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Hormesis, the scientific theory that humans actually need small amounts of poison in their diets, could be the most important environmental event of the 21st century if proved valid. Billions of dollars could be saved in environmental cleanup costs, say researchers, while at the same time improving the health of all organisms, including humans.
But at first examination, hormesis appears kooky. The knee-jerk reaction is to reject this phenomenon as pseudoscience or propaganda by polluters, and a few uninformed observers have done just that.
But hormesis is a possible, if not highly probable, iconoclastic notion, first postulated either in the 16th century or the 1880s but gaining flattering attention within the last decade.
According to the theory, a little arsenic, dioxin or radiation peppered on the spaghetti sauce may be just what we require to live long and healthy lives. And since humans need more toxins in our environment than allowed under current government regulations, so the theory goes, future efforts to clean up the environment could be greatly reduced.
The idea is that poisons such as arsenic are, of course, poisonous – that is, if one ingests too much they will produce sickness or death. But arsenic and other toxins in very low doses, below an amount deemed harmful, repeatedly have been shown to benefit the functions of organs, the optimal growth of the organism or longevity.
According to scientists who favor this theory, when the human body, or cell, becomes stressed or damaged by a small amount of poison, it not only repairs the damage but overcompensates and becomes stronger than it was. The phenomenon is similar to exercise; by jogging or lifting weights, one may stretch and exhaust the muscle tissue, which causes soreness. But later the muscle not only repairs itself but overcompensates and improves to the point where one can lift more weight or run longer and faster.
Chon Shoaf, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, at Research Triangle Park, N.C., says recent work on hormesis “is revolutionary and we want people to be aware of it. It has the potential to generate substantial savings.”
The persons most responsible for conceptualizing and exalting this pioneering research since the 1990s, and who may flip EPA policy upside down to the benefit of taxpayers and every organism down to the last menacing insect, is Edward Calabrese, 56, a toxicology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and his longtime assistant Linda Baldwin. He has been described as “one of the leading toxicologists in the country.” Speaking to Insight in his messy office, whose floor for the last three years has featured what appears to be the largest malfunctioning air conditioner ever seen on planet Earth, Calabrese explains his breakthrough research. These are ideas, ironically, that were generated not by an elite Massachusetts university with posh paraphernalia on the banks of the Charles River, but rather from the “70 to 80 hours weekly” this scientist toils at his lunch-pail university that the elitists sometimes refer to as “Zoo Mass.”
“I believe there is not a single chemical that does not” exhibit patterns of hormesis, Calabrese says. It is a general response that is shown with mercury, lead, components of cigarette smoke, cadmium, marijuana, cocaine, alcohol and “everything that is regulated by the EPA.”
One example is the first time Calabrese witnessed hormesis as an undergraduate student at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts in 1966. He had been assigned to retard the growth of peppermint plants with high doses of a growth-retardant chemical. Not only did the plants not die, they grew taller than normal – a result, Calabrese says, that comes from mistakenly treating the plants with what proved to be too little growth-retardant.
The policy implication for this work, if proved valid, is stratospheric. It means the EPA could permit higher concentrations of so-called toxins in the environment, actually encouraging healthier lives and simultaneously saving money by not cleaning “toxic” sites. After all, the EPA now assumes the optimal level for a vast majority of carcinogens is zero parts per billion – in other words, none at all.
What makes the work of Calabrese and Baldwin especially credible as these things go is that their research is not uniquely their own, but an analysis of thousands of toxicology studies done by others the world over.
“We evaluated about 21,000 cases, using 2 percent on which the data were most complete,” Calabrese says. “Of those 2 percent, 40 percent showed hormesis.” Most toxicology studies are not helpful in analyzing for hormesis because the doses of toxins used are too high since researchers are studying a poison’s threshold of lethality and not its potential beneficial properties. According to Calabrese, “The model showing hormesis has a huge amount of data, more than any other competing model. This is so overwhelmingly convincing I do not think anyone rational could deny that hormesis exists.”
That said, another reason scientists are taking the work of Calabrese so seriously is the environmental cleanup and expense implications of work he has done in the past. At one point his studies drew the wrath of the chemical industry, the same circle now delighting in his conclusions on hormesis.
This Massachusetts scientist was in fact the primary proponent of the “single-exposure carcinogen theory,” which says that humans sometimes can contract cancer with just one exposure to a carcinogen, a theory with the potential to add millions to the cost of chemical manufacturing.
It also was virtually his testimony alone in the 1990s that forced the government to spend millions of additional dollars cleaning a toxic site in Colorado to a much higher standard than previously expected, and contrary to the testimony of others and at least one irate newspaper.
“I am nonideological,” Calabrese says. “But my work on hormesis is a little like President [Richard] Nixon going to China.”
Calabrese is the first to say more research needs to be done “before we start handing out radiation pills,” though some researchers seem more cautious. Nonetheless, this reporter was unable to find any toxicologist who substantially disagreed with Calabrese’s work on hormesis, including officials at the Sierra Club, a prominent environmental advocacy group.
At the same time, “There are trade-offs in hormesis that we cannot forget about,” warns Michael Davis, an EPA scientist also in North Carolina. “I do not believe all organisms share the same mechanical basis of hormesis. I see it as a variety of things.” Thus, each poison must be evaluated separately because each particular toxin may affect different parts of an organism differently.
For example, a toxin at low doses may help a person grow taller, but also damage his liver. Another difficulty is the possibility that a particular poison at a certain dose may help one individual, yet hurt another.
“But I am not ruling out that hormesis could have significant EPA policy implications,” says Davis.
According to Calabrese, hormesis also has an ugly side for some drugs prescribed by physicians. It means some pharmaceuticals that might cure a sickness at high doses could hurt at low doses. “The effects flip,” he says. “So I want my doctor to know about hormesis, though unfortunately most are unaware of it.”
One who apparently did not know about hormesis, or at least whose office refused to respond to repeated messages about it, was recently resigned EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who would not comment even on the work of her own people on this matter.
“The EPA does not want the American people to become cognizant of good environmental news, or potential savings in environmental cleanup, because in part they view the agency as a jobs program,” says a scientist who often engages the EPA. “If the American people realize the environment is getting cleaner and healthier, they might seek to cut the funding of the EPA because much of its purpose has been accomplished. They seem to be afraid of losing their jobs.”
Although properties of hormesis have been documented for many years, Calabrese says there are several reasons why it took the scientific community so long to examine hormesis and his research about it seriously. The EPA controls a large part of the funding, and therefore how the research is conducted, he says. Since the government is interested in saving lives, the research it funds in this area is almost always to study a toxin’s lethal effect, as opposed to its beneficial side, so the research is not generated.
In addition, the beneficial effects of a poison tend to be less dramatic than its deadly results, he says, so it is less noticeable. It may benefit a plant in small amounts by only 30 percent, but in larger doses its pernicious effect may be a factor of 10 times. Scientists also often will see a benefit of only 1 percent of the time in a study because most of the research involves much higher doses, and “they blow it off,” according to Calabrese.
“They think it is a freak thing. They have to learn to think out[side] of the box,” he says.
But thanks in part to Calabrese and Baldwin, that box now has been broken wide open and good news is spilling all over the ground. It is a toxic spill with which we all can learn to live.
John Pike is a contributing writer to Insight magazine.