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Spend a Summer day in your flip-flops on the streets of London, and the dirt and grime from pollution that collects on your skin (and up your nose) is obvious. In the case of the everyday products we use and consume, the existence of toxins is less obvious, and our tendency is to trust that the system we live within simply wouldn’t allow highly toxic and harmful chemicals to be used in the products we use within our homes, on our skin and in our food. After all, many of the products are marketed with promises of keeping us beautiful, our homes clean, sparkling and smelling fresh, and our food convenient. So they couldn’t possibly be harming us…. Could they?
The answer is a big and unfortunate “yes”.
Highly toxic chemicals are an unavoidable part of our city lives. Roughly 80,000 synthetic chemicals can be found in our everyday environment, and in everything from your body wash and lotion, to food storage containers, the air you breathe, cleaning products and the pans you cook with.
With regular exposure, many of these toxins build up in the body and can cause a variety of chronic diseases and issues, such as cancers, infertility, asthma and skin disorders. Many of these toxic chemicals can even pass through the umbilical cord to unborn babies, and make their way in to breast milk.
So, with a list as long as 80,000, where do we start?
BPA hit the headlines for its use in baby bottles, and many plastics are now promoted as being BPA free. However, it’s still very much in our environment.
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is an endocrine disruptor. Put simply, BPA messes with sex and metabolic hormones. Back in the 1930’s it was given to women as a synthetic oestrogen. Now it is linked to decreased sperm production in men, early puberty in girls, and fertility problems in both genders. BPA also plays a role in heart disease, obesity and diabetes, as well as aggressive behaviour in children.
BPA is still found in some plastic products so look for “BPA-free” if you must buy plastic. It’s also used in some canned-food containers – as a lining. Often, the only way to find out though, is to open the can up and see.
In 2010, scientists also discovered that we can even absorb BPA through our skin from the coating used on till receipts, so avoid collecting them unnecessarily.
It’s also used as a flame retardant – so check the chemicals when buying a new sofa, mattress, curtains etc.
Like BPA, Phthalates are endocrine disrupters of “high concern”, which have come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years for their connection to creating abnormalities in the genitals of males and females, and impacting breast development. Some studies have found that women who develop breast cancer have higher levels of certain types of phthalates than women who are cancer free.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl, and are used in hundreds of consumer products such as flooring, shower curtains, synthetic leather, and other products made with PVC vinyl, so avoid where possible, especially if your skin comes in to regular contact with it.
Phthalates are also used in synthetic fragrances, air fresheners as well as nail polishes, paints, and furniture finishes - where phthalates keep the materials from chipping. They've also been detected in some plastic cling wraps and food containers, as well as pesticides. Air fresheners can be avoided in your own home but are increasingly used not only public toilets, but also in shops, hotels, gyms and many other public places. Pthalates are becoming more and more difficult to avoid, so take action where you can, especially with products that are inhaled or in close contact with food or your body. Simply don't buy them.
Phthalates can also make it in to the food chain where they have been found in poultry, some dairy products (cream) and fats, so look for good quality organic sources of these foods.
PFCs are a class of toxic chemicals that have been linked to ADHD, high cholesterol, and thyroid disease, as well as infertility in both men and women.
PFCs are used to repel grease, stains and water under their friendly household trade names of Teflon, Gore-Tex and Stainmaster. You‘ll find them in the coating of your non-stick pans, as well as on your clothes, upholstery, carpets, and backpacks. Even more scary is their use in food packaging, fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn and pet food bags, where their shiny coating is used to repel the fats in the food. Avoid these and get rid of your non-stick pans… especially if they’re already showing signs of the coating wearing off.
Glycol ethers are absorbed as fumes from the air by the skin as well as breathing.
Animal studies have shown an impact on testicular damage, reduced fertility, early embryonic death, birth defects, and delayed development. In humans, occupational exposure to glycol ethers has also been shown to result in reproductive issues such as low sperm count and birth defects.
Glycol Ethers are a large group of solvents used in industry and the home as cleaners for glass, carpets, floors, ovens and clothes washing detergent. Interestingly it’s not declared as an ingredient on clothes washing liquid (as least with some brands), but rather you’ll need to visit a website to see the full list of contents. So, yes, we’re dunking our clothes in them, and chucking this stuff in to our water supply on a daily basis. Alternatives are available so check ingredients on cleaning products and go natural where you can.
Flame Retardants are most known for their impact on the thyroid and female infertility. Many flame retardants are now banned or being phased out due to their impact on child IQ levels and learning disabilities, but they’re still very much in our environment.
