The Toxic Bucket: How Environmental Medicine Unloads the Burden of Synthetic Chemicals From the Body

"We are conducting a vast toxicologic experiment, and we are using our children as the experimental animals."
Dr. Philip Landrigan, Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine

"With chemicals, it's shoot first and ask questions later."
Al Meyerhoff, former attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council

"Years of documents have shown that they knew they were hurting people, much like the tobacco industry."
Sandy Buchanan, Executive Director for Ohio Citizen Action

"Historians don't like to use broad political term like 'cover-up', but there's really no other term that you can use for this."
Gerald Markowitz Ph.D., Professor of History John Jay College

The above quotes are taken from the PBS Bill Moyers documentary Trade Secrets which examined the various trails of industrial effluent through our air, water and food, and how these trails terminate in our bones, our fat cells, our brains, our internal organs.

Chemicals are ubiquitous and increasingly present in our homes, cars and even our food. Thousands of new synthetic chemicals come into manufactured consumer products every year with no safety testing or public approval process. Since the beginning of the petrochemical industry more than 80,000 new chemicals have come to circulate in consumer products. Through our lungs, skin and GI tract, we are soaking up chemicals that we'd be hard-pressed to spell or pronounce, if we could even find out what they were. Human fat tissue sampled in the United States has shown 700 chemical contaminants that have not been chemically identified [1]. A Mt. Sinai School of Medicine study last year found that each of nine volunteers averaged 91 chemical compounds in the blood and urine [2]. Of the 167 chemicals discovered among the volunteers tested, 94 are toxic to the brain or nervous system, 76 are carcinogenic and 79 are linked to birth defects. The volunteers tested do not work with chemicals on the job, nor do they live close to an industrial facility. Rather, they represent the average body burden of an ordinary American citizen. Furthermore, chemicals that are foreign to the body, or xenobiotics (xeno = foreign or not naturally occurring) tend to accumulate in the tissues over time. Worse, children, playing on the floor and breathing more air than adults, acquire chemical body burdens faster than adults.

This is not simply a minor disruption to optimal health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution causes 2.7 million deaths annually. The EPA estimates that there has been no "clean air" in the United States for over 25 years. Even relatively pristine areas are not immune, because global air currents carry pesticides from the heavily agricultural tropical regions even as far as the polar regions, where cool air sinks them to ground level. This has given the Inuit a very high body burden of chemicals, despite their remote existence in mostly wilderness areas.

But as bad as all this is, indoor air pollution is even worse. The formaldehyde and other solvents leaking out of our walls, furniture and especially carpets keep many, perhaps most of us, in a limbo between good health and vague malaise. According to a study in Effective Clinical Practice in April 1999, three out of four Americans have a diagnosable chronic condition [3].

Against this bleak backdrop, the emerging field of Environmental Medicine, a specialty within naturopathic medicine, offers a means for people to reduce their total body burden of synthetic chemicals. Patients with conditions that have completely stumped conventional doctors, conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, lupus, asthma, multiple sclerosis and migraines, are now finding relief and reversal of symptoms through the various cleansing procedures employed in environmental medicine.

Walter Crinnion, a naturopathic medical doctor and pioneer in the emerging field of environmental medicine at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe AZ, prefers to use the term "cleanse" rather than "detoxify," because our enormous bodily burden of xenobiotics has so thoroughly confused the normal detoxification processes of the liver, that the liver can make some chemicals even more dangerous in the attempt to detoxify. Not having either evolved or been created to process these strange substances, the liver quite literally does not know what to do with them, and in breaking them down can liberate even more dangerous components. Therefore, the first goal of environmental medicine is "avoidance," simply avoiding exposure to chemical toxins. Failing that, as constantly happens, the next goal of environmental medicine, is to grab the macromolecule before it breaks down and haul it out of the body before it can do much harm.

However, most patients don't begin to seek help from environmental medical specialists until years of bombardment with toxic chemicals have taken a huge toll on the health. So what we are then dealing with in many cases are the metabolites, or bodily-derived chemicals, from the original pollutants. The body's unfamiliarity with synthetic chemicals sometimes prevents it from processing them at all, and they are simply stored in fat cells, as the ultimate repository of strange items. As a result, overweight people have even more of a body burden than the rest of us.

Some of the cleansing processes involve coaxing fat-bound substances away from fat cells. Because the brain is 60% fat it can be a primary storage site of these chemicals. Mercury is very strongly attracted to fat, which is much of the reason why children poisoned with mercury from vaccines and amalgam dental fillings can exhibit autistic and hyperactive symptoms.

According to Dr. Crinnion, the majority of xenobiotics undergo metabolic changes, known as biotransformation, in which fat-soluble compounds are converted into water-soluble compounds allowing them to be excreted. For these compounds, Dr. Crinnion's strategy is to help this excretion process, both by assisting the normal cleansing processes in the liver, and by removing obstacles to those processes introduced by other xenobiotics. Many pharmaceuticals can act as obstacles to the liver's cleansing process. Also, high sugar consumption as well as protein deprivation are both obstacles to optimal cleansing function of the liver. Various vitamins, mineral and amino acid deficiencies also inhibit the liver from effective cleansing.

So what is the "toxic bucket?" It is the human body, descended from eons of pure-air breathing, whole-food eating, clean-water drinking ancestors, who lived in perfect biochemical harmony with their earth. But the toxic bucket is really the modern human body, descended from that beautiful harmonious existence, now tarnished and contaminated with chemicals that enter continually through every orifice and pore.

The assault on our bodies from the huge numbers of synthetic chemicals in our environment is a life-threatening challenge for a planet and its inhabitants that are not acclimated to such substances. Thus the most effective therapeutic approach for the chemical-laden patient involves several steps: avoidance of further exposure, dietary changes and cleansing procedures. Naturopathic physicians are trained during four years of naturopathic medical school in the procedures necessary to help patients keep their "bucket" of toxic substances as empty as possible, and to help the cleansed body function as well as possible. The directory of naturopathic physicians on the website of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, www.naturopathic.org is the largest database of naturopathic physicians in the U.S., where U.S. residents can find a local naturopathic physician.

  1. Onstot, J. et al., "Characterization of HRCG/MS unidentified peaks from the analysis of human adipose tissue." Vol 1. Technical Approach, US EPA Office of Toxic Substances (560/8-87-002a); 1987.
  2. See full the report with references at http://www.ewg.org/node/15150
  3. Schwartz, L. et al., "Changing disease definitions: implications for disease prevalence: Analysis of the Third National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey, 1988-1994." Effective Clinical Practice, March/April 1999.
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2004, 2006, 2012 Colleen Huber unless otherwise noted.
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