NEWS2U Health & Wellness
Living Healthy in an Unhealthy World

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Food Chained

Part One

From within the womb to the day we die we consume synthetic chemicals. Much of what we eat is the product of our industrialised world. But we still know very little of its lasting impact.

Felicity Lawrence
May 15, 2004

The dog whelks in Plymouth Sound offered the first clue. Way back in 1970, females started growing male sex organs. Then there were reports that female snails along the coast of Connecticut were also growing penises. But it was another 11 years before a link was made to environmental pollution, when scientists managed to establish that the abnormalities were highest close to marinas. What was causing the trouble, and how, was still a puzzle, though.

Sexually deformed molluscs were cropping up in the middle of the North Sea, too. The breakthrough came when it was realised that the incidence was worse where shipping lanes were busiest. Eventually it was found that tributyl tin (TBT), a chemical added from the early 1960s to boat paint to stop barnacles growing, was causing irreversible damage to the reproductive systems of fish, affecting clams, crabs, shrimps, oysters, Dover sole, salmon and plankton. By the time it was finally banned at the end of the 1980s after much wrangling with industry, more than 100 species were known to have been harmed. Concentrations of just five parts per trillion in water had been enough to do the damage.

The story of TBT is a parable of our post-industrial chemical world. Its widespread commercial use was a great leap forward in paint technology, saving much money and time. But what no one knew was that TBT was an endocrine disrupter. It interferes with the delicate balance of hormones, the chemical messengers that control not just reproduction but much of life, guiding the development, growth, and behaviour of humans, animals, and fish. More than 40 pesticides have also now been identified as possible endocrine disrupters. Food is the primary source of our exposure to them.

Endocrine disrupters can work in various ways. Some have chemical structures that mimic natural hormones such as oestrogens and androgens, fooling the body into over-responding to the stimulus or into responding at the wrong time. Other endocrine-disrupting chemicals may block the effects of a hormone and prevent the necessary messages getting through. Our understanding of the mechanisms is still very limited, but it is agreed that there are periods in human development when exposure to anything that disrupts this exquisitely fine-tuned systemis most likely to present a risk, periods when anything that leads to cell abnormality may create the potential for cancers or deficiencies later, or may change the architecture of the brain.
These windows of vulnerability have been described by the US biologist and foetal toxicologist Sandra Steingraber: they occur when the foetus is developing in the womb and minute changes in hormone levels switch on the development of each organ system; when newborn babies still have incomplete immune systems and no blood brain barrier; when puberty, triggered by hormonal changes measured in low parts per billion, leads to rapid cell division and DNA replication; and in old age when the body's defence mechanisms weaken.

The point about TBT, which has been found as a contaminant in newborn disposable nappies many years after it was banned, is that no one ever guessed it could be an endocrine disrupter.

"Its effects were completely unexpected," a Royal Society report pointed out in 2000, adding that, "it is prudent to minimise exposure of humans, especially pregnant women, to endocrine-disrupting chemicals."

The Royal Society had been asked to examine suggested links between endocrine disrupters and the rise in breast and testicular cancers, reduced sperm counts, and early puberty. The incidence of cancers generally have risen by 50% since the 1970s. There is little cancer in pre-industrialised societies. But while other changes in lifestyle may be involved, the rise of cancers in the west also coincides with the dramatic increase in industrial chemicals and pollutants and changes in the diet over the same period. The Royal Society concluded that there is no direct evidence at present in the areas it looked at, but went on to say that the data is hard to interpret and scientific understanding is still being developed.

Expert opinion is, in fact, divided between those who say the current system of testing and regulation of synthetic chemicals is rigorous and that safety margins are built in to the system, and a growing minority who think that there is quite a lot to be worried about.

We are exposed to synthetic chemicals from several sources. Some are used as food additives, and are not meant to be toxic. Some, such as pesticides, are useful precisely because they are toxic, but end up in food as residues at very low levels. Some are unintentionally present as pollutants in the environment and have built up in the food chain.

