If you have any comments on the report or on Mr Levin’s response please email the editor, marking whether your comments are for publication (at the editor’s discretion). Who's trying to fool Mother Nature? by Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA The scientists at Sense About Science (SAS) have issued a document, with much publicity, that is a thinly veiled attempt to assure us not to be afraid of synthetic chemicals (Making sense of chemical stories). I have read it and am afraid that they have issued a most unscientific document, containing few references and more fittingly called a chemical industry public relations piece. But it may be convincing to people who lack a working knowledge of chemistry. Their assertion that “synthetic chemicals are often much safer for human health than so-called ‘natural’ ones” is backed up only by the most simplistic arguments, without giving references from published scientific literature. The first obvious problem is that the processes of synthesizing chemicals usually do not result in 100% pure substances. There are often impurities that do not exist in similar, natural chemicals in food or in the unpolluted, natural environment that our human bodies have evolved to deal with for hundreds of generations. So we are frequently dealing with not just a synthetic chemical, but the impurities that are wed to it. And not just one ‘foreign molecule’, as the scientific community used to call such chemicals, but unstudied mixtures of tens of thousands of such foreign chemicals that are now present in our food and the environment. Yet the SAS report astonishingly claims that lab-made chemicals can eliminate “some of the impurities and toxic effects that are present in natural sources”, as if the food matrix that natural chemicals are found in are considered a problem. Certainly man-made chemicals are the main source of persistent toxins in the environment. The report also ignores the hormone disrupting effects of many classes of man-made chemicals. The US Environmental Protection Agency finds ‘compelling evidence’ of these effects: “In recent years, some scientists have proposed that certain chemicals might be disrupting the endocrine system of humans and wildlife. A variety of chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and compelling evidence shows that endocrine systems of certain fish and wildlife have been affected by chemical contaminants, resulting in developmental and reproductive problems. Based on this and other evidence, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, requiring that EPA initiate EDSP to screen pesticide chemicals and environmental contaminants for their potential to affect the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife.” The EPA issues a Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) report of hundreds of chemicals known to be toxic, stating that: “The chemicals that are reported under TRI can have significant adverse effects on human health and the environment. They include carcinogens -- chemicals that cause cancer, such as dichloroethane and benzene – and mutagens – chemicals that can cause changes in human cells, such as ethylene di-bromide as well as chemicals that cause reproductive and developmental effects.” It is not accurate for the SAS report to state that: “Although synthetic products may contain substances known to be harmful in large quantities, the amounts contained in consumer products are so negligible that they would not even have an effect when all products are considered.” Who is even investigating these millions of potential multiple chemical interactions? Adding minute doses of various chemicals together may not reveal the true body burden to an individual. If chemicals are difficult to detoxify and a person has a diminished capacity to do so due to inflammation, illness or nutrient deficiencies, the cumulative toxic effects could be dramatic. The government of the UK has acknowledged the problem inherent in large amounts of chemicals in the environment. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has reported: “There are, however, concerns about the risks to the environment and to human health which might be present from some of the chemicals we use, as was set out in the Government's Chemicals Strategy "Sustainable production and use of chemicals": "In recent years there has been growing concern about the possible effects of man-made chemicals on human health through environmental exposure. Some confidence can be gained from the fact that many chemicals have been used regularly over time without causing gross effects. However, in some cases effects are subtle and damage to the environment or to human health has only been discovered after large quantities of chemicals have been released." (p14, 1.5. 1999)” The authors of Making sense of chemical stories also seem to be unfamiliar (perhaps unsympathetic) with the science of multiple chemical sensitivity. This is the science relating to the concept that at some point the total toxic load upon the body, which is mainly processed by the liver, may overwhelm the body's ability to detoxify and safely excrete excess chemicals, whether natural or synthetic. The use of certain nutrients to be utilized in these processes – notably antioxidants, minerals and amino acids - are ‘limiting factors’ affecting an individual’s detoxification capacity and chemical clearance rates. Detoxification is far more than just drinking tap water, contrary to the SAS claim. 