Although the skyrocketing rates of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes may be in large part due to poor diet and lack of exercise, these aren’t necessarily the only explanations. Dr. Jerome Ruzzin, a researcher from the University of Bergen in Norway, believes that the presence of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is a major contributor to metabolic diseases.
POPs are everywhere, even in some of what would be considered the healthiest of environments. POPs are chemical toxins that are transported through the environment by wind and water and which are difficult to contain in one area. Most people are familiar with the POPs dioxin, PCBs and DDT. These toxic chemicals are used in the production of pesticides, herbicides and paints as well as in a variety of manufacturing processes.
While the EPA has set what staff scientists consider to be safe limits on POPs in the foods we eat, part of the problem is that these toxins actually accumulate in a process termed “biomagnification”. This means that tiny amounts of toxins are ingested at the bottom of the food chain by algae, which are then consumed by progressively larger predators, resulting in an accumulation and potential concentration of toxins as they’re passed up the food chain. By the time it reaches our dinner table, food can contain significant amounts of these toxins.
This process of biomagnification is the reason why people (particularly pregnant women) are advised to eat fatty fish no more than two times a week. Although the omega-3 in fatty fish is very healthy, the mercury levels in the same fish can be dangerous when eaten in larger quantities.
Metabolic syndrome is a condition being diagnosed in increasing numbers of people. This is a condition in which obesity, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol combine and contribute to a significantly greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Ruzzin says of the dramatic increase in metabolic syndrome, “Many studies now indicate that persistent organic pollutants play a major role. Today’s adults are the first generation to experience serious health problems from these substances. If we do not take this challenge seriously, there is every reason to be concerned about the coming generations as well.”
Even if POPs are considered to be at safe levels when taken individually, they can lead to a hazardous “cocktail effect” when combined with other POPs or other dangerous substances. This cocktail effect can in turn wreak havoc with the body’s metabolism. A 2006 study found that those with high levels of POPs in their body were 38 times more likely to be insulin resistant than those with low levels of POPs.
“Current threshold values for pollutants are probably too high,” notes Ruzzin, “which means that the regulatory framework needs changing. Food producers need to eliminate hazardous substances to a far greater extent than they do at present, and we consumers need more information about the kinds of chemicals we could be ingesting with their food products.”