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Environmental toxicity- It is just a food chain

by Milos Pokimica ND

by Milos Pokimica ND

Learn About Nutrition

"Environmental toxicity is the bioaccumulation of toxins. Organisms are filters. But there is one more even worse process called biomagnification in food chain. "

When toxins get into the environment, they will end up in the water. Then through river systems eventually will end up in the ocean. They will get diluted, and there will be no problem. In time they will dissipate.

Water pollution mural Punta Arenas Chile- Environmental toxicity
Water pollution mural Punta Arenas Chile

The short answer is no.

Environmental toxicity is the bioaccumulation of toxins. Organisms are like filters. It is correct that concentrations of all of our heavy industry pollutants and drugs and other chemicals are low when measured directly in ocean water, but there is already mentioned phenomenon called bioaccumulation. If the chemical is stable, it will end up in plankton, algae, and other organisms. If there is a substance in the environment, the organism will absorb it, leading to environmental toxicity and that is a process known as bioaccumulation. When we breathe, if there is smoke in the air we will absorb it in the same manner as plankton or algae will absorb anything that is in the water. If a rate of absorption is faster than the rate and the ability of the organism for excretion, the substance will in time accumulate. A substance such as heavy metals for example or pesticides that remain unaffected in the environment and are stable for an extended period will get filtered by the organisms that live in that water. Because they have the tendency to be soluble in fat but not in the water they accumulate in living organisms. Meaning they stick to the fat and other cells in the body and don’t want to leave.

Therefore, all the poisons that are in oceans and that are human-made and are heat resistant and chemically stable will bioaccumulate and reach a much higher concentration in organisms than in water. Organisms are like filters. They filter everything that exists in water good or bad. This is not good news for us. The situation would not be even so bad, but there is one more process called biomagnification. If we understand the food chain, the accumulation of toxins gets hundreds of times worse as we move up. Environmental toxicity becomes horrendous in modern times because of this. These fat-soluble toxins cannot be metabolized or broken down, and at the same time, they cannot be excreted thru the kidneys by urine because fat and water do not mix. The only way for the organism to get rid of them is by enzymatic activity, and if an organism lacks enzymes to degrade them, they will accumulate in fatty tissues. Most if not all of these chemicals are new and human-made and organisms do not have a mechanism to detoxify them because in evolution they never had to, until now. So what happens is that when small fish get eaten by big fish, all of her toxins get passed into the bigger fish. Fats and all toxins in them will be digested in the gut and will be absorbed into the organism of the predator where they will be accumulated even more. Since at each level of the food chain there is some degree of energy that is lost, to compensate a predator will consume a more significant number of prey, including all of their lipophilic toxic substances.

Biomagnification in the food chain
Biomagnification in the food chain

Concentration may be insignificant in oceans, but then water starts to get filtered by algae. Two main groups of substances biomagnify. Both are lipophilic and are not easily degraded. One of them are these new chemicals that are unknown to the immune systems of animals. Those substances are known as “persistent organic pollutants” or POP. They are called persistent because they do not degrade in the environment. Regular sewage water when enters the river or the ocean has no impact on a large scale because it goes through the natural process of degradation and disappears. Only artificial human-created unnatural chemicals remain the persistent ones.

Besides POP’s there are metals. Metals are elements which means they are not living matter, so they are not biodegradable. Organisms that had thru evolution been exposed to high levels of some of these toxic metals that can be found naturally in the environment did in time develop defensive mechanisms to counter that exposure. The problem arises when there is an abrupt shift in an environment that are exposing these organisms to higher concentrations than what they are adapted to cope with. That will cause a buildup of these metals in the body that is unable to detoxify them and excrete them rapidly enough to prevent damage.

Pcp concentracion
Pcp concentracion

Mercury, for instance, is only present in minuscule amounts in seawater. When algae absorb seawater, everything in it including mercury will stick and won’t leave. Algae in some sense are acting like a seawater filtration system. Mercury will get absorbed by algae (generally as methylmercury). That filtering will start the process of bioaccumulation. Any species that will eat algae will also eat all the mercury in it. That will result in an ever-increasing concentration and buildup in the adipose tissue of successive trophic levels with the ever-increasing level of toxicity all the way up to larger fish. When we or any other predatory species eat those large fish, we will also consume all of the accumulated mercury. As bioaccumulation increases the concentration level in the predatory fish or birds will be much higher and in some cases severely toxic. For instance, herring contains mercury concentration at approximately 0.01 parts per million (ppm). Top predators like a shark will have it at even higher than 1 ppm. How did mercury even end up in the seawater? Inorganic mercury is found in the ground, and it gets released by gold mining and the primary production of non-ferrous metals. The more substantial contributor is fossil fuel burning. When coal or oil is burned it will be released into the atmosphere then it will be washed by rain. Thru river streams eventually, it will end up in the ocean. Once in the ocean, it never leaves for eternity. It does not biodegrade.

