Most people think of chemicals when they think of toxins. But toxic exposures can come in many different forms. Here is a brief summary of the different types of toxic substances:

  1. Chemical toxins

Man-made chemicals are what most people think about when they think of toxic exposures. These are typically agents that don’t exist in the natural world (or at least not to any significant degree). Through tweaks of chemistry humans build new molecular structures that create all sorts of useful materials. Unfortunately, many of these substances turn out to be harmful to human health.

  1. Heavy metals & naturally toxic elements

Things such as cadmium, lead, mercury, or arsenic can be found naturally throughout the environment, though seldom at levels that are hazardous. They are usually only hazardous when industrial activities introduce them at elevated levels. These toxic elements interfere with the functioning of cells in our body, particularly neurons, which are utilized by the brain and nervous system.

  1. Toxic byproducts

Some toxic substances are birthed into existence as a byproduct of other activities, most notably burning. The burning of fossil fuels, for example, creates a number of toxic vapors. Chemical byproducts can also be created through interactions with sunlight, atmosphere, or other things in nature.

  1. Viruses

Viruses are little bits of RNA – genetic material that can only come alive inside another living host. Unlike bacteria, viruses are not “alive” in the traditional sense of the word; outside of a host they are dead chunks of a genetic code. But once inside a living organism they can come alive and multiply, wreaking havoc on biological life. The anthrax virus is one example of a viral toxin.

  1. Natural toxins

Nature can produce many toxins of her own. Certain types of plant extracts such as lavender or tree oil have the potential to be toxic, since they may contain natural estrogens or other endocrine disruptors. There are also fungal-derived estrogen mimics that can be found in some food products, since the fungi infect the grains. These can delay puberty in girls or lead to other health problems. One study found girls with the highest urine tests of fungi contamination had shorter stature and were less likely to have reached puberty. (Raloff, 4-21-2012)

In another example, between 2013 and 2016, the water off the West coast of California experienced a toxic algae bloom which shut down California’s crab industry for months. (Welch, 2016) The patches of single cell algae, known as pseudonitzschia, produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid, which accumulates in shellfish flesh. Consumed by people, it can then cause seizures and memory loss, and in rare cases, death. During this bloom toxins were 30-times higher than what is normally considered high, and even small fish such as anchovies became too dangerous to eat.

  1. Nanoparticles

This is an extremely new threat that nobody knows a whole lot about, experts included. But now that nanotechnology has become a reality and is being used in commercial products, it has opened the door to a whole new area of concern.

There are two potential problems with nanotechnology. The first and most realistic is that simply by creating such small particles you’re going to create health concerns. Small particles typically pose a bigger hazard than larger ones no matter what they’re made of, simply because they can be inhaled deeper into the lungs and get into nooks and crannies of the body where they can wreak havoc; areas larger particles are locked out of.

The second risk is hypothetical at this point but very pertinentl: By building different nanomaterials we’re likely to create a toxic substance that is harmful to humans. This risk is hypothetical only because there’s no proof this has happened yet. But based on the history of chemistry in general, the odds that some of these nanomaterials will turn out to be toxic is all but certain.