“Yikes-There Are Chemical In Our Blood!”
Joe Schwarcz PhD
Salicylic acid is a chemical!
Perhaps a surprising statement to some.
Because the word “chemical”
isn’t preceded by a pejorative adjective such as “dangerous,” “poisonous” or “toxic.”
That’s unusual these
We’re more accustomed to seeing reports, such as the recent ones generated by Environmental
Defence, a nongovernment organization, which highlight the “toxic chemicals” that enter our bodies from
our polluted environment.
Actually, without appropriate context, “toxic chemical” is a meaningless term.
Take salicylic acid as an example.
It occurs naturally in a variety of fruits and plants, and is also formed in
our body when aspirin is metabolized.
Indeed, it is responsible for the physiological effects of aspirin,
which include reducing the risk of blood clot formation.
That’s why aspirin is used to treat a heart attack,
and is commonly taken in small doses to prevent one.
But in an overdose, salicylic acid can kill.
childproof packaging was introduced, aspirin poisoning was a common cause of death in children.
do we react if a test detects salicylic acid in our blood?
Panic because of the presence of a “toxic
chemical,” or relief because of possible protection against heart disease?
Of course, without having some
sort of reference value, there can be no appropriate reaction.
To decide whether to laugh or cry, we would
want to know what blood levels of salicylic acid have been linked to risk, and what levels to protection
The mere presence of the chemical says nothing.
As Paracelsus insightfully and wisely
noted some five hundred years ago, “only the dose makes the poison.”
Similar arguments apply to the numerous other chemicals, both man-made and natural, that find their way
into our body from the environment.
Certainly, these include compounds found in paints, dyes, pesticides,
cleaning agents, air fresheners, gasoline vapours, plasticizers and flame retardants.
But consider also that a
single apple is composed of over three hundred compounds, the natural building blocks of the fruit.
include the likes of acetone and formaldehyde, both of which in the proper context can be labeled as “toxic
chemicals,” but of course the amounts found in apples are way too tiny to present a risk.
Yet a blood test
would reveal their presence!
Consuming celery, mushrooms, roast beef or beer would taint the blood with
furocoumarin, hydrazine, 2-amino-3-methylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoline and ethyl carbamate, all known natural
And there would be arsenic as well.
This carcinogen occurs naturally in meat, fish and
But the fact is that our bodies do not distinguish between natural and synthetic carcinogens.
matters is whether a toxic dose has been reached.
Let’s take flame retardants as an example.