Toxicologist Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT, a regular guest who is helping us understand the toxicity of common chemicals we may be frequently exposed to. Dr. Gilbert is Director and Founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and author of A Small Dose of Toxicology- The Health Effects of Common Chemicals.He received his Ph.D. in Toxicology in 1986 from the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, is a Diplomat of American Board of Toxicology, and an Affiliate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Washington. His research has focused on neurobehavioral effects of low-level exposure to lead and mercury on the developing nervous system. Dr. Gilbert has an extensive website about toxicology called Toxipedia, which includes a suite of sites that put scientific information in the context of history, society, and culture. www.toxipedia.org
LISTEN TO OTHER SHOWS WITH STEVEN G. GILBERT, PhD, DABT
- Toxics in the Air We Breathe—Indoors and Outdoors—and How it Affects Our Health
- Toxic Solvents and Vapors
- How Pesticides Can Harm Your Health
- Why Do People Doubt the Science Behind Toxics?
- There is No Safe Level for Lead Exposure
- Fewer Chemicals Make Healthier Babies
- Why We Shouldn’t Have Nuclear Power Plants
- How Mercury Affects Your Health
- Persistant Bioaccumulative Toxicants
- How Endocrine Disruptors Disrupt Our Endocrine Systems
- The Dangers of Exposure to Radiation and How to Protect Yourself
- Toxics Throughout History—Exposure to Toxic Substances is Not New
- The Ethics of Toxics
- How to Determine Your Risk of Harm From an Exposure to a Toxic Chemical
- Meet a Toxicologist
TOXIC FREE TALK RADIO
The Basic Principles of Toxicology
Host: Debra Lynn Dadd
Guest: Steven Gilbert, PhD, DABT
Date of Broadcast: October 21, 2013
DEBRA: Hi, I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And this is Toxic Free Talk Radio where we talk about how to thrive in a toxic world. And we do that because there are so many toxic chemicals in our lives today at this point in time, and the water we drink, the food we eat, our consumer products, our homes, even in our bodies from past exposures.
And on this show, we talk about how to recognize toxic chemicals, where they are in products, how to choose a non-toxic product, and how to get toxic chemicals out of our bodies, and be healthy, other ways of doing things that are not toxic, and just being able to recognize the difference.
So today, we’re going to be talking about with—my guest is a toxicologist. There’s a whole field of toxicology that just figures out what is toxic and what isn’t. And there are processes on how they do the standard ways of doing things.
And my guest is going to tell us about some of those. His name is Dr. Steven Gilbert. He is a Ph.D., D.A.B.T. He’s the Director and Founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology in Washington State, and author of an e-book called “A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals.”
He has a very extensive website called Toxipedia.org that is a suite of sites that puts scientific information about toxics in the context of history, society and culture.
He’s got a lot of information and explains things very clearly. And I’m going to have him on many, many times.
So today—he’s already been on once. You can go back into the archives at ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com, and listen to the other show, listen to today’s show, listen to the future shows, because here, you’re really going to learn what’s this whole question about toxic things really is about.
Before I introduce Dr. Gilbert, I just want to say that we’re going to be talking about his book today, A Small Dose of Toxicology.
And you can get that book free, it would be nice if you made a donation, but you can get that book free by going to Toxipedia.org.
Just go to ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com, and I actually have the title of his book in the description of show, is the link to the place where you can get it for free. It’s totally worth reading. Even if you just read it in little bits and pieces, you’ll get so much information to understand the toxic chemicals in the world around you.
Hello, Dr. Gilbert. Thanks for being here.
STEVEN GILBERT: Hi, Debra. It’s good to see you again.
DEBRA: Thank you. And how are you today?
STEVEN GILBERT: Very good.
DEBRA: Good. So where shall we start? First, I’d like you to tell our listening audience what inspired you to be interested in the field of toxicology.
STEVEN GILBERT: Well, I started quite a while ago, but I was very interested in protecting children’s health because I felt we expose them to many chemicals, and we need to have better control of the chemicals we expose them to.