1-30 Many synthetic chemicals are inherently toxic “by nature”, so to speak, so that their safety profiles are typically worse than natural products. Controlled substances are regulated so tightly precisely because of their potential for causing bodily harm. While natural products may occasionally have this potential, as a general rule experience shows that they are less toxic than drugs, which are typically made from synthesized chemicals. 31 This safety for natural products is borne out by statistics from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. 32 The Sense About Science authors ignore the persistence of man-made chemicals in the environment, including people’s bodies. The European Environment Agency has released a report called Europe’s environment: the third assessment (2003) that makes a couple of relevant points on this topic: Although hexachlorobenzene (HCB) emissions have decreased throughout Europe, the rate of decrease has slowed markedly since 1990. HCB remains widely dispersed throughout the region due to long-range atmospheric transport processes and local ‘hot spots’ that reflect high levels of local use or contamination. There is concern over the dispersion of polybrominated flame retardants in the environment. Concentrations have risen steeply in Swedish human milk since the 1970s, despite these substances never having been manufactured in that country. Although concentrations are now declining, they remain many times higher than those in the 1970s. In one part of its report, the SAS lists a number of chemical compounds that are in green tea by their long chemical names. The point is that we shouldn’t fear chemicals just because they have unfamiliar, scary names. Fair enough, but why shouldn’t we fear man-made chemicals that have not been used safely for thousands of years as components of common foods? This is the kind of misleading argument that the report repeatedly resorts to, exploiting the ignorance of the intended audiences: the media and the public. I don’t see green tea on the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory report, but I do see chemicals that the SAS report seem to be positioning as safer than food, in some cases. In the case of St. John’s wort, the authors are mistaken in saying (in a pre-release interview) that, since we do not know what its active ingredient is, you cannot assess its dosage. Quite the contrary, there is a therapeutic monograph on the use of this herb on www.herbalgram.org, as well as a good body of science. 33-36 The identification of an active component has never been the sole determinant of the use of herbs, even at the point when herbs were the predominant therapeutics listed in medical reference works prior to World War II. The search for an active component is a mindset that’s more pharmaceutical than nutraceutical, betraying an institutional bias against unpatentable natural substances. Valuing the native genius of nature means realizing that a whole herb may be gentler and more balanced than is a constituent molecule with a specific drug-like action. Think aspirin versus white willow bark: the herb does not commonly cause stomach bleeding, as the isolated drug –even as the acetylated form – usually does. The fact that St. John’s wort may interact with some drugs should not be considered a serious flaw, as the SAS people implied. A commonly used warning statement on the label of St. John’s wort products gives adequate cautions about possible interactions. 37 Common foods and spices like ginger, garlic and grapefruit also can interact with drugs, yet where are the scientists complaining about these products? For an article coming from a non-profit group that purportedly exists to promote evidence-based science, I find their arguments to be unconvincing and unrepresentative of the whole body of facts. The presence of nutrients and other compounds, including trace elements, in food and food supplements is crucial to the process of detoxification. The role of natural nutrients to help reduce the total toxic load is essential to our understanding of the body’s detoxification capacity and processes. I believe that ‘natural is better’, because nature has a wisdom in producing chemicals and our bodies have adapted to their presence. Many of these are essential to life. I have seen many, many examples of this in the published scientific literature. Nothing in the SAS report convinces me that I should prefer being exposed to the not-quite-identical man-made versions of naturally occurring chemicals or totally synthetic, environmentally persistent, man-made chemicals. The SAS promises to use scientific evidence in its reporting, but my review of the research convinces me that this promise was inadequately kept regarding its report titled ‘Making sense of chemical stories’. Neil E. 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Larger amounts may contribute to photosensitizing reactions (skin reddening) in the presence of strong sunlight or tanning beds. If you are presently taking MAO-inhibitors or other anti-depressant medication, consult your health care professional prior to use.