Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions. ~ Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It
In all my wonderings about what caused my colitis, I didn’t often dwell much on chemical toxins. There were so many other possible causes that seemed more obvious and direct, especially poor diet and stress. With changes in diet and stress, one can often immediately feel any negative effects in the body, such as racing heartbeat or intestinal discomfort, and it made sense to focus on those.
Now and then, though, I did come across references to the role of chemical toxins in triggering autoimmune diseases. It seemed hard to believe that I could be one of the victims–it’s not like I grew up near a toxic waste facility, or sprayed pesticides for a living. In fact, in the decade leading up to the onset of my disease, I had forked over a lot of money to eat largely organic food and use natural cleaning products. Sure, toxins are everywhere…but could they really have accumulated specifically in me, a relatively well-off denizen of a progressive, first-world city?
Reading Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s The Autoimmune Epidemic reminded me of why I ought to be including chemical toxins in my list of possible causes. For decades, I had vaguely understood that these toxins are everywhere and are dangerous–even, in theory, to me–but most of the time this knowledge was merely abstract. Then, every few years, I would encounter some film or article that illuminated the specific dangers to me, personally, and for a while my worry would spike and I would make an effort to purge chemicals from my life. But inevitably, within a couple weeks, I always ran into the insurmountable Brick Wall of Truth: that, again, toxins are everywhere. My efforts would subside in a swirling tide of of overwhelm, and soon I would forget my worry again. Instead I would return to my usual philosophy that the many “toxic” objects and substances in our lives are used by most everyone, and that most people don’t seem to have diseases from them, so really, how unsafe can they be? I would just keep eating my organic food, and then I’d at least be relatively protected.
Nakazawa’s book started my cycle of worry anew. Especially since nowadays, I actually was sick. And I was becoming aware that many other people around me had hidden illnesses, too.
Maybe everyone had seemed healthy, before, because I had been younger before. Maybe, as we were aging, my friends and I were finally starting to feel the effects of all the toxins in our environment.
Toxins are everywhere
Synthetic chemicals–those which we humans have invented, which don’t exist in nature–are ubiquitous in our modern world. More than 80,000 chemicals have been approved for commercial use in the United States, with another 2000 new ones approved each year–several new chemicals each day. According to the National Toxicology Program, “We do not know the effects of many of these chemicals on our health.”
How is this legal? Nakazawa explains: “The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act requires that new chemical compounds be tested for negative health effects for approval only if evidence of potential harm already exists—which is rarely the case for brand new chemicals” (emphasis added). (As Nicholas Kristof writes in an article on toxins, “Shouldn’t our government be as vigilant about threats in our grocery stores as in the mountains of Afghanistan?”)
European protections used to be similarly weak. But in 2006, the European Union passed a key law that shifts the onus, and the costs, of proving product safety onto industry producers. In other words, in Europe, if a company wants to start selling a new chemical substance, they must first prove that the substance is safe for human use.
We have no such law. As a result, every hour of every day, we are exposed to a myriad of potentially unsafe chemicals in our homes, cars, and workplaces. Chemicals are found in common household cleaners, Nakazawa writes:
Manufacturers of household cleaners are not required to list toxic ingredients on their product labels even if those products contain toxins… Yet, according to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency, the fumes and gases released into our homes by everyday cleaners help to make indoor air five times more polluted than the air we breathe outdoors.
Chemical toxis are found in upholstery:
[A]void owning the car during the period of time when the “new car smell” is at its peak as the vehicle releases manufacturing chemicals such as flame retardants and plasticizers… [A]void installing new carpets (which are loaded with flame retardants).
They are in our lotions, skin cleansers, hair products, makeup, and shaving cream–even in some products labeled “organic”:
[I]n a test of fifteen thousand cosmetic products, almost 80 percent contained harmful impurities that include known or probable carcinogens, pesticides, endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, and degreasers. Despite these impurities, many of these products were nevertheless labeled as “organic” or “natural” because the government does not regulate personal-care-product labeling, and a product need only contain one or two botanical extracts to acquire the “natural” or “organic” label.
