Strategies for protecting yourself from the thousands of harmful chemicals that inundate the modern world.
A recent study concluded that “Widespread exposure to toxic environmental chemicals threatens healthy human reproduction.” We reported last year on research showing that exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals has caused sperm counts to drop almost 60 percent since 1973; these exposures also cause girls to experience early puberty and women to have more miscarriages. In the modern world, these toxic assaults come from everywhere. Industrial chemicals are used in every aspect of daily life and inundate our food, water, air, and consumer products. We’re also learning more about how these exposures are responsible for chronic diseases like diabetes that were once thought to be lifestyle-related diseases.
This article is the third topic in our Health from the Ground Up series on detoxification and will be comprised of two parts. Part one will focus on major sources of toxic exposures and how to avoid them; part two will focus on how to optimize our body’s innate ability to detoxify.
Toxins are poisonous compounds produced by living organisms, while toxicants are poisonous man-made compounds. Diet is a major source of exposures to toxins and toxicants: food can be contaminated with microorganisms, pesticides, residues from industrial manufacturing, or heavy metals. Methods of food preparation can also affect the toxin load of food. For example, cooking meats at high temperatures converts nitrogen-containing compounds in the meat to acrylamide, a “probable human carcinogen.”
Outside of the diet, exposure to volatile organic compounds in the air is a concern. In fact, the home is among the largest sources of exposures to non-dietary toxicants. Building materials (floor and wall coverings, particle board, adhesives, and paints) can “off-gas” and release toxicants into the air. An EPA study detected toxic benzene, commonly used in disinfectants, in 98 percent of adults. “Off-gassing” is especially a concern in newly built or remodeled buildings (and even new cars). New carpet is especially dangerous: in testing of over 400 carpet samples, neurotoxins were present in over 90 percent of samples in quantities sufficient in some cases to kill mice. Carpets also trap environmental toxins: one study found an average of 12 pesticide residues per carpet samples. The authors concluded that this route of exposure likely provides infants and toddlers with nearly all of their non-dietary exposure to pesticides.
While it is important to support the body’s detoxification mechanisms to make sure they are functioning optimally (a topic we will return to subsequently), it’s also a good idea to limit the exposures your body is burdened with. Here are some tips on how to avoid common environmental pollutants:
Toxins absorbed through the skin do not pass through the gut so can be more dangerous than pollutants that are ingested. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) evaluates cosmetics and rates them on a safety scale. They will alert you to the presence of harmful ingredients that should be avoided like triclosan and triclobarban in soaps and toothpaste, aluminum in deodorants, phthalates, parabens, and retinoids in moisturizers, boric acid in diaper cream, heavy metals in makeup, formaldehyde in nail polish, and oxybenzone in sunscreens, to name just a few.
Home Cleaning Products
It’s best to choose cleaning products that are free of volatile organic compounds. EWG also publishes a free guide recommending top green cleaning products. It’s also possible to make your own cleaning products with some simple ingredients. See guides here and here for information on how to do so.
Choosing organic, locally grown produce when possible is your best chance to avoid exposures to dangerous pesticides. Organic, grass-fed meat should be free of growth hormones and antibiotics. In choosing fish, the size of the mouth in relation to the body is an interesting marker for its toxic burden; the bigger the mouth in relation to body size, the bigger the toxic burden—sardines have less mercury than swordfish or tuna. Avoiding processed food completely will limit your exposure to dangerous food additives.
The dangers of being exposed to hormone disrupting chemicals, even at low levels, is well-established. Here are some tips for avoiding chemicals like BPA and other endocrine disruptors:
- Avoid plastic storage containers for food and drinks and use stainless steel, glass, or aluminum instead.
- Use parchment paper, beeswax, or aluminum foil instead of plastic wrap.
- Avoid canned food; many say “BPA-free,” but we know that common replacements for BPA are just as dangerous.
- Eat out less; studies have found those who eat at home with fresh ingredients have lower levels of BPA.
- Avoid putting plastic in the dishwasher, freezer, and microwave, since hot and cold temperatures cause more phthalates to be released.
- Opt out of receipts if possible, as they are often lined with BPA—years ago, we submitted a Citizens Petition to put a stop to this practice, but the government refused.
- Choose wood or cloth toys for children rather than plastic.
Air and Water
Drinking water in the US is contaminated with a variety of chemicals and pollutants like PFAS “forever chemicals,” prescription drugs, arsenic, fluoride, phthalates, BPA, organophosphate pesticides, and more. Reverse osmosis (RO) filtration is said to remove 99 percent of toxic chemicals in water. Note that RO filtration also removes beneficial minerals, so you must remineralize the water which can be done in a variety of ways.
As alluded to above, the air inside the home is one of the biggest sources of exposure to toxins and toxicants outside of the diet. Water damage is one of the main culprits; mold can grow in 24 to 48 hours after water damage occurs. A HEPA filter will remove ultrafine particles like dust and viruses from the air, and an air sanitizer will remove allergens, germs, and mold. This post has some recommendations for these products.
While it is important to take steps to limit our exposure to environmental contaminants, it is equally crucial to ensure our body’s ability to deal with unavoidable toxic assaults is functioning properly. In future coverage we will take an in-depth look at how to optimize your ability to detox.
Health from the Ground Up: