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Toxic bites: Tracking poisons in your diet

If you're wondering why we're all not dead despite this deadly onslaught, it's because our liver, kidneys and digestive system work overtime to break down and excrete most of these toxins, usually within hours.

columns Updated: Jun 06, 2015 16:11 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Toxic Food,Lead In Food,Heavy Metals In Vegetables

Lead in instant noodles, heavy metals in vegetables, pesticides in colas, worms in baby food, drug-resistant E.coli in drinking water... It's tough to eat and drink safe food that is not contaminated with toxins, chemicals or disease-causing pathogens with a frightening potential to maim and kill.

The air we breathe is a cocktail of lung-paralysing poisons while the food we eat is loaded with high amounts of heavy metals (arsenic, lead, mercury, manganese, among others), pesticides and sundry toxins that, in higher concentrations, can be used as weapons of mass destruction. Unlike organic pollutants, heavy metals -- including those in traffic and industry emissions -- do not decay but seep down into the water-table and leach into the food chain, killing us slowly.

Acute heavy-metal toxicity suppresses brain and central nervous functions to lower concentration and energy levels. If exposure is chronic, it causes progressive brain, muscular and neurological degeneration.

*Doses:Toxicity depends on a number of factors, with health effect depending on the type of metal, how much was absorbed, and for how long. Age also influences toxicity. Young children, for example, are more susceptible to lead poisoning compared to adults because they absorb a higher percentage and their developing brains and bodies suffer more permanent damage.

What also affects toxicity is the route of exposure. For example, mercury is relatively inert in the stomach and intestine and is poorly absorbed through intact skin, but if inhaled in vapour form, it binds to sulfhydryl groups in many tissue enzymes and proteins and directly damages tissues and organs, leading to permanent lung damage and death from multi-organ failure.

Add to this the antibiotics used to fatten meats, the hormone oxytocin injected in cows to make them produce more milk, carcinogenic dioxins from fossil burning that makes its way into fatty tissue of animals, mercury in fish, and heavy metals in traditional medicines each meal you have becomes a toxic cocktail that, if tested, would be banned even by governments with lax food standards.

Our liver, kidneys and digestive system work overtime to break down and excrete most of the toxins, usually within hours. (Shutterstock)

*Body cleanse: If you're wondering why we're all not dead despite this deadly onslaught, it's because our liver, kidneys and digestive system work overtime to break down and excrete most of these toxins, usually within hours. Some, like fat-soluble dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls found in soil, electrical installations, coolant fluids, paint and plasters etc) that disrupt the hormone system and cause cancers, take up to years to break down, which is why they are banned in several countries.

But not in India. India releases an estimated 8656.55 gTEQ dioxins/furans, with waste incinerators contributing to 66.7% of total dioxins released, shows a report by the green NGO Toxics Link. In Mumbai alone, open burning of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and landfill fires emit 10,000 grams of dioxins/furans. Still, India has no standards on dioxins content in food items.

The question, then, is whether detox programmes work in situations where lowering exposure is not possible -- as in India, where the implementation of environmental laws and food safety standards is erratic at best.

*Dos and don'ts of detox: Popular fluid detox programmes where people don't have solid food for days at a stretch don't lower levels of chemicals stored in body fat, which take years of non-exposure to get eliminated permanently. What fluid diets do is trigger the release of fat-soluble toxins from fatty tissue into the blood. A study in the journal Obesity Surgery found that pesticide, dioxin and PCBs levels rose by 25% to 50% in people who lost weight very rapidly.

These toxins do more damage to organs and muscle tissue than they do when stored in fat tissue. Only a small percentage is finally excreted, with most ending up back in the fat tissue. And chemicals that the body does eliminate - such as phthalates found in plastics -- quickly build back when you go back to your normal diet.

Eating organic foods helps, but in a very small way. Organic food -- provided of course that it's certified -- is likely to have fewer surface pesticides but will have heavy metals and hormone-disrupting PCBs found in the environment and groundwater.

Even with its limited benefits, opting for pesticide-free food is a good idea, but even better is cutting back on alcohol and smoking, including reducing exposure to tobacco smoke. Till standards are set and laws implemented, the only option for us is try to take in as few toxins as possible so that the body doesn't collapse trying to eliminate them.

First Published: Jun 06, 2015 15:57 IST