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Is your family toxic?

By JAMES FERGUSON - More by this author » Last updated at 08:28am on 22nd May 2007

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Like most people, James Ferguson never worried about chemicals in his body, until he became a dad. Then, he and his wife were tested for toxins, with alarming results.

My wife was less than impressed when I first put it to her.

"Now let me get this straight," she said. "I've been a mother for exactly a month - and you want me to take a pesticides test?"

"It won't take long," I told her. "Consider it an exercise in reassurance. It's in the interests of science.

"And when it's over, you'll know your breast milk is pure for Amelia."

"Oh God, my breast milk. Do I have to?" "Of course not. But if you don't you'll never be sure, will you?"

My concern about pesticides was new. A writer by trade, I had been happily scoffing instant supermarket meals only a year earlier.


Worried: Dad James Ferguson with his daughter Amelia

It had been triggered by research into the life of a largely forgotten food scientist: Jack Drummond, architect of the remarkably successful World War II rationing.

At the end of the war, we British were healthier than we'd ever been. What, I wanted to know, had gone wrong?

Why, just 60 years later, are we in the grip of an obesity epidemic, eating junk food and, I'd just discovered, food riddled with toxic chemicals?

Only recently, for instance, Professor Ronald Hites of Indiana University produced a report showing that farmed salmon contained higher levels of 14 banned agrochemicals than salmon caught in the wild.

Several of my supermarket meals had been withdrawn when they'd been found to contain a red dye called Sudan I that had been linked to cancer.

Normally found in solvents, petrol and shoe polish, it had contaminated a batch of chilli powder.

Some scientists blamed chemical changes in the Western diet for a dramatic increase in a range of maladies such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, hormone-related imbalances, mental illness and even asthma and eczema in children.

Some also blamed chemicals for the extraordinary decline in Western male fertility in the past 20 years.

While my fertility had obviously survived unscathed - the birth of Amelia confirmed that - I was becoming increasingly worried about what the chemical contamination of our world was doing to my wife Melissa and her breast milk.

"Organochlorine" pesticides - the sort found in salmon - get stored in human body fat and are hard to get rid of. One of the few ways of flushing them out faster is by breast-feeding.

But this was bad news for Amelia, because a breast-fed, first-born child could expect to swallow up to 30 per cent of her mum's chemical load.

We had the test done at a place called Biolab, just off Harley Street in London.

There, we saw Dr McLaren-Howard whose qualification was from the American College of Nutrition, an institution I had never heard of.

But any misgivings were allayed when I met him. He was clearly no quack. "It's hard to say how bad a given organochlorine is for a person," he told me.

"No one really knows, because different molecular structures will bind with different organochlorines in different ways. Toxicity depends on an individual's DNA."

We received the results a few days later. I found myself tearing open my envelope as impatiently as a schoolboy who has just been posted his exam results.

The upper limit for Lindane (a pesticide, now banned) was 0.05 mg per kg of fat. My fat, I was horrified to see, contained three times that figure: 0.15 mg.

Alone among the test list of chemicals, Lindane carried a footnote that read: "May be hazardous at ANY level."

My interest in pesticides poisoning had just turned unpleasantly personal.

It didn't stop there. My listing for Pentachlorophenol, a fungicide once widely used as a wood preservative (but banned after it was linked to liver and kidney damage), was 50 per cent over the limit of acceptability.

As for "PBB (BDE) flame-retardants", I could hardly bear to look: 0.22 mg per kg, against a limit of acceptability of 0.05 mg.

I also contained significantly high levels of a blizzard of yet more acronyms - DDT, DDE, HCB, PCBs, p-Dichlorobenzene, Dieldrin and Chlordane.

The test was a confirmation of all the scary statistics: I was a walking laboratory crucible.

Melissa's results arrived after mine. It appeared that she, too, contained too many flame-retardants: 0.14 mg per kg compared to the limit of 0.05.

Yet overall her body was inexplicably purer than mine. There were traces of most of the same chemicals, including Lindane, although in each case the levels were less.