So I was very interested in chemicals, such as lead and mercury, and the consequences to the developing nervous system.
DEBRA: Good! So let’s just start right out. I’m going to let you lead this interview. Usually, the interviewers wants to lead the interviewee, but you know your subjects so well, I’m going to let you guide us as to what you’d like to talk about. So, go ahead.
Give us a lecture. Just pretend like you’re in the classroom giving a lecture
STEVEN GILBERT: Okay, it sounds like fun. Let’s first talk a little about caffeine. And I want to emphasize my book, A Small Dose of Toxicology. Each chapter of the book has a PowerPoint presentation that goes with the chapter. So if you’re not up for reading the book, you can just look at the PowerPoint presentations. And much of what I’ll talk about today is based on the first couple of chapters of the book and the powerpoints that are associated with those chapters.
But I thought we’d talk about caffeine. Are you a caffeine consumer, Debra?
DEBRA: Off and on. It depends on how I’m feeling. I am a chocolate consumer, and I also understand that there are different types of caffeine. Somebody I had on the show was talking about tea, and he was saying the type of caffeine in tea is different from the type in coffee, and different from chocolate. And I haven’t researched that, and I don’t know if you have anything to say about that.
But I do know that caffeine does affect your body. And it’s on my list of “better to not take it.”
STEVEN GILBERT: Caffeine is a really interesting compound. It’s the same in tea and coffee. It’s the same type of caffeine. Caffeine is, the chemical name is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine. Chocolate, however, has more theophylline in it. It has a little bit different—it has a dimethylxanthine instead of a trimethylxantine in it.
DEBRA: So does that make it better for you?
STEVEN GILBERT: It makes it a little bit different. You don’t get quite the central nervous system effect that you do with caffeine with chocolate. So it’s a little bit different.
But for example, you have to be really careful with dogs, for example. If they get a hold of chocolate, it could be very toxic to dogs. They don’t metabolize theophylline very well.
DEBRA: So, is there a difference? We might as well just define caffeine here in terms of its differences in coming from different sources. I know green tea has some caffeine in it, but it’s not as much as coffee.
STEVEN GILBERT: Actually, most tea, a lot of tea, or black teas, by weight, will have more caffeine than coffee. But we do a much better job of extracting the caffeine from coffee than we do from tea.
If you want more caffeine with your tea, you just have to brew it longer because the hot water will extract the caffeine. But with coffee, because we grind it up so small, and the coffee granules have a bigger surface area, we’ll extract more caffeine from coffee.
So your average cup of coffee has about 100 mg. of caffeine in it. But there’s enormous variability in that.
So, I think one thing to remember and think about caffeine is—and this is a really great lesson in toxicology—is how does caffeine distribute throughout the body?
DEBRA: Tell us about that. That’s really important point.
STEVEN GILBERT: When you consume caffeine, it absorbs relatively quickly, so your peak caffeine levels will be about 30-minutes after you consume your caffeine-containing beverage, and caffeine distributes throughout total body water.
So your urine, if you go to the bathroom, your urine will have about the same concentration of caffeine as your blood does. And actually, for breast milk, it will be about the same. So that’s a good lesson to be thinking about. If you’re breast feeding a child, you want to consume your caffeine after breast feeding, not before, because you want to minimize the amount of caffeine that goes to the child.
DEBRA: Absolutely! This whole idea of how the chemical distributes through the body, that’s one of the points that toxicologists look at. That’s one of the things that’s important to know about a chemical that you’re being exposed to.
STEVEN GILBERT: Absolutely! That’s a really important property of the chemical. We have mentioned caffeine distributes throughout the total body water. But something like lead, which substitutes for calcium, it distributes to the bone and absorbed by the bone. It substitutes for the calcium that’s in the bone.
Compounds like PCBs, DDT, flare retardant, and a range of other compounds, distribute to fats. So they’re fat-soluble compounds.
So you have to be really aware of where a compound distributes.
Another important property is how fast it’s metabolized—how fast it’s changed by the body, and excreted by the body. Caffeine, if you think about caffeine, if you consume your cup of coffee, how much time does it take for you to be ready for a second cup? When you feel like you’d like a little more caffeine to boost your caffeine levels back up again, do you have any idea?
