September 1977, I dropped chemistry day #1 in college like a hot potato. It was too hard; I wasn’t pre-med; I didn’t care. 45 years later, I re-enrolled. I finally understood just how important understanding chemicals are to my survival. And that this body of mine is the most complex laboratory I’ll ever work in became the ultimate selling point.
Make no mistake. I won’t be graduating from Harvard any time soon with a degree in chemistry. Sadly, lots of folks do have fancy chemistry degrees and work for companies pumping out all kinds of unhealthy chemicals you’re exposed to/ingesting every day. Sadder still – tragic really – most of us live in some kind of disconnected bubble, totally naive or in denial of their effects on us and the environment.
According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, women are exposed to 168 chemical products on average per day. Men 85. Cosmetics, cleaning products, and industrial chemicals lead the list.
On the what we swallow list, a study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health: Persistent toxic chemicals in the U.S. food supply, divided the country into four regions. Here in the Northeast, we experience 64 POP exposures per day.
Consider this (my breakdown):
POPs (persistent organic pollutants) synthetic, toxic, mostly cancer-causing chemicals such as pesticides, insecticides, solvents, industrial chemicals. They accumulate in living organisms and are passed forward in the food chain. (DDT, which was banned in the U.S. in 1972, is still detected today in meat, fish, and dairy products as it remains in soil and animal tissue – including human tissue – for many years.)
POPs were found in vegetables, fruit, meat (fish were not rated in the study but is one of the largest sources), wildlife, human blood, breast milk, dairy products, and baked goods/snack foods.
POPs concentrate in fatty tissue and bioaccumulates (becomes concentrated) as it moves up the food chain.
Note: these chemicals cannot be excreted but migrate to fatty tissue and reside there. In the case of mercury, Consumer Report tested 5 leading brands of tuna in 2023, finding 20% contained “dangerous spikes” of the heavy metal. So, each time you consume mercury – or other POPs – it keeps accumulating, keeps building up and, at some point, scientists believe, it begins to cause an inflammatory response. In the case of mercury, it causes neurological and motor dysfunction and is therefore particularly harmful for children as they are developing. Other POP chemicals, including benzene, dioxin, and vinyl chloride are known carcinogens ie alters DNA. (Twelve chemicals of international concern have been adopted by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants since 2001 and they hope to add several more at the next conference in 2025.)
If you’re thinking, ‘There’s no escape!’ You’re half right.
I seriously wanted to pound some dirt when I read that corn chip sales in the U.S. hit $6.77 billion in 2022. (Snack and Bakery.com) Ain’t no life-sustaining phytochemicals in those bags that are gonna thwart disease no matter how good they taste. Those downing the ubiquitous corn chip probably aren’t reading Chews Life Now! But I’m betting a lot of my readers are still using organic moo-moo juice, thinking chicken is benign compared to beef, and that organic, free-range eggs are impervious to POPs. Nope, nope, and nope.
And while this is the first – it won’t be the last time – Chews Life Now! suggests a wholistic perspective to the noxious chemical world we live in. In our own homes.
POPs are in the soil; circulate in the air from power plants/factories, residential/commercial wood-burning, vehicle exhaust, and are found in freshwater ecosystems like rivers and reservoirs due to synthetic pesticide/fertilizer runoff and/or legally/illegally released chemicals from manufacturing/industry. When vaporized, they can be extremely volatile – travel long distances, resist degradation, bioaccumulate in human and animal tissue and biomagnify in food chains. (Biomedical Sciences, 2023.)
Are you starting to see the cascade effect?
- Industrial farmers raising sweet corn for snack food manufacturers use allowable, multiple synthetic pesticides/fertilizers (POPs) on millions of acres of farmland. (More on the destruction of the topsoil ecosystem in a future column and why preserving it can prevent a global warming apocalypse.)
- They are released into the soil by way of the air; drain into streams, rivers, ultimately the ocean when it rains.
- The corn roots absorb POPs then begin the process known as phytodegradation, where they seek to metabolize the chemicals to less toxic substances. (Plant Science, 2020)
- Wildlife ingests the POPs in multiple ways when living in the area affected – in this case, synthetic pesticides/fertilizers on farmland instead of POPs released in an oil refining area like Louisiana – thus beginning the long march up the food chain. Grasshoppers are exposed by drinking POPs in dew, frogs are exposed by eating exposed grasshoppers, snakes exposed by eating exposed frogs which ate exposed grasshoppers, hawks are exposed by eating exposed snakes which ate exposed frogs which ate exposed grasshoppers. The hawk now has the highest exposure in the food chain so far. Expand for the entire animal kingdom as no living creature is spared from POPs today.
