from the outdoors.
- Use a balanced mechanical ventilation system, such as a heat recovery ventilator, to continuously exhaust indoor air and replace it with fresh outside air.
- Employ frequent detox systems, such as saunas or far-infrared blankets, to sweat out the toxins.
Herbal help to clear your body of pollutants
Here are the best supplements to help lower the load. In the course of my practice I've made successful use of all of these:
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), a nightshade also known in English as Winter Cherry that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, boosts levels of glutathione in the body, one of the body's most powerful antioxidants. A study on male fertility also found that the herb inhibits the formation of free radicals, which cause oxidative stress.1
Indian Gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica officinalis, or amla). Studies show that this herb is a potent free radical scavenger, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, which has even been shown to treat or prevent cancer.2
Neem (Azadirachta indica, also known as Indian lilac) also has been shown to have huge antioxidant effects against oxidative damage to DNA and red blood cells.3
Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia, also known as heart-leaved moonseed), like the aforementioned herbs, seems to have a potent modulating effect on the immune system,4 which successfully mitigates against the numerous harmful effects of pollution's particulate matter.
Aloe vera (also called Aloe barbadensis). Known in Ayurvedic medicine as Ghrit kumari, this succulent is considered one of the best for air filtration and is said to be able to effectively filter out chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene.
Spirulina (blue-green algae) and Chlorella vulgaris (green micro-algae). Both have shown beneficial effects on reducing the consequences of pollutants, but spirulina has been shown to have much higher antioxidant activity than chlorella.5 Some preparations, like NDF (Natural Detox Formula) by Bioray and G.I. Detox+ by Bio-Botanical Research, claim to clear the body of both heavy metals and plastics like bisphenol A in as little as six months.