Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Gut Feeling about Pollution

I think most of us living in the U.S. today have some sort of idea that pollution is harming us. However, I think we tend to have a limited view of the possible health effects. We may think of pollutants causing cancer and respiratory distress, but fail to realize the systemic results of exposures and to consider environmental causes for a wide variety of health challenges.

A recent article from Environmental Health News makes the point. The author quotes a scientist from the University of Alberta  who states, “We tend to think about air pollution in terms of lung health, but the GI tract is also being bathed in it continuously. Fine pollution particles are cleared from the respiratory tract by mucous that makes its way to the gut.”

Studies are beginning to link air pollutants to inflammatory bowel diseases (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease) and other gastrointestinal problems. The article notes the following:

  • A study found that children and young adults with higher exposure to a component of traffic exhaust (nitrogen dioxide) were more than twice as likely to develop Crohn’s disease.

  • Another study found that high air pollution was associated with a 40 percent increase in the rate of hospitalizations for bowel disease. The pollution included carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, volatile organic chemicals and fine particulates.

  • Fine particulates may make the gut more permeable, alter its normal bacteria, and trigger inflammation. Particulates primarily come from combustion, such as from car exhaust and heating fuel.

  • High levels of ozone have been linked to an increased risk of a burst appendix. Every weekly increase of 16 parts per billion of ozone increases the risk of a burst appendix by 11 to 22 percent.

Intestinal effects of various kinds can be caused by a wide variety of toxins. The Environmental Protection Agency lists several possibilities. They note that formaldehyde has been linked to inflammation and toxicity of the intestinal tract. Formaldehyde can be found in pressed wood products, carpet, foam insulation, cosmetics, cleaning products, and many other places. Chemicals known to cause abdominal pain include arsenic (found in water, soil and some wood preservatives) and nitrates and nitrites, which are common components of gasoline, shoe polish, spray paints, rat poison, food preservatives, and fertilizer.

It’s easy to think that what we breathe will affect our lungs and what we eat will affect our gastrointestinal tract, but it’s not quite that simple. However a toxin enters the body, it has the potential to affect the whole system. There’s no getting around it. For optimum health, we need to avoid toxins in every way we possibly can.


DebraSY said...

I've said it before, the MCS community will be taken more seriously when it connects the dots from environmental toxins to obesity. Everyone fears that bugbear (the social stigma is horrible) and as the percentage of obese people rises, more are realizing it's not as simple as fat people being lazy gluttons. Moreover, no safe drugs are available to manage obesity as they are for asthma, etc.

The chemically induced alterations in gut flora you speak of above may be contributing to obesity in some people. Moreover chemical exposure is likely triggering the epigenetic expression of obesity in other people.

Instead of seeing obesity as the cause of problems, we need to recognize that it is a symptom (as is MCS) of a sick, sick environment on many levels. Since 1960 we have seen a dramatic change in the prevalence and severity of obesity (as well as MCS). At the same time we have seen an outbreak of pesticides, food additives, livestock hormones, BPA, triclosan (which you have written on before), MSG, transfats, drug effluent entering our drinking water (especially birth control) and on and on.

But it is somehow more comforting to think we are not experiencing consequences from these changes (which temporarily make our lives easier or more fulfilling) and to hold earnest, hapless people responsible for their own suffering. Woof.

The one and only great thing about obesity is that it's visible. People with MCS are not, sadly. Another thing people with MCS and obesity share in common (in addition to living in the modern chemically-saturated world): ignorant people (translation: most people) think that both issues can be controlled effectively and permanently by the sufferer if we want it badly enough, pray hard enough, behave rightly. Would that it were so simple.

Martha McLaughlin said...

I completely agree that people are more likely to start paying attention to the chemical toxicity issue when they start associating it with problems they personally struggle with, including weight. I hope to write a post on the weight/chemical issue one of these days. There's certainly plenty of information out there to use. Chemicals that affect weight even have their own name: "obesogens." I've read more about weight and hormone disrupting chemicals than about those that affect intestinal bacterial balance, but I'm sure the info is out there, and it doesn't take much to connect the dots anyway, given what we already know. As I mentioned in the post, I think one of the biggest obstacles we who care about the toxicity issue need to overcome is that people tend to associate toxins with a very limited range of possible effects. We'll start making real progress when people start understanding that anything foreign that enters our body has the possibility to affect our physical and emotional health (which can also affect our spiritual health) in a huge number of ways.

Zona said...

Interesting article! Made me think, "oh duh me! Why didn't that dawn on me before?" Thanks for bringing this to our attention.