The Scourge of “Toxic” Chemicals

Turtle-BackIn an ideal world, we’d be able to assign every chemical and organism to one of two categories: good/beneficial or bad/toxic, and even though this isn’t an ideal world, that’s what we often try to do.

The Flint, Michigan water headache and heartache put a spotlight on toxicity, and the lesson many have taken away is we have to keep toxic chemicals out of our drinking water and environment, that we have to be more vigilant for the presence of toxic chemicals.

So far, so good, but perspective can help, even when it introduces shades of gray to an issue many would like to see as black and white.

Let’s start with copper, an element people are concerned about in drinking water, though copper is also an essential micronutrient for human beings. Many on planet Earth suffer malnutrition and malabsorption from a lack of micronutrients, including copper.

Then, there’s zinc, like copper another potentially toxic heavy metal and necessary micronutrient. Many take zinc therapies for colds.

These days, we often hear that toxic or cancer-causing chemicals have been found in water supplies, drinking water, or elsewhere in the environment, but in the matter of toxicity, context is critical. Today, we can detect many chemicals at the part per billion or part per trillion level, and these levels of detections can be much lower than the established toxicity levels for these chemicals. So, what does it mean when we detect a “toxic” chemical at a level much lower than its toxicity level? Is there reason to panic, or should we put the presence of the chemical in the context of its concentration? The problem is, all people hear is “toxic”, without the context.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Healing Powers of Venom”, toxins from snakes, scorpions, bees, spiders, even venomous shrews and Gila-monsters, are being evaluated as treatments for a raft of diseases, from cancer to autoimmune disorders to hypoglycemia to Alzheimer’s. Hog pathogens like whipworms are possible therapies for human maladies such as Crohn’s disease. Whether a chemical is a poison or remedy often has to do with the amount and how it’s applied.

And how about our drinking water? So-called “pure” water with nothing else in it is unstable, unhealthy, and unsafe to drink. The chlorine we add to water isn’t good for us in itself, but it’s better than having viable (living) pathogenic organisms in our drinking water of the kind that killed thousands in early twentieth century America. Better to drink small amounts of “toxic” chlorine than ingesting the dangerous—living—pathogens that made so many sick, and killed some, in former days. It’s much safer to drink Detroit city water with its chlorine and “toxic” chemicals than drinking untreated “pristine” water from a mountain stream that contains animal and bird waste, and associated pathogens.

Another article in the Journal, “Natural-Born Killer Joins Germ Fight”, described how bacteriophages, including “viruses from a toxic sewer in Paris…and a filthy river in India” are being used to cure bacterial infections, and helping us curb the runaway growth of drug-resistant bacteria. Imagine being treated with a sewage cocktail.

Certainly, we should be concerned about toxic chemicals in our water and environment. We should also educate ourselves about what toxicity means and doesn’t mean. If we want to be effective environmental champions, shouldn’t we be as informed as we can be?

Many people don’t want to get bogged down with evidence and numbers, but when it comes to technical issues, evidence and numbers are essential. Simplistic narratives may stir our passions, but they often tell incomplete or false stories.

Risk and benefit. Levels of detection and levels of toxicity. “Toxic” chemicals and cures, or managing diseases. It’s not black and white.