Eight Ways Chemical Toxins Harm Your Body

We hear a lot about toxic chemicals being linked to myriad of serious health conditions. But just how does that happen?  We are now much closer to understanding the mechanisms involved that trigger health problems after exposure to toxic chemicals in our food, products and general environment.  Researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Ludwig Maximilian University, and Hasselt University have reviewed the existing scientific evidence and propose eight hallmarks of environmental exposures that chart the biological pathways through which pollutants contribute to disease:

“Every day we learn more about how exposure to pollutants in air, water, soil, and food is harmful to human health.  Less understood, however, are the specific biological pathways through which these chemicals inflict damage on our bodies. In this paper, we provide a framework to understand why complex mixtures of environmental exposures bring about serious illness even at relatively modest concentrations.”

-Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, senior author and chair of Environmental Health Sciences, Columbia Mailman School. “

Environmental insults impair human health around the world.  Contaminated air, water, soil, food, and occupational and household settings expose humans of all ages to a plethora of chemicals and environmental stressors. We are continually exposed to a mixture of pollutants, which lead to changes in our bodies in multiple domains, from conception to old age. They govern gene expression, train and shape our immune systems, trigger physiological responses, and determine well-being and disease.   The scientists propose eight hallmarks of environmental insults that jointly underpin the damaging impact of exposures during the lifespan: 

1. Oxidative stress and inflammation: When antioxidant defenses are depleted, inflammation, cell death, and organ damage occur.

2. Genomic alterations and mutations: An accumulation of DNA errors can trigger cancer and other chronic diseases.

3. Epigenetic alterations: Epigenetic changes alter the synthesis of proteins responsible for childhood development and regular function of the body.

4. Mitochondrial dysfunction: A breakdown in the cellular powerplant may interfere with human development and contribute to chronic disease.

5. Endocrine disruption: Chemicals found in our environment, food, and consumer products disrupt the regulation of hormones and contribute to disease.

6. Altered intercellular communication: Signaling receptors and other means by which cells communicate with each other, including neurotransmission, are affected.

7. Altered microbiome communities: An imbalance in the population of bacteria and other microorganisms in our body can make us susceptible to allergies and infections.

8. Impaired nervous system function. Microscopic particles in air pollution reach the brain through the olfactory nerve, and can interfere with cognition.


Journal reference: Hallmarks of environmental insults, Peters, A., Nawrot, T.S. & Baccarelli, A.A. Cell, March 02, 2021. Article, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2021.01.043