Thursday, January 07, 2010

Evolution of the Toxic Response: In the beginning there were chemicals....

The following is what I intend to be the first in a series of essays on the Evolution of the Toxic Response – a topic which piqued my interest after what could either be called a disastrous flirtation with the publishing world, or an invaluable lesson in pursuing your passion. The disaster was allowing myself to be duped into thinking the content and style of this blog would actually make an engaging book (wrong,) the passion was in realizing that writing primarily about toxicants of interest to the consumer (and in the style that would be most appealing to mass market publishers) has caused me to lose my way as a toxicologist and a scientist.

There is no doubt that some toxicants are, well, toxic. But there is always the question of exposure, dose, and potency. Topics often lost in breezy articles meant to engage a reader – rather than inform about the complexities not only of toxicology but science in general. Unfortunately the publishing world seems to have no confidence in its mass readership. Readers are attracted by alarmism, so hype it up. They’ll doze if there is too much science, so keep it simple. They just want to be told what’s best for them, so just tell them. But after whipping off one light and fluffy page after another about dangerous toxicants hidden away our homes and gardens (along with a few good toxins in our ‘fridges) all in preparation for my failed Book Proposal, a request by the local news paper to write about bisphenol A or BPA resulted in a nearly visceral reaction at the thought of writing yet one more article for consumer consumption about chemicals consumed by consumers.

But after the storm, and the lull where I could barely bring myself to write another word about chemicals, came the passion. I was attracted to toxicology because I was fascinated by chemicals that screwed up the normal processes of life. But that was back in a time long long ago when toxicology meant PCBs, lead, mercury, dioxin, and assorted pesticides. These were obvious chemicals in concentrations that couldn’t hide within the peaks and valleys of the chemists’ printout. But science has come a long way since then. Now, we know far more about the minute amounts of a myriad of chemicals contaminating our water, air and food than we do about the way they might interact with our lung cells, or livers, or brains. We know that our bodies sequester the smallest amounts of these chemicals in our bones, brains, and fat cells.

Many of these chemicals will stick around on earth at least for our lifetimes, and those of our children. What will be the consequences of these chemical exposures – if any? What do we really mean when we say that these chemicals are toxic? At what point does a contaminant become a toxicant? Given all the synthetic and naturally occurring chemicals entering and exiting our bodies with virtually every breath – some of which by now are unavoidable, others we might choose to inhale and ingest, and still others have been with us for eons, how can I, as toxicologist better understand the collective impact?

This was when I remembered I’ve inherited more than my big ears, hazel eyes and dry skin from my ancestors. I’ve inherited a whole system of toxic defense mechanisms, because really, well before the first animal ventured onto land, well before the first single-celled organism respired oxygen, life on earth relied upon chemical defense mechanisms of one sort or another.

And to some extent, we owe our lives -- as do all life forms -- from bacteria, to plants and all animals -- to these toxic detoxification processes.

Yet are they enough to protect life from the steady rain of natural and synthetic chemicals experienced by life on earth today?

That is the question I intend to explore in this upcoming series of essays, so stay tuned if you dare.

Also if you are a toxicologist, chemist, geologist etc. and would like to discuss the topic further please don't hesitate to contact me at I'd love to begin a virtual journal group on this topic.


Anonymous said...

I'm fascinated by your blog - I don't need to be scared - I'm already scared. I want to know the science of what's happening and try to parse the risks with a little less hype. Keep up the good work!

And I'm your neighbor down the river a ways, too, so keep it clean up there ;)

Emily Monosson said...

Thanks Sufficiency.

It's been an evolving process - I feel a bit sad that I'm not as active on the consumer issues as I have been but really after the book writing experience - I was feeling pretty burnt out. A break from that left me wondering what's "real" and what's not.

It's always complicated - just because a chemical may have no known effect doesn't mean we ought to acquiesce to eating and breathing it. So I do understand when a chemical is hyped up as a real threat to health when the evidence is weak - because that seems to be the only language that anyone (re legislators and regulators) seem to hear.

I'm hopeful (as I've written) that this won't become the case with nano- and that a more precautionary approach will be taken as new chemical combinations are created and used.

I'm thinking of creating a new blog on evolution of the toxic response, from early conditions on earth to conditions we live with today.

I think somehow that will help provide some context to our interactions with this complex mixture of chemicals we eat and breath (as do many animals on earth today.)

Including those in the CT river! Our town is JUST now dealing with combined sewage overflows (e.g. preventing occasional releases of raw sewage to the river) but I suppose we're a relatively small input compared with Holyoke and Springfield...