Chemical Familiarity Breeds Stupidity

Do you ever wonder how some people can simply dismiss the risks of toxic products that they keep around them? This is a constant source of wonderment in the public health community. The reflexive answer is usually that people in question are just uninformed. Therefore we put lots of effort into education. This doesn't jibe with my experience. What usually happens is that when someone is informed about some risk, they treat the risk like it is either for other people or that the risk is overblown/not real. Think this isn't true? You should stop into a toxicology lab someday. On second thought, don't. Here's why:

Of all the people that should know to be careful around risky chemicals, toxicologists should be at the top of the list. It turns out, however, that we're just like everyone else. We skirt or ignore precautions, simply to make life and work a bit easier. The funny part of this is that we dont' take shortcuts with things that will alter the reliability of the data but we'll play fast and loose with our health. Clearly there is a disconnect and it's source is very easy to see.

When you get a newbie in the lab they extremely careful about everything. Over time, they don't die, don't fall over, and don't get sick. Despite the knowledge of how the chemicals they are working with really cause harm, this daily lack of obvious harm lulls one into a sense of invincibility. For me personally, working with a chemical every day turned it from ethylmethyldeath to sample A. Sample A really doesn't seem too harmful (but gee, the rats don't do well with it at all). Furthermore, more care is taken with chemicals that are understudy but not those that are merely tools. For instance, you're investigating the effects of 1,3-dimethylchickenwire on rats. You're very careful not to expose yourself to this chemical, but for the vast number of tissues you have to process, you nonchalantly breathe in the vapor of xylene and a host of other nasties. Sadly, I know quite a few people in their 20s and 30s with heart toxicity from working in pathology labs and not taking appropriate precautions.

So it's really no surprise that Joe Layman isn't really concerned about using his cleaning solvent in his small hobby shop. It's not real until you see the harm. Sadly, yours truely is not immune. In spraying some malathion, I got a little overzealous in my insect hate and sprayed too much, too close, and to top it off, to keep it from dripping on something else, I smeared the running liquid with my hand. Sure enough, I got some tremors and other minor side-effects of exposure.

I propose therefore, appended to the normal leagalese warning on the back of toxic products or public health press releases, the following:

Don't be an idiot; this s*#t's for real.

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I'm with you on this one. I think familiarity breeds all sorts of complacency, not just with chemicals. We worry too much about remote risks and hardly give a thought to highly risky stuff we do every day.

As the mother of a school age child, the subject of what is "safe for children" or not comes up all the time. Yet we think little of loading up the kids and driving them around (because it isn't safe for them to walk, ride their bikes, or take a bus, especially). Yet car accidents are one of the biggest risks we all take with our health and our lives. But driving is so familiar and doesn't end in accident most of the time, so it hardly seems risky.

I see this all the time with food stuff, too. There are lots of common, even recommended foods that seem "safe" on a daily basis but are risky for a lifetime of consumption. No I don't mean saturated fat, I mean concentrated sugars and starches, grains especially.

Our entire family has cut back drastically on sugar and starchy foods, especially concentrated sugars and grains ("whole grain" as well as refined). I see it as risk reduction. For me it is imperative, because sugars and starches raise my blood sugar too high; I am at high risk for developing diabetes. My husband likes the way low sugar/low starch keeps his waistline from expanding, plus he no longer has GERD and GI issues or headaches. It's probably risk reduction for him, too. For my 4th grader, the long term risk/benefits of sugar and starch aren't so clear-cut to most people (but to me it is quite clear), but since I had gestational diabetes while pregnant with him, he does have significant additional risk of developing diabetes as an adult.

But some other people have a really hard time with my not feeding my son bread, crackers, cereals, noodles, boxed mac n' cheese, pizza, juices, french fries, popsicles, cupcakes, brownies, and other sugary treats, etc. ... you know, all the "foods of childhood". They think he is missing out on important "childhood food memories", but that reflects their nostalgia, of course. I don't serve serve these products at home because I see these as the start of a "risky appetite" for his long term health (he does have access to these foods when visiting his friends' homes, so it's not a total ban). And some worry that he is not getting enough of his "healthy whole grains" but fail to see that he is eating lots of fresh produce instead. But the idea of not eating grains and sugars is just too unfamiliar to people so they have a hard time seeing that "whole grain" bagel for what it is.