Debra, when you think about you drinking coffee or anybody else?
DEBRA: Well, I only rarely drink coffee. And I actually try not to drink coffee. And I have never been a cup of coffee in the morning kind of coffee drinker. But I drink it when I’m traveling usually because I’m in some different time zone. And I drink it if I haven’t slept well, which is—usually, I can sleep well nowadays. But at times, when I haven’t slept well, and I need to work long hours, then I’ll have a cup of coffee because it will perk me up.
Now, in my particular body, if I drink one cup of coffee in the morning, then it lasts me all days. That’s all I want to drink, just one cup of coffee. And I don’t even drink a whole cup of coffee. I only drink about half a cup of coffee.
STEVEN GILBERT: You’re probably more sensitive to caffeine than others because some people can drink caffeine throughout the day, or coffee throughout the day.
DEBRA: I know people who do that.
STEVEN GILBERT: I know! And it amazes me because I’m pretty sensitive to it also.
DEBRA: And when they’re not drinking coffee, they’re drinking Coke, or some other caffeinated beverage.
STEVEN GILBERT: So your Coke, your can of Coke, your average cola beverage, will have about 50 mg., about half of what coffee does (unless you’re consuming Jolt or one of the high caffeine beverages). But those high caffeine-containing beverages are pretty popular right now.
DEBRA: And I think that coffee is actually better for you to drink than a soda because you can have more control—especially organic coffee—over the sugar and anything else that might be put into it.
We need to actually take a break right now, but we’ll come right back, and hear more about this fascinating subject. I actually love toxicology.
This is Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And I’m talking with Dr. Steven Gilbert, toxicologist. We’ll be right back.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And today, we’re talking about basic principles of toxicology with Dr. Steven Gilbert, Ph.D., and he is the author of A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals. And he has a fabulous website about toxicology called Toxipedia.org which is very easy to understand.
There are lots, and lots, and lots of information there, but it’s all written in a way that, I think, any average person could understand it. It’s not a technical website at all. It’s very good.
And so today, we’re talking about principles of toxicology. So go on, Dr. Gilbert.
STEVEN GILBERT: Right before the break, we were talking about how fast a compound is metabolized or removed from the body. And with caffeine, the general principle of that is called the half-life.
So you think of the compound, the compound gets up to say 10 in your blood, how long does it take to drop the 5?
DEBRA: Why do they do that? Why don’t they just say from whatever it is to zero? Why do they do half-life?
STEVEN GILBERT: Because you want to look at how quickly the chemical is being removed from your body. So if it’s a fast metabolizer, and the half-life is short, it moves out of the body relatively quickly. The compound that’s got a long half-life stays in the body for a longer period of time.
So, it’s a really good marker for how long the compound sticks around. And it has to be also where it’s distributed in the body.
DEBRA: Okay, good.
STEVEN GILBERT: Caffeine, for example, the half-life is pretty short. For most people, it’s three to four hours, but there’s variability in that.
So, if you consume a cup of coffee or a can of cola, your caffeine blood levels will rise let’s say to 10, three to four hours later, it will be down to 5. And you want to boost your caffeine levels back up if you like the stimulant effects of caffeine.
But there are some really important changes in that. For example, a woman that’s pregnant, the second and third trimester, the caffeine half-life about doubles. So it goes up to about seven or eight hours, which means, your blood caffeine levels will be higher for a longer period of time during pregnancy.
DEBRA: And if you keep drinking the same amount of coffee a before pregnancy, then you’re really getting a jolt.
STEVEN GILBERT: You are, and your fetus is getting a jolt too because that caffeine—and it’s quickly distributes across the placenta. So the child is basically swimming in caffeine that’s metabolized during pregnancy.
Another thing to remember with half-life is the infant, from zero to six months, does not metabolize caffeine. So the half-life is measured in days. So all it can do is excrete it in the urine. That’s a really important property to remember. It’s much different for a child because their liver function is not really developed yet.
