Natural vs Chemicals

Today I’d like to tackle the issue of natural vs chemical. I have read in many places that the entire “natural first” approach is deluded because there are many natural products which can kill you: such as deadly nightshade and many varieties of wild berries. This is true, and I fully admit that; however, I would like to question this approach.

We live in a world of innovation and discovery. Our environment is dramatically different from that of one hundred years ago – a time traveller from 1800 would most likely reel in shock at what he saw around him if he had a microscope. And it’s the microscopic level where things get interesting.

So, we have natural compounds and artificial compounds at the microscopic level which we can’t see – or natural compounds which have been elevated to unnaturally high levels. In most normal situations natural compounds are not going to kill you – sure a bite from a cobra will send you to your grave, but how many of those do you see on your average street in London or New York? And yes, it can be said, apples contain cyanide, and if you ate 18 applies and chewed all the seeds then you’d kick the bucket. (http://www.livescience.com/44686-apple-nutrition-facts.html). But, I pose the question, when is that going to happen? I pose the question: how many naturally occurring chemicals occurring at natural, normal common sense levels are there in the urban environment which can cause significant damage to biological organisms?

In the one corner of the ring – natural; now let us talk about our manmade chemicals. Has anyone heard about asbestos? The grey crumbling matter which is found in old buildings, gets into your lungs, causes breathing problems and potentially lung cancer? (http://www.take5andstayalive.com/t/asbestos-what-are-the-risks)

This is just one example of the thousands of chemicals being used in modern society. You wouldn’t know the names of most of them: and you most certainly wouldn’t know what effects they have, if any, on human organisms. Many of these have been labelled as carcinogens by the world health organisation (WHO) such as trichloroethylene and Tamoxifen (http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification). The levels of compounds such as these may be low, but they are something which biological organisms have not had time to deal with. Concerns have recently been raised about glyphosate and its potential toxicity. This is a chemical which can be legally present up to just 0.7mg/litre in the United States. (http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/glyphosate.cfm)

I’d like to ask a question: what happened when the Europeans introduced smallpox to the Americas, what would happen if I took a boatload of lions to Siberia in winter and left them there to fend for themselves? In each of these cases a stimulus was or would be applied that is foreign, is strange. And do you know what happened with smallpox, what would happen with the lions? Death, large amounts of death.  A stimulus (cold, disease) is introduced that is new. They are out of balance.  The point from this is that since around 1800 man has introduced compounds into the environment or elevated naturally occurring levels of compounds. We haven’t accustomed or adapted properly to many of the problems facing us. Grog the caveman did not have to cope with these conditions!

To conclude, I’m not saying all artificial compounds are bad, or that all natural compounds are good. There is truth that sometimes natural compounds are viewed in a golden halo while artificial compounds are seen as the demons of the microscopic world. But, what I am saying is that there we have little natural defence against artificially high levels of certain substances. So, please, don’t laugh at people wanting to embrace a more natural, holistic lifestyle, they may be risk averse in the face of low probabilities of harm, maybe even a little crazy. But, then, can being careful not have its advantages?

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