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Home The Chemical Barrier to Fitness & Winning


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by Michael Smith, Ph.D.

No, they weren't trying to exterminate the "centipedes" - those groups of linked runners who help make the annual San Francisco Bay to Breakers run one of the world's largest and most colorful road races. The underground transformer explosion which sent a cloud of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) into the downtown air last May 15th was as much of a surprise to PacifIc Gas and Electric officials al anyone else. Anyway, PCBs make a lousy pesticide.

Nevertheless, as Bay to Breakers runners made their way through the downtown area that Sunday, they undoubtedly received a substantially higher dose of the carcinogenic substance, widely used as an industrial coolant since 1929, than anyone is ever likely to tell them about. But it's unlikely that anyone complained. Possibly, no one even noticed. The symptoms of such a brief exposure would not have been particularly acute. Besides, virtually all Americans already have PCBs and a multitude of other foreign chemicals lodged in their bodies, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A few more molecules of "stuff" - what's to worry?

While most Americans would not consider themselves victims of hazardous waste contamination, that denotation being reserved for those people "over there" who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, e.g., Love Canal. the effects of environmental chemicals on nearly everyone in this country are significant and well worth understanding. As William Ruckelshaus, chief administrator of the federal EPA recently put it, "We must assume that life now takes place in a minefield of risk from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of substances. No more can we tell the public, 'you are home free with an adequate margin of safety'."

In the past few decades well over 4 million chemical compounds have been formulated. There are currently some 55,000 chemicals in commercial production. Many new chemicals may be in use for years before tests are completed to determine their health effects. For example, a governmental interagency committee recently recommended that mesityl oxide, a chemical used in lacquers, printing inks and solvents, undergo a five-year testing project despite initial studies showing it to be one of the most carcinogenic substances ever tested.

An average of 10 million pounds of toxic waste are dumped in the United States every hour, over 80 billion pounds a year. Ninety percent of this is disposed of improperly according to the EPA.

Three thousand chemicals are now deliberately added to foods, while tons of insecticides are directly applied to the environment every year. DDT (dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane), the insecticide and suspected carcinogen banned in 1972. has been found in nearly every person ever tested. The use of recreational drugs is commonplace among children of increasingly younger groups.

We live in a highly chemical environment, and the problem with these chemicals is two-fold. To begin with, many of these chemicals, such as PCBs, were formulated primarily to resist decomposition under demanding circumstances - high heat, contact with corrosive chemicals or proximity to electrical currents. So once these chemicals get into the environment and make their way into the human body, directly or through a food chain, they do not break down.

Secondly, many of the most toxic substances are "bio-accumulative." This term refers to the body's storage of foreign chemicals in cell tissues, particularly in the fat. In other words, many of the pollutants, drugs and chemicals you were exposed to or ingested years or even decades ago are still in your body today.

While it is very difficult - some say impossible - to get some of these persistent chemicals out of the body, it is not difficult at all to get them out of the fat tissues and into the circulatory system for a period of time. During times of stress, illness or periods without food, these chemicals move out of the fat, and low levels of toxic chemicals can usually be found in the blood. This means that any organ accessible to the blood is chronically exposed to toxins. This is one reason why even minute levels of toxic chemicals can be hazardous to health.

Dr. David E. Root, a medical doctor for over 30 years and Medical Director of the HealthMed Clinic in Sacramento which specializes in human detoxification, makes an important observation for runners and other athletes with regard to the fat storage of toxic chemicals. Root notes that while many athletes do not consider themselves fat, the bio-accumulative property of many toxic chemicals is nevertheless quite significant.

"Much of the nervous system itself and the supporting structures of the nerve cells in the brain have a high fat content," states Dr. Root. A variety of chemicals may store in these areas, and the effect may be cumulative. In other words one may not have a high level of any single chemical in the body. But the cumulative effect of exposure to many toxic substances in food, air, water and the home and work environments may bring about the symptoms of toxicity."

According to Root, the symptoms of low level toxicity are often not recognized as such. They include boredom, fatigue, inability to concentrate, irritability, headaches, allergy problems, digestive difficulties and muscular aches, pains and twitching.

One of the principal areas of concern today with regard to toxic chemicals involves the human immune system. A variety of chemicals can affect the immune system adversely, and a number of physicians say they are seeing an increase in immune problems - susceptibility to colds, infections and so forth. The effects of chemicals on the immune system may be quite insidious. For years one may not notice any negative effects as toxins slowly accumulate in the body. Then, decades later perhaps, one's body is "suddenly" no longer able to overcome pathogenic elements.

What all of this means to athletes or anyone interested in improved health and fitness is perhaps obvious. Problems with endurance and stamina can be exacerbated by toxic chemicals. Fatigue and lack of concentration can and do lead to injuries. Poor concentration and reaction time, muscle problems including limberness, and insufficient stamina and strength can make the difference between winning and losing for both short and long distance runners. Most important of all, physical activity itself, especially strenuous physical activity, was long ago shown to bring about the mobilization of fat-stored toxic residues into the circulatory system. So it is precisely at those times when one least wants or can tolerate the effects of low level chemical toxicity that they are most likely to occur.

Dr. Jerry Meduski, a medical doctor and professor at the University of Southern California's School of Medicine and consultant to HealthMed notes that toxic chemicals can also obstruct the nutritional programs which many embark upon to improve performance.

"The pollutants and compounds which are of industrial origin are metabolized in the body using the same enzyme systems and the same metabolic pathways as nutrients are," states Meduski. "They therefore interfere with the normal metabolism and the normal positive activities of nutrients. Therefore, in order to increase performance, one must concentrate on two approaches. One is to improve the quality of nutrients, and the second is to decrease the amount of foreign chemicals in the body."

