NATURALLY DANGEROUS: Surprising Facts About Food, Health and the Environment.

© 2001, University Science Books

      Overture: Is Anything Safe?

Many Americans are under the mistaken impression that if something is “natural”, it is safe. Perhaps this is the reason many people like the idea of organic foods; they are afraid of synthetic insect repellents or herbicides in commercial foods. Because of possible bacterial contamination, however, some organic foods are not entirely safe. Many substances found in nature can be deadly. Eating wild mushrooms, for example, can be fatal.

I have written this little book for intelligent, curious nonscientists to provide them with sobering facts about food, health, and the environment. If you think that organic foods or herbal medicines are completely safe, or if you believe in nuclear-free zones, read on. You will learn that some organic foods are potentially more hazardous than foods treated with pesticides. You may be surprised to discover that even everyday munchies such as potato chips and french fries contain hazardous, unnatural, trans fats.

To some degree, almost everything has the potential to be toxic, even those substances we require for life, such as oxygen. In this book, you will also discover that all humans are radioactive and that we emit thousands of high-energy gamma rays per minute. Perhaps you are curious about the science and the hype behind global warming and the ozone hole. Is the sky truly falling? You will discover that most of these issues are complex and there is no simple solution or “free lunch”. Let’s begin with toxic chemicals. The story goes back many years.

Since the days of Paracelsus, a German physician-scientist of the 16th century, doctors and chemists have known that the effect of a substance on the human body, be it good or ill, depends on the concentration in which it is taken. In the latter part of the 20th century, this bit of common sense gave way to an irrational fear of “chemicals”, in particular, of anything that is not natural. Fear of cancer and of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances has become especially acute.

In the following accounts, you will see that these fears are not always based on sound scientific principles and are causing economic and even medical harm. At present, many people are ingesting large amounts of unstudied, natural herbal medicines, some of which can be dangerous. Don’t be fooled by the word natural. Natural is not synonymous with safe. Arsenic, pennyroyal, botulism toxin, and urushiol (the rash-inducing substance in poison ivy) are all natural – and are highly poisonous.

The general public is frequently assailed by news reports concerning dangerous, toxic chemicals. The public is also led to believe that only natural substances are safe and that synthetic additives and agrochemical residues are dangerous. Such reports rarely present balanced analyses of the science underlying these complex issues.

This book attempts to probe some of these issues and to put them in a more balanced perspective. The underlying origins and degree of hazards are analyzed. Two themes emerge from this analysis: (a) nothing is absolutely safe; both natural and artificial chemicals can be dangerous; and (b) the safety and/or effectiveness of any particular substance varies with its concentration and with which part of the body is exposed. For example, an additive in many ice creams could give you emphysema if it reached your lungs, but it is safe to ingest.

You may know that cyanide is poisonous. The toxicity of cyanide is well understood. This chemical blocks the major enzyme, cytochrome oxidase, that all aerobic organisms require for respiration. But did you know that cyanide occurs naturally in certain foods and in herbal remedies that can be purchased in grocery and health-food stores? Cyanide from these natural sources is not necessarily toxic. It is the concentration that makes cyanide lethal.