Start Seeing Toxins

Toxic chemicals surround us – often in the places we’d least suspect. Want to protect your body, your home and your world from harmful pollutants? Start by knowing where to look.

Sharyle Patton grew up in the pristine mountains of Colorado, far from the factories that choke urban areas with smog and industrial waste. She later settled in Bolinas, Calif., a quaint, coastal ecotopia nestled among organic farms.

So Patton, an environmental advocate who has spent much of her life working to remove toxic chemicals from the landscape, was stunned recently when her own body tested positive for 107 chemical pollutants – all of them known or possible toxins. “I was really angry,” she says, “because I’d never given permission for my body to be used as a toxic-waste storage site.”

Patton’s test results hint at the ubiquity of toxins in the environment, and their manifold – and everyday – sources, from fabrics treated for stain resistance, to non- stick pots and pans, to banned environmental pollutants that still turn up in our soil and groundwater. Indeed, in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals stated that trace elements of industrial chemicals were detected in the bodies of all 2,400 people it randomly tested. And researchers are discovering that even small amounts of toxins can cause major problems.

“Typically, the health effects from exposure to environmental toxins are determined from studies of healthy adults, often only males. This is a serious mistake, given the fact that trace amounts that have no effect on adults can have serious effects on developing fetuses or children,” says Margaret Reeves, PhD, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network North America in San Francisco.

The other problem is that many chemicals currently recognized as “safe” have been tested only in isolation and not in the witch’s-brew combinations that may actually occur in products – and accumulate in the human body.

So what can ordinary people do to protect themselves against these dangerous chemicals? Plenty, says Julia Brody, PhD, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Newton, Mass., that studies the link between the environment and women’s health. The first step, Brody says, is to recognize that you can’t rely exclusively on government regulations to keep these toxins out of the environment. Unfortunately, given the limitations and pressures under which the FDA and other governing bodies work, she says, it simply isn’t realistic.

The next step is to make healthier, more informed choices whenever you can. Patton acknowledges that learning to identify potentially hazardous chemicals and checking all labels in an attempt to avoid them can feel overwhelming at first. But after a while, she says, it becomes easier and almost automatic. “Start where it feels comfortable,” she advises, “and go from there.” (For more information, read “Going Green” in the April 2005 archives.)

Here, we’ve assembled a few great places to begin…

At Home

The average woman applies 168 different chemicals from 12 personal-care products every day, according to a 2004 survey by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C.

So one of the best ways to control the flow of chemicals into your body is to identify and restrict what you put on your skin and buy for your home. (See “A Good Long Look” in the March/April 2003 archives.) Paying attention to labels can help you avoid these common offenders, or at least help you become aware of how ubiquitous they are in our everyday lives:

  • Phthalates are sometimes labeled as “fragrance” on products, or by the abbreviations DEHP, DINP, BzBP, DBP, DEP or DMP. Research has linked phthalates to birth defects and hormone disruption in humans.
  • Parabens, including methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, benzyl- and butylparabens, act as preservatives in cosmetics, toiletries and some food. Research indicates that they may increase the risk for breast tumors, disrupt hormones and contribute to reproductive problems.
  • Bisphenol A, or BPA, is used in the lining of food cans and in a variety of plastics. Animals exposed to BPA in utero or in early-stage development grew excess mammary tissue, which in humans is a risk factor for breast cancer later in life. BPA is identified by the recycling symbol with a number “7″ inside.
  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – found in nonstick pans, fast-food packaging, stain removers, floor waxes, clothing and furniture – have caused cancer in rats, may cause birth defects, and may damage the immune system and disrupt thyroid function. They often lurk in cosmetic ingredients with the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro” in them.
  • Brominated flame-retardants, found in upholstered furniture, mattresses, carpets, and plastic casings around computers and televisions, can escape from products and wind up in household dust. Flame-retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, can interfere with thyroid function and have been linked to tumors and some cancers. PBDEs do not have to be labeled, so contact the manufacturer before you buy, or consult a third party such as www.safer-products.org.