Some, such as organochlorines, persist. Others, such as organophosphates (which affect the nervous system) and phthalates (endocrine disrupters that are used to soften plastic) are transient, but we may be exposed to them on an almost daily basis.

The Consumers' Association has drawn up a list from government data of foods that are "persistent offenders" for pesticide residues. It includes lettuce, apples, celery, grapes, pears, fresh salmon, peaches, nectarines, strawberries and wholemeal flour. Organochlorine pollutants are a particular problem in fatty fish.

Safety assessments of pesticides and food additives are based on toxicology tests on cells and animals in the laboratory. Scientists first work out the dose at which they produce "no observed acute adverse effect" on rats or mice. They then divide it by a factor of 10, since humans are a different species and may react in a different way, and divide again by 10 - ie, by 100 in total - allowing for variations between individuals, to give a starting point for calculating safe doses for humans. Tests are also conducted for a range of other effects to see if chemicals are, for example, cancer-causing, mutagenic, or neurotoxic.

If a chemical exhibits a worrying effect - if it causes congenital damage, say - the safety factor might be increased from 100 to 1,000. Regulators then also set safe daily intakes to reflect these risk assessments.

Source Part 1:,,4921500-113284,00.html

Food Chained

Part Two

Felicity Lawrence
May 15, 2004

Professor David Coggon is chairman of the government's Advisory Committee on Pesticides and also professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the Medical Research Council at Southampton University. It is important, he says, to get the risk in perspective.

"I don't think people should be particularly worried about pesticide residues in food. Of course there is scientific uncertainty, there always will be. But we do already take a very precautionary approach. We have to rely on indirect evidence from toxicology, but the bottom line is that, while we worry a lot about the possible hazards associated with new technologies, their overall impact has been to increase life expectancy."

He agrees that chemicals whose toxic effect can be amplified - ones that can disrupt hormones or damage DNA, for example - are a cause of greater concern, but says the safety margins take this concern into account. "I'm not blasé, but I worry much more about global warming and antibiotic resistance, which are potentially disastrous, than about pesticide residues."

Alistair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, and author of The Pesticide Handbook, has also been on one of the ACP's committees until recently. While he grows his own organic food and is concerned from an environmental point of view about the amount of crop spraying, he too feels confident that the levels of pesticide residues in food are safe.

"Having sat on the panel and looked at the concentrations in food, I am not overly concerned about the amounts there. The safety factors are quite large and take into account the risk to a child as well as an adult."

Yet he concludes that "prudence dictates that we use less of these chemicals and move away from them where the impact may be immeasurable. All the evidence also points to a more vegetarian lifestyle being better for you in terms of cancer and general health."

But other members of the committee are not so sure. Dr Charlie Clutterbuck, a health and safety expert and ACP member, says that the safety factors are arbitrary. "There's no science about a safety factor. What we're saying is we are not sure, so let's add in a safety factor. The judgments are based on a few animal tests extrapolated to humans, with all sorts of jumps and gaps. Studies are frequently covered by commercial confidentiality. Even as a member of the committee, I struggle to get some of the data."

Safety margins are based on the assumption that it is the dose that makes the poison. But some experts now think that the timing of exposure, rather than simply the dose, may be what matters. They point out that as new evidence emerges, vanishingly small amounts of certain chemicals seem to have an effect. There may also be a "cocktail effect".

Vyvyan Howard is a foetal toxicopathologist at Liverpool University and also a member of the ACP. His research has shown that some pesticides tested in combinations turn out to be more toxic than on their own. The Food Standards Agency asked the Committee on Toxicity to look at the possibility of a cocktail effect recently. It called for more research.

"We don't have the tools to analyse how mixtures of these chemicals work, and we probably never will," argues Howard. "To test just the commonest 1,000 toxic chemicals in combinations of three would require at least 166m different experiments. But when we do look, we find surprising interactions. The only logical way forward is to reduce exposure as much as possible."
One of the most comprehensive reviews of pesticide research, published last month by the Ontario College Of Family Physicians, also strongly recommends people reduce their exposure to pesticides wherever possible. It found consistent links between exposure and several cancers, including brain, kidney, prostate and pancreatic, and leukaemia, as well as links with neurological diseases and reproductive problems. It said that children are particularly vulnerable.

