WOULD you like to eat rat poison? Probably not, but that’s OK, because you’ve eaten it already. Most milk in the United States has rat poison added to it. If you find this disturbing, you can always start reading ingredient lists and don’t buy milk that has rat poison in it. You won’t see “rat poison” as such on the label, however, because manufacturers generally call it by its other name instead.
The other name for rat poison is Vitamin D.
Believe it or not, vitamin D is often used to kill rats. (Not the only chemical used to do that, of course, but a common one.) It’s completely tasteless so rats keep eating bait laced with vitamin D without ever realizing they’re getting hit with a huge huge huge overdose. This might sound bizarre because most of us think of vitamin D as an essential nutrient. And it is. But anything — even an essential nutrient — is potentially toxic if you eat, drink or inhale too much.
I’m often frustrated by the way people talk and think about “chemicals”. I see “chemical-free” products on sale at the supermarket and I wonder what that means. I hear protesters demand that industry stop putting “synthetic chemicals” into our children’s bodies and I wonder if they know what that means or if they know what they’re talking about. Because they think that synthetic chemicals are dangerous, and many of them are. But so is the grilled meat you barbecue on the Fourth of July. Because grilled meat is carcinogenic. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect it’s probably the second most carcinogenic thing in your home right after the log fire in your fireplace, which (unless you smoke cigarettes or use asbestos) is probably the most carcinogenic thing you have around. Although people don’t realize it, fireplace smoke contains most of the same carcinogens as the fumes from a lit cigarette. But nobody wants to ban grilled meat and log fires, because grilled meat and log fires seem natural. They seem safe.
Which just goes to show how deceptive appearances can be.
Everything is toxic but some things are more toxic than others. You have to drink a lot of water to die of water poisoning, although it’s possible and people have done it. But it doesn’t take a lot of cyanide to send you on your way.
And while it’s true that all chemicals are toxic, it’s also true that some chemicals are necessary or beneficial while others are not. Sure, a massive overdose of water or vitamin D will kill you, but you need both water and vitamin D to stay alive. So water and vitamin D are beneficial at one dose and toxic at another. Cyanide on the other hand is absolutely useless to your system. You don’t need cyanide. Sure, if you just inhale a really really small amount, you’ll live to tell the tale (although I strongly suggest you don’t try this at home). There is, however, no such thing as a “beneficial dose” of cyanide. That’s because water and vitamin D have a role to play in the system of chemical reactions called “your life”. Cyanide, by contrast, does not. It has no normal role in human biochemistry, and in fact it interferes with normal human biochemistry in a very deadly way.
All of which probably makes this concept of “toxic” just seem more mysterious. How can a chemical be deadly at one dose while at another it has no effect (or in the case of useful chemicals like water a beneficial one?) Well, that part gets complicated. But if you want to keep it simple and think about this in a big-picture kind of way, you can boil it down to three reasons. (And be forewarned, I’m gonna keep it simple. So if you’re a chemist or a biologist or a doctor of gastroenterology, don’t get your knickers in a twist and be like, “That bastard! He didn’t explain X Y and Z!” Let’s just keep it simple, OK?)
1) The rate of a chemical reaction typically depends on the concentration of the reactants. The more concentrated they are, the faster it goes. Often the direction of the reaction depends on the concentration of the reactants and the products too — if the concentration of products gets very high, many reactions can start to run in reverse and make “reactants”. If a chemical that reacts with something in your cells is present at trace concentrations, the reaction could be so slow it makes no difference to the function of the cell, or the reaction might not hardly run in the “forward” direction at all.
2) Your body is trying to maintain a stable internal state — keep the temperature the same, keep salt concentration in your bloodstream the same and so on. Something that’s beneficial at a low dose could be toxic at a high dose because too much of the chemical pushes conditions too far in one direction and becomes destabilizing.
Take water for example. Your body has to maintain salt concentrations in your blood within a certain range. That’s why you have to drink water so you can replace water you lose as urine and sweat and keep your blood from getting too salty. If you drank a ton of water very quickly, however, more rapidly than your kidneys could get rid of it, salt concentrations in your blood would drop to the point where you’re in trouble. That’s why it is actually possible to die of “water poisoning”.