Methylmercury biomagnification
Methylmercury biomagnification

The only possible solution for environmental toxicity is to go lower on the food chain. Meaning eating vegan whole plant foods. People don’t realize that animal fed is also filled with pesticides and that in fat tissues of farmed animals there is an accumulation of toxins as well. Around 70 percent of all pesticides people consume in the standard American diet come from fat from animal products, not from sprayed fruits and vegetables that you need to wash to remove the residue. We cannot wash the pesticide off the meat. We need to go low on a food chain to avoid it altogether. For example, krill oil should be purer than full-blown fish oil. Krill have a high mortality rate and live short and are low on the food chain so they would not have as many pollutants. Going all the way to sea vegetables is the best course without supplementation especially because we can get more other minerals like iodine and phytochemicals when eating sea vegetables in a salad than just taking algae-based or krill-based DHA supplement. Our oceans are by now so polluted that even low-level organisms can be contaminated. Especially after algae blooms and all of the neurotoxins that this form of algae can create.

Gulf of Mexico algae bloom
Gulf of Mexico algae bloom

I used to like to eat squids on a regular basis. I considered them healthy because they have a low level of fat in them. I considered them to be the purest protein actually from all animals. I liked to compare them to egg whites. I was a regular protein kid from the gym. Squids have a high reproduction rate and should not be contaminated, except their inner organs actually are and the older the squid, the more cadmium can accumulate (1). Cadmium poisoning cases something called Itai-Itai disease (itai-itai byo, “it hurts-it hurts disease”) was the name given to the mass cadmium poisoning of Toyama Prefecture, Japan, starting around 1912. Cadmium is very toxic. The discovery of small amounts of cadmium in McDonald’s “Shrek Forever After” drinking glasses resulted in fear and anger. This led to a nationwide recall over the dangers that this toxic metal could affect young children. The biggest problem with cadmium is that it has a tendency to accumulate in the body. Our bodies have a hard time excreting it so that is why it will accumulate and generate toxicity and carcinogenic effects.

The logical conclusion from all of this is that even the creatures on the lower levels of the food chain that have a high level of reproduction can in a short period accumulate heavy metals and a whole variety of other toxins that we do not know about. Squid meet might be clean for now if we cut out the inner organs and chuck them out but what about all the other stuff that I did not research. Is it possible to research every aspect of the food that we consume? I can only go logically and cannot do nutrition research for every single thing. I used cadmium and mercury here just as an example. Good old led poisoning plus the entire periodic table can be added to the list, and so far this is just metals. The wide variety of other chemical pollutants are also a concern. Even polar bears now have renal lesions, reduced bone mineral density, fatty liver, and chronic inflammation due to food poisoning (2). The dolphins too (3).

Organohalogen compounds are PCB congeners, DDT and metabolites, chlordane-related compounds, and so on. The effect of POP on human health and also to the environment as well is real and even if we think that it is something we can ignore the situation is not as such. The international community made the intention to restrict production at the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001. However, the real story is that we cannot. They are an essential part of modern agriculture and different type of industries. Not everything can be recycled and purified. POP can evaporate too and enter into the atmosphere. Because they are resisting breakdown reactions in the air and are stable, they can travel long distances. Then they will fall and be re-deposited. This results in an accumulation of POP in areas far from where they have been used or emitted. They can reach as far as Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. We do not have a clean life anymore because there is no natural way to produce food organically for billions of people on the planet. Some of the most known POP are for example Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and Dioxins, and Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). PCBs are used in plastics, as additives in paint, in electrical transformers, and capacitors, carbonless copy paper, and as heat exchange fluids. So no plastic and electronics without them. PCB’s are poisonous to fish at high dosages, and correlated with spawning failure at low doses. In humans, PCBs are associated with immune suppression and sterility, and most exposure comes from food. Today one in six couples has trouble conceiving a baby. The number of couples attempting therapeutic methods due to the problem of natural conceiving has risen dramatically in the post WW2 period. A number of 15% of couples that are sterile are more substantial than in the past for example 100 years ago. Sperm counts in the average male have fallen by almost half in the past 60 years. Fertility is lower with all men and women, and as a result 1 in 6 couples are sterile. Many experts blame this fall on the increase in environmental chemicals that have weak estrogen effects, such as DDT and PCB. An increase in estrogen levels in the general water supply, due to the use of the oral contraceptive pills, has also been implicated. There are many chemicals in this world today.