Reducing exposure to these chemicals can be difficult, however, as experience with a group of particularly troublesome compounds, the organochlorines, has shown. Until the build up of DDT (dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane) in the food chain was found to be disrupting the hormonal cycles of birds, the organochlorine group of pesticides to which it belongs had seemed a god-send.

They were first used in quantity during the second world war, when DDT was applied as a drench to troops for delousing and to control malarial mosquitoes. But the "war on pests" began in earnest once peacetime came.

Organophosphates also emerged from the war effort and were originally developed by the Germans as nerve agents. Pesticides, plastics, dyes, deodorants, fragrances, bleaching and sterilising agents, refrigerants, wood preservatives, and solvents have all been made with organochlorines.

But along with the new products came a list of dangerous pollutants: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are not toxic but are largely responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer; polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, widely used as coolants and electrical insulators until the late 1970s when they were proven to be cancer-causing and were banned; and dioxins and furans, chlorinated chemicals unintentionally produced by the burning of waste and by industrial processes such as the bleaching of pulp with chlorine to make paper. (Dioxins and furans are both potent endocrine disrupters and carcinogens.)

Howard's rule of thumb is that "if we evolved with it, we have a fair chance of coping with it, and if we haven't, there's a fair chance it will cause harm. When things persist in our bodies, it tells us that we are not very good at breaking them down. There is a double jeopardy if we know they are toxic."

Some experts believe that cancer is rising because we are all living longer, but Dr Howard argues that the increase in life expectancy is, in fact, an average increase and is largely explained by far greater survival rates in under 12s thanks to immunisation and antibiotics. And cancer rates are rising in young people, not just in the old.

"The average person in the street now has hundreds of groups of completely novel compounds in their bodies that weren't there 60 years ago. We can measure them in adult and foetal tissue. We have changed the chemical environment of the womb," he says.

Pesticides and industrial pollutants are not the only source of endocrine disrupters. The Royal Society report lists several ways human exposure to oestrogens has changed in the past half century. Today's low-fibre, high-sugar diets may also alter the level of oestrogen that is "bioavailable", as can obesity, since body fat can convert certain other steroid hormones to oestrogens.

Women taking the oral contraceptive pill excrete synthetic oestrogens that are now present at very low levels in drinking water. Until they were banned in 1981 in Europe, livestock were regularly dosed with anabolic oestrogens, providing an important route of exposure from the 1950s to the 1970s. These are still in use in the US. Then there's soya, which is one of the richest sources of plant oestrogens. Soya has become ubiquitous in processed foods. And dairy practices have also changed. Intensive farming now means that cows are milked continuously, even while pregnant, and are therefore producing high levels of oestrogens.

"The extent to which these oestrogens are activated in the human gut and how much oestrogen the consumer would then be exposed to is largely unknown," says the report.

The arguments over food additives cover much of the same territory. Anyone looking up food additives on the FSA's website will find the reassurance that they are not a recent invention, and perform important functions such as stopping food going off.

"We would not permit anything that's not safe in food," says Dr Andrew Wadge, head of food safety policy at the FSA. "Any additive must have satisfied independent experts of its safety." He points out that 100-fold safety factors are built into regulations. Although very few additives are permitted in infant foods, this is not "because there are safety concerns, but because of nutritional concerns".

Critics of the testing system have, however, raised doubts about many of the 540 food-additive compounds judged safe by regulatory bodies. For example, some of the synthetic colourings have been found to increase incidence of tumours in some lab animals. Doubts have been raised by groups such as the US Center for Science in the Public Interest not just about these, but about the artificial sweeteners, flavour enhancers and some synthetic antioxidants and preservatives.

Some countries have banned additives that are still permitted for use in the UK. Erik Millstone, reader in science policy at the University of Sussex, and author of Food Additives, believes 320 are accepted as reasonably safe, but says there are doubts about many others. He points out that flavourings do not, in fact, have to be tested and are only controlled on a case-by-case basis if they are proved to be harmful.