3) Your body is able to handle a certain amount of crap — in fact, it has all kinds of built-in mechanisms to do exactly that. Like getting rid of stuff by putting it in your urine, for example (more on that later). Or like the cells in your intestines. Whenever you cook meat on the grill, for example, your meat ends up containing small amounts of carcinogens like the notorious benzo[a]pyrene (google this bad boy if you’re curious or just want to freak yourself out).
So does eating grilled meat increase your cancer risk? Well, I don’t know for sure; I don’t have the resources to go do some large-scale statistical study. Not my job, I work in R&D and I’ve got enough to do at work as it is. Maybe ask a vegetarian if you want a yes-no answer. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the cells lining your intestine actually get turned over pretty rapidly. Rapidly dividing stem cells produce new cells to take the place of others that commit suicide and get sloughed off to end up in your feces. The lifespan of a cell in your intestinal lining is pretty short, which is actually a pretty good thing. Because the cells in your intestinal lining are first in the line of fire when it comes to carcinogens like the benzo[a]pyrene in those burgers from the grill. They are the most likely to get damaged. And by turning them over pretty quick, your body helps minimize the effect of that damage.
Now does that mean there’s no need to worry about stuff like benzo[a]pyrene? Hold on a minute here, I didn’t say that. My point though is that your body is not made of porcelain and it can handle some wear and tear without coming to a screeching halt. (Note some). Although minimizing that wear and tear is a good idea, especially where carcinogens like benzo[a]pyrene and UV light are concerned. You never know.
So what happens to stuff like drugs inside your body? I get the feeling a lot of people have this idea your body is like a big sponge that soaks up “toxins” and stores them in all kinds of sneaky places like your ovaries or your toenails or something. It’s not really like that though.
If something like an amino acid or a sugar that your body can use gets into your system, your body will probably use it — break it down, use it for energy or raw materials. No surprise there. But if you’re talking about something like a drug or a chemical that has no normal use, let’s say mercury or viagra or cyanide or bisphenol A (and no, those have nothing in common that I can think of), well, your body can’t break those down and use them. It can’t figure out what to do with them. And INEVITABLY when your body can’t figure out what to do with something it goes to plan B — put this stuff in your urine. That works pretty well if a chemical dissolves well in water, like caffeine or vitamin C.
Let’s say you have some crap that doesn’t dissolve well in water though. Something like bisphenol A. That’s where your liver comes in. It has enzymes that chemically alter foreign stuff (e.g. drugs, poisons, chemicals it doesn’t know what to do with, etc.), and almost invariably alters them in a way that makes them more water-soluble. Because once a chemical IS highly water-soluble your kidneys can take it and put in your urine, and then it’s down the toilet we go.
Now this is not always A Good Thing. Your liver isn’t very smart — it’s just a chemical machine, for crying out loud — and sometimes when it alters a chemical to make it more water-soluble, it makes that chemical much more reactive (and hence more dangerous and more toxic) in the process. Benzene by itself can’t react with DNA. But your liver takes benzene and in trying to make it more water-soluble converts it into something that can react with DNA. Which is why benzene is a carcinogen — because your liver is stupid.
So this idea that your tissues are some kind of sponge soaking up mysterious “toxins” isn’t really true; it’s a myth perpetrated by people trying to sell you wheat grass juice and Kombucha tea. Your body gets rid of stuff it doesn’t recognize or understand by putting it in your urine. Some things, however, are much easier to get rid of than others. Methylmercury, for example, tends to bind to proteins that contain an amino acid called cysteine, so it hangs around for a while, which is one of the reasons why mercury is so freaking dangerous — you can only get rid of it a little at a time. Also carcinogens are especially bad news because they are typically (although not always) things that react with DNA. And sure, your body may be able to get rid of them by dumping them in your urine, but if they go and react with DNA in your cells before you can get rid of them, getting rid of them doesn’t help you very much, now does it?
