The Everyday Food Additive That Toxifies Us All

by David Brownstein, MD

What if I told you that there is a toxic substance in every one of us, and larger concentrations of it are probably in our children? It’s a substance that has been known to cause problems with our endocrine glands, including the thyroid, ovaries, prostate, and in the breasts.  And what if you found out that you could easily detoxify yourself of this substance for pennies per day. Does this information interest you?

The toxic substance is bromine, and once you know all about the most common toxin to which we are exposed, you will be able to implement a plan to detoxify your body of it.Bromine is a member of the halide family of elements. For those of us who took chemistry in school, the halide family consists of fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine (their oxidized forms) and their complementary reduced forms: fluoride, chloride, bromide, and iodide.

The halides are grouped together as a “family” because they share a similar structure. All halides can form salt-like compounds in combination with sodium and most metals. For the purposes of this article, either the reduced or oxidized form is interchangeable unless specifically referred to.  The halides iodine and chloride are the “essential” elements of this family. Our body has receptors for both. And we need both of these substances in adequate amounts for a number of crucial physiologic processes in our bodies.

 For example, iodine is necessary for the production of thyroid hormone. Chloride, a common constituent of salt, is necessary to keep the fluid inside and outside of our cells in balance. We cannot live without adequate amounts of both iodine and chloride in the body.

The other halides, fluoride and bromine, are both known carcinogens and have no known therapeutic value in our body. Fluoride, as you know, has been reported to prevent cavities, but there is no truly good science behind that statement.  Studies by the World Health Organization fail to show any cavity reduction in countries that use fluoride compared with countries that do not.  Yet fluoride is a potent enzyme inhibitor that poisons hundreds of enzymes in our bodies, and it has been shown to cause cancer.

I believe fluoride should be avoided, as you should avoid all carcinogens. More about fluoride will be discussed in future newsletters. This newsletter will focus on the other toxic halide, bromine.

Bromine’s Insidious Effects on Your Health

Bromine was discovered in 1826. Bromide, the reduced form of bromine, is absorbed rapidly in the intestinal tract. Because the size and weight of bromine is very close to that of iodine, they can compete with one another for binding in the body, especially in the thyroid gland. This is an extremely important concept. It means that, if the body is exposed to excess bromine, it can result in the bromine binding in the body in places where iodine is supposed to bind.

Therefore, if you are exposed to too much bromine, you can cause iodine to be released from the body as bromine binds instead to iodine receptors. This can create an iodine deficiency problem. This is the main problem we are seeing in our modern world and in our exposure to excess amounts of bromine. Bromine is toxic and should be avoided.

Remember, while your body has receptors for and needs iodine to make thyroid hormone, there is no known physiologic use for bromine in the body.  When bromine binds to the iodine receptors in the thyroid gland, it disrupts the normal physiologic functioning of that gland.  If there is an iodine deficiency problem already occurring, exposure and absorption of bromine will make it worse.

To further complicate matters, your body is very slow at eliminating bromine.  Bromine intoxication (called “bromism”) has been shown to cause delirium, psychomotor retardation, schizophrenia, and hallucination.1  People who ingest enough bromine feel dull and apathetic and have difficulty concentrating.2 Bromine also can cause severe depression, headaches, and irritability.

It is unclear how much bromine must be absorbed before symptoms of bromism become apparent.  Recent research has demonstrated that symptoms of bromine toxicity can be present even with low levels of bromine in the diet.3 

Bromine (or its reduced form – bromide) is used as an antibacterial agent for pools and hot tubs. It still is used as a fumigant in agriculture. Crops sprayed with bromide have been found to have elevated bromide levels.4   Bromide also is used as a fumigant for termites and other pests. In 1981, 6.3 million pounds of bromide were used in California. By 1991, 18.7 million pounds were used in California.5

Toxicity of bromine has been reported from the ingestion of some carbonated drinks (including Mountain Dew, AMP Energy Drink, and some Gatorade products) that contain brominated vegetable oils.6  Remember, bromine is a toxic item. All products that contain bromine should be avoided.