Enzymes and processing aids are not subject to the regulatory approval regime either. Most food additives were approved many years ago before test data had to be made public. "Most of the data was industry information reviewed by people who were paid consultants to the food industry. You cannot say it is independent," says Millstone.

As with pesticides, there are doubts about how far safety data from animals can be applied to humans and whether there is a cocktail effect. Moreover, tests are mostly conducted on homogeneous lab animals. "To show a statistically significant effect, you would probably have to make at least 30% of them ill at a medium dose. You will only pick up something that is seriously toxic to a lot of rats. Something that is subtly toxic to 1-10% of rats probably won't show up," he explains. In a comprehensive review of the research, Millstone has shown that the incidence of intolerance to food additives - with asthma, eczema, hyperactivity, and other conditions among the effects - has been consistently underestimated.

Meanwhile, Howard and his team are currently looking at the effect of mixtures of sweeteners and synthetic colours on brain cells. He, like Millstone, recommends we reduce our exposure, particularly since these additives are so often used in processed foods with little nutritional value.

Western diets that are high in meat, he says, typically rely on foods higher up the food chain where pollutants are more concentrated. Fruit and vegetables also have protective effect against cancer, so it makes sense to eat more of these on all accounts. Eating organic food wherever you can also reduces exposure to pesticide residues. The lower down the food chain you forage, the better.

Source Part 2:,,4921589-113284,00.html

40 Sensible Ways to Cut Out Chemicals in Your Food, Drink, Beauty, & Bath Products

May 8 & 15, 2004

1 Eat organic. It is the single best way to reduce exposure to pesticides.

2 Avoid foods made with additives, especially for children. Lizzie Vann, the children's food campaigner and founder of Organix baby food, says children should develop a taste for real, natural foods in their early years and parents should particularly avoid the following: monosodium glutamate (E621); disodium 5'-ribonucleotide (E635); artificial sweeteners; sodium benzoate (E211); sulphur dioxide (E220); the colourings Quinoline Yellow (E104), Brilliant Blue (E133), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124), and Indigo Carmine (E132).

3 Write to your MP and MEP demanding clearer and stricter UK and EU food labelling laws. For more about what is tolerated under current labelling laws, visit

4 Support the Food For Life campaign, which aims to improve the quality of food served in schools. Action packs from (0117 9142446).

5 Eat as much seasonal produce as you can. It will reduce your exposure to anti-fungal and anti-bacterial chemicals commonly used to extend shelf-life. Sign up to a local fruit-and-veg box delivery scheme.

6 When organic produce isn't available, remember that some produce has lower levels of pesticide residues than others. Good candidates include aubergines, peppers, cabbages, frozen peas, garlic, leeks, marrow, radishes, swedes, sweetcorn and turnips. Conversely, the government has recently found high levels of pesticide residues in spinach, apples and celery.

7 Be picky about your fish. All fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury, but for expectant mothers and young children, certain fish are best avoided - shark, marlin and swordfish. The FSA is now advising that pregnant women eat no more than four medium-size tins, or two tuna steaks, a week. Also avoid fish caught in enclosed seas such as the Baltic, where pollution can build up more readily. If the fish is farmed, only buy organic.

8 Wash all fresh fruit and veg in running water to reduce exposure to pesticides - even if it claims to be 'ready-washed'.

9 Peel fruit and veg. Also, discard outer leaves of leafy veg.

10 Trim fat from meat and skin from poultry and fish - pesticides residues can collect in fat.

11 Vary your diet and buy from a variety of sources. It will reduce your exposure to chemicals that accumulate in certain foodstuffs.

12 Use less clingfilm when storing foods. It contains plasticisers that can leach into food. The FSA says to avoid wrapping high-fat foods such as cheeses in clingfilm, and not to use it in contact with food that is microwaved.

13 Be wary of products boasting they're 'low-sugar' or 'sugar-free'. They may contain artificial sweetners.

14 When snacking, try to replace ready meals, crisps, and sweets with alternatives such as vegetable sticks in dips, rice cakes and fresh fruit.

