Toxins, Toxins Everywhere, and not a Thought to Think.

Original version published in the Kelowna Courier, July 2011WHMIS Toxic Image

by Blythe Nilson

Purveyors of quackery love vague and scary sounding terms and one of the most popular is“toxins”. We are bombarded daily with ads for products promising to “detoxify” or “cleanse” our “systems”. We don’t want toxins in our systems even if we aren’t entirely sure what systems or toxins are. Occasionally products claim to detoxify the liver, which is ironic because the liver’s main job is to process and detoxify anything that gets into the blood, including any of these quack “detox” products you might take. Many people seem to be worried about environmental toxins or pesticides building up in their “system” but when I ask, most can’t name any or say what harm is being done specifically. It seems like the concept of toxicity is not well understood.

Scientifically speaking, toxins are chemicals produced by one organism that can harm another organism. Bee venom is used for colony defence, caffeine discourages grazers and poison dart frog secretions make predators think twice next time. If the toxin is injected by a bite or a sting we call it venom. Arsenic, which isn’t produced by living organisms, is a poison but not a toxin; poisonous mushrooms produce toxins and spiders inject venom. You bite toxic organisms but venomous ones bite you. Unfortunately it’s also correct to say that all poisons are toxic, whether or not they are toxins and the study of toxicology covers all poisons. “Toxic” is very broad but “toxin ‘is quite specific. Well, that takes care of terminology.

Since all living organisms must evolve ways to avoid being harmed by the things they eat, which in turn are trying to avoid being eaten, the ability to deal with toxins is pretty standard equipment in the arms race of evolution. Because we have such high standards governing our food supply, Canadians have comparatively little to worry about; still, there are common food items that can pose a toxic threat, such as some species of fiddleheads, poisonous mushrooms, potatoes exposed to too much light, uncooked cassava, red tide shellfish, bacteria-infected fruits and vegetables, peanuts with fungal contamination, etc. This danger is part of being an animal on planet Earth.

For humans, as for all mammals, our liver is the main organ that removes or breaks down toxins. If you have a functioning liver and you are careful about what you eat, you will have little trouble dealing with toxins in a normal diet. A common fallacy promoted by supplement sellers is that you can somehow “boost” your liver into some level of extra-healthiness. You can’t. The liver, remarkable as it is, cannot be any better than “healthy”. Eating certain foods or taking supplements cannot turn your liver into a super-organ. In fact large doses of supplements may stress your liver (and kidneys) enough that they may not be able to deal with toxins effectively should they arrive. No supplement or ingested product can travel around your body, grabbing “toxins” and removing them somehow, nor do they give your liver superpowers. If you have enough vitamin C, for example, any extra will have to be processed, just like everything else that is unnecessary, then your liver and kidneys will have to work to get rid of it.

To a skeptic, “detox” products are among the funniest and silliest of all forms of quackery. Some products claim to draw the scary toxins from your blood and deposit them in your feces and others say they can be extracted through the skin. One of my favourites is the Japanese foot pad that claims to remove toxins through the soles of your feet. If a product really could suck chemicals out of your foot how would it know which chemicals were “bad” and which were “good”? Would your feet mummify if you left the pads on too long? Happily the tissues of your foot are safe. Here’s how the trick works: the foot pad (sometimes it’s a bath) contains vinegar and some chemicals that change colour when mixed with the mineral constituents of sweat. Nothing is sucked out through your skin. The natural oils and sweat from your feet interact with the chemicals in the bath or pad and change colour. You are supposed to believe these coloured residues are “toxin” pulled out through your skin. Ear candling is supposed to remove toxins through your skull (!) but the residue it “removes” is just burnt ash and residue from the “special” candles they use. Fire is the real hazard with these things. Mud baths that claim to cleanse your whole body really just feel good and many of the so-called “dietary cleanses” give you mild diarrhea. Luckily your liver keeps on doing its thing despite the crazy things you feed it.

Some nutritionists claim that “cleansing diets” or “super-foods”, also sold by the nutritionist, remove toxins. Nutritionists are not regulated as a professional group in Canada, as dieticians are, so they can say whatever mumbo-jumbo they want. Every so often there is a new berry that purports to “cleanse your system”. I am not sure why berries are so popular, but last year it was acai, a palm berry that’s dehydrated, shipped from South America, mixed with apple juice and sold at exorbitant prices to Canadians who could have bought local blueberries instead. Also available are many liver and gall bladder “cleanses” which form waxy particles in your stool pretending to be gallstones. Passing a gallstone is very painful and you’d know it if it were happening for real. There seems to be a deep human need for purification rituals, as described by Guy Trebay in a recent New Yorker article. Some rituals, such as cupping or bloodletting, go back to ancient Egypt. Others come from ancient Asian or medieval notions of ‘humours’ or ‘chi’, as used by reiki, healing “touch”, sweating rituals, chelation “therapy” (which can be very, very dangerous) and many, many more. Look skeptically at ‘detox’ products and ask the sellers “which system” and “what toxins”. Don’t accept vague explanations. These products are often more harmful, and certainly more expensive, than simply eating wisely and avoiding green potatoes.

Update: a few articles ago I wondered what will anti-vaccine proponents think of next now that thimerisol is out and vaccines are safe. The answer is: latex in the packaging!

Image is the WHMIS symbol for toxic hazard.