Bromine used to be present in many common over-the-counter medications. It still is used in many prescription medicines. More than 150 years ago, bromine was used extensively in medicine as a sedative, as well as a remedy for seizures. Because of the toxicity of bromine, it has been phased out f many medicines. However, bromine still can be found in some medicines, including those that treat asthma and bowel and bladder dysfunction.  Among these are the Atrovent inhaler, Atrovent nasal spray, Ipratropium nasal spray, Pro-Panthine, Pyridostigmine bromide, and the Spiriva HandiHaler.

I believe all medicines and foods that contain bromide need to be avoided. It is lunacy to use bromine in any form (either bromine or bromide) as a medicine. Animal studies have shown that bromide intake can adversely affect the accumulation of iodide in the thyroid and the skin.7   Research also has shown that a high bromide intake would result in iodide being eliminated from the thyroid gland and being replaced by bromide.8 Therefore, when you make thyroid hormone, your thyroid hormone could be brominated instead of iodinated.

Today’s thyroid testing does not distinguish the difference in these halides. In addition, animal studies have shown that the ingestion of bromide can cause hypothyroidism.9  When iodine is deficient, the toxicity of bromide is accelerated. As I mentioned in the July newsletter, my research has shown that iodine deficiency is occurring at epidemic rates. Therefore, maintaining adequate iodine levels is essential when you live in an environment that provides exposure to bromide.

Bromine in Bakery Products

In the early 1960s, iodine was used in the manufacturing process of bakery products, including bread, as an anti-caking agent. One slice of bread contained up to 150 micrograms (μg) of iodine, which was the recommended daily allowance for iodine. In 1965,

The National Institutes of Health reported that the average iodine intake from bakery products was 726 μg of iodine per day.10   Some researchers felt that this amount of iodine could cause problems with the thyroid gland. Because of the erroneous concern about getting too much iodine from bakery products, iodine was replaced with bromine in the 1980s.11

This was a tremendous mistake. The amount of iodine in the bakery products was not even close to approaching a toxic level. The substitution of bromine for iodine not only increased the incidence of iodine deficiency but also increased the levels of bromine in the population.  Bromine is a toxic element and has no place in your diet.

Bromine is considered a goitrogen, which is a chemical that causes a goiter of the thyroid gland. Bromine interferes with iodide uptake and utilization in the thyroid gland.12, 13   There is no reason to use bromine in a medication and certainly no reason to use bromine in a common food source.

The substitution of bromine for iodine in bakery products is certainly responsible in large part for declining iodine levels in the United States. From 1971 until 2000, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed iodine levels have declined 50 percent in the United States.14 “This reduction may be due, in part, to changes in food production,” state the study’s authors.15   No doubt, they are referring to the substitution of bromine for iodine.  

The effects of iodine on the body have been reviewed in a previous newsletter (July 2008). The thyroid gland, the breasts, the salivary glands, etc., all have iodine receptor sites. Bromine binding to the iodine receptors in these tissues is a recipe for disaster.

In the case of the thyroid gland, thyroid hormone production will be inhibited. The ingestion of bromine in an iodine-deficient state will further exacerbate thyroid illness. In the case of the breasts, bromine binding to breast tissue has been associated with diseases of the breast, including breast cancer.

Children Exposed to Bromine in Fire Retardants

Bromine is one of the main chemicals found in fire retardants. The name of this family of chemicals is polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). PBDEs are a class of toxic fire retardants added to many common household items. These items can include the plastics of computers, televisions, radios, and other electronic materials.  PBDEs also are added to clothing, draperies, carpeting, and upholstery, as well as to furniture foam, such as in mattresses. The purported benefit of PBDEs is their ability to slow ignition and the rate of fire.

The Environmental Working Group undertook a study to look the amounts of bromine (PBDEs) in 20 families.16 In nearly every family (19 out of 20, or 95 percent), the children, whose ages ranged from 4 to 12½, suffered higher amounts of PBDEs than their mothers. In fact, the children were found to have 3,200 percent higher PBDE levels than their mothers.

