What’s all this toxicity about?

There are two big buzzwords in the world of alternative medicine and among those who deny the efficacy of certain medical treatments. Immediately, through the use of our over-sensationalized media (and through other contextual uses) these words carry an air of negativity and alarm. When people hear these words being used they instantly relate them to something dangerous or harmful. What most people don’t understand though is that these words are either being used wrong or are being used in a way that completely betrays their actual meanings.

Of course, I’m talking about “natural” (or unnatural) and “toxic”. The alt-med proponents have hinged entire concepts surrounding vaccination and “Big-Pharma” on these two words: utilizing them as a win any battle tool that connects straight to the sensibilities of the reader. The words and the way they are applied appeal to a consumer’s emotions and place them in specific frames of mind. But there are questions that consumers fail to ask.

For example: a company is marketing a herbal treatment which it says is 100% natural, safe and effective. The problem we have here, and it’s the problem that has persisted for a long time, is what the hell does “natural” mean in this context? Lets assume that this alt-med company uses natural to mean that the ingredients are “naturally occurring”, or that they have been extracted from plants either from the wild or that have been cultivated.

But then the issue goes deeper. Okay, so the treatment only contains these ingredients that have been extracted from plants? Well, what makes those exact ingredients – or chemicals – any different or safer than if they were synthesized or man-made? Every chemical on the planet has a molecular structure and is constructed of the same building blocks. It doesn’t matter if a chemical is extracted from a plant, where the plant has “synthesized” it for some purpose or that a human has “synthesized” – it’s chemical structure remains the same.

So, if their structures are the same – they are constructed of exactly the same basic building blocks and virtually identical – what makes the “natural” one safer? By what mechanism would this extra-safety or less-safety on the part of the man made one occur? There is no mechanism that is currently recognized by science for this happen. You could argue about the possibilities of contamination in pharmaceutical labs, but you also have a near  equal possibility of some kind of contamination when the “natural” treatment is put together – from the extraction process, to the mixing, etc.

There’s also the fact that pharmaceuticals, and their respective labs, come under strict regulations and guidelines. From a quality assurance perspective (which is actually my field of work, though not in pharma) there are stricter controls in place within FDA regulated labs than there are within processing facilities that put together these “natural” treatments. In fact, a recent study highlighted major problems with popular natural treatments on the market: many didn’t have the active ingredients advertised and an almost equal number contained ingredients and chemicals not printed on the label.

In reality the “natural” gambit means absolutely nothing. A chemical is a chemical, regardless of how that chemical was formed. Equally, when these natural diets advertise ways of eating that are “chemical free” they are actually making a claim that in itself makes no sense. A natural diet may advise you to eat a certain amount of fruit per day or week. What they won’t tell you – if they even realize it – is that an average size apple contains:

applechemical2So, what happens if you remove all of those nasty chemicals from the apple? You’re pretty much going to end up with no apple. In fact, chemicals have this bizarre stigma attached to them – as if they’re bad things. Well, chemicals – whether formed by non-man-made processes or man-made processes – pretty much hold this world together in many ways. And many, many chemicals in the right doses are not only not harmful but are necessary for your body to stay healthy and keep you alive. Which brings me onto the next buzzword, “toxic”.

Many of the anti-vaxxers and alt-med proponents push the word “toxic” when referring to chemicals or drugs included in processed food or treatments provided by FDA regulated pharmaceuticals. Really, they’re misapplying it in a big way. This is what Wikipedia has to say about toxicity:

A central concept of toxicology is that effects are dose-dependent; even water can lead to water intoxication when taken in too high a dose, whereas for even a very toxic substance such as snakevenom there is a dose below which there is no detectable toxic effect. Toxicity is species-specific, lending cross-species analysis problematic. Newer paradigms and metrics are evolving to bypass animal testing, while maintaining the concept of toxicity endpoints.[1]

Notice how the word “chemical” is omitted from the description. People use the word “toxicity” to refer to a particular substance or chemical to be unequivocally toxic, and this is simply not true. The above example about water intoxication is one I’m familiar with. I work in Western Australia, and the site based personnel working out in the Pilbara – which reaches in excess of fifty degrees Celsius during the summer – have to battle water intoxication on a daily basis. Last year, we have three people go to hospital for this very issue.

Too much water can be toxic. So can caffeine. And so can any other substance if it’s present in the human body in high enough doses. Some fruits and vegetables contain tiny, trace amounts of cyanide compounds. Will this stop you from eating delicious cherries? I don’t think so.

When anti-vaxxers talk about “toxic chemicals” in vaccines, what they’re actually saying makes little to no sense. The chemicals that are present in vaccines are at such low levels that they can not possibly have intoxicating effects (except for in extremely rare circumstances). Toxicity is largely about dose. Those acids present in the apple are not harmful. But if you were to consume massive amounts of those acids, they very well may be.

So when you see an alt-med proponent say “avoid those toxic chemicals”, what you really should be doing is asking the question: what do you mean by that? How are these chemicals inherently toxic? Where is the proof to back that claim up? And where is the evidence to show that the chemicals in your treatments aren’t toxic?

And with that, I want to close in on a final point. Anti-vaxxers and alt-med proponents are always telling people to stop trusting the government, Big-Pharma and corporations. But that all begs another question, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, how can we trust them?


About Brad Smith
Freelance writer, blogger and secular humanist. I run "The Atom Stew" blog and I'm the self-appointed editor of Skeptical World.

One Response to What’s all this toxicity about?

  1. hitchens67 says:

    Reblogged this on hitchens67 Atheism WOW!! Campaign and commented:
    Very enlightening article. I sometimes doff the skeptic hat and buy into the sensationalized bullshit myself.

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