So I’ve been talking about “toxicity” and “toxic chemicals” this whole time, and you may have noticed I haven’t once used the words “natural” or “synthetic”. That may seem odd because most people think synthetic=toxic and natural=good for you. But this is another myth perpetrated by the purveyors of wheat-grass juice and Kombucha tea.
Let me make this very clear: The origin of a chemical has nothing, nothing at all to do with how “good” or “bad” it is. All the properties of a chemical, its color, its melting point, its boiling point, the kinds of reactions it can do, ALL its properties are dictated by its structure. Whether it’s “natural” makes absolutely no difference to what happens to it in your body. Chemicals don’t come with little tags that read “natural” or “synthetic”; they’re just a collection of atoms held together by chemical bonds, and depending on their structure, some of them when they bump into each other can react with each other. So the important questions to ask about a chemical are this:
1) What kinds of reactions can it undergo in the environment? What kinds of reactions can it undergo in your body? Do any of these reactions interfere with the way your body normally functions?
2) HOW MUCH of the chemical is required to start a harmful reaction or process in your body? A lot, or just a little? In other words, how much is a dangerous dose?
3) HOW LONG does the chemical stay in your body? Does it end up in your urine very quickly or very slowly? Where does it go in the meantime? Is your liver going to alter it in some way that makes it more reactive and hence more dangerous? (because your liver, let’s remember, can be stupid.)
As you can see, this can get complicated. So complicated we don’t usually think about it. It’s easier to just go default mode and assume natural=good and synthetic=toxic. Which would be fine if it were true. But the smoke from your fireplace and the benzo[a]pyrene in your grilled meat and the methylmercury in your fish all prove otherwise. They’re natural, just as natural as bubonic plague and HIV.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that synthetic=good and you should trust the American Chemistry Council and the chemicals industry to take care of you. There are a number of chemicals now being manufactured that IMHO should be banned or better regulated. The pesticides carbofuran and methyl bromide come to mind (google ‘em if interested). And as we all know the chemicals industry has a disastrous history. These are the guys that brought you Agent Orange and PCBs. So, yeah, if the American Chemistry Council says they know this is Good for You and Harmless For the Environment, be skeptical. But my point is this. The knee-jerk reaction we have — this thing where we go, OMG, I can’t buy this, it’s not NATURAL, that has to stop. That’s moronic.
The alternative medicine folks, the organic farming movement, the makers of vitamins, the purveyors of wheat-grass juice and sellers of Kombucha tea**, all of them are making big money off the widespread public belief that Natural=good and Chemical/drug/synthetic/GMO=bad because Nature didn’t make it. But Nature’s not your mom; she’s more like a crazy bitch. We’re here on this planet by total accident and we’d be crazy to assume that Nature is looking out for us. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve on Nature, in fact that’s how we make progress.
So when it comes to GMOs or pesticides or any of this kind of thing, you should figure out whether it’s good or bad based on questions 1-3 that I asked above. Those are the kinds of questions you should be asking. Not “is it natural”, because that won’t tell you much of anything. “Natural” is just a word advertisers use to sell you stuff. So you should evaluate things like GMO crops and chemical additives in your food based on the scientific evidence not based on knee-jerk preconceptions about what is natural and what is not. Because that doesn’t make any sense.
And while we’re on the subject, let me throw in a word or two about alternative medicine. IMHO you should never believe anything you hear from someone who works in alternative medicine until you get it confirmed from a more reliable source. IMHO, alt med practitioners are even less trustworthy than the American Chemistry Council (and that’s saying something). Because yeah, the American Chemistry Council is evil, but they’re evil and smart, you know. Whereas the alternative medicine movement is evil and stupid. Most of them are nice people but they believe in magic, although they don’t call it as such; they have lots of names for magic like Homeopathic Remedies and Accupresssure and Life Force and Qi, and they will sell you this magic at a vastly overinflated price. They love to tout everything they sell as “natural” because most of them know very little about biology or chemistry so they have no idea what happens to drugs inside the body. Alt medicine practitioners are the friendly neighborhood witch doctors of the 21st century.
**No, I don’t drink Kombucha tea.