“This study suggests that U.S. children one to four years of age bear some of the heaviest burdens of flame retardant pollution in the industrialized world,” the researchers concluded.17  Why would these children have higher amounts, compared with their mothers? Babies are exposed to bromine through a mother’s breast milk, especially if the mother is iodine deficient. Children frequently are placed on the floor and have their hands in their mouths. PBDEs can be found in carpets and on dust.

A recent study estimated that children’s exposure to PBDEs in dust is 10 times higher than an adult’s.18 Also, the small body size of children concentrates the PBDEs to a much greater extent compared with an adult. Researchers have shown that babies also can be exposed to PBDEs in the womb.19   Animal studies have shown that a single exposure of the neonatal brain to PBDEs can alter the behavior and activity of the neonatal brain permanently.20

PBDEs also have resulted in changes in learning, memory, and behavior, including hyperactivity. When you consider that more than 16 percent of public school-aged boys are on mood-altering prescription medications, you can begin to understand why we are having so many behavior problems in school.

Where else can children be exposed to PBDEs? Researchers have found medium to high levels of PBDEs in a variety of baby products, including portable cribs, playpens, car seats, strollers, nursing pillows, infant carriers, toddler pillows, and chairs.21

Many studies have found foreigners to have lower PBDE levels compared with U.S. children. This is because much of Europe has banned the most common PBDEs still in use in the United States.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has acknowledged the concerns about PBDEs, stating that the “EPA is engaged in the Voluntary Children’s Chemical Evaluation Program (VCCEP), working with chemical manufacturers to provide data to enable the public to understand the potential health risks to children associated with certain chemical exposures.”20 

It is nice to see the EPA “working with” the polluters to enable us to understand the health risks. I say don’t wait for the EPA to act. We need to not only lower our exposure to bromine but also to help the body detoxify and release bromine.

How Do You Lower Bromine Levels?

The addition of bromide to many food and drug sources (mentioned previously) and the use of bromine-containing fire retardants have caused an epidemic of bromide toxicity that is further exacerbated by iodine deficiency. In order to improve one’s endocrine and immune systems, a practical way of helping the body detoxify from bromine must be found.

There are simple ways of lowering the levels of bromine in the body. Primarily, we must stop ingesting bromide-containing food and medicines.  That means eating organic food, grown without pesticides. Also, it means limiting bakery products that contain bromine.  However, once bromine is absorbed, it binds tightly to the iodine receptors in the body.

In addition, bromine can bind to the transport cells for iodine (sodium-iodide symporter, NIS) and damage the transporter cells. The oxidized form of bromide, bromine, is stored in the fat tissues. Taking iodine in physiologic doses can help to competitively inhibit the binding of bromine. Also, iodine supplementation allows the body to detoxify itself from bromine, while retaining iodine.

Research has shown that bromide competes with iodide for absorption and uptake in the body.23   Dr. Guy Abraham, a researcher on iodine, writes, “Therefore, increasing iodide intake should lower bromide levels in the thyroid, preventing and reversing its thyrotoxic and goitrogenic effects.”24 

The use of iodine also will cause bromine to be released from other tissues in the body in addition to the thyroid. Dr. Abraham showed that increasing the intake of iodine would additionally increase the urinary excretion of bromide and other toxic halides.25   In fact, Dr. Abraham has shown that iodine supplementation can result “in the whole body being detoxified” from the toxic elements bromide and fluoride.

Research done in my office verified this statement by Dr. Abraham. Salt also can help with the removal of bromide. The chloride in salt is part of the halide family (iodide, chloride, fluoride, and bromide). Chloride can competitively inhibit bromide and help the kidneys excrete it.26, 27, 28 In fact, nearly 100 years ago, “salting the bromide out” was used in medicine to help lower bromine toxicity.

A low-salt diet will exacerbate bromine toxicity.  When rats are subjected to a low salt diet, the half-life of bromine is prolonged 833 percent compared with rats given a normal salt diet.29   Unrefined salt is an effective tool to help lower bromine levels in the body.  Supplementation translates into an improved immune system, a balanced hormonal system and more importantly, improvement in overall health.

