Over the past week, many dire warnings have been issued about the supposed health-traps of modern living. The fish are perked up on Prozac, our chicken McNuggets are made of silly putty, and apples contain cyanide.
Wait a minute — apples contain cyanide!?
According to Dr. Karine Auclair, Associate Professor of Chemistry at McGill, they do. They –among other fruits, vegetables, and spices such as tomatoes, onions, and basil — also contain many naturally-occurring carcinogens. Yes: naturallyoccurring! Though we hardly hear stories about people dying of apple-intoxication anyway, and Italian women have a lower incidence of cancer than the US, Canada, Denmark, and 22 other developed countries.
With rising incidences of cancer worldwide, it comes as no surprise that people are starting to question the ingredients in the food they eat. However, according to my sociology coursepack, cancer is on the rise mainly because of air pollution, smoking, and aging. We are living longer and avoiding many of the infectious diseases that killed our ancestors before they even got the chance to get cancer.
Our DNA mutates in the order of magnitude of 1 in 109 base-pairs with each replication. As DNA continues to replicate normally over the course of our lifetimes, DNA mutations accumulate. Eventually, the mutations of certain base-pairs throw off the DNA repair mechanisms, leading to uncontrolled cell division — cancer. This is why the very act of aging is more carcinogenic in and of itself than many other things we deem to be culprits.
Does this mean we should stop concerning ourselves with the potential health effects of the foods we eat and the impact of our actions on the environment? Absolutely not. But does that mean that, as renowned NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle famously said, we should see all synthetic chemicals whose names we cannot pronounce as evil? Drs. Schwarcz and Auclair vehemently refute this claim, the latter arguing that some of these synthetic chemicals, such as artificial insulin and nitroglycerine, can be credited for saving lives.
So before you stop eating apples forever, consider what every pharmacologist knows so well — it’s the dose that makes the poison. Health and well-being are external manifestations of moderation. So as long as we keep our behaviors comfortably moderate and follow the general health guidelines, we should be okay. As for the chicken McNuggets? I’d cut those out, but not because of the silly-putty (a.k.a. dimethyl polysiloxane). As McGill Prof. Joe Schwarcz says in a recent column in The Montreal Gazette, it’s the fat and salt content we should be more concerned about.
So if it’s not the cyanide in apples, the carcinogens in tomatoes, or even the dimethyl psiloxane in McNuggets that are killing us, it must be our fish on Prozac, right?
The first thing I thought when I read the article about the pill-popping river trout in Saturday’s Gazette was a pivotal moment in an episode of Bob Gratton, a French-Canadian TV show. In it, Bob Gratton’s new factory was inadvertently dumping plenty of dangerous chemicals into the St. Lawrence River, only realizing the damage he was causing when a three-headed fish was placed on his table at a restaurant. The waiter then told him it was from the St. Lawrence, causing him to have an epiphany, and me to shudder at the possibility that our fish can even come from this river, which appears so grossly polluted every time I fly over it.
To my relief, I found that the content of the show was in fact misleading. The river around Montreal Island, home to the city’s untreated sewage until fairly recently, is polluted to the extent that one ought to be crazy to fish there. So pretty much nobody does with the intent of eating the catch.
Even so, “the amount of anti-depressants being released into our [St. Lawrence] River works out to roughly the equivalent of a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” says Dr. Sebastien Sauvé, The Université de Montréal researcher who led the study which produced these findings.
I think we should be more concerned that so many Montreal residents are being overprescribed pharmaceuticals, which is quite a shame as it taints the reputation of medicine in general and might lead to illness neglect. We should be even further concerned about the possibility that, as The Gazette suggests, one in four Montrealers are actually depressed enough to be taking antidepressants in the first place, especially since we are frequently voted among the world’s happiest places to live (despite our climate). If Montreal is so depressed, it pains me to imagine how the fish are faring in other cities!
So while the scientific “lag” with regards to both naturally-extracted and synthetic chemicals has indeed contributed to the pollution problem we are facing, generally chemistry has provided us health and safety benefits. Our knowledge of chemistry has enabled us to neutralize oil spills, monitor our diets, understand how our bodies work, and diagnose pregnancy and disease, among other things. So the next time your mom gasps at the latest media-hyped “forbidden” food as being “full of chemicals,” smile to yourself and realize that everything is full of chemicals, including her. It’s what makes existence possible.