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Issue 47
, 2014
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Toxic truths

Source: The Hindu, Date: , 2014

Did you know that more than 70,000 chemicals are used across the globe, some naturally occurring and some manufactured? Geeta Padmanabhan finds out from experts how these impact our lives

Five minutes. That’s all it takes for Dr. S. Ravichandran, associate professor, Department of Chemistry, Veltech University, to convince you that your life is in terrible danger. “Toxic chemicals are all around us: in the air we breathe, in the food we eat and the products we use,” he says, with the certainty of someone who has spent a lifetime studying chemicals. “They are used to produce almost everything we use, from paper and plastics to medicines and food, to gasoline and steel and electronic equipment.” The 70,000 plus chemicals used across the globe are a mix of naturally occurring and manmade ones. If you use them judiciously and dispose them of carefully, you improve life. If you throw them around carelessly and improperly, you endanger humans, plants and animals.

Toxic chemicals 

He gives examples. Unfiltered toxic chemicals are released into the environment by industries producing electricity (particularly coal-based), manufacturing chemicals, making materials like steel and paper, and extracting natural resources like oil and gas. Toxic chemicals are also released by farms using lab-made pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, which contaminate food, air, water and soil, when they run off from crops and enter the surroundings. You don’t even have to step out to collect toxins, he says. “We’re exposed to harmful chemicals in perfumes, shampoos, air-fresheners, cleaning agents, furniture, appliances, frying pans, food-and-beverage containers.” And then there is active/passive smoking.

That’s enough for us to break out in a sweat. But he adds: Heavy metals that damage the ecosystem are present in the waste water that the metal-cleaning, mining and electroplating, paper/pulp and paint making, textiles, tanneries and e-waste recycling industries release. Drinking polluted water, filling dental cavities, breathing contaminated air, and eating food grown in contaminated soil are all entry methods for heavy metals.

The toxins accumulate in the body with time.

We expose ourselves to chemical poisoning simply by stepping on to our traffic-choked roads. WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) says there’s “sufficient evidence” that exposure to outdoor air pollution (diesel exhaust, solvents, metals, dust) causes lung/bladder cancer, heart diseases, coughing, chronic bronchitis and premature death in people with heart/lung disease.

A study conducted by Dr Arbinder Kumar Singal, paediatric urologist, MGM Hospital, Navi Mumbai, gave proof of the growing incidence of genital abnormality among boys, possibly because of the exposure to endocrine disruptor chemicals. Known as phthalates and bisphenol-A, these chemicals are used in plastic bottles, food wraps, cosmetics and toys.

We absorb toxins through lungs (inhalation), skin (dermal absorption), and/or mouth (ingestion). They enter the bloodstream, and get stored in tissues. If you are lucky, they reach the liver and get excreted. Or they settle down in their new homes to disrupt hormones (mimic/block/interfere with estrogen, androgen, thyroid), cause or aggravate cancer, damage brain cells, leading to developmental/behavioural disabilities, particularly in kids, and cause respiratory illnesses like bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis, and emphysema.

Chelation therapy

Is there any chance of putting off these death warrants? One is Chelation therapy, says Dr. Ravichandran. It’s a process by which a molecule encircles and sticks to the metal and removes it from the tissue. Cilantro helps in removing heavy metals, restoring the normal functions of body cells. Green algae contains Chlorella, whose three-layered cell-wall of cellulose microfibrils helps in heavy metal detox. Garlic has sulphur which oxidises mercury, cadmium and lead and makes them water-soluble. Malic acid, found in unripe fruit, sour candies, raw-apple cider, and vinegar, helps to reduce the aluminium toxicity of the brain, and helps to avert Alzheimer’s disease. Pectin in apple-peel, bananas, grapes, okra, beetroot, carrots and pith resist heavy metal absorption. Make sure they are organic. And why not reduce vehicle-use.