The dangerous effects of industrial chemicals on the environment and our health are becoming more serious. Some of these chemical toxins are hiding in places you may not be aware of. Persistent Organic Pollutants are the fifth of five major groups of environmental toxins that are having a disastrous effect on our health and our global environment. Read on to learn about how we are exposed, how they affect our health, and steps to reduce exposure to this group of toxins.
What are POP’s?
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s) are a large group of organic chemicals that remain intact and persist for very long periods of time (many years). POP’s are readily absorbed and accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and humans, and are found in the soil, water, and air even as far away as the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the earth! POP’s are toxic to humans and wildlife. Fish can contain very high levels PCB’s, a very toxic POP.
How am I exposed to POP’s?
We are exposed to POP’s in many of the same ways as other environmental toxins. If you live in a developing country, you are likely exposed to higher concentrations of POPs, because often these countries are storing or using POP’s that are banned elsewhere. Many of the worst POP’s are found in the three categories below:
Pesticides/Insecticides – Used on conventionally grown crops around the world. Many of the worst are banned, but still persist. The worst ones include:
DDT: banned pesticide still used to control mosquitoes in some countries
Hexochlorobenzene (HCB): a banned fungicide
Hexachlorocyclohexane: in various pesticides such as Lindane
Aldrin/Dieldrin: insecticides for termites that deform and kill aquatic life.
Industrial Chemicals – Includes flame-retardants used on furniture, mattresses and infant sleepwear. Teflon is likely to be added to the list of most prevalent POP’s to reduce or eliminate globally. The worst ones include:
PCB’s: see my articles on PCB’s here
Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD): flame retardant
Byproducts of chemicals – Most forms of burning, including industrial burning, burning wood or trash, cigarette smoke, and automobile exhaust.
In 2001, more than 100 countries signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (http://www.pops.int/TheConvention/ThePOPs/The12InitialPOPs/tabid/296/Default.aspx), which commits them to reduce or eliminate the production, use, and release of the 12 POP’s of greatest concern. These 12 chemicals, commonly called the “dirty dozen.” In 2009, the Stockholm Convention listed an additional nine chemicals to be eliminated, including flame-retardant chemicals.
Our oceans are a depository of toxic chemicals which contaminates seafood to varying degrees. The most POP-contaminated seafood oceans are the Northeast Pacific Ocean (Alaska and Northwest US coast), Northeast Atlantic Ocean (between Greenland and Northern Europe), and the Gulf of Mexico. The safest seafood oceans are the Northwest and Southwest Pacific Ocean, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean.
How do they damage health?
POP’s have a greater harmful effect on women, infants, and children. The most harmful and permanent effects are to unborn babies, so it’s important for pregnant women to be aware of their exposure to harmful POP’s.
Many studies have shown that even low level POP exposure leads to cancer, allergies and hypersensitivity, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, reproductive disorders, and disruption of the immune system. Some POPs are also known to be endocrine (hormone) disrupters, and can damage the reproductive and immune systems of exposed individuals as well as their offspring.
Human health impacts may be felt most acutely in populations that consume large amounts of fish (e.g., subsistence fishermen), since fish have a high fat content and often contain high concentrations of POPs.
What can I do?
- Limit eating large fish that are higher on the food chain since POP’s increase in concentration in these type of fish: Orange roughy, swordfish, shark, as well as most farmed fish, especially salmon
- Eat fish low on the food chain: sardines, anchovies, herring, wild-caught salmon, cod, shrimp, Atlantic mackerel
- Canned tuna: eat no more than 1 regular-sized can per week. If you’re pregnant or breast-feeding, eat less than that.
- If possible, eat organic versions of high-fat foods, or limit your consumption of non-organic high-fat foods and eat foods that contain healthy fats.
- Invest in a quality water filter – either solid carbon or reverse osmosis. Both of these will remove most of the POP’s and other toxins from the water. Drinking water can be a major source of toxin intake, so make sure it’s filtered and not stored in plastic bottles. Also cook with filtered water since you are also consuming that water.
- Buy organic produce if possible, especially the ones you eat most often. You can also wash your produce in filtered water with white distilled vinegar and baking soda.
ATSDR (2014, May). Toxic Substances Portal. Toxicological Profiles. Retrieved from http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/index.asp
Crinnion, W. (2010). Clean, Green & Lean: Drop the weight in 30 days. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Krohn, J. and F. Taylor (2000). Natural Detoxification. 2nd ed. Vancouver: Hartley and Marks Publishers Inc.
Stockholm Convention, (2008). What are POP’s? Retrieved from http://chm.pops.int/TheConvention/ThePOPs/tabid/673/Default.aspx