Demystifying “Toxins”

By Donovan Makus

It may seem as if we’re constantly bombarded with messaging surrounding “toxins,” be it by sponsored “content promoters” or ads for detoxes. You may have also seen a local advertisement by an Albertan bank, suggesting they support entrepreneurs seeking a “toxin-free world.” Before congratulating them on making the world safer for humanity or embarking on a multi-day “cleanse,” it’s worth defining what exactly is meant by “toxin.” Usually broadly defined as something which causes adverse biological effects, this word has grown to mean much more. In the scientific sense, a “toxin” is a protein produced by a living organism that causes immediate, usually negative, effects. However, the broader definition has grown to include not just natural toxicants, the more correct term, but also synthetic chemicals and elements such as metals. The definition we’re all more likely using isn’t related to proteins or biological organisms, though; instead, we’re more likely to think of compounds or items that cause us harm. You may have even heard someone suggest you should remove “toxic” people from your life. No matter what definition you use, there is one unifying feature of these cleanses, detoxes, or other solutions.  

These detoxes are, for the most part, pointless. Since the dawn of humankind, we’ve had to face a hostile environment full of things that could kill us, from those enticing red berries to the multicoloured bread we forgot about two weeks ago. Thankfully, we have many ways of eliminating toxins,;our liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, and even skin and lungs, are working hard to keep us alive. This isn’t to say we can eat or drink anything we want, but only drinking kale juice for seven days isn’t going to magically cleanse our fat cells of stored PCBs that are supposedly making us feel sluggish. Our bodies have limits within which we can cope with toxins, it’s when those limits are exceeded that we face problems, and a juice “detox” isn’t going to help your body overcome this kind of toxin exposure. You may feel better, but as of 2020, we’ve been unable to separate this positive feeling from the placebo effect. The scientific proof for detoxes is lacking. In fact, detoxes can have adverse effects. While there may be benefits associated with fasting, other forms of mono-diet detoxes can induce harm through nutritional deficiencies. No food can completely meet all of our dietary needs on its own, and the closest food to do so, potatoes, isn’t usually considered a detox food. The wide variety of options available for detox diets begs the question, why are a significant number of people concerned about removing “unnatural” toxins? 

When we think of toxins, it’s natural to think of glowing uranium, poisons from plants such as hemlock, or perhaps some drugs with checkered pasts, such as thalidomide. These substances are all toxic, but so too is water. Besides the main route of water toxicity, drowning, drinking too much water can cause severe injury or death, as happened in a Southern California water-drinking contest in 2007, much to the loss of the family of the deceased, and chagrin of the contest sponsor which paid $16.5 million in wrongful death compensation. Toxicologists have a principal saying, “It’s the dose that makes the poison,” it just so happens some substances are toxic at levels far lower than others. This is worth bearing in mind when someone contrasts “natural” and “toxic” as if they are two separate categories. The most toxic substance known, Botulism toxin (used in Botox for less toxic cosmetic and migraine relief reasons), is lethal to 50% of humans at 60 ng/kg body weight. 500g of pure Botulism toxin is enough to kill every single human currently alive. Despite being incredibly toxic, Botulism toxin is all-natural, produced by a bacteria in poorly preserved goods, not mad scientists in a chemical weapons lab. While we, as a species, have been able to find new and innovative ways to create toxic compounds, from DDT to nerve agents, many of the most lethal toxins are all-natural. 

If a quantity of Botulism toxin small enough to be virtually invisible can kill you, why isn’t there more fear related to it? The answer lies in the risk-hazard (the actual risk) and outrage (or perceived risk). For Botulism toxin, the hazard is extremely high if you are exposed. Fortunately conditions favouring Botulism toxin formation are rare, rendering the overall risk lower. However, focusing only on hazard misses, an essential part of the risk equation to most people, is the outrage factor. Botulism toxin causes less outrage than fluoridated drinking water, despite the water being a significantly lower hazard. Awareness is the missing link, and has only increased with the rise of the internet and modern analytical chemistry methods. We can now determine the concentrations of potential toxins at levels so minute they may as well not exist, but the headline “Chemical almost too small to measure” doesn’t sell as well as “Toxin detected in drinking water.” Combining this growing awareness of the toxins all around us with our own outrage factor generates interest in the detoxes that seem to surround us. So before engaging in an all-green diet for the next week, stop and pat your liver; it’s doing the best job it can, and it’s got this. 

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