But hold on, you say, if eating organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy, where animals are eating organic feed, what’s the problem? Let me repeat: POPs are pervasive and accumulate in animal tissue. If not in the feed, it’s likely in the water they drink and the air they breathe. That food chain I just explained? You’re at the top. When you start adding the possible toxins you ingest from animal sources combined with other exposures like household and industrial chemicals over time, the picture isn’t pretty.
Additionally, per previous installments of Chews Life Now!, I’ve demonstrated through much peer-reviewed research, the consensus that consuming animal protein promotes an inflammatory response for the three leading causes of death in this country: coronary artery disease, diabetes, and cancer.
The first time I was diagnosed with cancer – stage 3b estrogen-positive breast cancer at 45 in 2003 with lymph node involvement – I thought, ‘Wait! What?’ No family history. Ate organic. Mostly. Exercise? When was I supposed to fit that in? I chalked it up to bad luck, that and getting my period at an early age and having children late in life.
In other words, I was flying blind.
That’s the thing about cancer – barring some obvious exceptions like smoking cigarettes, eating raw DDT, or visiting Chernobyl – you can’t put your finger on the exact cause, the exact moment, the exact chemical circumstance that leads to initiation.
Or can you?
What if you had a general knowledge of the toxic chemicals you were exposed to on a regular basis and how they disrupt health?
What if you were able to plan meals with the knowledge that phytochemicals in organically grown plants can prevent or reverse disease? Including cancer? That combinations of phytochemicals are like a multi-faceted defense weapons system?
According to a 2014 study, plant-derived polyphenols are being found to not only protect against POP-mediated oxidative stress, inflammation, and toxicity but also to bind to POPs and thus contribute to a decrease in body burden. In fact, it has been proposed that green tea, containing high levels of polyphenols including EGCG, can inhibit the intestinal absorption of lipids and highly lipophilic organic compounds and accelerate excretion of PCBs. (Science of the Total Environment: Modulation of persistent organic pollutant toxicity through nutritional intervention: emerging opportunities in biomedicine and environmental remediation)
Citing numerous references to the powerful effect of polyphenols – the micronutrients that naturally occur in plants – in neutralizing POPs and PCBs, the article concludes by saying that nutrition is being further substantiated as an important modulator of inflammatory and antioxidant pathways, especially associated with environmental insult.
Let me reintroduce the phrase epigenetic nutrition. I like to think of it as the healing chemicals in food. Epi- meaning after. To be clear. You can’t change your genetics, your DNA. But thousands of studies now show that you can alter your likely genetic path. That is, through the phytochemicals in foods – specifically polyphenols – you can create a chemical environment in your body that AGGRESSIVELY fights disease. And environmental pollutants.
There is hope. But it doesn’t come easy. The conquest is in planning and executing day to day strategies from a war room that will test your mettle like no other. Your mind. The resolve to commit despite the noise. If you’re saying, “Well, hell, Carolyn, of course I want to live, but I also care about quality of life.”
Sometimes people don’t really know how they feel about their life until someone tells them they’re going to lose it. I’ve been told twice.
Try my Green Revolution Salad with a squirt of balsamic vinegar:
A couple sprigs organic Italian parsley/chopped: the king of anti-cancer polyphenols including apigenin, crisoeril, luteolin, myristicin, limononene, eugenol, alphathujene, caffeic and chlorogenic acids. (Apigenin has been demonstrated to show broad anti-cancer effects in various types of cancers, including colorectal cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, prostate cancer and osteosarcoma. This flavone inhibits cancer cell proliferation by triggering cell apoptosis [sudden cancer cell death]. . . Apigenin also decreases cancer cell motility and inhibits cancer cell migration and invasion; Cell Bioscience, 2017)
A couple sprigs of spearmint/chopped: many anti-inflammatory/anti-tumor properties; polyphenols include diterpenes, steroids, tannin, coumarin and saponin
1 organic avocado/sliced: lots of polyphenols including the big Q – quercetin – as well as catechin and epigallocatechin. Quercetin controls blood sugar, kills cancer cells, and helps with anti-inflammatory effects.
½ organic cucumber/sliced w/peel: yet more quercetin, lignans, and cucurbitacins. Cucurbitacin inhibits tumor formation.
Fresh organic chives/chopped: incredibly, the flavonals in chives comprise 99% of the plant’s polyphenols. Belonging to the allium family along with garlic and, chives contain high levels of catechin, epigallocatechin and epicatechin gallate. All significant antioxidant ingredients along with antiplatelet agents. (Flavonals are plant-derived nutrients that act as antioxidants.)
You can do this. You can choose organic vegetables and fruits and grains and nuts you love and start experimenting in the kitchen. There’s no right or wrong. I fail every day and start again.
Just remember: eat to live, don’t live to eat!
Note: The writer’s experiences and observations are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to provide medical advice about the avoidance, diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.