While the sheer variety and extensive use of such chemicals is disconcerting, there are many nonprofit organizations and scientists working to raise public awareness and press for better options. Researchers specializing in “green chemistry” are working to replace possible toxins with alternatives that do the same job – like fighting stains – without the health repercussions.

At this time, all of the chemicals previously listed, including PBDEs and phthalates, have “green” chemical replacements. But to date, most have not been widely embraced by conventional manufacturers. That said, healthier products are beginning to show up in the marketplace.

Herman Miller, the office-furniture designer and manufacturer, has committed to using safer alternatives in all its new products. And home-furnishings giant IKEA has eliminated brominated flame-retardants from its furniture and mattresses. The retailer also eliminated the use of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, a phthalate-rich plastic material, from most of its products back in the 1990s. Many personal-care brands, including Aveda and Origins, are now working to eliminate parabens and other chemicals considered “persistent organic toxins” from their products.

To lessen your toxic risk at home starting now, you can take these simple steps:

  • To clean, think green. Many household-cleaning agents contain toxic chemicals. Read labels carefully, and weed out the dangerous offenders. Vinegar, borax, baking soda and Castile soap work wonders on most jobs, and greener commercial cleansers are far more widely available today than just a few years ago.
  • Ditch the plastic. Use glass or ceramic containers to store and reheat leftovers. When microwaving, cover the food with a paper towel instead of plastic.
  • Choose healthier body-care products. When it comes to avoiding toxic cosmetics and toiletries, the Environmental Working Group has done the work for you. Try out their “Custom Shopping List” at www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep2.
  • Become a shampoo and lotion detective. The FDA has not developed definitions for “organic” or “natural” for personal-care products, so companies can use them to mean just about anything. When in doubt, scour the ingredients list for suspicious chemicals.

In the Ground

As you eliminate toxins in your house, consider what might be lurking outside your four walls. Pesticides and herbicides present a host of health hazards, from contaminating your food to poisoning backyards. Studies have linked pesti- cides to hormone disruption, nerve damage and the early onset of Parkinson’s disease, even at low levels of exposure.

Luckily, there’s one easy and cheap way to minimize exposure to lawn chemicals: Don’t apply them. You can keep your yard lush with a host of easy alternatives. Use environmentally safe corn-gluten meal as an herbicide. And reduce the amount of high-maintenance grass in your yard by replacing it with native short-turf grasses or other native plants. Not only will this eliminate the need for toxic pesticides, it will reduce the amount of water needed for upkeep.

Also, do what you can to avoid consuming foods grown in contaminated soil. This includes conventional processed foods, which are notorious for their high pesti- cide and herbicide levels. (See “Eat Clean.”)

Eating organic can help you dramatically reduce your exposure. In fact, when researchers from Emory University, the University of Washington and the CDC studied the dietary exposure to two organophosphorous pesticides in 23 children for 15 days in 2005, they found that when the kids ate an all-organic diet, the pesticide concentration in their bodies dropped to nondetectable levels.

To even more significantly reduce your exposure to harmful ground pollutants, try these tips:

  • Take off your shoes. A high percentage of outdoor ground chemicals are tracked indoors on shoes. Make a policy of leaving yours at the door.
  • Switch laundry and dish detergents. Many big farming operations use sewer sludge as a crop fertilizer, and sewer sludge contains waste products from our used water. By switching to safer washing agents, we reduce the amount of chemicals entering the water waste stream – which ultimately ends up back on the land we use to grow our food.

In the Air

Each day, we inhale roughly 35 pounds of air and take about 20,000 breaths. Each breath is another chance to flood our bodies with oxygen – or with pollutants, such as industrial soot or household chemicals that have evaporated into the dust in your home. While outdoor-air quality is a major threat today, indoor-air pollution is an equally pressing issue. In most industrialized cities, the air inside a new home could be five to 20 times more polluted than outside.

We can reduce our exposure by using varnishes, paints and other finishes that don’t contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which evaporate easily at room temperature and can cause nausea and recurring headaches, respiratory problems, or long-term liver, kidney and central nervous system damage.

Also, when remodeling or updating your home, opt for wood or PVC-free window frames, and don’t install wall-to-wall carpeting – it traps air pollutants. Avoid doing any indoor construction with plywood, laminated particleboard or fiberboard, all of which are typically made with formaldehyde adhesives that emit noxious chemicals.

