Arsenic in Fruit Juices Raises Questions about Toxins

unravel the myths of toxins and fad detox regimens

By The Great Courses Staff

Nearly half of 45 fruit juices tested positive for cadium, inorganic arsenic, lead, and other toxic heavy metals, causing parental concern nationwide. But what does this mean for the average American household?

image of bottles of fruit juices

Naturally, these findings discourage us from buying juices on our next trip to the supermarket. However, before we pour a gallon of apple juice down the drain or go on a cleanse, we should review the definition of toxins and how our body fights them.

Understanding Toxins

“A toxin refers to any substance that is poisonous to a living organism,” said Dr. Steven Novella, Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. Technically, a toxin is a poison that a living organism produces. “In reality, everything is a toxin, or can be a toxin, or it can be completely safe, depending on the dose. Toxicity is all about dose. Even water and oxygen can be toxic at high enough doses.”

From this perspective, toxins are everywhere. Fortunately, our bodies and our lifestyles work hard to protect us from them. Nausea and vomiting, for example, help us expel potentially dangerous toxins from the body. This is why drinking too much alcohol results in physical illness. We also cook food–especially meats–to high enough temperatures to kill most bacteria. We wash vegetables before we eat them to prevent ourselves from ingesting pesticides.

Additionally, many toxins aren’t as frightening as they sound. For an example, we should look at the mercury amalgam. “That is a combination of metals that are used by dentists to fill cavities,” Dr. Novella said. “A somewhat popular belief among a certain subset of people is that mercury amalgam can leach mercury into the bloodstream and cause chronic mercury toxicity.” However, Dr. Novella said that years of study have shown that “the amalgam in these fillings is not a significant source of mercury.”

Demystifying Detox

Often, ominous-sounding reports on toxins lead to desperate solutions: various fad methods of detoxification. Many of these regimens declare themselves the best way to rid your body of unhealthy chemicals. Sadly, little truth ever supports these claims.

For instance, colon cleanses claim to rid your digestive tract of anything gumming up the works. “There is no evidence for toxins or anything clogging up the walls of the intestines,” Dr. Novella said. “The intestines continuously move waste through and eventually everything comes out. It doesn’t get backed up.” Colon cleanses can even put your health at risk. “By doing an enema, there is a small but real risk of perforation–of making a hole in the colon,” Dr. Novella said. Perforating the colon also raises the risk of infection, which can even be life-threatening.

Rolfing–a deep muscle massage–also remains a popular health craze. “The notion here is that, by squeezing the muscles very strenuously, you will squeeze out the toxins that can then be cleared from the body,” Dr. Novella said. Its proponents argue that jostling your muscles will move the toxins into the bloodstream and be removed by the liver and kidney. However, just like colon cleanses, rolfing never mentions specific toxins, nor is there any medical evidence to support its promises.

Ultimately, the best treatment for acute metal poisoning is chelation therapy. Chelation therapy is a series of intravenous infusions or oral medicines that bind heavy metals together so the body can rid itself of them in urine or stool. “We can even use activated charcoal to bind heavy metals together for expulsion,” Dr. Novella explains.

Taking precautions with our diets benefits our overall health. However, we should adhere to proper and proven medical knowledge to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Fad diets or detoxes come with more risks than they first imply.

Dr. Steven Novella contributed to this article. Dr. Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University. An expert in neuroscience, Dr. Novella focuses his practice on neuromuscular disorders.