There must have been a time–200 years ago? 70 years ago?–when chemical use was on the brink of becoming widespread, but when it was still possible to grow up at least in a rural area without any unnatural toxins in your body, and when some concerned person, perhaps a scientist, teacher, or parent, observed that if the use of chemicals kept increasing, then one day no child in the world would be born without toxins in her bloodstream. This must have been an alarming thought at the time. A horrifying thought: that we might soon poisoning the entire planet, the entire human race.
That day must have existed; that observation must have happened, somewhere. But it is long past. We are those children. Our parents were those children, too.
Toxins cause autoimmune disease
All of these chemical toxins can burden and confuse our immune systems.
Many commonly encountered chemicals are endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that interfere with our hormones. Since hormones play various roles in the immune system, endocrine disruptors can harm that system and trigger autoimmune disease.
One need only visit the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disruptors” web page to get a taste of the terrifying prevalence of these harmful chemicals. They include BPA, dioxins, atrazine, pthalates, fire retardants, lead, arsenic, and mercury. In general, they are not heavily regulated.
In recent years, for instance, BPA has become notorious for mimicking estrogen and increasing rates of breast and other cancers. New, BPA-free (but still plastic) water bottles have been marketed to health-conscious consumers like me, and given all the media attention BPA has gotten, one might get the impression that it has been banished from use. Not so–BPA isn’t banned despite being a known carcinogen, and it’s still found all over, such as in receipts, the lining of canned foods, and many plastics.
(Nakazawa points out that, as with many harmful chemicals, BPA is hazardous even at miniscule amounts: “As it turns out, a number of studies show that BPA alters the activity in animal and human cell cultures at just one twenty-five-thousandth of the dose that the EPA deemed caused adverse health effects twenty years ago.”)
Mercury is another example of a substance long known to be toxic, but which is impossible to avoid. It is still being released into the environment through processes such as coal burning and the manufacturing of products such as gold and cement. It’s also found at unsafe levels in 84% of all fish. It can interfere with fetal brain development, affect ovulation, and injure the pancreas, contributing to diabetes. It can also interfere with the immune system. But around 21% of women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies, and “EPA scientists estimate that one in six infants born in the United States is now at risk for developmental disorders because of exposure to mercury while in the mother’s womb.”
Chemical toxins are so burdensome to our immune system that to some autoimmunity researchers, they negate the hygiene hypothesis. This is the hypothesis that our immune systems are going haywire due to the depletion of “Old Friends,” the plethora of bacteria and parasites that, in theory, used to exercise and train our immune systems to distinguish friend from foe. (I talked about this hypothesis in a previous post.) In the modern world, with the widespread use of soap and antibiotics and vaccines, our internal and external bacterial colonies are depleted and our immune systems are exposed to fewer invaders that would exercise them and keep them on their toes.
But DeLisa Fairweather, a Mayo Clinic autoimmunity researcher, points out that our immune systems are actually getting quite a lot of exercise. Nakazawa explains:
The biggest point of controversy with the hygiene hypothesis, says Fairweather, is that “it does not take into account the increase in pollution and chemicals in our environment in the past fifty years, which stimulate our immune system in a similar way that infections do…” If our immune systems could talk, chances are they would tell us not that they are feeling challenged too little, but that they are feeling challenged too much.
Fairweather has concluded that the human immune system can become so besieged by unrelenting contact with a toxic barrage of viruses, chemicals, and heavy metals that it’s practically forced to run amok.
In other words, it might not be the case that our immune systems are bored and are looking for new foes to attack in our bodies. It might be, instead, that they are exhausted and confused after being on constant hyper alert against the ceaseless barrage of disruptive chemicals in today’s world.
The role of genetics and the Barrel Effect
So, as Nakazawa puts it, we are all swimming in a “toxic cocktail of chemicals.” But this sea of chemicals leads to the question: Why aren’t we all sick?