babies ddt nursery
Good old days

In this study (4) they measured the correlation between sperm count and environmental estrogens. When they talk about environmental toxicity estrogens, they do not mean phytoestrogens made by plants but xenoestrogens, pesticides like PCP, DDT, or BPA from plastic, and so on. Most of them were found in fish. Urban fish eaters have the highest average PE and PCB levels. In infertile men, the total motile sperm counts are correlated with their xenoestrogen exposure. They also found substantial correlations between PCB levels and ejaculate volume, motility, vitality, and osmoregulatory capacity. Higher PCB levels were associated with sperm damage (p < 0.05). Phthalates were also significantly higher in the infertile men with higher phthalate levels being correlated with sperm DNA damage. Both PCB and phthalate concentrations were correlated with a decrease in total mobile sperm counts as well. The conclusion was that PCB’s and PE’s (phthalate esters) might be influential in the deterioration of semen quality in the general population with particular attention being made as a contributing factor to infertility in men. Sperm count was something in the line of 10 (mean motile) live mobile count in millions for fish-eaters and above 80 for vegetarians. Around eight times the difference. If fish does not make you sterile by lowering sperm count, it will cause reduced testosterone and other pro estrogen diseases both in men and in a woman too like breast cancer, early menopause, endometriosis, and thyroid hormone problems. Many of the pesticides act similarly and have endocrine disruption potential. For example, we know that hypospadias, a birth defect of the penis where the opening is not at the tip but on the other side of the penis is caused by fungicide Vinclozolin(5). Do you still think that eating wild-caught salmon is health-promoting?

The real problem is that a number of chemicals just grow and grow. Most of them are secret. We do not have research on what they do, and nobody is talking. In the period from 2001, the Stockholm Convention list has been expanded to include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) or at least some of the most dangerous ones and also brominated flame retardants and some other compounds. Moreover, all of this is just what is tested. We need to understand that nobody will finance the research into the toxicity of different industrial chemicals that are found in the environment primarily in the long run because that is not what is going to increase the profits. Quite the opposite it will just make business more expensive. There is a lot of undeveloped countries that don’t care about long-run destruction. Most of the impoverished nations are going to do anything just to survive, and that is a breeding ground for corruption, and companies love that.

Most heavy industries dump their toxic waste in third world countries without regulation and give some money on a side to some corrupted politicians even to this day. Some of the waste is transported from western nations and dumped there also. There is a market for this. If you have something that is too expensive to get rid of in the US, transport it to third world countries and dump it. No regulations. Besides dumping, there is one even worse trend. Companies that choose to invest in foreign countries and by this I mean forms of substantial greenfield investment tend to relocate to countries where they could have the lowest cost of manufacturing, and that means the lowest environmental standards or the weakest enforcement. The pollution heavens sort of speak. Only waste from industries that cannot be allocated is transported and dumped. Or I would just ask this, what happens at the individual personal level? How many regular people will dump their mercury electricity-saving light bulbs in the regular dumpster? Not just in the U.S. but all over the globe. That mercury from light bulbs will eventually be released into the environment. Alternatively, people are also dumping hazardous waste in town dumps to avoid paying the fees charged by waste transporters. Everyone does it, especially people with high credit debt. EPA began regulating hazardous waste in 1976. Toxic waste dumps that are holdovers from the era before 1976 are still here and pose a threat. Also, there is the practice of illegal dumping that has created a large number of waste sites.

The only possible solution for avoiding toxicity is to go lower on the food chain.

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Passages selected from a book: “Go Vegan? Review of Science: Part 1” [Milos Pokimica]

  1. Influence of Squid Liver Powder on Accumulation of Cadmium in Serum, Kidney and Liver of Mice Prev Nutr Food Sci. 2013 Mar; 18(1): 1–10
  2. Do Organohalogen Contaminants Contribute to Histopathology in Liver from East Greenland Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus)? Environ Health Perspect. 2005 Nov; 113(11): 1569–1574.
  3. Anthropogenic and Natural Organohalogen Compounds in Blubber of Dolphins and Dugongs (Dugong dugon) from Northeastern Australia Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 41, 221–231 (2001)
  4. Role of environmental estrogens in the deterioration of male factor fertility. Fertile Steril. 2002 Dec;78(6):1187-94
  5. Endocrine disruptors and hypospadias: role of genistein and the fungicide Vinclozolin. Urology. 2007 Sep;70(3):618-210
  6. Dioxins and PCBs in Meat – Still a Matter of Concern? doi: 10.2533/chimia.2018.690.

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GoVeganWay.com brings you reviews of the latest nutrition and health-related research. The information provided represents the personal opinion of the author and is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  The information provided is for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider.



In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor or 911 immediately. GoVeganWay.com does not recommend or endorse any specific groups, organizations, tests, physicians, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned inside.

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October 26, 2021


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