For 33 years of fairly fanatical bicycling I never wore a helmet. I'd been knocked out by a shotput ball, falling off a horse, in an altercation in high school, walking into an overhead pipe, off a motorcycle (while wearing a helmet), and slipping on the ice, but in all the times I'd fallen off my bike I'd never hit my head.

Then one pleasant day 3 years ago I was riding to lunch and woke up in the emergency room. It was a hit and run but I have no memory of the accident. Concentration at work is difficult. It was over a year before my balance improved enough to ride a bike again. I still carry index cards to remember what I'm about to do next. I can write OK but when speaking but sometimes have to search for words. My neurologist said; "let's talk about Muhammed Ali".

I just always felt safe on a bike, I guess. I damn sure frakking well wear a helmet now.

I wonder how regular reminders - via videos showing the effects of the chemicals - might affect this accommodation reaction?

Anna: Asking out of honest curiosity, what are the dangers you speak of?


Oh boy, it's going to be hard to distill this into a comment-sized explanation, but ever since I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes ten years ago, I have been exploring every angle I can on the research data regarding dietary sugar, starch, and grains and their connection to health/disease, not to mention human dietary history (grains are very recent additions, only 5-15K years - and high consumption of concentrated sugars is even more recent). I've been on quite a nutritional odyssey ever since (though I've always had an interest in food, nutrition, and cooking and used to bake a lot of homemade bread and pizza!). All I can say is one has to look somewhat outside and beyond the conventional wisdom/advice on nutrition and diet find truly scientific research on what grains and sugars do, but I'm finding more and more research and vocal support that indicates grains are not the "health" food that they are portrayed. Viewing through a "paleo lens" is useful, too. Epidemiological correlation is not proof of cause, and often leads one in the wrong direction, but sadly, most of the rational for the current dietary advice is from correlation data (like crime and ice cream sales - they both rise in the summer, but neither cause one another). One also has to develop a nose for what is rigorous scientific research and what is rigged, um, I mean *designed* to support food and product sales or to align with the current pro-grain, low fat paradigm (until recently, no spouting the party line was career suicide).

I can't possibly list everything that has led me to the conclusion that a low sugar and gluten grain-free diet is better for human health, but I highly recommend a few very good, well referenced blogs/websites for some informative reading that often touches on sugars, grains, gluten, and the problems/negative effects they cause to the GI tract, immune system, and overall health (the posts as well as some interesting discussions in the comments): Whole Health Source, Hyperlipid, Dr. Mike Eades' Protein Power blog, Diabetes Update, Dr. Larry McLeary's blog, and Mark's Daily Apple. There are more places, but those are a good start and are easily located with google. A great recent book to read is Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease.

Aside from my "library"/PubMed research, lots of books, and online reading that backed up my experience with a grain-free and carb-restricted way of eating, it was crystal clear to me after successfully controlling my high blood glucose during the several months of pregnancy with a Dr - prescribed, dietician-monitored carb-restricted diet that there are NO *essential* nutrients in grains and other starchy or sugary foods that we can't get in more than sufficient quantity from nutrient-dense whole foods (pastured and traditionally raise - not grain fed and feedlot raised - meats, eggs, & dairy, wild-caught seafood, and lots of fresh non-starchy veggies). In fact, one needs much, much more of certain nutrients when consuming concentrated sugars and starches in grains (Vit C & B complex in particular) because they compete with sugar for entry into the cells or are depleted more rapidly during digestion and metabolic processes. I'm into my 5th year of carb -restriction with excellent results - maintained weight, more or less normal glucose levels without diabetes medications, and as far as I or my endocrinologist know, no further progression to frank diabetes. I have little doubt that if I hadn't gone this route and learned what I did instead of following the low fat-high carb advice, I'd be quite overweight and quite diabetic by now.

