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Diet & Lifestyle

Environmental Toxins And Your Health: What You Need to Know

Fact Checked
Written by
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Alex Keller, ND

Last updated: September 15, 2020

Every day, we are exposed to toxins in our environment, from the food and water we consume to the air we breathe and the products we use. The good news is our bodies have built-in detoxification systems to help neutralize and remove these potentially harmful environmental toxins. The primary organ responsible for detoxification is the liver, which converts fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble waste products. These waste products can then be eliminated from the body via the feces, urine, sweat, and respiration.

While our detoxification systems can handle normal exposure to toxins, overexposure, or accumulation of toxins in the body can contribute to a number of chronic health conditions, including immune dysfunction and autoimmune disease, cardiovascular conditions, neurocognitive conditions, cancer, and metabolic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. (20)

What are environmental toxins?

Environmental toxins are natural compounds or man-made chemicals that can negatively impact human health if toxic levels are consumed or absorbed. (2)(12) As the name implies, these toxins can be found in your environment. They may be found in items you use every day, such as plastic, cleaning products, cosmetics, and food. Understanding the types of environmental toxins and their potentially harmful effects can help you minimize your exposure and reduce your risk of associated health concerns.

5 common environmental toxins & health implications

Environmental toxins may be present in everyday products, including food storage containers and personal care products. Keep reading to learn more about common toxins and their potential health implications.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a commonly used chemical in the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics, epoxy resins, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). (8)(16)

Common sources of BPA include:

  • Children’s toys
  • Dental and healthcare equipment
  • Food packaging, such as the linings of cans and jar caps (8)(8)

Individuals may be exposed to this chemical through food as BPA can leach from beverage and food containers. This process is accelerated if the food or beverage is highly acidic or basic. Inhalation of BPA can also occur from off-gassing of consumer products. (8)

BPA concerns

BPA has been shown to interact with estrogen receptors in the body and induce hormone-disrupting effects. (8)(8)(16) More specifically, BPA exposure may be associated with certain endocrine hormone disorders in both men and women, including infertility, early secondary sexual maturation, breast and prostate cancer, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). (16)

Phthalates

Phthalates are primarily used as “plasticizers” in the manufacturing of plastics and other products to improve flexibility, elasticity, and resiliency. (2)(8)(20)

Phthalates may be found in:

  • Enteric coatings of oral medications
  • Household items, including children’s toys, paints, food packaging, and cleaning materials
  • Personal care products, such as cosmetics, lotions, and sunscreen (2)(8)

One of the most common plasticizers, Di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is used extensively in medical devices. (8)

Phthalate concerns

Although phthalates are rapidly metabolized and excreted in the body, they are also susceptible to leaching and can be released into the air, dust, and food. (2)(8) This has raised concerns over phthalate exposure, as these chemicals are now classified as endocrine-disrupting compounds. (8)(13) Phthalates have also been found to play a potential role in a number of reproductive, thyroid, immune, and metabolic conditions. (8)

Parabens

Parabens are a type of synthetic chemical, commonly used as a preservative in a variety of products. Common parabens include methylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, ethylparaben, and benzylparaben. (9)

Parabens are used as preservatives in:

  • Food products
  • Personal care products and cosmetics
  • Pharmaceuticals (2)(14)

Parabens have been detected in:

  • House dust
  • Soil
  • Wastewater and rivers (14)

Paraben concerns

Considering parabens can be absorbed dermally (through the skin) and may reach the bloodstream, there are concerns over paraben use, particularly in personal care products and cosmetics. (2) Parabens have also been detected in human fluids and tissues, including breast tissue. This finding, along with the potential estrogenic effects of parabens, has led to the hypothesis that parabens may be associated with breast cancer. (2)(3)(14)

two plastic containers stacked

Common sources of BPA include food packaging such as the linings of cans and jar caps, dental and healthcare equipment, and children’s toys.

Pesticides and herbicides

Pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides are commonly used to eliminate and control undesirable pests and weeds in agriculture.

People may be exposed to pesticides and herbicides through:

  • Diet
  • Direct contact with agriculture
  • Household use
  • Occupational use (1)

Pesticide concerns

Pesticides have been linked with cancer, as well as neurological, reproductive, endocrine, respiratory, and immunological conditions. (1)(20) Glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide, was identified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a “probable human carcinogen”, an agent that can cause cancer. (15)(23) The use of glyphosate has also resulted in glyphosate-resistant microorganisms, which has led to the hypothesis that chronic, low-dose exposure to glyphosate may lead to glyphosate-resistance in bacteria, changes in the body’s own microbiota, and antibiotic resistance. However, more research is needed in this area. (23)

Heavy metals

Exposure to heavy metals found in our food, water, and environment may be a result of natural soil erosion and weathering of human industrial and agricultural activities. While consumption of some metals like iron or zinc in small amounts is necessary to maintain healthy bodily function, acute and chronic heavy metal toxicity can contribute to oxidative stress and has been associated with numerous health conditions. (12)

Arsenic

Arsenic can be found in contaminated air, food, and water. Sources of arsenic include pesticides and fertilizers, paints, dyes, pharmaceuticals, and soaps. Chronic arsenic exposure can contribute to skin lesions such as pigmentation and keratosis. Arsenic toxicity has also been associated with cancer, as well as neurological, pulmonary, and cardiovascular conditions. (12)

Lead

Identified as highly toxic and carcinogenic, the use of lead in products such as paints and gasoline has significantly decreased in recent years. However, individuals may also be exposed to lead through other contaminated environmental sources such as cosmetics, toys, contaminated soil and drinking water, and industrial emissions. Chronic exposure to lead has been associated with allergies, weight loss, muscular weakness, paralysis, kidney damage, and brain conditions such as autism, dyslexia, hyperactivity, and psychosis. (12)

Cadmium

Cadmium, a highly water-soluble metal, has many industrial uses including the manufacturing of coal, mineral fertilizers, batteries, plastics, and metal coatings. It’s also found in tobacco products, increasing the risk of cadmium toxicity in smokers. Cadmium has been identified as a Group 1 carcinogen and exposure to excess cadmium may contribute to kidney, skeletal, and lung damage. (12)

Mercury

Considered one of the most toxic heavy metals, mercury can be found in some foods and beverages, particularly in fatty fish. As a result, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests minimizing consumption of seafood from highly polluted bodies of water. (22) Sources of mercury may also come from the pharmaceutical, agriculture, caustic soda, and paper and pulp industries. Mercury toxicity has been linked to impaired kidney function and brain conditions such as depression, tremors, fatigue, and memory problems. (12)

Aluminum

Aluminum can be found in food, drinking water, and pharmaceuticals. Symptoms of acute aluminum toxicity include arthritis and joint pain, ulcers, rashes, nausea, and vomiting. Long-term aluminum exposure can impact lung and nervous system function and has been identified as a potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. (12)

person washing vegetables

People may be exposed to pesticides through the foods they consume or through occupational use, household use, or direct contact with agriculture.

How to decrease exposure to environmental toxins

The best way to prevent toxin-related health issues is to limit your exposure. There are five possible ways toxins can enter the body, including:

  • Ingestion through contaminated food or beverage
  • Inhalation of airborne toxins and olfactory transmission (smell)
  • Transmission from mother to fetus or infant
  • Dermally through the skin
  • Penetration of tissues (e.g., surgery or injection) (20)

Below, we’ve outlined six simple changes you can make to help decrease your exposure to environmental toxins.

Invest in a reusable glass or metal bottle

Making the switch from plastic cups and water bottles to reusable glass or stainless steel alternatives can reduce your intake of certain harmful chemicals found in plastics, such as BPA and phthalates. Choosing a reusable option will also decrease waste, so it’s good for your health and the environment.

Choose better personal care and cleaning products

Many of the personal care products we use every day, including shampoos, soaps, lotions, and cosmetics, contain harmful chemicals such as parabens and phthalates. Look for products that are labeled “organic” and “free of” these harmful chemicals.

