Laurel J. Standley, Ph.D. is Principal of Clear Current LLC. She is an environmental consultant with over twenty years experience in environmental chemistry and policy. Dr. Standley earned a B.S. in Chemistry from California Polytechnic State University, a Ph.D. in Chemical Oceanography from Oregon State University and a M.A. in Urban Affairs and Public Policy from the University of Delaware. In 2011, she published a book called #ToxinsTweet: 140 Easy Tips to Reduce Your Family’s Exposure to Environmental Toxins. This is part one of a two part series summarizing key points from her book.
We are exposed to chemical toxins every day that can impact our health. Exposure comes from the air we breath, food we ingest, water we drink or cook with, cosmetics we put on our skin, the furniture we sit or sleep on and even our clothing. We can’t avoid all toxins but can take steps to reduce our risk of exposure.
What are toxins?
There are over 80,000 synthetic chemicals that have been produced in the United States since World War II. Most of these chemicals have not been tested for their potential harm to humans, especially to our neurological or reproductive systems. Hundreds of chemicals have been detected in adults, children and even in umbilical cords suggesting that fetuses are affected too.
Common toxins include older environmental pollutants such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins and heavy metals. Chemicals in use today include gasoline, formaldehyde (found in pressed wood, glues and permanent press fabrics), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides and Bisphenol A (BPA) found in polycarbonate plastics, plastic bottles, epoxy resins and the inside lining of metal cans. Toxins that are fat soluble such as PCBs, PAHs and older pesticides like DichloroDiphenylTrichloroethane (DDT) can take years or even decades to be removed from your body. Newer pesticides can be cleared from your body in days.
What are the health issues linked to toxins?
Exposure to environmental toxins has been linked to heart disease, neurological disorders, cancer and asthma. Here are common toxins and their typical associated health risks:
- Air pollution: stroke, asthma, miscarriage and low birth weights.
- Pesticides: reproductive issues, Parkinson’s disease, asthma and several forms of cancer.
- Heavy metals: mental disease, ADD/ADHD, cardiovascular disease and reproductive issues.
- Dioxins & PCBs: reproductive issues, ADD/ADHD, hormonal changes, cancer and Type II diabetes.
- PAHs: cancer of the lung, breast, bladder and larynx.
- Formaldehyde: leukemia, asthma, miscarriage and reduced fertility.
- Brominated flame retardants and BPA: miscarriages and altered neurodevelopment.
What can you do to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins?
- Switch to an organic foods diet as much as possible. According to one study, children cleared most of the organophosphate pesticide residue in their systems within two days after switching to an organic diet. Visit the Environmental Working Group website to learn about the Dirty Dozen – 12 produce items to always buy organic and the Clean Fifteen – produce items with less pesticide residue.
- Say “no” to “GMO”. GMO crops have not been independently determined to be safe and emerging evidence shows measurable levels of the herbicide glyphosate in grains engineered to be resistant to this chemical. Glyphosate was recently classified by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen.
- Prioritize whole foods over processed, packaged food to reduce BPA and plastics exposure.
- Reduce or eliminate animal products, especially their fats. Fat-soluble chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins accumulate in animal fat and end up in the meat and dairy products you consume. Large fish, such as ahi tuna, accumulate heavy metals like mercury so if eating, limit the number of meals per month. To reduce exposure to PCBs in fish, remove the skin before cooking to reduce exposure.
- Use care when grilling or toasting. Charred and burnt foods create PAHs which are carcinogenic. Reduce risk by marinating first, avoid grilling with sweet sauces, and cut away charred or burnt areas.
- Cook in glass, stainless steel or cast iron instead of plastic containers. Avoid using non-stick pans to reduce your exposure to fluorinated chemicals.
- Store food in glass or ceramic dishes rather than plastics.
- If you live in an older home with lead pipes, have your water tested. Consider investing in a water filtration system or even using a Brita container.
- Bottled water, especially in plastic, is not necessarily safer than tap water and exposes you to chemicals that leach from the plastic. Filtered tap water is the best choice.
- Use filtered water when cooking (like steaming vegetables or cooking pasta) to reduce exposure to lead and disinfection byproducts.
In part II of this series, we’ll take a look at ways to reduce environmental toxin exposure from personal care products, cleaning products, children’s items and your garden.