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Environmental disease: what it is, brief history, mechanism and common agents

Are you feeling less than great, so-so, or plain miserable, day in and day out, for no apparent reason? You may be suffering from some form of environmental disease: something from your environment doesn't agree with you, making you feeling unwell.

Environmental disease, environmentally-induced illness, or environmental illness, is much more than a single disease: it is a broad range of symptoms and various diseases caused or aggravated by any of a large variety of factors from your environment capable of negatively affecting your body functions. This plethora of adverse health effects extends from seemingly minor symptoms of flushing, mood swings, fatigue or headache, to brain fog, "unprovoked" pains or sinusitis, and to the full-blown diseases like asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heart disease or cancer.

Environmental triggers of disease come to interact with your body as a result of:


consumption of foods and liquids,

through-skin absorption, and

energy penetration (energy fields).

The fact that our environment - and in particular the foods we consume - can adversely affect our health, was known since the time of Hippocrates. We tend to assume that our food is naturally good for us, but it often isn't. Great number of substances naturally found in foods - more than a few of them toxic - can be a great challenge for the immune system. Furthermore, individual metabolic deficiencies, such as lack or inefficiency of cellular enzymes, compromised digestion, inefficient detoxication, intestinal dysbiosis or leaky gut, to name a few, can make you vulnerable to natural food substances that most people easily tolerate.

To make things worse, significant portion of foods consumed today come heavily processed, with food additives, traces of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, molecular structure altered by heat, irradiation or chemicals and - on top on all that - with significantly lower level of nutrients needed by the body to function properly. 

Naturally - and more so due to the fact that environmental pollution hasn't become serious issue till well into the 20th century - the focus of medical research early on was on the body's negative reactions to consumed foods (Hare, Rowe, Vaughan, Coca, Rinkel, Zeller, Randolph, and others).

Health threats from natural chemicals in our foods were soon to be expanded to the negative impact on health of increasingly man-polluted environment. Here's a very sketchy chronology:

In 1951, after studying his patients' ailments for a period of time, Dr. Theron Randolph made public his discovery that

everyday's exposures to chemical pollutants have become
a major causative disease factor,

affecting both mental and physical function of the human body. In 1965 he founded the Society for Clinical Ecology (from 1984, American Academy for Environmental Medicine), professional organization for medical practitioners addressing environmentally induced illnesses.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) presented chilling evidence of our indiscriminate use of man-made chemicals - particularly pesticides - poisoning unintended targets - birds, broad wildlife and its very perpetuator - the humans themselves.

In 1965, San Francisco allergist Dr. Ben Feingold became aware of food additives being also capable of negatively affecting physical and mental health in susceptible individuals. It was confirmed in subsequent studies, indicating that literally any foreign substance from the environment could negatively interfere with body processes.

During the 1980s, disease-causing potential of mold intolerance has become a subject of more thorough investigations by environmental medicine, and so on.

But all that is still only the tip of the iceberg. There is a myriad of environmental factors that can affect your health, from the lack of water molecules in the air, to the lack of darkness while you're asleep (inhibiting body's production of melatonin, a hormone important, among other functions, for regulating body's biorhythms and for its cancer-fighting ability).

However, being promoting drug-free, cause-oriented treatment approach, environmental medicine has been mainly ignored and, latter on, opposed by the mainstream medicine, which is based on merely suppressing symptoms with drugs. It was labeled as "unproven" and "unscientific", in spite of the pile of scientific evidence showing that food substances, chemical contaminants, energy fields and other factors present in the environment

can cause numerous ailments and diseases,

and despite much better rates of treatment success - usually at a fraction of cost of the conventional treatments - of diseases generally viewed as "unexplainable" and untreatable by allopathic medicine.

The alternative explanation for environmentally induced illnesses that the official medicine offers and bases its treatments (drug-fortified counseling) on, is "psychogenic origin". In other words, what they are saying is:

"It's all in your head".

Unfortunately, the established mainstream medicine has been turned into a part of the big business scheme incorporating pharmaceutical industry, medical insurance, chemical industry (which also owes significant portion of pharmaceutical industry), and everyone else who has a lot to lose by people becoming

aware of the true causes of their health problems.

This faceless force is doing all in its immense power to block and discredit cause-oriented medical practices, including environmental medicine.

Anyway, why are we talking about environmental disease in the "symptoms" section? Because

most of the modern diseases and afflictions are, to a smaller or greater degree caused or worsened by body's interactions with its environment.

Quite often, they are the primary trigger of a disease, stemming from inherited or acquired inability of the body to cope with environmental challenges.

Read on, and find out why is that so.

