Chemical substance or toxin, what is a toxin and what is an environmental toxin?

When we hear the words; toxin, toxic, poison or poisonous we often think about some dangerous chemicals or substance that can severely harm humans or the environment even in small amounts. That is also true but it is not the whole truth! To recognize a toxin we must know many more things about the chemical or the substance. 

Quantity

If a chemical substance is or will be toxic isn’t just about the chemical itself, one vital part is also the quantity of the chemical or the substance! This has been known for a very long time and the first that stated the connection is said to be Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1494-1542) also known as Paracelcus. He was among other skills a Renaissance physician who quoted:

”Dosis sola facit venenum”

The language is Latin and it means that it is the quantity that makes the poison not the chemical.

This is very important knowledge and another way to say it is;

There are no toxic or non-toxic substances. Only dangerous and harmless concentrations!

To show you what it means take a look at this table below! As you can see many chemicals are toxic but there are also some that we normally consider harmless that can be toxic if the amount is high enough!

Substance
Species
LD50* (ng/kg bw)
Ethanol
mouse
10,000,000,000
NaCl
mouse
4,000,000,000
DDT
rat
100,000,000
Nicotin
rat
1,000,000
Tetrodotoxin
rat
100,00
TCDD
guinea pig
1,000
Botulinum
rat
10
*LD 50 values; LD stands for Lethal Dose 50 % which is the amount of a chemical substance where half of the animals die. It is a measure used in medicine to roughly indicate how toxic a substance is.
Toxins are not always labeled as such!
Toxins are not always labeled as such! | Source

Trivia:

Botulinum is a natural toxin produced by bacteria and is said to be the most toxic substance in the world. The poison is 6 million times stronger than rattlesnake venom!

Can these tests be trusted when they are transformed to humans or the environment?

These traditional measurement as LD 50 has become the standard reference for summarizing the toxicity of substances. But there are problems with the references because of the difficulty that arise when it comes to use the references on humans. One obvious problem is the difference in body sizes since a dosage generally is measured as the amount of a substance administrated to the organism divided by the body weight of the organism. Then there is the natural differences between the species a mouse or a rat. So these kinds of references must be applied with great caution. When it comes to toxins released into the environment another problem occurs with LD 50 values since the references can only be used for high quantities during a shorter time. Because that is what LD 50 values will tell us! If a chemical is shown to be toxic even in small amounts we will know immediately that the substance probably is toxic also for humans and for the environment. The uncertainties occur when it comes to the opposite; a chemical or substance that hasn't been found toxic in LD 50 test. A chemical in the later category can be toxic under the wrong conditions! This is especially important to consider when it comes to environmental toxin.

In environmental toxicology the amounts are mostly low but the exposure
time is instead long which gives effect for long time. So a substance that is
released in small amounts today can look totally harmless in test done in a
short time. But if the same test is taken several years or decades ahead the
result can be quite different and the harmless substance can have become toxic!
And since the chemical market is exploding with thousands new chemicals
released on the market there is no way we can estimate what happens over a
longer period of time. Only facts after time can tell and then it might be too
late, at least for some of us.

Nature is precious!
Nature is precious! | Source
Source

What is an environmental toxin?

Environmental toxins could be described as:

Substances that arose and were released into the environment due to human activity and thus can cause damage to health and environment.

To be exposed to environmental toxins can give many different responses due to several things like;

  • The poisons properties
  • The organism
  • The dose
  • The exposure time

So, what does all this mean?

It means that the properties of a substance released into the environment can cause damage to organisms depending on the dose and the time. It means that in many cases we don’t know until a major amount of humans or animals die or show signs of toxicity. If the toxic substances do not cause immediate death through acute toxicity, it can subsequently either be excreted or stored. Storage of toxins can lead to long term effects that are called chronic toxicity.

There are more to consider when it comes to decide weather a substance can be a toxin;

Effect

The effect of a chemical is more than only toxicity of the chemical. Besides the toxicity of a substance it is important weather or not a substance is persistent and remain in the environment for a long time, and if the substance can be embedded in fat tissue or not. By taking all these parts into consideration one can try and estimate unknown and long-term effects.

Risk

Risk is the sum of exposure x effect/hazard. To calculate a risk is the same as assess the likelihood of a hazard. A risk assessment consists of:

  • identify the risk,
  • assess the exposure
  • assess the effect,
  • rate the risk

When it comes to chemicals and toxins and especially environmental toxins the risk is difficult to assess because of the many parameters that are involved. To evaluate the risk there are at least these parameters to consider:

The concentrations

The concentration is very important as stated above.

The distribution/dissemination

How much of a subject that is spread and how it is spread

Persistence

Which means if it is biodegradable or not. Many man made chemicals are not biodegradable and will therefore remain in the environment.

Bioaccumulation

The concentrations are significantly higher in living organism than the concentration that exists in the environment. It is often due to that the substance is fat-soluble.

Toxicity

Tells us how much of the substance that is needed for it to be lethal

The normal background value

Natural substances or metals can be found natural in the environment. If more or high amounts of the substance or metal are released in one area it can cause bigger damage than in an area with low background value

Interaction between different substances

The mix of different substances can give unknown results

Besides these, one must also consider the substances and the environmental conditions where the chemical or toxin is released.

Summary!