A second page was dedicated to Melissa's breast milk. All the same chemicals were present. As expected, the levels here were lower still, but it was still the most depressing page to read.

Our newborn baby's diet contained DDT, DDD, DDE, HCB, PCBs, PBB (BDE) flameretardants, p-Dichlorobenzene, Carbaryl, Chlordane and, of course, Lindane.

Yet some of these chemicals, DDT among them, had been banned in Britain for at least two decades.

"Oh God," said Melissa, hiding her face in her hands. "I think I've just killed our baby."

This immediately presented us with a new dilemma: Should Amelia be breast-fed? The maternity nurse, however, was in no doubt.

"Research has shown that breastfed babies are less likely to become overweight and have a lower risk of developing heart disease in later life," she said, skewering me with a disapproving eye.

"I promise you: "reast is best."

This was the policy of the World Health Organisation, word for word, but I wonder now if it's honest.

It certainly has the effect of covering up the problem. Surely if nearly all mothers' breast milk is contaminated, it doesn't deserve such a superlative description.

"Breast is probably better" would have been more honest, if less punchy. Or even "Breast may be the lesser of two evils".

Melissa and I were intelligent parents who could decide for ourselves. What right did the WHO have to dictate to us? In the end, though, we decided she should continue to breastfeed.

Meanwhile, I was pursuing my new-found personal interest in Lindane. What exactly was it and how had I been so heavily exposed?

Searching on the internet revealed that it was one of the earliest organochlorines (pesticides that contain chlorine) developed, like DDT, during World War II but far more lethal to insects and more toxic to humans.

It was nasty stuff. Decades of research had shown that it was linked to a host of serious health problems: Neurological disorders, liver and kidney damage, and most strongly with breast cancer. Even so, it was still being widely used in Britain until 1999.

Rather more digging was required to find the source of my own contamination.

Eventually I traced it to the summer of 1984, when I was 17 and I had spent two weeks helping my Uncle Kit to bring in the harvest on his farm in Furneaux Pelham in Hertfordshire.

Each morning I had clapped on a pair of yellow ear muffs and climbed into the cab of a five-ton tractor-trailer combination collecting a stream of golden corn from the combine harvester.

When the trailer was full, I towed it to the dryer, two miles up the road and stood around while it was loaded into the silo.

"We used to dress the grain with Lindane to kill weevil," Uncle Kit recalled. "It was a white powder that we used to chuck in the top of the silo. The dust used to go everywhere."

I'd be standing by the bottom of that silo, smoking rollups in a cloud of that dust.

"That's all very interesting," said Melissa, breast-feeding the baby. "But what I want to know is: how do I get rid of it?"

BIOLAB, I told her, had advised using an infrared sauna because it mimics the energy emitted naturally by the body, so the heat gets deeper into your fat cells than a conventional sauna and the toxins are sweated out on the skin.

You have to scrub yourself in the shower afterwards, though, or the toxins are reabsorbed.

Actually finding an infrared sauna wasn't easy. Eventually a call to the suppliers revealed that there was only one in the entire city - at the Halo Wellbeing Centre in Farringdon.

A 45-minute session would cost £20. Melissa and I booked in.

We stripped, giggling as we squeezed in. The experience might have been erotic, except that within ten minutes we were sweating heavily.

With the help of a promotional pamphlet picked up at the entrance, I began to explain how the wavelength of the rays emanating from the machine was set to mimic the natural infrared heat generated by the human body.

"Thanks to something called resonant absorption," I went on enthusiastically, "fat molecules and clusters of contaminants in the body vibrate until they break up into particles small enough to pass out as sweat through the cell membranes.

"Scientific analysis shows that infrared-induced sweat contains five to six times more toxins and impurities than normal sweat. Isn't this great? I'm sweltering."

Today, we both have rather less Lindane and the rest of the toxic cocktail lurking inside us than before.

But in a sane world, getting rid of toxins would be a priority and infrared sauna sessions would be available on the National Health Service.

Extracted from The Vitamin Murders: Who Killed Healthy Eating in Britain, by James Ferguson, published by Atlantic Books at £12.99. To order a copy free, call 0870 161 0870.

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