We had a chance to sit down with Marc Richard, M.D., and Mike Richard, M.D., and get their take on the link between pesticides, synthetic chemicals, and human health. Not only are they prestigious doctors with a lot to say— they’re also identical twins like us!
- Can you give us a quick background of yourself?
Marc: I studied Human Biology at Stanford University before attending medical school. I’m currently an Associate Professor at Duke University where I practice medicine as an orthopaedic surgeon and serve as the Director of the Hand, Upper Extremity and Microvascular Surgery Fellowship.
Mike: I also majored in Human Biology at Stanford before moving on to medical school and ultimately specializing in ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery. I have been part of the Duke University faculty since 2006, and worked full time full time until 2016. Since 2016, I have split my time between private practice in New Jersey and teaching in North Carolina.
- Is there a link between pesticides and synthetic chemicals and health issues?
Marc: Yes. There is clearly evidence that many pesticides and synthetic chemicals can adversely affect human health. While a single exposure may not cause a specific illness, the cumulative effect of these exposures has been demonstrated to result in health issues. The effect of these chemicals can range from endocrine disruption (affecting the hormonal systems of the body) to carcinogens (cancer-causing). There is plenty of scientific literature to support the endocrine-disrupting function of these chemicals and the potential link to many ailments, including infertility, obesity, and diabetes.
Mike: There is a link between chemical exposures and several health issues ranging from skin irritation, to developmental issues, to cancer. Historically, most studies of occupational and environmental exposure to chemicals have focused on respiratory illnesses. However, it’s important to remember that in addition to inhalation, chemicals can enter the body through ingestion, injection, or uptake through unbroken skin. A great deal of research is currently being done to study the effects of chemical exposure through skin contact.
- How easy is it for chemicals to enter your bloodstream through skin contact?
Marc: Skin is the largest organ in the body and one of its characteristics for normal function is its permeability. The absorption of chemicals through the skin is dependent on a number of factors that make for a unique profile for each chemical. The size of the chemical matters as smaller particles are more readily absorbed. Similarly, the concentration of the chemical will have a direct impact on the amount of the chemical that is absorbed. Other factors include skin temperature (higher means more absorption), skin integrity, and the duration and area of exposure.
Mike: It depends on the concentration of the chemicals, the frequency and duration of the exposure, the area of the exposed skin, and the chemical and physical properties of the chemical. But the simple answer is much easier than you might think.
Often, the exposure to chemicals through the skin is viewed solely in terms of the chemical being absorbed into the bloodstream, but in actuality, there are several types of chemical-skin interactions to consider. Chemicals can absorb through the skin, and into the bloodstream, where they present a systemic load to the body. Chemicals can also cause local effects ranging from skin irritation to the degradation of the barrier function of the skin. Lastly, chemicals sometimes cause an allergic reaction. These allergic reactions can be local or can cause an immune response at the site of contact and throughout the body.
- How can people change their lifestyle to help eliminate exposure to these toxic chemicals?
Marc: As discussed, the cumulative effect of these chemicals is what results in health risk. As consumers, understanding the ingredients and processes used in products can help us make good choices that promote wellness. It is not enough to limit direct contact with these chemicals. The usage of these chemicals in the manufacturing of products in general can result in these chemicals leaching into the water, air, and soil. This environmental exposure creates an entirely different route for these toxic chemicals to find their way into our bodies. We need to be educated about risks and empowered to make healthy choices. And we need to continue to think beyond the obvious pathways for exposure, such as through our food. The risks are much more varied than that.
Mike: I agree that it all starts with education. As I mentioned earlier, there is a great deal of research currently being done in these areas. The current state of research is that we know that there is potential risk and potential harm. While the specifics are being worked out, I would suggest a less-is-more approach. It is clearly better to limit your exposure to these chemicals. Holistically, this includes addressing the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the clothes we put on our bodies.
- Any feedback on Opok and our mission?
Marc: Opok is doing it right! The mission speaks to the health of the individual, community, and society as a whole. I commend the Opok team for thinking outside of the box and recognizing an opportunity to improve health and wellness through their products.
Mike: I believe in their mission whole-heartedly. I think Opok is very progressive in their approach to these issues. If I had to start with one piece of clothing from which to eliminate chemicals, it would be my underwear- simply because of the intimate relationship between the clothing and skin, plus the overall duration of exposure. Opok is on the cutting-edge of this movement, setting a standard that will become an expectation in years to come.
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