DEBRA: I didn’t know that. That is amazing. It’s making me think about other chemicals that children are being exposed to as well during that same period of time—like caffeine, it would take them longer to metabolize than an adult.
I just think that the most critical time to not be exposed to toxic chemicals is that pregnant mothers, pregnant women, should not be exposed, and newborn babies should not be exposed, and anything that people in those two groups can do to reduce their chemical exposure is well, well, well worth it.
I think that that’s the most critical population to be concerned about.
STEVEN GILBERT: I agree. I think women of child-bearing age and infants and kids, it’s a really important period of time. But unfortunately, we are exposed to a lot of chemicals now. Several studies have been done that showed that there can be over 200 chemicals, industrial-based chemicals, in fetus during development.
So, it’s really become a greater and greater problem. And we often don’t know what chemicals are in our products that we’re consuming.
DEBRA: That’s right. Well, just off the topic, but relevant to this, is that, just last week, Target Store announced that they are now having a new sustainable product program where they’re going to be looking at the toxic chemicals in every single—well, not in every single one of their products, but they’re rolling out category by category.
So, the manufacturers will now have to tell them all the ingredients. And all the products will be rated for their toxic levels at a store like Target. So I think that we’re making progress with that. And I think Walmart has a program like that as well.
Walking into these stores, I don’t see that they’re really in effect yet. But at least they’re looking at this, that that’s how much toxics issues are coming to the fore now, that major retailers like that are having programs where they’re actually paying attention to that.
STEVEN GILBERT: I think that’s right. I think there are more efforts to do that. And Walmart, I believe they had a problem with some lead in some of their child products recently. There’s a study done by Washington Toxics Coalition here in Seattle that found lead in some of their products.
So, I think they need to do better about that. They need to really be working with the public to protect us from exposure to toxic chemicals.
DEBRA: I agree. And it’s the work of toxicologists like you that makes it possible then for the retailers and the consumers to then understand what the toxic chemicals are, and then be able to control them, and manage the risk either as a retailer or an individual in their daily life.
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, and really put more pressure, and encourage retailers to be more responsible, and be more aware of the chemicals that might be in their products.
For example, in the food industry, in the Washington State, we have Referendum 522 about labeling genetically-modified organisms in products. So, the GMO Referendum 522 would require grocery stores and others to label if there’s GMO in the product.
And one thing Whole Foods just came out saying they’re moving towards labeling all their GMO products now, which is really great.
DEBRA: I think that’s really good. But I also just have to say that a place like Whole Foods, you would expect that there would be no GMO products. But if there are, they need to be labeled, for sure.
Well, let’s go back to—
STEVEN GILBERT: I want to mention one more thing about caffeine. Some of the listeners—when you stop consuming caffeine, you get a headache from caffeine consumption.
DEBRA: Yes, that happens to me.
STEVEN GILBERT: Have you had that ever happen to you?
STEVEN GILBERT: That’s a really interesting property of caffeine. And you could almost say that’s a sign of drug addiction because you can end up consuming a product to avoid the adverse effects of withdrawal from that product. So you’ll have withdrawal syndromes from caffeine which is a headache.
And that’s one reason some of the analgesic tablets will have caffeine along with analgesic in them because a lot of headaches are caffeine-induced headaches.
If you think about the caffeine, and why people make money from caffeine—the cola and the coffee companies—it has a relatively short half-life, three to four hours, you have to keep consuming it because you can’t store it up, and you get a headache when you stop drinking it. So, it’s almost a perfect compound to make money from. A lot of people exploit those properties in caffeine to make a lot of money from the drinks and coffee beverages. It’s really a fascinating compound.
DEBRA: It is. We need to take another break, but we will be right back.
I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. This is Toxic Free Talk Radio. You can find out more about Toxic Free Talk Radio at ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com. And my guest today is Dr. Steven Gilbert. He’s the author of A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals. And he also has a website, Toxipedia.org.
