Bioaccumulation of Chemicals in Your Body and What You Can Do About It.
I wanted to shed a little more light on the role environmental pollutants and heavy metal exposure has on the body. I have talked about one of the reasons I like to cook from scratch is to reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals and food additives. I wanted to dive a little deeper into this topic and provide you a better understanding of where these chemicals come from, how they enter and affect our bodies and what we can do to limit our exposure.
What are they and where do they come from?
Dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls are also known as PCBs. All belong to a group of toxic chemicals known as POPs, persistent organic pollutants. PCBs are chemical compounds found in electrical equipment, paint additives, and plastics. PCB’s enter the air, soil, and water usually as a result of improper disposal methods.¹ ² Dioxins and furans are often formed as a result of the burning of waste especially plastic, tobacco smoke and, iron and steel production. Dioxins and furans can also form naturally from volcanic eruptions and forest fires. All of these POPs can become airborne and travel long distances for example, from one country to another, ending up in the air, water, and soil. This is how they enter the food chain.³ ⁴
How do they accumulate in our bodies?
Where we eat on the food chain directly impacts our level of POPs and other heavy metals that accumulate in our bodies. The lower on the food chain we eat, the more we limit our exposure. 90% of our exposure to dioxins comes from the food we eat. The main sources include meats, dairy, fish, shellfish.⁴ This works on a little principle called bioaccumulation. Autotrophic animals, meaning animals that do not eat other animals, are low on the food chain. They absorb dioxins and other chemicals through their environment and the plants they eat. Over the years these chemicals become stored and concentrated in the animal’s fat tissue. Heterotrophic animals, meaning animals who eat other animals or people who eat animals, are higher on the food chain. When they come along and eat the autotrophic animal the amount of chemicals the heterotrophic animal ingest becomes magnified. The higher up the food chain you move the more bioaccumulation or biomagnification of toxic chemicals occurs. This principle of bioaccumulation is the reason it is not recommended to eat tuna while pregnant. Tuna is high on the food chain and contains high levels of mercury which can cause neurological defects in utero. ⁵ Unfortunately, buying organic meats, fish and dairy do not protect you from the bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals.
How do they affect our health?
I want to give you all a little background about what happens when we ingest the POPs and heavy metals. Due to the fact that they are very chemically stable and their attraction to fat cells, this causes them to be stored in the body for many, many years. Men don’t really have an opportunity to eliminate them, but a woman can pass these chemicals to her child when she becomes pregnant or during breastfeeding.⁴ Since organ systems are being newly formed the developing fetus or newly born baby is more vulnerable to adverse effects of these chemicals. Health effects linked to PCB’s, dioxin and furans are impairment of the immune system, the endocrine system, the developing nervous system, and reproductive functions. They can also cause skin irritation, liver problems and certain types of cancer.¹ ³ In Children, they have been shown to negatively affect cognitive systems, including reduced IQ and behavioural changes. Studies reported reduced birth weight and increase in congenital anomalies such as cleft lip in babies when exposed to PCB’s and dioxins. ⁶
What can we do to limit our exposure?
The biggest way to reduce your exposure to dioxins, furans, and harmful chemicals is, surprise, surprise adopt a plant-based diet. Doing a cleanse to eliminate toxins from your body once or twice a year can be beneficial, however, I am not sure how effective they are at removing POPs. Also, if you think you are at high risk for heavy metal and chemical exposure talk to your healthcare provider about chelation therapy.
¹ Government of Canada. Health Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/healthy-living/your-health/environment/pcbs.html
² The 12 initial POPs under the Stockholm Convention. Stockholm Convention. Retrieved from: http://chm.pops.int/TheConvention/ThePOPs/The12InitialPOPs/tabid/296/Default.aspx
³ Government of Canada. Health Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/healthy-living/your-health/environment/dioxins-furans.html
⁴ Dioxins and their effects on human health. World Health Organization. Retrieved from:http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dioxins-and-their-effects-on-human-health
⁵ Government of Canada. Health Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/pollutants/mercury-environment/health-concerns/food-chain.html
⁶ Lundgvist, C. Zuurbier, M. Leijs, M. The effects of PCBs and dioxins on child health. PubMed. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17000571