If stressing glucose regulation systems and deranging GI and innate immune function weren't enough, sugars/grains and grain-fed animal-origin foods skew the omega 3-omega 6 ratio of PUFAs (grains contribute too many omega 6 PUFAs), raise triglycerides, increase inflammation, and are far more strongly in implicated in CVD and related conditions than saturated fat. Beer bellies should actually be called "wheat bellies". The list of damage just goes on and grows constantly. But concentrated sugars and grains are entrenched in modern industrial diets around the world now, and there is very little peer-reviewed and published research on carb-restricted and grain-free diets (though the studies are coming now as the clothes on the low-fat "emperor" are more clearly shown to be invisible) because most traditional grain-less cultures have gone "modern" with more processed foods as industrial influences dominate the globe. Most of the research funding has gone towards a fool's errand seeking to demonize saturated fat and in recent decades, it was a career-ending mission to pursue anything other than the low-fat, high carb dogma. Happily, that is changing.

If I sound really off the wall with my conclusions, please consider that my husband helped me interpret a lot of the research papers and studies I found - he is a research biochemist, and if I may say so, a rather smart guy :-). We also know a about how NIH funding works ;-) . He also now restricts (most of the time) his own carb intake to mostly non-starchy veggies, avoids grains, and has come to agree strongly with me on these topics and with our son's food at home. He noticed resolution of many annoying but common symptoms as well as weight loss right away when he dropped the carb load.

As just one anecdote as example before I finish; I used to have to buy the "warehouse" sized boxes of Alka- Seltzer for my husband's frequent indigestion and GI upset. It's been more than four years since I have bought any GI medications for him; that ended when he stopped boarding "grain train". I can always tell when he "indulges" in some bread at occasional business dinners - he gets very gassy & makes "musical" gut noises later in the evening and sleeps fitfully, as well as retains a lot of water for a few days. He had no idea what grains were doing until he stopped consuming them, but he is reminded immediately when he partakes. Most of the time he resists the temptation (grains contain opioid-like compounds, after all, and are quite admittedly tasty and addicting), but when he doesn't - we both pay the price :-(.

Sadly, people would eventually start ignoring even the bluntest of warnings. I think that at some fundamental level the human brain simply isn't capable of understanding and internalizing these sorts of remote and abstract risks. Charging rhinos or falling rocks we can handle. Nasty chemicals that look perfectly safe and may or may not kill us ten or twenty years down the road are another matter.

"sugars/grains...are far more strongly in implicated in CVD and related conditions than saturated fat."

Please provide the reference for that statement.

Also, please provide the scientific evidence showing that sugars/grains stress the innate immune response.

If there's no immediate and serious pain/damage, most people just don't seem to care.

In fact, a lot of people will just laugh if told of potential dangers.

What does science know anyway!

Maybe that's why meth lab cooks mix together a bunch of highly explosive chemicals together to make methamphetamine like they're making soup. When they realize that their toxic soup mixture is dangerous, they're typically running out of the house looking like a human torch.

Please provide the reference for that statement.

Also, please provide the scientific evidence showing that sugars/grains stress the innate immune response.

actually, i am quite impressed by this. You used malathion, and you got systemic symptoms of malathion poisoning (tremors).

Now when i look up malathion, it has an oral LD50 of 1 g/kg, or dermal LD50 of 2-4 g/ kg. So for you to get to an LD50, you would need 70 (kilos) x 2-4g, or ~approximately 140-280 g. I guess that we would reasonably expect to see some systemic effects at 10% of that dose, since nerve agents have a fairly steep dose response curve. So maybe 14-28 g dermally applied. Malathion is available in concentrate at 44%, so that would be ~ 30-60 mls of concentrate.

so how come you were getting that much malathion ? Why did you use industrial grade concentrate ?

alternatively, if the amount of malathion you were exposed to was really far, far too little to account for your symptoms, do you think it is possible you suffered from a placebo effect ?

just asking :-)


Maybe (who knows, it's anecdotal), but I kinda doubt it since I was not the one who noticed the tremor; it was a neighbor who didn't know I was just spraying stuff. Also, it didn't get worse after I noticed it, a classic sign of a psycosomatic response. The dose response for malathion isn't all that steep in the non-leathal range, plus I would reckon that 10% of the LD50 would put most people in the hospital. You could probably drop a couple orders of magnitude before not noticing anything.

Again, you're right, who knows, but either way, it was pretty stupid.

it didn't get worse after I noticed it, a classic sign of a psycosomatic response. The dose response for malathion isn't all that steep in the non-leathal range, plus I would reckon that 10% of the LD50 would put most people in the hospital. You could probably drop a couple orders of magnitude before not noticing anything.

Again, you're right, who knows, but either way, it was pretty stupid.