We’ll be right back.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And my guest today is toxicologist, Dr. Steven Gilbert. He’s the author of A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals. And a lot of what we’re talking about on the show today is in this book, plus much, much, much more. And you can get this book free, this e-book for free, by going to Toxipedia.org.
And I hope you’ll go there and get it. If you want a link directly to the book, you can go to ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com, and in the description of today’s show, the link to the book goes right to the page where you can get this book for free.
I think every household needs to have it, study it as quickly or slowly as you need to, but this is the basics of what you need to understand to be living in the world today where we’re so exposed to toxic chemicals.
Dr. Gilbert, you’ve done a great job with this book.
STEVEN GILBERT: Thank you very much, Debra. I really appreciate that.
DEBRA: It’s the best basic toxicology book I’ve ever seen.
STEVEN GILBERT: Thank you.
DEBRA: So, I’m looking at the page—not the page, but the beginning of the chapter—about caffeine in this book. And it tells you things like the source of this chemical, the recommended daily intake.
And by the way, it says that the US Food and Drug Administration, FDA, advises pregnant women to avoid caffeine-containing foods and drugs or consume them only sparingly. That’s the recommendation from the FDA. So, if the FDA is saying that, I think that’s something to watch out for.
And you just have all kinds of information.
So, I know we advertise in the description that we’re going to be talking about caffeine and—I’m looking for it in the description here—mercury and lead. So let’s move on to talking about lead.
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, lead is a very interesting compound. So it’s a heavy metal. It’s wildly used. It was added to paint. And we knew a long time ago that lead makes the mind give away. We knew that two millenniums ago. So we knew lead was toxic.
In Europe, lead was banned from paint in the 1920’s by the League of Nations, recognizing the toxicity of lead. But United States did not ban lead-based paint until 1978 which is really tragic because that perpetuated exposure to children.
We also made the huge mistake of adding lead to gasoline, which increased average blood levels across the nation, and really, around the world. And there are still some areas trying to get lead out of the gasoline.
So what’s interesting about lead is that it substitutes for calcium. So when you’re consuming lead, it goes through your body, it gets into your blood, and then it’s sequestered in the bone. And this can have serious consequence because, if you were exposed to lead while you’re developing, then you store lead in your bone, when does lead come out of the bone? When does calcium come out of the bone?
One important time during those periods is when a woman is pregnant because the fetus is really a sink for calcium, and that lead is mobilized out of the bone to support the child.
So, if you’re exposed to lead during development, you can pass it along to your infants and children.
And the other thing to remember with lead is the absorption of lead. Because the growing child needs lead, when the child ingests lead, about 50% of that lead is absorbed. If they don’t, they only absorb about 10%.
So, that’s a really important distinction to make because a child is more susceptible to lead exposure for a couple of reasons—one, is that absorption factor of 50% of the lead they ingest is absorbed, and also, the [hand-them-out] behavior. A child will have the highest blood lead when they’re one to three years of age, when they’re on the ground, they’re sticking things in their mouth. And anything that has lead on it, lead in paint, will come off. And the lead will be absorbed by the child.
So, that’s a really important fact to remember. It’s the same exposure representing a much bigger dose to the child.
DEBRA: One thing I want to mention about a lead exposure—I’m actually going to be talking about this tomorrow. We’re doing a show about scary toxic chemicals for Halloween. But there are a lot of toxic chemicals that you’re exposed to in Halloween.
And one of them is lead in face paint. And there was a study done where they actually took 10 brands of face paint, and they sent them all to the lab. This was a campaign for safe cosmetic. They sent them all to the lab, and all 10 of them had lead.
And I’ll let you say that there is no safe level for lead.
STEVEN GILBERT: There is no safe level of lead exposure. And lead exposure should always be avoided. We are exposed to a little background lead because we’ve done a great job spreading it around the environment. But there is no reason for products like face paint have lead in them.
Titanium is a great product. And most paint is switched to titanium. So, cosmetics should not have lead in them. And they should remember this, that a child exposed to that, lipstick will have lead in them. There’s been a study showing how much lipstick can have in it. And that’s really detrimental because you put lipstick on your lips, obviously, and you lick a little bit of that, so you’re ingesting it when you rub it off your lips.