When it comes to household cleaners, try making your own. It’s easy, inexpensive, and, in most cases, you can make them with everyday ingredients you already have at home. Ingredients like baking soda, vinegar, and citric acid can help get rid of unwanted microorganisms, without compromising your health. Certain antimicrobial essential oils such as tea tree oil can also be added to your products. (18)

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Guide and Guide to Healthy Cleaning can help you search for safer personal care and cleaning products. (6)(7)

Limit exposure to cigarette smoke

The carcinogenic effects of smoking and second-hand smoke are well known. Out of over 7000 chemical compounds found in cigarettes, at least 69 have been identified as carcinogens. The chemicals found in cigarette smoke have also been associated with respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, and developmental dysfunction. (17)

Buy organic when possible

Buying organic produce and other foods when possible can help decrease your exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Consulting the 2020 Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists can help you make healthier choices when choosing your produce. This list, released annually by the EWG, identifies the top twelve fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residue and the top fifteen with the least residue. (5)

Refer to the EWG’s Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen list when purchasing produce. (5)

Avoid using pesticides in the garden

Having beautiful lawns and gardens may be lovely, but it is worth the expense of your health? Avoid the adverse effects of herbicides and pesticides by choosing natural alternatives that will keep the pests away. Many brands and retailers offer non-toxic fertilizers and mulches that are free of harmful herbicides and pesticides. (21)

Install a water filter

Using a water filter can help remove toxins found in your water, such as fluoride, heavy metals (e.g., mercury, copper, cadmium), pesticides and herbicides, pharmaceutical residues, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The following table, based on information from EWG, compares different filtering technologies and how they impact water quality.

Using a water filter can help remove toxins found in your water, decreasing your water toxicity. (4)

How to support detoxification

In addition to limiting your exposure, there are several measures you can take to support detoxification and elimination of toxins.

Put in some sauna time

The skin plays a major role in detoxification and many toxins can be eliminated from the body through sweating. Saunas are a great way to accomplish this, but be sure to keep hydrated and replenish mineral losses. (20) Research has indicated that dry saunas may help the body excrete heavy metals, pesticides, and other harmful chemical chemicals through sweat. (11)

Exercise regularly

Exercise doesn’t just keep you fit, it also helps your body eliminate toxins through increased respiration, circulation, and sweating. Exercise-induced sweating has been shown to help the body excrete toxic heavy metals, including arsenic and lead. (19) Again, be sure to hydrate appropriately during exercise. (20)

Chlorella green tables next to plant and powder form

Chlorella may assist in the detoxification process by binding to potentially toxic compounds and preventing their absorption.

Supplement your diet

Consider supplementing your diet with nutrients that can help support your natural detoxification process, such as glutathione and its precursor N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), milk thistle, vitamin C, whey protein, sulforaphane, certain B vitamins, and dietary fiber. Learn more about how these nutrients can help support detoxification on the Fullscript blog.

Chlorella, a type of algae, may also support the body’s natural detoxification process. Chlorella may assist in detoxification by binding to potentially toxic compounds and preventing their absorption. (20)

If you’re considering supplementing your diet to support detoxification, be sure to speak with a qualified integrative healthcare practitioner to determine which supplements are best for you.

The bottom line

Environmental toxins are natural or synthetic chemicals and minerals that cause a toxic burden on the human body and require detoxification. We are exposed to environmental toxins on a daily basis, but our body’s detoxification system should be able to rid the body of these toxins. However, in some cases, if the body is overburdened, disease may occur. There are many ways to prevent toxin exposure and support the body in its detoxification processes.

Above all, be aware of the potential sources of toxin exposure, incorporate ways in which you can reduce your daily exposure, and support your body’s natural detoxification process to reduce your risk of negative health outcomes from environmental toxins. If you are a patient, speak with your integrative healthcare practitioner for recommendations specific to your needs.

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  23. Van Bruggen, A.H.C., He, M.M., Shin, K., Mai, V., Jeong, K.C., Finckh, M.R., & Morris, J.G.Jr. (2018). Environmental and health effects of the herbicide glyphosate. Science of The Total Environment, 616–617, 255-268.

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