I don’t know how you feel about all this uncertainties but all these parameters and considerations tells me that the only way to go along with all this is to be careful and try not to use chemicals where it isn’t necessary. We can’t stay away from chemicals totally because they surround us everywhere even in our home and in our clothing. But we can try.

One way is to be a conscious consumer which means that you must have knowledge of what you buy! If we start to think about it when we are shopping half the battle is won! Read the labels, ask in the shop; how are this made, where is it made, and most important of all; consider if you really need the item and so on. You can read more tips for conscious consumption here!

One single person can’t make a change but if we are many, together we will make a difference.

More by this Author


Comments 15 comments

J.S.Matthew profile image

J.S.Matthew 5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

Very interesting! A little over my head, but I enjoyed it!

JSMatthew!


someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

Well,I know too much oxygen can damage the brain and body cells just as too little does.I'm wondering what the truth is concerning global warming.It's difficult for the lay person to know what amount of Co2 in the attmosphere without knowing how many trees and plants and the oceans are absorbing.I have heard that the oceans are becoming acidic.That means there is less oxygen in the water.We,have acid rain that absorbes toxic gases like sulfur,nitogen and Carbon dioxide and monoxide in the air.We need alternatives to carbon energy.Wind and solar are not the answer.There are others that should be used but aren't because of the competition they represent to big oil.


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

J.S. Matthew, Yes, it can seem so! There is no easy way to describe this topic! The more I learn, the more I realize how complicated this is so I take it one step at the time!

I am glad you enjoyed it and thanks for your comment!

Tina


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

Hi someonewhoknows! You are right, even something as harmless and needed as oxygen can be harmful in the wrong place and in the wrong amount. The atmosphere is very complicated and there are also many parameters to take into consideration. Each of these other topics you mention here are subjects that can be studied for a long time and they are so interesting.

Wind and solar energy can only take us a bit on the way but more research is needed if we are to find an alternative to carbon energy!

Thanks for your comment and for your visit here!

Tina


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Excellent overview! I prefer not to think about chemicals and toxins, but I suppose it's important to be equipped with some extra knowledge on these issues... and I feel much more informed now :D

Your table did a wonderful job at putting things into perspective, too. What a nice addition!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

Great information and rated useful! You raised a very good point - even substances that are usually considered to be nontoxic can be poisonous at high concentrations.


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

Simone Smith, No, I prefer not to think about it either, but it keeps coming back in my mind when I read or hear the news, talk to people and notice all the chemicals we surround us with and so on. The scariest is that I for short moments sometimes feels despair and wonder if my little effort really will do any good? But I am certain that it will! Every little effort from each of us will count in the long run. That is the only way!

Thanks for your visit and for your encouragement! Tina


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

AliciaC, that’s what we usually don’t think about! And it is most certainly due to the complexity of it all which makes it almost impossible to understand without perform research. The only thing we can do is to try and use fewer chemicals and if we must use them we should choose those that are more harmless. By doing so, we have done a great contribution! Thanks for your visit! Tina


katiem2 profile image

katiem2 5 years ago from I'm outta here

WOW, I've learned something and had a lot of Ah Ha moments while reading this. Its important to know such things. Thanks for the heads up on chemical substances or environmental toxins. Well written and formated. :) Katie


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

Hi Katie, I am delighted if I have given you information and some answers!Thanks for coming by and for your encouragement! Tina


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

Very informative and helpful--another well-done hub. We need to take responsibility to learn about the concerns, don't we? Voted up and useful.

I would like to link this one to my hub on toxic scents, if you have no objection. Thanks so much.


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

Hi RTalloni! Yes we really should and we should do it before it is too late! The problem is our way of living and our consumption. I am delighted if you link to this hub! Thanks for your appreciation!

Tina


gg.zaino profile image

gg.zaino 5 years ago from L'America

God morgon Tina-

thank you for this informative article. very well done syster of the planet blue.

I so agree with you. If we can avoid chemical use, we must do so. I had to use a pesticide on our property this week and felt very uncomfortable spreading it. harmful insects to both human and pet dog are plentiful here and i had to for the dog's sake.

another thing i find disturbing; is the pesticide spraying our county here in the Keys does for mosquito's at night while we sleep. DDT was used in my neighborhood as a child growing up- same reason; mosquito's.

The Great Mother Earth's reaction to Humankind's need to alter the environment is coming on us soon.

Great hub Tina-

Fred min vän

greg


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

Hi Greg, I know you feel the same for our blue planet as me! But we can´t avoid chemicals totally, sometimes we need too. But many times we don´t and our problems could be solved in different ways! The use of DDT is typical of our chemical use; we don´t know before the damage is done. And there seems to be a very slow learning rate since we keep doing the same mistakes over again. And with the increasing amount of chemicals it will be even more difficult.

It is great to see you Greg, even if it is Elliot on the photo:)

Thanks min vän

Tina


thougtforce profile image

thougtforce 5 years ago from Sweden Author

Hi Greg, I know you feel the same for our blue planet as me! But we can´t avoid chemicals totally, sometimes we need too. But many times we don´t and our problems could be solved in different ways! The use of DDT is typical of our chemical use; we don´t know before the damage is done. And there seems to be a very slow learning rate since we keep doing the same mistakes over again. And with the increasing amount of chemicals it will be even more difficult.

It is great to see you Greg, even if it is Elliot on the photo:)

Thanks min vän

Tina

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