So, there is just no reason to have lead in cosmetics. And I think our industries and our product developers need to be accountable for that and need to get the lead out of their products.
DEBRA: I completely agree. So what are some other sources where people might be exposed to lead that they could avoid?
STEVEN GILBERT: Well, one, you have to be careful of, some candies will have lead in them (in the wrappings on the candies, the lead paint). And jewelry is a really important source. They’re really clammed down on that. There have been increased laws about that, trying to remove lead from products. And then, Washington State did pass a law trying to ban lead, cadmium and phthalates from baby toys.
But there are a lot of products and a lot of toys that have lead paint on them. There was quite a campaign to get lead out of products coming from China, for example.
So, lead is a great additive. It makes things shiny. It dries quickly. So there’s a lot of incentive to use lead. But it’s really detrimental to the child’s development when they’re exposed to lead. And those detriments occurred at very little levels.
The Center for Disease Control just the last year has lowered the blood lead action level. It wasn’t as far as I’d like to see it go, but they did set a new level of lead action, really emphasizing, again, that there is no safe level of lead exposure.
DEBRA: Another source is lead in the glaze on dinnerware, and also lead crystal. And those are very—
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, good point. The lead can be on glazened dinnerware. So you have to be careful of that.
And a new technology now called XRF Technology allows you to scan products fairly quickly to see if there’s lead in them. And where you live, there are agencies and other non-profits that have this XRF Technology, and do programs where you can bring in toys and other products in to get checked for lead.
Another source of lead is actually, just recently, is bath buts. Old bath tubs can have lead glazed on them.
DEBRA: I read about that in my books, yes. And so you just need to—so what is your opinion about using the little test kits, the little swabs?
STEVEN GILBERT: Those little swabs are good. They give you a basic indication if there’s lead there. But they’re not great in the sense they don’t tell you how much lead is there. They don’t go beneath the surface—so it’s just surface lead such as paint chips. Lower paints may have lead in them, they will not check for that if there’s some painted over. They’ll give you a gross indication, but they’re not super reliable.
DEBRA: My viewpoint is that I think that they could be used as an inexpensive way to—if it tests positive, you know there’s some lead there. And you just make a decision not to use it right there. If it tests negative, then you want to go and get the other tests.
STEVEN GILBERT: If you suspect it might have lead in it, then you have to move on to a more specific test like using the XRF Technology.
DEBRA: We need to take another break.
STEVEN GILBERT: …which has really been a great development because it’s a very cheap way. It’s quick. It gives you feedback immediately about the product. And you can actually look in dirt also, lead in dirt, or in the paint […] and things like that.
DEBRA: We need to take a break. So we’ll be right back. And we’re going to be talking about mercury when we come back. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. This is Toxic Free Talk Radio. And I’m talking with toxicologist, Dr. Steven Gilbert.
DEBRA: You’re listening to Toxic Free Talk Radio. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. And my guest today is Dr. Steven Gilbert. He’s a toxicologist. And his website is Toxipedia.org. And you can go to my website, ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com, and look for this show.
There’s a link there to his book, A Small Dose of Toxicology: The Health Effects of Common Chemicals. When you click on that link, you can get a free copy of the e-book.
So, Dr. Gilbert, let’s go on and talk about mercury now. This is really fascinating to hear, these different characteristics of these different chemicals. So how is mercury different from lead and caffeine?
STEVEN GILBERT: Mercury is a very interesting compound also. Mercury comes in two flavors—inorganic and organic.
So, the inorganic, many people have experienced playing with the silver metal. Have you tried playing with that, Debra?
DEBRA: I think in science class a long time ago.
STEVEN GILBERT: It’s fun to play around with on table top. Broken thermometers will have quite a bit of mercury. Your old thermostats will have mercury in them in old houses. This one had a mercury-based thermostat that I finally got rid of. It could be recycled safely.
But mercury has been widely used. It’s got many, many uses in the electronic industry. And it’s actually a good fungicide. It’s been added to paint before, which is not a good idea. But it’s a very powerful compound.