The human body has always been challenged by environmental threats that could negatively interfere with body's functions. Our foods, even healthy ones, often come with naturally occuring toxins or biologically active, potentially harmful substances. Also, the very process of metabolism produces harmful agents which our body has to neutralize. As a result, our body had to developed a complex protective ability in the form of the detox system. If fully functional, this protection barrier is amazingly efficient. 

However, never before were we exposed to a nearly as many threats from the environment as these days. Our air, water and foods are permanently contaminated with

many thousands of man-made chemical agents
capable of interfering with body processes.

There is no warning until after the offending agent enters the system. From then, the reaction can be immediate, quick, or hours, even days delayed. Single exposure can produce anything from acute short-term reaction to such that lasts weeks and months. Low-level toxic environmental exposures typically cause little or no reaction for months and years, but once they saturate the system over its limit, it breaks down.

What often makes it difficult to track down the environmental cause of your ailment is that we are exposed to so many potentially harmful agents, at all times. Many of them we are simply not aware of. Also, one same agent can cause different symptoms in different people and, vice versa, nearly identical symptoms can be caused by a number of different agents.

Often times, harmful environmental effects are

hidden, or disguised.

This is the result of body's likely reaction to being adversely affected repeatedly, or in a prolonged period of time, which is adaptation by turning off the warning signal about offending environmental presence. But that doesn't necessarily protect you.

For instance, typical body response to the repeated consumption of alcohol is becoming more efficient at degrading it, thus reducing the feeling of drunkenness. You can drink more, without being directly affected, but the real danger is in the metabolites of alcohol, aldehydes (which are mainly responsible for the hangover effect). They can be much more toxic than alcohol itself.

As the levels of nutrients needed to detoxify these metabolites become more depleted - which is what is happening to all alcoholics, and to quite a few of those who are not - damaging effects of alcohol consumption to their body function worsens.

Similarly, most people quickly overcome the strong initial repulsion toward inhaling tobacco smoke, by body's more efficient degradation of the smoke components that are causing it, as well as by adopting to the persistent adverse condition. But the secondary and tertiary metabolites of the detoxication process, which can be as much, or more toxic, while not producing immediate, or traceable symptoms, saturate the system, harming it in the longer term.

If the offending agent has biochemical capability of enhancing your mood, or any part of your sense of wellbeing - which, by the way, both alcohol and tobacco smoke have in susceptible individuals - you get

addicted to what is harming you.

You actually do feel worse when without it, suffering so called withdrawal symptoms. Or, you feel worse simply because the mode of operation that body switched to in order to adapt to the unfavorable exposure becomes sub-optimal when the exposure ceases. You feel it as adverse reaction, until the body makes the switch back to its normal mode of function.

On the other hand, your body may be - for whatever reason - unable to adapt to offending agents, and its negative reaction does not subside. That is a failure from the standpoint of body's immediate protection, but it makes easier to indentify the offending agent and stay away from it.

The immediate and short-term effects of environmental intolerances - which can be generalized as some form of acute physical or neurological irritation - are generally different than long-term effects, which typically tend to lead to multiple sensitivities, chronic symptoms and/or chronic diseases.

Due to the complexity of human body and its interactions with the environment, there is nothing even remotely resembling a definite list of symptoms vs. related causes when it comes to environmental disease. No two individual cases are quite alike, and often are very different, regardless of their symptoms.

Put plainly, if you feel unwell, physically or mentally, or both, chances are very good that

your toxic environmental exposures play either significant
or major role in it.

Food and chemical sensitivities, allergies, "unexplainable" pains and ailments, and chronic diseases are most often the manifestations of body's interactions with the environment. One side of these interactions are the offensive environmental agents finding their way into the body, and the other is body's functional ability to deal with those intrusions, determined by genetics, nutritional status - for it is nutrients that support body functions, including detox and immune system - level of toxic contamination of the body - or total (toxic) load - and state of health.

The mechanism of environmental disease

So how do environmental agents like naturally-occurring food chemicals, man-made chemicals, presence of bio-intruders, or electromagnetic fields damage the body?

The substance-based environmental agents come in an endless variety of molecular and elemental structures. In the body, most of them are detected and encountered by the detox system, and some are not. In either case, many of those intruders - so called xenobiotics - can chemically react with one or more of body's own extreme variety of molecular structures.

In that context, it is often said that certain environmental pathogen has chemical affinity toward certain organ or function, which becomes a target organ/function. Specific form of affinity is very much individual. Most often, the result of this interaction is cellular/tissue damage or interference with a body function.

