In her new book, Keep Away from GRAS: Generally Recognized As Safe, Salonpas Wellness Warrior, Dr. Marcela Magda Popa, draws from her 16 years as a Board Certified Internal Medicine physician and her own experience as a patient suffering from autoimmune arthritis, breast abnormalities, and migraine headaches to raise awareness of the harmful effects that common household products and substances may have on our health. Salonpas sat down with Dr. Popa to learn more about her book:
What was the catalyst for you to write “Keep Away From GRAS: Generally Recognized As Safe”?
It really has to do with my personal medical journey. As a patient suffering with autoimmune arthritis, breast abnormalities and migraine headaches, I was able to analyze some associations, research and learn more in depth information about substances deemed safe (GRAS), after I noticed that certain chemicals I was exposed to multiple times a day through numerous products I routinely used, were aggravating my symptoms. Avoiding them brought some steady improvements, while inadvertent or overlooked re-exposure triggered worsening numerous times. Through my experience I figured out these GRAS substances are not necessarily safe, inert, or inactive and our chronic but constant exposure, even at low doses, can have an as yet unidentified or not fully accepted impact on our health. Avoiding these substances may be beneficial for many frustrated patients just like me, who may understand the limitations of modern medicine but are disappointed because they cannot live a normal life.
Who is your book targeted to?
I wrote the book hoping that people who suffer from the same ailments I do could try my remedies and see if they improve. If that’s the case, they could bring these improvements to the attention of their doctors and maybe the medical field will not consider what I describe anecdotal anymore and proper studies would be conducted. The topics of the book apply mostly to women issues, but men also suffer of autoimmune disorders and migraines, therefore they may benefit from my observations. The book may also be a helpful guide for anybody who’s interested in healthy living, is aware that not everything available to us is safe and wants to find out more about what we should avoid and why.
What ingredients in cosmetics, medications, foods, and other household items can be harmful and how are they harmful?
I’m going to focus first on the ingredients that I found were worsening my joint pain and swelling. As I mentioned in the book, I wasn’t the only one affected by them. Some family members and some of my patients had similar complaints.
Commonly appearing names on the ingredient lists are:
- polyethylene glycols (PEGs)— listed as such, followed by a number (PEG-6 avocado oil) or with names ending in “eth” (cetareth, steareth, etc)
- polysorbates—20, 60, 80 and so on
- ethanolamines (mono-, di-, and triethanolamine)
These are all derivatives of the carcinogenic ethylene oxide, which remains as a contaminant in the final products, as does a byproduct called dioxane—a probable carcinogen. Cosmetic grade ingredients have more contaminants than medication and food grade components.
The dough conditioners and yeast defoamers—the latter used in bakeries but also in the wine and beer fermentation, are ethylene oxide derivatives that are not removed from the final products nor listed on labels.
When I realized these can be the possible culprits of my worsening joints, I was first very reluctant to even say it out loud. The consumers’ sites discussing the harmful cosmetic ingredients didn’t mention anything like this. I was very curious to see if there are any medical articles with findings explaining some of my symptoms and I was very happy to see there were so many. I was not insane! My correlations would have not been possible if I didn’t find numerous medical articles with NIH (National Institute of Health), published and accepted studies, that connect my observations with mostly ignored, but not at all inoffensive substances.
Here are some facts.
Tendon grafts sterilized with ethylene oxide and used in knee reconstruction caused serious knee swelling and inflammation and the graft had to be removed. Ethylene oxide remains as a contaminant in the products synthetized using it. Since we are exposed to these components through numerous products every day, my presumption is that sensitive people can develop musculoskeletal pain.
The polymerized molecules, called polyoxyethylene or polyethylene glycols, acquire new properties.
The big polyethylene glycols (PEGs) molecules cannot be eliminated by the kidney, remining stuck inside certain types of cells, forming blisters that can distort them. PEGs trigger antibody formation against themselves—noted during treatments with PEGylated drugs, but more amazing, anti-PEG antibodies were demonstrated in 25% of healthy blood donors, compared to 0.2% two decades ago. PEGs metabolism may be linked to the development of kidney stones. Polysorbates (another class of polymerized ethylene oxide), can integrate within the cellular membranes and change their properties and functions. In humans, they can cause allergic reactions after Flu or HPV vaccinations; decreased blood pressure and heart rate or neuropathies with some intravenous medications containing them; development of calcium oxalate kidney stones; and possibly premature menopause reported after HPV vaccine. Small amounts of polysorbate 80 can aggravate Crohn’s disease and along with carboxymethyl cellulose, were both recently linked to obesity and metabolic syndrome—all these by changing the gut flora.
Other components are propylene glycol and other propylene oxide derivatives, such as the semisynthetic celluloses like hydroxypropyl cellulose and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose. This last component is what the so-called “vegetable capsules” shells are made of—in reality another form of plastic. It is widely ingested by health-conscious people in supplements.
Perhaps some polypropylene microplastic particles identified in humans very recently, may originate from these capsules, although presently the plastic bottle tops are blamed.
The last chemical on the bulleted list, poloxamer, contains both polyethylene glycol and polypropylene oxide. Some animal studies showed that poloxamer uptake by the cartilage cells is irreversible and can induce activation of an inflammatory cascade—the complement.
