Persistent Organic Pollutants

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemical pollutants that are pervasive in our environment. Don’t let the ‘organic’ fool you—it’s not referring to organic food or organic farming, it’s just a term for living matter or organisms. These chemicals love our fat, so fat is where they accumulate and hide out.

The WHO released a statement on POPs that reads, “POPs are chemicals of global concern due to their potential for long-range transport, persistence in the environment, ability to biomagnify and bioaccumulate in ecosystems, as well as their significant negative effects on human health and the environment [1].”

Bioaccumulation & Biomagnification

Bioaccumulation refers to the accumulation of these chemicals from the environment over time.

Biomagnification refers to the build-up of these chemicals as you go higher up the food chain, so those at the top will contain the greatest amount.

You may have heard about the problem of mercury levels in fish. Mercury levels can get particularly high in larger fish, as larger fish like tuna eat small fish that are already high in mercury. They also accumulate it from their environment.

It’s the same thing that occurs with POPs.

Did you know that over 4000 chemicals have entered the food supply—some intentionally like preservatives, and some inadvertently like BPA? Not only that, over 1500 chemicals enter the market each year.

Many of their effects have not been thoroughly studied in humans, and only a handful of the

thousands of chemicals have undergone rigorous testing. We know that at least 175 of them are

harmful to human health.

Just think about the amount of rubbish you produce as one human in one day. Then think about the rubbish that your household creates, then your suburb, then your state, and finally your country.

That’s a huge amount of rubbish produced every single day, and it usually ends up in landfills. After the rubbish sits for a while in a landfill, it gets into our water, our air, our ecosystems, and our food. Roughly two-thirds of all the plastic ever produced has been released into the environment and remains there in some form [2]—in the oceans, in the air, in the soil, in water supplies, or in our bodies.

The trouble is when researchers do blood tests, the levels of individual chemicals may be low, but it’s the total amount or mixture of chemicals that is of greatest concern. Research in this area is in its infancy, and it’s going to be very challenging to identify which of these chemicals are problematic, in what combination they’re harmful, and where they originated from because of their persistence in the environment.

Because these fat-loving molecules tend to congregate together, they can concentrate to as much as 100 times background levels in seawater.

The main source of POPs (~95%) is through dietary intake of animal fats, and don’t forget; we’re at the top of the food chain [3]! Fish tend to be highest in POPs, particularly farmed fish.

These POPs can disrupt our biology, and in particular, our endocrine system (the hormone system).

POPs Are a Risk Factor for Type 2 Diabetes

POPs are now considered a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, as they contribute to insulin dysfunction [4]. They have direct effects on the beta cells in the pancreas and contribute to inflammation.

Unfortunately, it’s a topic that has not been brought to the public’s attention. The implications could be massive, and who would be held accountable? These chemicals persist in the environment and travel long distances, so it’s almost impossible to know exactly where they originated from.

What You Can Do To Avoid Environmental Chemicals

  • Reduce your intake of animal products (particularly farmed fish.)
  • Reduce your own waste. (Reuse bags, buy a reusable coffee cup, buy in bulk rather than individually wrapped items.)
  • Minimise your use of pre-packaged foods.
  • Do not use plastic when heating food in the microwave.
  • Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. (Remember, these POPs hang out in fat.)
  • Minimise your use of chemicals in the home.
  • Eat organic food.
  • Minimise your time spent near idling cars, trucks, and buses.

At the end of the day, human health is largely dependent on planetary health. If you care about your health, start caring about the planet’s health. Every single one of us can make a difference.

Article Resources

[1] WHO. (2019) Persistent organic pollutants (POPs). WHO.

[2] Villa, P., Arellano, Y., Gordon, M., Moon, D., Miller, K. and Thompson, K. (2019) Plastic and

Health. The Hidden cost of a Plastic Planet. The Centre for International and Environmental Law.

[3] Magliano, D. J., Loh, V.H.Y., Harding, J.L., Botton, J. and Shaw, J.E. (2014) Persistent organic pollutants and diabetes: A review of the epidemiological evidence. Diabetes and Metabolism, Vol.40(1), pp.1-14

[4] Lee, Y. M., Jacobs, D. R., Jr, and Lee, D. H. (2018). Persistent Organic Pollutants and Type 2

Diabetes: A Critical Review of Review Articles. Frontiers in endocrinology, Vol.9(712)