Be aware that most conventional dry cleaning depends on perchloroethylene solvents, which are major environmental pollutants and are being studied for cancer connections. If you must use traditional dry cleaning, open the bag outdoors. And when you do laundry at home, don’t use dryer sheets, since they emit phthalates.

Like cigarette smoke, which contains nitrogen dioxide and other dangerous chemicals, many household aerosol sprays and disinfectants also contain organic pollutants, so avoiding those products will go a long way toward improving the quality of your air.

Here are more ways to improve your indoor-air quality:

  • Get inspected. Have a certified professional inspect, tune up and clean your home heating and cooling systems once a year. Leaky chimneys and furnaces can lead to carbon monoxide inside your home, which can contribute to a host of health problems, or even death.
  • Harbor more houseplants. Houseplants are surprisingly good at cleaning up and purifying indoor air.
  • Dehumidify. Strive to keep the humidity level of your basement between 35 and 50 percent to inhibit mold growth and other biological pollutants that can cause respiratory infections.

In the Water

It’s unfortunate but true: Much of our available water in nature is polluted. Coal burning is a major source of the mercury that makes its way into lakes and rivers. A wide array of industrial chemicals, petrochemicals and residues from pharmaceutical drugs also show up in the water supply.

Despite a host of recent cleanup initiatives, studies have shown that many waterways are still plagued by endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which have been shown to upset the embryo development in fish by tricking key cells into behaving differently. EDCs can accumulate in fatty tissue and stay in the body for decades.

Banned in the mid-1970s after research showed that babies who ingested the chemicals through breast milk were more likely to have decreased levels of neurological development, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are still widely present in water – and humans. Mercury, another well-documented neurotoxin found in water, routinely turns up in tuna and other long-living fish.

On the bright side, we can limit our exposure to water toxins in a number of ways. An obvious first step is to carefully choose the fish you eat. Avoid large predator fish, as well as farmed or wild fish known to have high mercury or PCB levels (see “Eat Clean” for more on that).

Protect yourself further by filtering the water you drink to remove chlorine and other pollutants. Reverse-osmosis filters are generally considered the most effective, but there are many carbon filters that do a good job.

You can also buy filters to attach to your showerhead, which will help you limit the absorption of many water pollutants (including chlorine) through your skin.

More water-wise tips:

  • Detox in the tub. When you soak in the bathtub, your skin tends to absorb toxins from the bathwater. Baking soda and Epsom salts can help detoxify the body and, at the same time, prevent the skin from absorbing toxins.
  • Plant your roof. Green roofs – basically, low gardens planted on top of buildings – bode well for the health of the water supply. The plants filter rainfall and control runoff, which reduce the amounts of grease, oil and other urban sludge that are swept into the storm sewers, and then into lakes and streams, after a rainstorm.
  • Keep chemicals out of street gutters and storm drains. Spilled brake fluid, oil, grease and antifreeze should be cleaned up, not hosed off. The hose will just send those nasty chemicals back into your watershed and, ultimately, back in contact with you.
  • Get rid of your gas-guzzling lawn mower. Gas lawn mowers not only pollute the air, they also leak, drip and otherwise spill the gas and oil used to fuel them. These small spills add up and, once again, end up right back in your water supply. Grab a human-powered rotary mower instead. And while you’re at it, grab a rake and say goodbye to that noisy leaf-blower, too.

The key to success in these endeavors and others, says environmental advocate Sharyle Patton, is staying engaged and refusing to get frustrated. If you discover toxic chemicals in your favorite product, let the company know that you want products without harmful additives, and reward good behavior by supporting companies that remove potentially dangerous chemicals.

But keep in mind that the most meaningful improvements will require large-scale change. “I think it’s important to remember that we really can’t shop our way out of this,” says Patton. “That was one thing that became crystal clear after I got my test results. What we need is for companies to change the way they formulate some products and to start using safer alternatives, and we need the regulatory agencies to require premarket testing. That’s an essential part of the solution.”

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Alyssa Ford is a writer and editor in St. Paul, Minn.

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