15 Monitor and control the hours a child watches TV. Manufacturers of processed foods aggressively market products between 4-6pm. Support Sustain's campaign to get a ban on unhealthy food marketing to children (, and complain to the Independent Television Commission (

16 Reduce your egg intake - organic or otherwise - until the government investigates further why residues of the growth-promoting antibiotic lasalocid are increasingly being found in chicken's eggs.

17 Suspect the worst when ingredients listings mention loose terms such as 'flavourings' or 'colourings'. Likewise with the word 'flavour'. The difference between snacks that are 'cheese flavour' and 'cheese flavoured' is that the latter actually has cheese in it.

18 Remember that labelling laws dictate that if a product doesn't actually have any fruit in it, its manufacturer cannot illustrate the packaging with pictures of fresh fruit. Especially pertinent for yogurts.

19 Lobby your MP and MEP to force the wine and beer industries to adhere to the same nutritional labelling requirements as food producers.

20 Look and learn. Look at food labels. And learn what those terms, chemical names and numbers mean.

21 Clear out your bathroom cabinet and dump everything but the essentials. Try not to duplicate - if you currently use three moisturisers, get rid of two.

22 Avoid baby wipes, which can contain parabens and propylene glycol - a common ingredient in anti-freeze. A damp flannel will do the job just as well.

23 Overwashing with chemically-based shampoos and conditioners strips the hair of its natural oils. If you usually shampoo daily, leave for a day or two and see if it makes any difference.

24 If you're worried about sunscreen, cover up or keep out of the sun completely. Currently only 30 percent of us stay in the shade, according to Cancer Research UK.

25 Avoid unnecessary use of products with a high sun protection factor - at night you don 't need to use a moisturiser with an SPF.

26 Cut down on bubble baths which can contain skin-irritating detergents. All your baby needs to keep clean is a tub full of warm water.

27 Splash your face with witch hazel or cold water instead of using over-the-counter toners.

28 Become label savvy. Everyone reads food labels - get in the habit of doing the same with your toiletries.They won 't tell you everything, but it will help.

29 If you want to be sure a product is organic, look out for a Soil Association certification. Words like organic, natural and hypoallergenic generally mean little in the beauty industry.

30 When using a product, follow the instructions. It's easy to use far more than you need to.

31 Switch to organic tampons and sanitary towels. They're non-chlorine bleached, 100% pure cotton and GM-free. Try Natracare Regular Organic Cotton Tampons. Prices start at £2.39 and stockists include Sainsbury's, Waitrose and independent health stores.

32 Rediscover henna which is natural and less invasive than heavy-duty hair dyes.

33 If you're going swimming, ozone pools have fewer chemicals. But when visiting chlorine pools, make sure you (and your children) shower first. If everyone washed before getting in, there'd be less need for so many chemicals in the water.

34 If you can't give up nail varnish, protect the cuticles with oil. Although the part of the nail you see is dead, it is still porous and can absorb the chemicals used in varnish and remover, such as toluene, acetone and formaldehyde.

35 A thick coating of aloe vera gel is a good alternative to shaving foams and gels. It has natural anti-inflammatory and skin-softening properties, without all the chemicals.

36 The average make-up wearing woman will eat two pounds of lipstick in her life-time. Most lipsticks contain petroleum derivatives. Try brands based on beeswax, plant oils or vitamin E instead.

37 If you 're worried about deodorants, there are more natural products on the market. Be prepared to try a few before you find one that suits - but beware, seemingly green products can have hidden ingredients such as parabens.

38 Do a website trawl. Greenpeace ( and Women's Environmental Network ( both have useful lists of products to avoid, as well as companies with good track records.

39 Arm yourself with knowledge. Get hold of a copy of Kim Erickson's Drop-Dead Gorgeous (published by Contemporary Books), to find out more about what's in your cosmetics.

40 Ask your granny for tips. Lemon juice, for example, has always been used as a beauty aid - to make fair hair shine, to soften hard skin, and get rid of blackheads. Cosmetics haven't always been all about products devised in laboratories.