Unfortunately, because all these ingredients are considered inert or inactive they are not taken into account nor blamed. And there are numerous others that can be harmful in different ways. Some are endocrine disruptors or allergy triggers; many have respiratory, liver, kidney or nervous system toxicity; others are harmful because are contaminated with carcinogens. Think about how many more cases of infertility, neurological, developmental and behavioral problems, or autoimmune disorders we hear about around us every day, compared with twenty or thirty years ago.
Where can we find estrogen-like chemicals? Are they in our food or household cleaning materials? How do they affect us and how can we avoid them?
Endocrine disruptors interfere with sexual hormones, mostly estrogens, but also progesterone and testosterone, thus being possibly responsible for reproductive and developmental toxicity, infertility, precocious puberty. Others endocrine disruptors interfere with the thyroid hormones or glucocorticoid hormones produced by the adrenal glands.
Estrogen-like chemicals are encountered not just in cosmetics or cleaning products, but in numerous other household items. Eliminating them from use helped both my migraines and the scarier breast issues
In cosmetics, there are phthalates (under “fragrance”) and parabens—both used also in medications; aluminum from deodorants, triclosan, UV filters (oxybenzone, homosalate, octinoxate). Aluminum oxide is an inactive ingredient in many tablets, but aluminum foil and trays are so commonly used in cooking and wrapping foods and snacks.
Beside aluminum, others lurk in numerous household items. Phthalates are incorporated in food wrap, vinyl products (tablecloths, shower curtains, furniture upholstery). BPA (bisphenol A) is found in polycarbonate plastics (with recycling code #7) and food wrap, in epoxy resins that line food and drink cans, as well as wine fermentation and storage tanks. Moreover, in some recent medical studies, BPA has been linked with obesity and hypertension.
Perfluorinated chemicals are found in nonstick cookware (Teflon brand), fast-food wrappers, paper plates and cups, and stain resistant carpets and furniture.
There are available replacements for almost all these synthetic components in every product category.
Can migraine sufferers from relief by avoiding or consuming certain food?
Migraines can be somewhat avoided by maintaining regular sleep-wake patterns and proper hydration; avoidance of artificial sweeteners (aspartame), additives like MSG, processed meats, excessive caffeine, aged cheese, wines and perfumes.
Given my personal experience, I think the cookware and containers we use to store or serve our foods and beverages, through the estrogen-like substances, play a very important role in triggering migraines. Eliminating those from use made quickly a great difference on my migraines, and in the long run for my breast issues.
Wine consumption is often associated with migraines in sensitive people. Tyramine, histamines and tannins—boosting the serotonin production, are blamed for this, but studies results are equivocal. Learning about BPA, a powerful estrogen-mimicking chemical, I think I found a more consistent reason why I experience migraines after a glass of commercial wine, but not after homemade wine. It’s because the wine (and beer) fermentation, aging, and storage process (before being bottled), often takes place in vats and tanks lined with BPA and this leaches into the wine.
What should someone do if they suffer from a chronic ailment that doctors can’t seem to find the cause of?
This is a tough question. For many medical conditions there is not a clearly identifiable cause. Some patients turn to functional medicine specialists, others to traditional medicine. Some people report benefits, but I’m not sure everybody finds an answer. I did try the autoimmune diet approach but without any benefits whatsoever.
From what I read and studied, environmental factors may play a role more important than we can imagine, because they’re chemicals not meant to be in our bodies, we cannot adequately dispose of them. I don’t know if environmental medicine specialists address the issues I described and I’m not sure how easy is it for one to get a consultation with such a specialist.
Keeping ourselves informed about what we put in our body is very important. If we notice that something bothers us repeatedly, we should bring it to the attention of the treating doctors.
I talked to my breast surgeon about avoiding the estrogen-like chemicals and he agreed that avoiding them can’t hurt even if at present there is no solid proof incriminating them.
Very important though, patients have to do their due diligence and take the necessary tests and follow the specialists’ instructions. I definitely don’t think people should treat themselves after reading information available online.
Why do you think a better government regulatory framework needs to be implemented in order to truly make sure Americans are not exposed to harmful items? What would you recommend implementing?
In the US there are fewer regulations that can be reinforced by law and more recommendations, which cannot. The federal organizations’ recommendations usually state “not to exceed limits,” but when tested, many products exceed them.
The studies that document the safety for many of these chemicals, are usually conducted using ridiculously high doses and look for an acute sickness. However, in order to trigger certain diseases, these constant, repetitive doses need not be high—and this is what I’m trying to raise awareness about.
Many of the chemicals I talk about are banned in Canada, European Union, Japan, or Australia. Others have more strict limits that are reinforced by law. One additional detail, the proportion of developmental and behavioral disorders in the EU is much less than in the US and that’s not because the European doctors are so much more negligent and miss a lot of cases. Instead, the much tighter regulations on everyday chemicals may play an important role in this significant difference. I think if we’d follow the EU guidelines we’d be better off, but I don’t think this is likely to happen
That’s why in the US, consumers’ awareness it’s very important. Relying on cosmetics with plant-based or low hazard synthetic ingredients is very important because our skin absorbs them. Conventional laundry and cleaning products are also toxin laden and should be replaced with healthy ones. EWG (Environmental Working Group), provides helpful guides about all these.