Toxins don’t affect all of us equally, Nakazawa explains. Your sensitivity depends on your genes, with around one in four people carrying “some combination of genes that make them more susceptible to one or more autoimmune diseases.” (As someone with various inflammatory conditions, I don’t need genetic testing to be fairly certain that I have such a combination of genes.)
The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) estimates that around 30 percent of autoimmune diseases are caused primarily by genetics, while the other 70 percent are caused primarily by environmental triggers. (In that estimate, “environmental triggers” include not only chemical toxins but also triggers from diet, chemical changes in the body due to stress, etc.) Nakazawa writes:
Fairweather believes that [the] overwhelming response of our mast cells, and not the hygiene hypothesis, is what’s driving today’s autoimmune and allergy epidemic. Indeed, Fairweather contends, the synergistic effect of shifts in our lifestyles over the past fifty years is so profound that even people who do not possess a genetic predisposition to autoimmunity may now be at risk for developing autoimmune disease.
In other words, even if you don’t have much of a genetic predisposition, the sheer volume of environmental triggers might still make you susceptible.
Also, just because you have the right (or wrong!) genes doesn’t mean you’ll get an autoimmune disease. It just makes disease more likely, because you are more sensitive to environmental factors like stress, diet, and toxins.
For patients who do possess the genetic variants predisposing them to autoimmune disease, reaching that threshold at which disease can more easily strike involves a number of factors. You might liken it to the “barrel effect.” You can fill a barrel to the absolute rim, and even while water hovers about the edge, not a drop will spill. But add one more minuscule drop of liquid and the water will begin to cascade over the sides.
The Barrel Effect was a key concept for me. It provided a reasonable explanation for the timing of my disease, and illustrated how a combination of many factors, rather than just one, could cause my illness. The trigger needn’t be only stress, only diet, or only toxins. It could have been all of the above: the accumulation of toxins over the lengthening years of my life, the advent of my poor diet in 2013, and the stress I had endured for the previous couple of years. By late 2013, my barrel of bodily stressors would have become dangerously full.
Eating organic isn’t enough
Reading The Autoimmune Epidemic made me feel vindictive about eating organic. Nakazawa directs attention to the role of inorganic food in autoimmune disease:
Indeed, for individuals who are genetically susceptible to autoimmunity, eating a diet full of chemicals, dyes, pesticides, and the like may be tantamount to swallowing tiny doses of antigens that the body does not recognize as safe and may, over time, help nudge the immune system toward an autoimmune response. This shift from a whole-foods diet to a processed-food diet over the past sixty years is a critical factor in pushing autoimmune disease rates ever upward.
For years, Ron had complained about the high costs of my food habits, often citing the $12 bag of grapes he had accidentally bought (before checking the price–always check the price!) at a health food store. But I had long been worried about cancer, and had insisted. Now that I understood how chemicals can cause autoimmune disease as well as cancer, I could wave my new book in Ron’s face. See? I wasn’t paranoid. They really are out to get us!
But the book also made me think about the many chemical exposures I have had, despite all my efforts to eat organic.
There were the years, in college and my early twenties, when one of my favorite lunches was two tuna fish sandwiches. For around three years, I ate perhaps three or four cans of mercury-laced tuna a week. (This was in the early 2000s, before the dangers of mercury from fish were splashing their way across the headlines.) There were the decades I spent drinking out of plastic water bottles that contained BPA and untold other harmful chemicals. There were the many nights of microwaved TV dinners as a kid and instant, microwaved food as an adult, all in plastic until around 2005, when I was finally warned that microwaving plastic is dangerous. And, of course, there were all the carpeted, upholstered spaces I had spent time in, all the shampoos and moisturizers I had used, all the paint fumes I had breathed…
I could go on and on, as we all could. The truth was that I had had plenty of exposure to harmful chemicals in my life.
Taking action, briefly
Now, after reading this book, I wanted to try doing more, again, to avoid chemicals. I knew there were many more things I could do.
I could minimize the toxins in my cosmetics. At some point a few years earlier, in a previous toxin-purge effort, I had begun using organic sesame oil as a body lotion. I was following the axiom that, since your skin is absorbent, you shouldn’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth. In another effort years before that, I had switched to “natural” shampoo and conditioner, the Giovanni products sold in the Wellness sections of grocery coops and with the subtitle Eco Chic Technology. Both of these were minor changes that had actually stuck; I was still practicing them.
Warned by The Autoimmune Epidemic, I now looked closer at my “natural” shampoo’s ingredients. The list included several organic substances such as organic aloe vera and safflower oil…but most ingredients had mysterious chemical names like decyl glucoside and sodium cocoyl glutamate.
Maybe it was time to finally switch to a shampoo bar, which I had tried in the past, but had quickly abandoned because it dried out my hair. I still had my old J.R. Liggett’s bar, whose list of ingredients is impressively simple and natural: olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil, sunflower oil, and sustainable palm kernel oil. You use a shampoo bar just like soap, scrubbing it onto your scalp to work up a lather, using that lather to wash your hair, and rinsing. It’s simple and natural, cheap compared to natural liquid shampoo, and even travels well! I decided to give it another try.
The power of habit
So for a while, after reading the book and as we prepared for our cross-country move, I began to make small changes like this. I added these to the other major changes I was making to my diet in Madison.
But it was all just so complicated. And tiring.
The shampoo bar did dry out my hair, just like I remembered. Stepping into the shower one day, exhausted after bouts of pain and months of illness, self-conscious about my bloated belly and persistent acne, I gave in. The smooth, liquid Giovanni shampoo and conditioner were still in the shower caddy, since Ron still used them. Soon I was back to my regular hair-care regimen. I wasn’t up for making this particular change now, when I so longed for control over any part of my decrepit body. I just wanted smooth hair, dammit!
A couple weeks later, on our road trip to Portland, I conveniently forgot my skin axiom when buying my new makeup. You shouldn’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth…except that organic makeup is hideously expensive. There I was, at Walgreen’s on a quick stop for supplies, and the makeup wall was beckoning. Here I could buy cheap, effective eyeliner, foundation, and lipstick. They couldn’t possibly do that much damage to my immune system–could they?
Sick of being sick, eager to wrest control over my appearance back from my disease, I was again abandoning everything I had learned from Nakazawa’s book and opting for convenience. We were unemployed, and our bank account was hemorrhaging money. It wasn’t the time to invest in expensive cosmetics.
As we moved into our new house, I threw caution to the wind in other ways as well. I tried to stick with our “green” cleaners, but when we found a black widow in the garage I ran to Walgreen’s and bought Raid to spray on the egg sac. I’d rather spray a few chemicals in the garage than risk thousands of black widow babies! As I drilled holes in the drywall and bought cans and cans of paint and worked with various treated wood products while making home repairs, only sometimes did I wear dust masks. They made me feel claustrophobic, and I feared they’d make my acne worse. We didn’t have money or energy to search for green building products like organically-treated lumber or some kind of natural paint product. (Does that even exist? Looks like it does!) Setting up our new home was an exhausting, all-encompassing project that lasted for months. Trying to find chemical-free ways of doing everything felt like far too much effort; I could barely manage as it was. Better, I figured, to just race through the tasks and hope for the best.
I could minimize chemicals in my life once my life got less complicated.
The truth was, despite Nakazawa’s convincing research and the reality that I actually had my own new autoimmune disease, habit and rationalization were still getting the better of me as they always eventually had. It was just easier to carry on as I had before, doing things the way most people did them. Even after all the frightening things I had read, a part of me just didn’t believe it all. I was an environmental scientist who was denying this particular environmental science, because it was inconvenient to me.
Somehow, in my own case, with objects that I touched and used and encountered every day, the science did not compute. My makeup didn’t seem dangerous. Neither did my couch, or the paint on my walls, or my shampoo. These were normal things. Everyone had them.
I could accept that toxins may have played a role in my disease, along with diet and lifestyle. But it was hard enough to make changes to my diet, for now. Tackling the ubiquity of toxins was just going to have to wait.