Self-Help Tips From Dr Sarah Brewer

Are You Carrying A Pollutant Burden?

toxic burden and pollutants

Did you know you are exposed to potentially toxic substances on a daily basis? According to The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, diseases caused by these pollutants were responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths in 2015 – 16% of all deaths worldwide.

What is a pollutant burden?

Everyone – even parasites and tiny bacteria – have to be able to get rid of pollutants from their bodies whether said pollutants stem from the body itself or the environment around us. Our bodies get rid of pollutants through a process of adding oxygen onto the substance, then the pollutants are taken away from the body by adding glucose, sulphate, glycine (an amino acid) or another amino acid combination called glutathione. Some pollutants however are so toxic that our bodies cannot effectively clear them.

The principal routes for pollutants to enter the body is though air, food, water, chemicals applied deliberately to the skin, and of course drugs.

Air – pollution of the air carries huge risks and because of the Clean Air Act (1956) following the London smog in 1952 monitoring of the large particles has been undertaken. However, there are small, volatile particles from traffic that are present in high volumes in all the streets of our cities.

Food – some of the pollutants that make it into our food include man-made pesticides which are used during farming practices, those that animals eat, and those which are added to the food including preservatives, flavourings and colourings.

Water – is contaminated to make it portable. It might be full of bacteria if it were not to have been chlorinated.

Excessive plastic use, and its effect on our health has been plaguing the headlines recently, but much of the topic has yet to be the subject of legislation. Similarly, there has not been any strict restrictions on the use of indoor pollutants.

What symptoms can pollutants cause?

Symptoms become most obvious in those prone to respiratory problems as they can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with bronchitis and chronic ill health. Many pollutants are responsible for neurological disease and failing mental performance. Fatigue is also a major issue, neither of which are as obvious.

However, the science is not yet sufficiently understood to know for sure whether the plethora of potentially toxic substances is responsible for a wide range of ill health, from mild and chronic to the most acute.

How do I know if I am carrying a pollutant burden?

There are a number of lifestyle questions you should first ask yourself before exploring the pollutants you may have in your body, including:

  • Are you exposed to heavy traffic on the roads?
  • Does your home or workplace use a lot of fragranced products?
  • Do you eat commercially produced foods with a large amount of preservatives and colourings in them?
  • Have you observed in children features of behavioural abnormality like hyperactivity?
  • Are you unable to fulfil the normal tasks of daily living?

If you are concerned about your potential pollutant burden, there are some non-invasive tests which can be carried out.

Urine samples

Urine samples are an effective way to measure pollutants. It provides a toxic non-metal chemical profile that screens for the presence of over 170 different toxic chemicals including; organophosphate pesticides, phthalates, benzene, xylene, vinyl chloride to name but a few.  This profile also includes Tiglylglycine (TG), a marker for mitochondrial disorders resulting from mutations of mitochondrial DNA which can be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, infections, inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies.

Organic Acids Test (OAT)

Organic acids testing, another form of urinary test, this provides a glimpse into your metabolic and nutritional state through identifying acidic products of carbohydrates, protein and fat metabolism. The amount produced are compared with the standard amount of protein component that is in the urine (creatinine), thus establishing whether the level is too high or too low. The test also identifies yeast, fungal and bacterial by-products, which are all absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract.

Hair testing

Using a hair sample, a toxic element exposure analysis can be carried out. This provides information regarding recent and ongoing exposure to potentially toxic metals, especially mercury, arsenic and levels of other potentially toxic chemical entities.

What can I do about a pollutant burden?

If a pollutant burden is found, then the most natural way to address this and help to rid the body is to take stock of your lifestyle and minimise exposures where possible. The main routes out of the body is through urine, stool, the skin and breath. For example, a sauna can be a great way of sweating out pollutants.

There are supplements available which can activate the liver’s transforming pathways helping to clear metals and other toxins from the body as well as substances which clears things out in the stool.

Potential triggers

Not all air pollution is from outdoors – indoor air pollution derived from fragranced domestic products can pose problems too, and with people spending 90% of their time indoors, it’s good practice to stay aware of indoor pollutants.

Commonly found agents:

  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (e.g. formaldehyde, limonene, alpha-pinene)
  • semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) (e.g. musks, phthalates, disinfectants)
  • inorganic gases (e.g. carbon monoxide, NO2, ozone)
  • biological (e.g. mould, dust, pollen)
  • radiological
  • chlorinated water
  • heavy metals

Consumer products:

  • man-made pesticides
  • fragranced air fresheners, deodorants, sprays and plug-ins
  • cleaning products, disinfectants and antibacterial products
  • fragrances, cologne, aftershave, perfume, deodorants, essential oils and scented candles
  • laundry detergents, dryer sheets and fabric softeners
  • personal care products, shampoos, soaps, lotions, cosmetics, nail polish, sunscreens and hand sanitisers

Building materials and furnishings:

  • carpets
  • paints
  • varnishes
  • adhesives
  • solvents
  • vinyl flooring
  • manufactured wood products
  • upholstered furniture
  • mattresses and bedding
  • wallpaper
  • combustion appliances

You can have improved health outcomes if you pay heed to your exposure to such chemicals, along with that of your family and look out for ways of minimising indoor pollutants in particular; this is under your control. Pollutants can and do have an effect on human health and wellbeing for some of us who may be particularly sensitive to potentially toxic substances.

New home health tests that accurately measure levels of over 300 potentially toxic substances are available to identify if you are carrying a toxic burden. These tests allow you to send hair or urine samples to a laboratory for analysis and you will receive a bespoke report explaining the results. For more information, visit

Dr Jean Monro MB BS LRCP MRCS FAAEM DipIBEM MRSB, Medical Director at Breakspear Medical, is internationally recognised in the field of allergy and Environmental Medicine and successfully treats a wide variety of conditions such as myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), Lyme disease and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), using certified laboratory tests to detect and address underlying infections and nutritional deficiencies, and by using low-dose immunotherapy (LDI) as a foundation to rebuilding healthy immune systems.

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