Saturday, April 26, 2008

Reducing Exposure to Toxins

So you guys want to hear about toxins? There is so much that could be said, so I can only skim the surface of this topic. First, what are toxins? These are environmental chemicals, mostly man-made but not always, that we are exposed to in our daily lives, either by inhaling them, ingesting them or absorbing them through our skin. There are thousands of environmental toxins we come in contact with on a regular basis. We already talked about one, plastics. What are some others? You might be surprised to learn that cosmetics are a big source of toxin exposure. Others include:
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Exhaust
  • Preservatives
  • Medications
  • Pesticides
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Mold
  • Carpet fumes
  • Solvents
  • Food additives (like MSG, food colorings, etc.)
Thousands of synthetic chemicals are registered by the U.S. government each year. They are everywhere! It would be impossible to avoid all toxins entirely. I'm going to cover three big ones where we have a large degree of control over our exposure: dietary, cosmetics and cleaning products.

Dietary Toxins

There are so many dietary toxins, some are listed above. The chemicals, preservatives, additives and colorings in processed and packaged foods are problematic. Pesticides are another major source of dietary concern. Incredibly, of the 2.5 million tons of pesticides used worldwide each year, less than 0.1 percent actually reaches the pests. The rest enters our environment, the air we breathe, the soil our kids play on in the yard, the water we drink and swim in (and that our food drinks and swims in). Herbicides, pesticides and additives have been linked with Parkinson's disease, behavior alteration, oxidative stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue. One of the most widely used pesticides, chlorpyrifos, has been shown to have long-term negative effects on serotonin production in the brain.


The cosmetics industry is also a source of concern. Cosmetics are minimally regulated by the FDA. Consider that 60,000 chemicals were grandfathered in to the EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) when it was first put into place. Cosmetics in the U.S. contain parabens, phthalates and other endocrine disruptors and known carcinogens. While the average hand soap is unlikely to be potentially dangerous, there are quite a few products marketed in the US that contain disturbing levels of carcinogens or reproductive hazards that are banned in Japan, Australia and the EU.There are over 1,000 carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxins (CMRs), which are prohibited in European cosmetics, regulated by the European Commission.

Cleaning products

What about cleaning products? They are a leading cause of air pollution in our homes. They are also a cause of water pollution. I don't think I need to tell you that the bleach and other chemicals in your Tilex, Comet, Scrubbing Bubbles, etc are known toxins, carcinogens or hormone disruptors.

So what can we do?

Obviously it's not realistic to pack up your family and move to the Himalayas. You'll probably die anyway of dysentery or some other disease of poverty if you do that. Better to stay here and contend with the diseases of affluence - cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's... But we can reduce our exposure to these chemicals and also improve our "ecological footprint" by becoming more aware of these chemicals and making the choice to reduce our exposure whenever possible.

The first change I made and recommend is cosmetics. I threw out the majority of my creams, makeups and soaps in favor of paraben and phthalate-free versions, made from organic or botanical ingredients. I'm not 100% on this - I still use regular shampoo, for example, but most of my cosmetics, lotions and soaps are now botanical/organic. Burt's Bees is a great line, Origins has some good products, obviously you can go to Whole Foods and find all sorts of organic items in the beauty section.

What took me longer and is still an evolving process is the dietary change. My first switch was to more organic fruits and vegetables. Here is a guide to pesticides in fruits and veggies. You don't have to buy
everything organic - some items are more important than others. Apples, spinach and peaches top the list of items with a higher pesticide load, whereas broccoli is safe to buy conventional. I buy organic when I can and I don't freak out when I can't. I also avoid most processed and packaged foods, but try to buy organic when I can of those too. If your diet is already mostly composed of foods from the outer aisles of the supermarket (as it should be!), then you shouldn't have much to worry about there.

My next switch was to organic dairy and organic, free-range meats. Not only do conventional meats have hormones in them, the food these animals are fed is contaminated with the same pesticides you are trying to avoid in you own fruits and vegetables. Organic and grass-fed or free range meats also have a better fatty-acid profile with more omega-3's.

The third major category of reducing toxic exposure and one I'm just recently starting to make is to use green cleaning products. Seventh Generation and the new Clorox Green Works brand seem to work pretty well. I still have a bottle of soft-scrub and regular bleach that I don't use very often. I'm working on this one!

For more information on this, the Environmental Working Group has a good website to peruse. I don't want anyone to get overwhelmed or worry constantly. Stress is a major source of oxidative damage too!! Just keep in mind that every time we consume anything - through our skin, mouths, noses, and even our eyes and ears - it's an opportunity to impact our health, physically, mentally or spiritually, for better or worse.

My own journey with reducing toxin exposure has been long and slow. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was shocked. Everyone I know was shocked. I already lived a healthier lifestyle than most people, and I got cancer. It was a real wake up call for me (and I like to think the people around me too) to pay attention to what I consume and to what we are doing to our bodies and our world, our environment. I didn't make any of these changes overnight.

Whew! That's it for now, folks. Next article on toxins will be on detox!!

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