Flame retardant chemicals are, unfortunately, almost impossible to avoid and are found in everything from your mobile phone and TV, to carpet padding, carpets, furniture, mattress foam and car seats. Check labels where you can but often they're simply not declared as having been used.
There are 35 heavy metals in our environment that can cause toxicity. Many heavy metals, such as zinc, copper, chromium, iron and manganese, are essential to our body’s functioning in trace amounts. But, if these metals accumulate in concentrations sufficient to cause poisoning, then serious damage can occur.
The most common heavy metals which lead to poisoning are mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium. Heavy metal poisoning results in a wide range of symptoms including fatigue, depression, sluggishness, irritability, and headaches, as well as nausea, kidney failure, problems with the skin and even cancer.
Contamination by heavy metals occurs through inhalation from air pollution, or by entering the food chain through water and soil.
Arsenic exists naturally in soil. It’s also used in the manufacture of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, so can easily find its way in to the water supply from surface run-off in farming areas. It’s found particularly in rice and factory farmed chicken - where it’s historically been used in chicken food, as well as a base for the drugs chicken are treated with.
White Basmati rice from California, Pakistan and India have the lowest concentrations of arsenic according to consumerreports.org. Rice milk, cakes and pasta are also impacted, and they recommend no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day. Other grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and millet are great alternatives. Organically reared chicken is the cleaner option.
Cadmium poisoning may be caused by ingestion of food (e.g. grains, cereals, and leafy vegetables) and cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke is the easiest to avoid, nd opting for organically grown veggies will help lessen exposure through food.
Mercury enters the environment from industrial sources where it most commonly finds its way to water. In the developed world, human exposure and poisoning is most often from fish, particularly those at the higher end of the food chain. So opt for smaller fish like sardines, and avoid larger fish like tuna and swordfish. Dental fillings are also a common source or mercury poisoning and various other options are now available.
Lead poisoning is historically gained from exposure to old paint. This has now been banned, but it still shows up in our foundation, lipsticks, and even whitening toothpaste. Although it’s not added as an ingredient, it makes its way in to makeup via the colour additives. So if you love your lippy, choose brands which use plant pigments.
Persistent organic pollutants are compounds that accumulate in the environment and human body. These are often unwanted by-products of industrial processes and waste incineration such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). They are found worldwide in the environment and accumulate in animal food chains, in particular, in the fatty tissue of animals.
Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental issues, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and cause cancer. Once dioxins enter the body, they tend to stick around because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue - where they are stored in the body.
More than 90% of human dioxin exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish. Avoid fatty meats, and limit consumption of low-grade dairy and seafood. As always, go organic if possible.
This group of chemicals are serious! In 2013 The World Health Organization figures showed that 3 million people were affected by intentional and unintentional pesticide poisonings every year, with at least 300,000 people having died from exposure to the chemicals.
Breakdown products of these neurotoxic insecticides are endocrine disruptors associated with lower levels of testosterone and other sex hormones. Mothers exposed to organophosphates while pregnant also experience increased risks for miscarriage, preeclampsia, and developmental delays for the child.
Although a lot of organophosphate products have been banned for commercial use in the UK, they are still heavily used in the US and other countries. Glyphosphate – made famous by Monsanto’s Roundup - is even used in weed killer available in supermarkets.
To avoid them, go organic! Organic farmers are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides like organophosphates on their fields. Also chck the labels on pesticides available in garden centre and supermarkets.
With 80,000 toxins and pollutants in our environment, they are everywhere, and some are easier to avoid than others. Soaps, toothpastes and shampoo - which contain chemicals like sodium laureth sulphate, parabens and toluene (which didn't make it on to this particular list) - are relatively easy to avoid in big cities. Organic food and products are increasingly easy to get hold, and natural alternitves for make-up and scents are also more readly available. Other toxic chemicals can only be avoided by opting out of mainstream consumer life, and minimising exposure is the best you can hope for.
So if you can't completely avoid them, how do you best deal with the toxic chemicals you can't avoid...
Whilst our bodies are generally very good at coping with tiny amounts of individual toxins, it’s the combined and cumulative effect of them that impact our health. Those chemicals that can't be processed out of the body are stored in fat, where they can do the least damage, so your body may be storing a toxic load.
A healthy organic diet supports the body in its ongoing detoxification and helps reduce toxic overload. Regular cleanses help the body to catch up on its toxic back log.
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