Now, the thing about mercury is it could change to organic mercury, methyl mercury, when it gets into the environment.
So, bacteria change the mercury, the inorganic into organic mercury, methyl mercury, and it gradually moves up the food chain from algae, bacteria and other organisms, up into the fish we eat. It’s concentrated in high tropic level fish—fish that consume other fish. For example, tuna, shark, pike, will have high concentrations of mercury in them. Swordfish has generally high levels of mercury in that because it’s concentrated in the muscle.
So, mercury goes to the muscle and also the central nervous system. It’s stored there—not in fat, and not in bone, but in muscle. So it’s very hard to get rid of it from the fish.
So, we learned about mercury—the first instance where we really became aware of this was in Minamata in Japan in the 1950s. This caused a really tragic exposure and great consternation in the population there. It caused fetal deformities and really retarded development.
So, the question lately is how little mercury—is there any level of mercury that’s safe?
And generally, there’s no level of mercury that’s really safe, although it’s very difficult not to be exposed to some mercury because fish is a very important food source.
So, one of the sources of mercury that everybody should be aware of is coal. Coal has some mercury in it. Coal-fired plants will produce mercury. And that’s been one of the issues in Washington State in the Northwest because they want to ship a lot of coal to China.
Coals burn in China, the prevailing winds move the ethylene from those smoke stacks, which contains mercury, in the Pacific Ocean, and into the Northwest United States, which contaminates our water supplies with mercury. And the fish and wildlife become sources of mercury.
So, mercury causes neurodevelopment disorders. It’s a well-known neurotoxicant. Inorganic mercury is like the Mad Hatter.
Remember the Mad Hatter?
STEVEN GILBERT: And that’s a great story. It was used in the felting and hatting industry, and their exposure to mercury there.
DEBRA: I’m trying to remember. Don’t they lick the brushes, and that’s how they were doing, getting the mercury, because they licked the brushes? Maybe I’m thinking of something else.
STEVEN GILBERT: It was mostly from vapor. So the mercury would evaporate and they would be exposed to them that way, inhaling the mercury. You’re thinking of paint, licking the paint radium. Dial watches were well-known for that because people were painting the dials on watches and would be exposed to radium which is a toxic and bone-seeking compound.
DEBRA: And also, did you know that Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, died from mercury poisoning?
STEVEN GILBERT: Yes, I’ve heard about that. There are some thoughts about that. There were also a couple of Chinese emperors that died from mercury exposure too. It seems they were taking mercury tablets.
Mercury has been used as a medicine for a long time. It’s for syphilis and for other diseases. It also shows up in cosmetics because it’s a great fungicide. You might know that some vaccines will have organic mercury in vaccines. There’s a lot of concern about that potentially contributing to autism. Most of the data is not supporting that, but that’s another issue because we’re exposed to mercury from a variety of products and sources.
DEBRA: Well, I can tell you that I—well, I do occasionally drink coffee. I do not eat fish or any kind of seafood.
STEVEN GILBERT: Seafood is really good. It’s got omega-3 fatty acids in it. I think it’s more looking at which fish you eat. Like salmon, for example, they spend a lot of time in the ocean, but they’re relatively short-lived. It’s the longer-lived fish that you really have to worry about mercury exposure in them like tuna, swordfish, pike. They are longer-lived fish that consume other fish that you really have to worry about.
But fish has got a lot of important nutrients in it.
DEBRA: I agree. But ever since I was a child, and I took my first bite of fish, which happened to be halibut, I’ve never wanted to eat seafood. I put it in my mouth and I go, “I don’t want this.” And I know that some people just love seafood and think it’s the most delicious thing in the world. And it just isn’t for me. I just pay attention to the fact that my body doesn’t want it, and I don’t eat it.
STEVEN GILBERT: Well, that’s important to do. I think that, again, it’s the developing nervous system that’s the most vulnerable to mercury exposure. So it’s women of child-bearing age, and the developing nervous system of kids that are most vulnerable to mercury exposure.
Actually, one more thought on that.
DEBRA: Go ahead.