More specifically, from the moment of intrusion, there are three basic scenarios possible:

 A  - environmental pathogens are encountered by Phase I of the detox system and are either neutralized or, more often, modified by splitting into active metabolites. If the Phase II of detoxification works efficiently, these toxic metabolites are carried out of the system (through urine, faces, sweat, perspiration), and free radicals created in the process of detoxication are quickly neutralized by antioxidants and cellular antioxidant enzymes - if present in sufficient levels.

 B  - If Phase II is sluggish due to the low level or inefficiency of detox enzymes, antioxidant enzymes and/or antioxidants, intruding environmental agents - which either arrive activated, i.e. chemically unstable and bound to react with body molecules, or are activated by the Phase I action - will, being not taken care of, freely roam the system, reacting with body molecules, and/or initiating creation of new generations of activated particles (free radicals).

The damage to the body cells is inflicted either by direct oxidation by free radicals, or by the activated foreign molecules bonding to the body proteins (protein molecules are only the main concern; reactive particles also can form damaging permanent bonds - so called adducts - with other types of body molecules), with the consequence depending on what the body function of that particular protein is.

There is a number of possible outcomes:

essential fatty acids in the cellular membrane are burned (peroxidized) by free radicals

protein molecules, from detox enzymes and immunoglobulins to any of the variety of regulatory proteins inside the cell, including those involved in DNA function, are damaged or altered

DNA molecules themselves can be subjected to a damage by oxidation and alternation, resulting in the functional, carcinogenic or mutagenic changes in the body

peptide/protein hormones (pituitary gland hormones, also insulin and growth hormone, among others) and neurotransmitters can be damaged or altered by the interaction with environmental toxins; damage or alteration of peptide fragments at the cell's membrane, identifying it to the immune system cells, can result in autoimmune reaction targeting specific body cells

any body protein altered by bonding with one or more small chemical molecules (haptens) changes its structure, and is likely to become antigen in the eyes of the immune system; in that case, it forms specific antigen-antibody complex for it, and even minute subsequent exposures to this chemical trigger immune response

both, unaltered and altered environmental chemical agents can be chemically similar to a specific body hormone, thus capable of activating cellular hormonal receptors (endocrine disruptors); endocrine function can also be disrupted by inflicting damage to the cellular receptors by oxidation or cross-linking

 C  - some environmental chemicals are not detected by the detox system, which basically means that it has no means of detoxifying them (typically organochlorines, organofluorines and phthalates - more about them in a bit); they are pretty much free to roam the system, inflicting oxidative damage and/or interrupting body's functions

These are only the main outlines of the damage to the body ensuing from the exposure to toxic environmental agents. Damaging chemical reactions are taking place within the body at any given moment, within much larger pool of reactions supporting life. The organs most exposed to this kind of damage, by the virtue of their function, are the

lungs, blood vessels, liver and kidneys.

Since most of environmental toxins are fat soluble (lipophilic), the organ with by far the highest lipid concentration - the brain - is also a common target. Body systems in the first line of defense - the detox and immune systems - are taking direct hit.

This is how chemicals from the environment - either inhaled, consumed with food (naturally occurring food toxins, additives and contaminants), or absorbed through the skin interact with and harm our body.

Somewhat different is body's reaction to the food protein compounds that make it into the blood only partly digested (in the form of smaller amino acid chains, called peptides) or undigested, through leaky gut. These compounds are immediately recognized as antigens by the immune system, which forms antibodies against it. Any subsequent consumption of that particular type of food will result in an immediate allergic/inflammatory reaction, if triggered by IgE (immunoglobulin E, the most common type of antibody used by the immune system).

If other immunoglobulin types are mediating allergic reaction, it can be hours, or even days delayed.

Environmental bio-threats, like mold, pollen, dust contaminants (dust mites feces, other bio-materials) usually cause direct immune reaction to their protein/peptide components, but can also be producing toxic chemical metabolites poisoning the body.

Finally, energy fields created by all forms of electricity and electronic technologies, interfere with body functions from the cellular level up, by altering body's bioelectricity, whose proper functioning is vital for the cellular wellbeing, function and survival.

Environmental factor Primary mechanism of adverse action
food, protein/peptide elements immune/autoimmune reaction1
food, naturally occurring toxins immune/autoimmune, altering body proteins2
food, chemical contaminants oxidative damage3, altering body proteins
mold (air, food) immune/autoimmune reaction
tree pollen immune/autoimmune reaction
pesticides (home, school, office, areal) altering body proteins, endocrine disruptor, oxidative damage
chlorine, fluoride (tap water) oxidative damage
formaldehyde, V.O.C. oxidative damage, endocrine disruptor
phthalates endocrine disruptor
dioxin endocrine disruptor
toxic metals altering body proteins, endocrine disruptor, oxidative damage
electromagnetic fields
(power anything)
interference with bioelectricity
prescription drugs inhibiting body proteins, oxidative damage, endocrine disruptor