While the effort to combat environmental health problems has predominantly focused on cleaning up the environment, scientists in recent years, recognizing the persistence and accumulative properties of chemicals, have begun to study methods of removing chemicals from the body directly, that is, the un-polluting of man.

For the past few years, researchers for the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE) in Los Angeles and others have been studying the Hubbard Method. This procedure of detoxification was developed in the 1970s by L Ron Hubbard and has grown in popularity and medical recognition in recent years as public concern over chemical pollutants has soared and doctors have sought ways to deal with toxicity problems. Hubbard had concluded that residues from hallucinogens and other "street" drugs, medicinal drugs as well as pesticides, and other environmental contaminants lodged in fatty tissues could cause learning and perceptual problems long after ingestion or exposure. Accordingly, he developed a precise technique for reducing the levels of these residues.

FASE scientists were particularly interested in measuring the effectiveness of the program in reducing bodily stores of the most persistent environmental chemicals. FASE scientists Dr. Max Ben, a United Nations technical expert and former Director of Toxicology and Bio-chemical Pharmacology for Miles Laboratories, and Dr. David Schnare, a senior environmental scientist with the U.S. EPA. decided to study Michigan residents who had been heavily exposed to the fire retardant chemical, PBB (polybrominated biphenyl) in the early 1970s. This fire retardant was accidently substituted in place of a nutritional supplement for farm animals. The contamination of meat, milk and many other foods resulted in the ingestion of the chemical by virtually the entire population of Michigan as well as residents in 13 surrounding states.

Initial testing of the participants revealed various levels of PBB as well as PCBs and the insecticides DDT, Heptachlor and Dieldrin. The researchers were also first to find THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, stored in the fat.

The participants were then put through a precisely controlled Hubbard regimen. Simplified, the program consisted of aerobic exercise, sauna, polyunsaturated oils (to help "persuade" the body to give up toxic fat for clean fat), and nutritional supplements (vitamins and minerals) centered around the novel use of gradually increasing doses of Niacin (Vitamin B3) to promote the release of toxins from fat tissues. The length of the program varied with each participant, but the average was 20 days.

Testing of the participants upon completion of the program revealed significant reductions of all chemicals found, including the PBBs and PCBS. which many scientists and physicians had long considered impossible to remove. Even more noteworthy, however, were the results of a four-month follow-up examination which demonstrated that the toxin levels had continued to go down after completion of the program. Dr. David Katzin, Medical Director of the Los Angeles HealthMed Clinic, believes that follow-up analysis "may indicate that the program rehabilitates a natural mechanism for the elimination of toxins from the body." The results of FASE scientists are supported by the work of Dr. Dan Roehm as reported in the journal "Clinical Research" earlier this year. Roehm conducted regular tests on an individual following completion of the Hubbard program. At the end of 53 days the tissue level of DDT had been reduced by 29%. At the end of 250 days the DDT level had been reduced 97%.

Individuals who have completed the Hubbard program have expressed relief from a variety of health problems as well as greatly increased physical and mental well-being. Program participants have included professional and amateur athletes from a variety of sports, including Olympic decathlete, Russ Hodge, currently in training for the 1984 Olympics, and San Diego Charger tailback, Ricky Bell. All have expressed a high regard for the program.

Dr. Michael Greenburg, a chiropractor at the Leroy Perry Sports Medicine Clinic, is a dedicated runner and regularly participates in Los Angeles area distance runs. Greenburg states that before doing the program he consistently had breathing problems, especially shortness of breath. After completing the program Greenburg says he felt "lighter, better, stronger when competing and my breathing problems were not there."

Bonnie Hill, a former American record-holding swimmer, is now the U.S. representative for Smith Brothers Securities, a firm based in London. Dealing with South African shares and Hong Kong stocks frequently has her on an impossible and erratic schedule which may begin at 1:00 a.m. ("London opens") and not end until 10:00 p.m. ("Australia closes"). Although she maintains a regular fitness program, Hill says she "sensed a need for the cleansing process." Hill attributes to the Hubbard program enhanced "endurance, aerobic ability, limberness, coordination ('I was always a bit of a klutz out of the water'), stamina and an overall sense of well-being."

Individuals with specific health problems related to toxic chemical exposure have also applauded the technique. Miely, formerly a laboratory chemist, went through the program after extensive involvement with industrial pharmaceutical chemicals.

"I had tried every modality of detoxification that I could find and became so involved in this process that I made a career change to become active in the field of alternative holistic medicine," states Miely. "This program did more for me than any other therapy, in much less time and relatively lower cost."

Dr. Root stresses that personal education is also an important part of coping with hazardous chemicals. Knowing what types of chemicals one is likely to encounter in one's environment is the first step in avoiding exposure.

"It is important to know where one's drinking water originates," states Dr. Root. "Groundwater is contaminated in many parts of California. Heavy metals, such as lead, can also leach out of metal pipes and solders used in ordinary home plumbing systems. Your state or local government will likely have data on the chemical toxins in the air."

Once you know what chemicals you are likely to be exposed to you can take steps to minimize the exposure. Eating foods without preservatives, colorings or other additives can help. Washing fruits and vegetables to remove pesticides is important. Using some form of home water filtering system is beneficial. Certain vitamins, A (especially in beta-carotene form), C and E have also been shown to help neutralize the effects of toxic chemicals.

Scientists agree that the precise risks of low level chemical contamination are not yet fully known. But it is certain that investing some time in understanding and dealing with the problem now can pay a dividend of improved health, fitness and performance in the future. Clinical observations and results in this burgeoning health field already suggest that through overcoming the effects of toxic chemicals we may find a higher level of "normal" health than was hitherto thought to exist. 


Dr. Michael Smith is currently a senior executive in the computer industry. He formerly worked for nine years as a research chemist at various universities and at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories. He later served as a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology.