Expired · 4th April 2010
Bloodletting made perfect sense to Medieval medicine because it fit its understanding of illness. Disorders of the body and mind were thought to be caused by an imbalance in the four constituent "humours". Feeling unwell? The cause was an excess in one of these fluids. So just bleed it off, restore the balance and health would return. Given the philosophical model, the therapy made perfect sense.
Alchemy operated on a related philosophical paradigm. Illness and mortality were caused by imperfections in the composition of our bodies. If we were constituted like gold, the perfect element because it never loses its lustre to time, we, too, could become immortal. Gold, unfortunately, is rare and expensive. But mercury has similar characteristics. Because it's almost as heavy, and its shiny silver is almost as lovely, it should do as a substitute medication and a promoter of longevity. The reasoning made sense within the paradigm. But the predominance of philosophy over evidence failed to recognize that mercury is one of the most dangerous neurotoxins on the planet.
The change to a more evidential way of understanding our bodies and health began in the 16th century. The Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, discovered that certain metals and chemicals are toxic at certain doses. Below such doses, they seem to be harmless. This breakthrough in thinking – "the dose makes the poison" – has formed the basis of modern toxicology and is the paradigm we currently use. Heavy metals and complex chemicals are considered safe until they reach certain concentrations in the body, then they begin to have deleterious health effects.
This paradigm was relatively useful until our high-tech ingenuity began making complex chemicals that no longer fit this model of toxicity. We are now concocting chemicals that mimic hormones. And, given what we are learning about hormones, the old measurements of safety no longer apply. Of the 60,000 industrial chemicals in use, 966 are now known to be hormone disruptors – most of the others have not been thoroughly tested for toxicity. And some of these 966 are used in the ubiquitous plastics that are an integral part of our everyday lives: bisphenol A hardens plastics and lines the inside of food cans, phthalates soften plastics for shower curtains, toys and food wraps, tributyltin is a fungicide in miscellaneous paints and plastics, and perfluoroalkyls serve as stain repellants and non-stick surfaces on cooking utensils.
New alarms of toxicity are now sounding because hormones are probably "the most powerful biological agents in existence" (Globe & Mail, Mar. 13/10). Amounts comparable to a speck of dust can set in motion huge developmental and metabolic changes in our bodies. Testosterone determines male attributes in parts per billion; estrogen determines female attributes in parts per trillion. In such proportions, testosterone produces abnormalities in females and estrogen produces abnormalities in males. Just 1/1,000 of previously recommended safe dosages of hormone mimickers are now known to create genetic malfunctions and precancerous conditions in cells.
Indeed, the four above-mentioned hormone disrupting chemicals in plastics are now linked to a wide variety of disorders that are plaguing our health: obesity, cancers (breast, uterine and prostate), cardiovascular disease, allergies, asthma, thyroid imbalances, erectile disfunction, attention-deficit disorder and precocious puberty. The list is growing. And the rise in these disorders seems to correlate to the introduction of such hormone-mimicking chemicals into our environment. Consider just obesity.
"In 2006, scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health reported that the prevalence of obesity in [US] infants under 6 months had risen 73 percent since 1980" (Newsweek, Sept. 21/09). Since these infants were being nourished by either breast milk or formula, obviously something else was affecting their body weight. Endocrinologists began to pinpoint the synthetic hormone disruptors that have entered our food chain through plastics. Here is a simplified version of how these chemicals – now labelled "obesogens" – cause obesity.
Microscopic amounts of hormones activate genes to produce essentially two different kinds of body cells: fibroblasts that make up connective tissue, and adipocytes that store energy as fat. The hormone disruptors distort the developmental process by activating "a receptor called PPAR gamma, which acts like a switch" for the fate of cells. "In one position it allows cells to remain fibroblasts, in another it guides them to become fat cells" (Ibid.). The mimickers encourage a proliferation of adipocytes.
Not only are these babies obese but they will probably remain obese for their lifetimes because their bodies are composed of an unchangeable imbalance of these two constituent cells. Worse, the adipocytes encourage appetite, urging food intake to supply the fat that is already in over-abundance. The Harvard studies are now being repeated in Europe and Japan with similar findings and conclusions.
The health, economic, sociological and psychological implications of just this single finding on obesity are enormous. And lurking beneath the innocent facade of our miraculous chemical products are likely innumerable other horrors to discover. We are unwittingly living in an uncontrolled toxicological experiment, largely unregulated by governments because they continue to judge safety using an outdated paradigm.
Apologists for our modern technology contend that it allows us to live longer and healthier than ever before. While this is true in the statistical abstract, their argument is also a glib and dismissive rationalization for the unnecessary. Too many innocent people are suffering needlessly and many others are dying prematurely because we are all being subjected to a chemical gauntlet.