1 allergic/inflammatory reactions, autoimmune diseases
2 cell membrane peroxidation, enzyme/hormone/DNA damage
enzyme and regulatory proteins inhibition, immune/autoimmune reactions

Individual sensitivities to any of these environmental intruders vary widely from one individual to another. For instance, your detox system may be compromised by genetic deficiency and/or nutritional deficiency, your antioxidant level may be low, or your single or combined exposures just too high to handle. Even if you start out with well functioning detox system, good nutritional status and satisfactory level of antioxidants,

constant exposure to many environmental toxins
is likely to wear you down,

causing nutritional deficiencies, accelerated aging, multiple intolerance symptoms, cellular damage, and chronic disease.

And it only gets quicker, and worse, if you already have any weaknesses. Typical evolution of environmental disease undergoes three main phases:

1 - exposure

2 - adaptation, and

3 - exhaustion (disease).

During adaptation, the body elevates its protective function in order to neutralize immediate threats originating from the exposure. In addition to that, the body will often neutralize the symptom of exposure.

That, however, often can not be efficiently extended for longer periods of time, and by placing more demand on the body typically creates new vulnerabilities. Or, as mentioned, the adaptation neutralizes the threat only in part, we could say on the surface, with the secondary and tertiary by-products of its intrusion possibly continuing to silently inflict damage deeper inside your body. In either case, the end result is system exhaustion, and ensuing disease.

Also, some environmental agents are not detected by the detox system, or cannot be dealt with even when it functions properly. These tend to be of certain type, like man-made organochlorines (DDT, dioxins, carbon tetrachloride) or organofluorines (isoflurane, formerly widely used inhalational anesthesia component, linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer's, perfluorooctane sulfonate - PFOS, fluorosurfactant linked to multiple adverse health effects, fluorouracil, chemotherapy agent with the capability to kill a cell, and others).

Another type of contaminant our body doesn't know how to deal with are plasticizers, or phthalates, which can mimic estrogen and disrupt functioning of the endocrine system.

PFOS, a fairly obscured chemical up to a few years ago, is a chilling reminder of the extent and consequences of the chemical self-poisoning of our world. It was the key ingredient in the fabric protector Scotchgard, and also widely used as impregnation agent for textiles, paper, and leather, also in waxes, polishes, paints, varnishes, cleaning products for general use, for metal surfaces, carpets, etc.

The alarm rung toward the end of 1990s, when the levels of its accumulation in the wildlife somehow surfaced. In animals, PFOS has been positively linked to endocrine disruption, delayed development, cancer and neonatal mortality (Betts 2007a). Limited investigations into its effects on humans (seems as if there is a vested interest in keeping this inconvenient truth from becoming widely known in public) have linked it to reduced birth weight (Betts, 2007b).

In mice, PFOS negatively affected the immune system at the blood serum concentration of 91.5ppb (parts per billion, 91.5μg/l). Through bio-magnification, top predators acquired much higher levels: bold eagle over 800, bottlenose dolphin (USA) about 1,300, polar bear (Nunavut) over 3,000, and mink (USA) as much as 29,770ppb. Humans, of course, are not spared: average occupational exposure is near 1,300ppb, and

nearly all Americans have measurable PFOS blood levels.

And that is only one out of great many chemicals contaminating the environment; estimates are that well over 50,000 are currently in use. Imagine how those poor mice would fare if they were injected only with 1/10 as much of PFOS, but also with dozens or hundreds of other xenobiotic chemicals which contaminate average human body? Even if their cumulative effect adds up arithmetically - and the exponential effect is much more likely - mice would have suffered much worse consequences.

But we don't have to imagine what would have happened - just to look at ourselves.

Somehow, no one seems to be interested in making a study - even on animals - that would address the question of health effects of multiple toxic exposures. Keep it low-profile and quiet? You bet. We can't have it all: economic prosperity, the power that comes with it, and clean, healthy environment. Something's gotta give. At present, it is pretty much the environment, and people's health.

What makes it much worse is that the established mainstream medicine, based on medicating symptoms with drugs, is both incapable and unwilling to address this problem. Sadly, your average Dr. Smith

knows little or nothing about body's environmental interactions,

their effect on health or, for that matter, about biochemistry of the human body in general.

If lucky, you can run into one of the several hundreds of MDs practicing environmental medicine. If so, be ready for a different experience: diagnosing and treatment of environmental disease - as it should be with any and every disease - requires from you to become an active participant in the process.

And, if you prefer not to see any doctors, one thing you can't afford not to address is the risk of falling pray to environmental disease. More on that subject on Environmental disease: protection, diagnosing and treatment page.