Thursday, February 18, 2016

Food Paranoia

My son was watching Youtube videos today and came across one filled with food scares. Fortunately, I have been careful to teach him some skepticism about extravagant claims, to be careful about the words "may" -- as in "may cause" or "may contain" -- and "has been linked to", and so on, so I did not worry that he would be needlessly frightened by the absurd hyperbolic claims, but as I listened along, it struck me just how absurd many of these claims are.

For example, there was a scare tale about the use of carbon monoxide in meat packing. Basically, carbon monoxide is pumped into sealed packages of meat, where it keeps the meat pink and looking fresh cut, rather than letting it turn brown or gray. He did admit the FDA had granted it recognition as safe, but then launched into the usual scare about "the long term effects of ingestion." The only problem being, I actually know why carbon monoxide is dangerous to humans, so I also know (1) that ingestion is absolutely safe (as opposed to inhaling) and (2) that carbon monoxide will always be an acute risk, long term danger is no worse than an acute exposure.

First of all, carbon monoxide is not an exotic chemical, or something we get only from evil meat packers. It is fairly common in our environment. Whenever combustion of carbon containing substances takes place, when carbon dioxide is formed, inevitably some carbon monoxide is formed as well. Thus, if you ever stood near a candle, fireplace or a running engine, you were "exposed" to carbon monoxide. And, odds are good, you suffered little harm. Most likely you did not even know you inhaled carbon monoxide, it entered your system, passed through and was expelled. And, despite being exposed multiple times, odds are also very good, you still were no worse for wear, as each time your system was completely purged as soon as the exposure stopped. So much for "long term exposure". But, perhaps it would help if I explained why carbon monoxide is a danger in certain circumstances,

Carbon monoxide is a danger because, to your body, it looks a lot like oxygen*. Your lungs and your bloodstream take it in and use it where they would use oxygen**. As a result, your body tries to process carbon monoxide, is unable to perform the usual physiological processes, and begins, slowly, to suffocate. Carbon monoxide is a bit more dangerous than other gasses, though. Where you could easily suffocate in a room full of xenon or hydrogen or argon, it is faster in a room full of carbon monoxide because, since it looks like oxygen, it stays in the blood, taking up space that oxygen would normally occupy, making suffocation more rapid. However, if the exposure is acute, and does not last long enough to cause damage due to oxygen deprivation, the body does eventually clear out the carbon monoxide from the blood, and you return to normal function, with no trace of the substance left in your system.

And that is why I say the two claims made are particularly absurd. First, EATING carbon monoxide will not deliver it to the lungs. At worst, the chemical will bind to internal tissues that would otherwise oxidize. Since oxidation of tissues is usually a bad thing (remember all those antioxidants we supposedly need to ingest?) then this would be at worst neutral and at best slightly beneficial. But there simply is no way eating meat treated with carbon monoxide will get it into the lungs or bloodstream, at least not beyond trace amounts, which would be harmless and quickly eliminated.

Which is the second reason the claims are absurd. Once it is no longer exposed to carbon monoxide, the body rapidly clears it from the system. It simply does not "accumulate" in the body, or do progressive damage. It would be a bad idea, but if you wanted, you could sit in a garage in a running car once a week for life, and provided you left before suffering brain damage or death, you would be no worse off on the hundredth visit than the first. The substance simply does not cause cumulative damage.

Of course, I am probably putting more thought into this than I need. Most people know putting carbon monoxide in meat packaging is harmless, while those who worry about it would probably worry regardless as something "artificial" is being used and is inherently suspect. Sadly, proof is no longer required today, people hear "chemical" or "big corporation" and they fret***. But, I thought I should try.

And in that vein, let me make one final observation. If all the food worries on the internet were legitimate would we not be dead? After all, if every food that has supposed risks were as dangerous as claimed, it seems every human should be either incredibly ill or dead. Then again, if every environmental claim were true, the same would be the case.

If an alien came to Earth and listened to our fear mongers, he would likely imagine we were wracked with disease and living only a decade or two, with the developed world being far more sickly and short lived than the less developed. But, despite the claims of environmentalists and food fear mongers, the reverse is true. Life spans continue to increase, the disease that do increase are those of old age and opulence. Yes, heart disease and cancer increase, but only because you must die of something, and we no longer die of most infectious diseases, animal attack or many accidents. Thus, we develop the degenerative diseases of old age. And, were we to conquer them, we would begin  to die of some other disease we do not yet live long enough to see.

And I am sure someone would start blaming THAT on our diet as well.

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* An aside: When I was in college, I almost managed to gas myself. One of my car's exhaust pipes had split right at the radiator, so I could not simply replace the pipe, but would have had to put on a new radiator as well. I was a bit low on cash, so I tried to fix it by inserting a "pipe" I made out of an old can with both ends lopped off. It stopped the horrible noise (this was a V8 engine, so very noisy without a muffler and full tail pipe), but the motion of the pipe bouncing up and down eventually crushed the can, blocking the pipe. I didn't notice at the time, but when I got to college and stepped out of my car,  I discovered my legs didn't work. It took a little while to become coherent again, but, after about half an hour, I felt mostly normal and, by the end of the day, I was back to myself.

** Our lungs only signal suffocation when we build up excess carbon dioxide, so carbon monoxide does not make us feel as if we were suffocating. Then again, neither does helium or nitrogen or argon or any other gas.

*** The same is true of certain other people and hearing "neocon". It seems some people are prepared to find problems whenever their favorite villain appears, whether or not it makes a bit of sense.

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POSTSCRIPT

I think maybe I was unclear about why CO poisoning would cause suffocation to be faster than simply breathing in an inert gas. I suppose it really would not, if the room were completely full of the other gas. It would only be an issue if some oxygen were available, in the air, in the lungs, somewhere. By filling those slots which would normally transport oxygen, CO prevents the body form using what limited oxygen is available and thus speeds suffocation and death. In an atmosphere made up entirely of the suffocating gas, I suppose this would not be an issue, except when considering what little oxygen may be left in the lungs. Hopefully that clarifies what I was thinking.



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