 Steps to Take

  • Avoid bromine in food, drink, and medicine. Always look at labels.
  • Maintain adequate iodine levels. I use Iodoral or Lugol’s solution. Either can be purchased from my office at www.centerforholisticmedicine.com. See a holistic doctor who is knowledgeable about iodine.
  • Use unrefined salt as a part of your healthy diet. Unrefined salt should be a part of everyone’s healthy regimen.
  • Exercise with sweating also helps the body release bromine.

Following these four steps can help you achieve your optimal health. For more information on this topic, I refer the reader to my books, Iodine: Why You Need it, Why You Can’t Live Without It, and Salt Your Way to Health.


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2 Clark. G. Applied Pharmacology. Churchill, London. 1938

3 Sangster, B., et al. The influence of sodium bromide in man: A study in human volunteers with special

emphasis on the endocrine and the central nervous system. Fd. Chem. Toxic., 21: 409-419, 1983

4 Van Leeuwen, FX. The toxicology of bromide ion. Crit. Rev. Toxicol. 1987;18:189-213

5 CAS Registry number: 74:83:9

6 Horowitz, B. Bromism from excessive cola consumption. Clinical Toxicology, 35 (3), 315-320. 1997

7 Pavelka, S. High bromide intake affects the accumulation of iodide in the rat thyroid and skin. Biol.

Trace Elem. Res. 2001. summer;82(1-3):133

8 Pavalka, S. Effect of high bromide levels in the organism on the biological half-life of iodine in the rat.

Biol. Trace Elem. Res. 2001. summer;82(1-3):133

9 Buchberger, W. Effects of sodium bromide on the biosynthesis of thyroid hormones and brominated/

iodinated thyronines. J. Trace Elem. Elec. Health Dis. Vol.4. 1990, p. 25-30

10 London, W.T. Bread – a dietary source of large quantities of iodine. New. Engl. J. Med. 273:381, 1965

11 Abraham, G. The effect of ingestion of inorganic nonradioactive iodine/iodide in patients with simple

goiter and in Graves’ disease: A review of published studies compared with current trends. Optimox

Research. Sept. 9, 2003

12 Vobecky, M. Effect of enhanced bromide intake on the concentration ratio I/Br in the rat thyroid

gland. Bio. Trace Element Research, 43:509-513, 1994

13 Abraham, G. Ibid. Sept. 9, 2003

14 CDC, National Center for Health Statistics. www.cdc.gov

15 Hollowell, Je. Iodine nutrition in the United States. Trends and public health implications: Iodine

excretion data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys I and III. J. Clin. Endocrinol.

Metab. 83:3401-3408, 1998

16 Environmental Working Group. www.ewg.org. Sept. 4, 2008 accessed Oct. 4, 2008

17 Environmental Working Group. Ibid. Sept. 4, 2008

18 Environ. Sci Tech. May 1;42(9) 3329-34. 2008

19 http://archive.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2/contentindex.php

20 Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol. 192(2) 95-106. 2003a

21 www.foe.org/pdf/Killer_Cribs_Report.pdf accessed Oct. 5, 2008

22 www.epa.gov/oppt/pbde/ accessed Oct. 4, 2008

23 Vobecky, M. Effect of enhanced bromide intake on the concentration ratio I/Br in the rat thyroid

gland. Bo. Trace. Element Res.: 1994

24 Abraham, G. Iodine supplementation markedly increases urinary excretion of fluoride and bromide.

Letter to the editor. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients. May 2003

25 Abraham, G. IBID. 2003

26 Rauws, AG. Pharmacokinetics of bromine ion – an overview. Fd Chem. Toxic. 1983;21:379-382

27 Sticht, G. Bromine. In: Handbook on toxicity of inorganic compounds. Seiler, Hg, et al, editors.

Marcel Dekker Inc. 1988;143-151

28 Sensenbach, W. J. Am. Med. Assoc. Vol. 125. 1944. 769-772

29 Rauws, A.G. Pharmacokinetics of bromine ion-an overview. Chem. Toxic. Vol. 21, No. 1. 379. 1983

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