STEVEN GILBERT: The EPA is actually looking at revising that because there are numerous looking at the amount of fish that are consumed because high fish consumers are more vulnerable to mercury exposure. So the EPA is looking at changing its recommendations on how much mercury is safe to consume. It would be very interesting to see in the next year.
DEBRA: Well, Dr. Gilbert, we only have a few minutes left, so is there anything that you want to make sure that you say in this show? We have about four minutes left.
STEVEN GILBERT: The thing I would like to—well, one quick thing about lead is we have to be careful of lead in drinking water. So you have to watch out for that. Old homes have lead-based pipes that bring water into the home. And even some schools, the older schools can have lead in the drinking water. So just watch out for that.
I think the other thing I just want to mention is we need to take a more precautionary approach to chemicals we’re exposed to.
The precautionary principle says that we need to look at the uncertainty and not focus on the uncertainty that we need to take a precautionary approach and reduce exposure to these chemicals.
The Food and Drug Administration, we put new drugs on the market, we take a very precautionary approach, requiring that chemicals or data be submitted from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries demonstrating safety and efficacy of products. We do not have a similar approach in industrial chemicals.
And that, I think, really needs to change. They’re trying to modify the Toxic Substance Control Act, which is an old law passed in 1976, to really adjust that and provide more data on chemicals and the potential hazards of industrial-based chemicals that we’re exposed to.
DEBRA: I think that’s really important. I’ve been thinking, one of the things that I’ve noticed because I’ve been doing this work a long time like you have is that I’ve seen things change over the years in terms of the general awareness of the society, but also the information that has become available. There are so much more information about the toxicity of products than there was 30 years ago.
And so I now see many more individuals and agencies and organizations saying, “Well, we need to do something about these toxic chemicals.”
And then what happens is that a list is put together of chemicals of concern, and then it all has to be supported by scientific data.
Now, I think that that’s all a good thing to do. I’m not against science by any means. But as a consumer advocate and somebody who’s trying to avoid chemicals in my daily life, it seems to me like there are some things that are obvious—that organic food without pesticides is better for you than food with pesticides sprayed on it.
I think that there’s ample enough evidence to know that we shouldn’t be consuming pesticides. And yet, that still continues.
And what do you think needs to happen in order for us to stop trying to prove how toxic various chemicals are, and just make that leap out of them entirely? That’s what I would like.
STEVEN GILBERT: I totally agree with you. And that’s why I really emphasize we need a more precautionary approach and more emphasis on the precautionary principle because we have all this information.
That’s one thing I’m trying to do with my website. We have tremendous amounts of knowledge. The issue is applying it and making the information accessible. We need to know what is in our products and what we’re being exposed to.
Caffeine is a great example of that. It might be listed as an ingredient, but you don’t know how much is in the beverages you’re consuming. And it can be fatal. There have been a couple of incidences where people consuming high caffeine-containing beverages have died.
So, we really need to have a better approach to chemicals in the environment where the burden of proof is not for the consumer to demonstrate harm, but the industry has to have the burden of demonstrating it showing safety.
Bisphenol-A is a great example of that. We secrete a little bit of Bisphenol-A in urine, and nobody gave permission to be exposed to these compounds.
DEBRA: No, we haven’t. I haven’t, and I don’t want to be exposed to them. Well, we’re going to run out of time in about less than a minute, but I just want to close with this statement. And we’re going to have a lot more time to talk, Dr. Gilbert.
What I wanted to say is that I think what needs to happen is there needs to be a lot better labeling so that we know. There needs to be disclosure, there needs to be labeling, so that consumers really know what’s in the product, and we can make informed choices.
Thank you so much. And I want to work on that a lot more coming up. So, thank you so much for being on, Dr. Gilbert. We are going to have you back very soon.
STEVEN GILBERT: Great. Thank you very much. And thanks, Debra. It’s really great.
DEBRA: You’re welcome. I’m Debra Lynn Dadd. This is Toxic Free Talk Radio. And go to ToxicFreeTalkRadio.com to find out who else is going to be on this week.