Environmental Toxins - Sources and Alternatives
by Sejal Parikh-Shah B.Sc., N.D., LAc.,
Nadia Rizzo, Daria Novy,
Aminder Singh, Nora Ovtcharova,
Janice Chan, Nelly Naguib,
Dori Skye Engel
As naturopathic doctors, we look at all aspects of an individual’s health. We consider their current health status and look at how they can improve their health. We also investigate risk factors that could affect their current level of health. We know of some of these risk factors: a diet high in processed foods, lack of exercise, stress, smoking, alcohol consumption, just to name a few. There are hidden items in our environment that can adversely impact our health. Items in our food, in personal care products and even daily household cleaning supplies, all have chemicals that increase the toxic load on our body.
The following are a list of items that are more highly contaminated with pesticides and are best purchased organic, whereas other produce is relatively less contaminated and can be purchased at conventional standard.
The Most Contaminated Produce:
- Green beans
- Leafy greens (i.e. Spinach, lettuce)
- Squash and pumpkin
Additionally, animal products can be a source of relatively elevated contaminants. How the animal is raised and what the animal eats will influence the nutritional value and toxic load of the products. When consuming meat, it is important to ensure that the animals were raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. When purchasing beef, in addition to being raised without the use of antibiotics and growth hormone, ensure the cattle were grass fed. There are several organic grass fed beef products on the market at local supermarkets.
Additives are also important to be aware of as they add to a person’s overall toxic load. Many people find that they have reactions to them, and may not even be aware that these substances are lurking in their everyday diet. Several products contain colouring, which will be listed on the ingredients list as the color itself and a number. However, not all additives are so openly listed. Some ingredients lists may say “natural flavouring”, this can indicate the use of MSG, or any other synthetic chemicals that have been added in the processing of the product. However, when consuming whole foods, or foods not from a box, we do not have to worry about such additives or processing.
How we make our own food at home can also influence the toxic load in our bodies. For example, the common summer practice of barbecuing can possibly lead to an increase in toxic load if the food is charred. Therefore, it is best that if we are charring our foods, that the charred part is removed prior to eating.
Food is meant to be enjoyed, and we derive many nutrients needed to optimize our health in addition to having a delicious meal. Some sources to help you achieve that goal include:
- Front Door Organics (delivery company for organic produce and other products)
- Mama Earth Organics (delivery company for organic produce and other products)
- 80twenty.ca (food blog)
The skin is the largest and most porous organ of the human body; thus, what you put onto the skin is directly absorbed into the bloodstream. Cosmetic products contain more than 900 chemicals and the FDA does not require companies to list all the ingredients on the label and do not require FDA premarket approval, with the exception of colour additives.
The most common and concerning chemicals to watch out for and avoid are as listed below:
- parabens: found in deodorant, mimics estrogen
- sodium lauryl sulphate: a detergent present in tooth pastes, body washes, facial foundations, nearly all shampoos, liquid hand soaps. In its manufacturing, this chemical is often contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen.
- phthalates: a plasticizing ingredient, which has been linked with birth defects.
- fragrances: musks are linked to skin irritation, hormone disruption and cancer; meanwhile, artificial fragrances is a top known asthma-inducing allergen.
- methylisothiazolinone (MIT): a chemical found in shampoos that prevents bacterial colonization, which can affect the nervous system.
- toluene: derived from coal tar or petroleum is found in most artificial fragrances and nail polishes. Chronic exposure to this chemical can lead to anemia, decreased blood cell count, liver or kidney damage, and is teratogenic (can harm a growing fetus).
- mineral oil, paraffin, and petrolatum: these chemicals coat the skin and clog pores, are a suspected carcinogen and hormone disruptor.
A good resource to have handy is the Environmental Working Group's website and smartphone app Skin Deep - a cosmetic database that will rank dangerous chemical ingredients within each product, which also includes a barcode scanning feature. As the skin is highly absorptive, the best recommendation is if you cannot eat it, then you should not use it on your skin.
Many bathroom cleaners have various chemical ingredients that not only have health concerns, but environmental ones as well. These chemicals, such as ammonia and silicon compounds, can cause both acute and chronic health problems. Acute conditions include skin allergies and irritation with contact, as well as asthma attacks and other respiratory symptoms with inhalation. Developmental problems, reproductive conditions, and cancer can occur with long-term exposure to these chemicals. Wearing gloves to clean the bathroom may not be enough protection; even after using the cleaners, there may be residual chemicals lingering in the air that can be breathed in. This is especially harmful to children as they are more vulnerable to toxins due to their larger lung surface area to body weight ratio.
To protect yourself and your family, there are easy alternatives to traditional bathroom cleaners. For the toilet, mix half a cup of vinegar with 1 tbsp baking soda, and then let it sit in for half an hour before scrubbing. To clean the sink, tub and tiles, combine ½ cup vegetable oil-based liquid soap, ⅔ baking soda, ½ cup water and 2 tbsp vinegar in a spray bottle.
Many of the cleaning agents we use to wash common surfaces in our kitchen can have a significant impact on our health and well-being. In Canada, manufacturers of household cleaners are not required to display ingredients on their labels. But common cleaning products may contain such harmful ingredients as bleach, ammonia, phosphates, or strong abrasives.
Ammonia (NH3) is one of the most commonly produced industrial chemicals, and is found in a variety of household cleaners. Ammonia cleaning solutions are manufactured by adding ammonia gas to water with a 5-10% concentrate of ammonia. Immediate health effects of ammonia exposure upon inhalation can include: coughing and nose and throat irritation. Skin or eye contact can result in rapid and severe irritation. Higher concentrations of ammonia may cause severe injury and burns. In addition, sodium hypochlorite (the main ingredient in chlorine-based bleach) can create poisonous chlorine gas if mixed with ammonia (which may be an unlabelled ingredient in some cleaning products) or with vinegar."
Avoid these hazards at home by following safe cleaning measures and by making your own, homemade cleaners. Homemade cleaning options reduce your exposure to unwanted chemical exposure yet can provide the same results as commercial prepared agents. Try using this all natural floor wash; mix ¼ (60ml) of white vinegar into 8 liters of warm water and add 10 to 15 drops of lemon or pine essential oil and clean your floors as usual.
Commercial laundry detergent has many irritant materials and toxic ingredients like 1,4-dioxane that is known to be a carcinogenic agent. In some animal studies, it has proved to cause cancer breast. In addition to other chemicals that might cause pregnancy complications, birth defects (toluene and phthalates - hormone disruption), asthma and allergic reactions (Limonene, linalool, eugenol and coumarin -- allergens).
An easy alternative to any brand name laundry detergent that is borax free is mixing a finely grated bar of glycerine soap or vegetable soap bar unscented with 1 cup washing soda, ½ cup baking soda, ½ cup citric acid and ¼ cup coarse salt.
Environmental toxins are all around us and are commonly found in a number of household items. If we are diligent and consider using alternatives at least some of the time, it will decrease our overall burden and exposure to toxins, which may in turn give our bodies a better chance at properly processing and eliminating them.