The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday December 7th

Column: What do you mean, "toxic"?


Clark Cunningham is a senior biochemistry and biology major from Chapel Hill.

If the intense competition for treadmills at the Student Recreation Center and the line for the salad bar at the Top of Lenoir have taught me anything, it’s that UNC students tend to lead relatively healthy lifestyles.

But when midterms roll around, many break from their otherwise-healthy habits and subsist on a diet of high calorie, processed foods. Feeling bloated and lethargic, some seek to right themselves with expensive cleansing regimens endorsed by celebrities and self-professed health gurus to rid their bodies of the “toxins” causing their malaise. But what exactly are these alleged toxins?

Consumers should be critical of any use of the word “toxin.” It is intentionally vague and encourages chemophobia, the irrational fear of chemicals. The concept of toxicity is more nuanced than advertisers would have you believe, and an overblown fear of chemicals is often used to cynically manipulate consumers.

In the most elementary sense, a toxin is a harmful chemical. Although the term chemical itself may conjure images of dangerous liquids bubbling in beakers, chemicals themselves are not categorically dangerous — the sucrose in table sugar is just as much a chemical as the strychnine in rat poison.

Many of those who warn against toxins criticize their artificial nature, implying that it is inherently wrong to consume something synthesized in a laboratory and that naturally occurring products are necessarily better. This is what is known as the “appeal to nature” fallacy, and a brief survey of the natural world dismisses this specious line of thinking.

Strychnine is found naturally in the seeds of a tree, and Botulinum, the active ingredient in the cosmetic procedure Botox and one of the most powerful toxins in the world, is produced naturally by a bacterium.

Another common scare tactic is to make a chemical sound dangerous by decrying its other possible uses. This often takes the form of “Chemical X is found in batteries! How could you put that in your body?”

Such arguments fail to appreciate the fundamental principle of toxicology: Even beneficial compounds can become toxic at high enough concentrations. First articulated in the 16th century by the legendary chemist Paracelsus, this is more commonly stated as “the dose makes the poison.”

An extreme example of this is that even water, when consumed in large quantities, can be fatal. The acetic acid that gives vinegar its tart taste can cause severe burns in its pure form, but that by no means makes your salad dressing toxic.

Advertisers have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to take these subtleties into account.

Therefore, whenever the word “toxins” is used, don’t take it on faith.

Ask yourself: What exactly are the toxins? What evidence demonstrates their toxic properties? In what concentration are they toxic? And if a product claims to detoxify you, how exactly does it accomplish this feat? Otherwise, charlatans will be happy to part you from your money.


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