Environmental Toxins & Your Health: What You Need To Know

Kayla Robinson headshot

by Kayla Robinson


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 substances. 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. (13)

two plastic containers stacked

Primary sources of BPA exposure include food packaging such as inner coatings of cans and jar caps, dental and healthcare equipment, and children’s’ toys.

5 common environmental toxins & health implications

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a commonly used chemical in the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics (6)(11), epoxy resins, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). (11) Primary sources of BPA exposure include food packaging such as inner coatings of cans and jar caps, dental and healthcare equipment, and children’s toys. (4)(6) People 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. (6) BPA has been shown to interact with estrogen receptors in the body and induce endocrine-disrupting effects. (4)(6)(11) More specifically, BPA exposure may be associated with certain endocrine disorders in both men and women, including infertility, early secondary sexual maturation, breast and prostate cancer, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). (11)

Phthalates

Phthalates are primarily used as “plasticizers” in the manufacturing of plastics and other products to improve flexibility, elasticity, and resiliency. (2)(6)(13) Phthalates may be found in many household items, including children’s toys, paints, food packaging, cleaning materials, enteric coatings of oral medications, and personal care products such as cosmetics, lotions, and sunscreen. (2)(6) One of the most common plasticizers, Di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is used extensively in medical devices. (6) 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)(6) This has raised concerns over phthalate exposure as they are classified as endocrine-disrupting compounds. (6)(8) Phthalates may play a role in a number of reproductive, thyroid, immune, and metabolic conditions. (6)

Parabens

Parabens are used as preservatives in many personal care products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food products. (2)(9) Commonly used parabens include methylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, ethylparaben, and benzylparaben. (5) Parabens have been detected in house dust, soil, wastewater, and rivers. (9) As they can be absorbed dermally, 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)(9)

person washing vegetables

People may be exposed to pesticides through the diet or through direct contact from agriculture, occupational use, and household use.

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 the diet or through direct contact from agriculture, occupational use, and household use. (1) Pesticides have been linked with cancer, as well as neurological, reproductive, endocrine, respiratory, and immunological conditions. (1)(13) 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”. (10)(14) 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 microbiota, and antibiotic resistance. However, more research is needed in this area. (14)

Heavy metals

Exposure to heavy metals found in our food, water, and environment may be a result of natural soil erosion and weathering or of human industrial and agricultural activities. While some metals in small amounts are necessary to maintain body functions, acute and chronic heavy metal toxicity contributes to oxidative stress and has been associated with numerous health conditions. (7)

Arsenic
Arsenic exposure can result from air, food, and water consumption. 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 and neurological, pulmonary, and cardiovascular conditions. (7)

Lead
Identified as highly toxic and carcinogenic, the use of lead in products such as paints and gasoline has significantly reduced in recent years. However, exposure to lead can also come from other environmental sources such as cosmetics, toys, contaminated soil, drinking water, and industrial emissions. Chronic exposure has been associated with allergies, weight loss, muscular weakness, paralysis, kidney damage, and brain conditions such as autism, dyslexia, hyperactivity, and psychosis. (7)

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. (7)

Mercury
Considered one of the most toxic heavy metals, mercury can be found in some foods and beverages, particularly in fatty fish. This is why it is often suggested to minimize consuming seafood from highly polluted bodies of water. 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 including depression, tremors, fatigue, and memory problems. (7)

Aluminum
Sources of aluminum can be found in food, drinking water, and pharmaceuticals. Symptoms of acute 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. (7)

Decreasing your exposure

There are six possible ways toxins can enter the body:

  • Ingestion through food or beverage
  • Inhalation of airborne toxins
  • Olfactory transmission (smell)
  • Transmission from mother to fetus or infant
  • Dermally through skin contact
  • Penetration of tissues (i.e., surgery or injection) (13)

The best way to prevent toxin-related health issues is to limit exposure. The fewer toxins you’re exposed to, the better your body will be able to handle any harmful substances to which it’s exposed. Here are some simple daily changes you can make to decrease your exposure.

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 like 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.

EWG’s Skin Deep Guide and Guide to Healthy Cleaning can help you search for safer personal care and cleaning products.

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. (12)

Buy organic

Buying organic produce and other foods when possible can help decrease your exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Consulting the 2019 Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists can help you make healthier choices when choosing your produce. This list, released annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), identifies the top twelve fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residue and the top fifteen with the least residue.

EWG’s Dirty Dozen

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Potatoes

EWG’s Clean Fifteen

  • Avocados
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Cantaloupe
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Honeydew Melon

Avoid using pesticides in the garden

Having beautiful lawns and gardens may be lovely, but it is worth the expense of your health? Consider using natural alternatives that will keep the pests away without the harmful effects.

Install a water filter

Using a water filter can help remove toxins found in your water, such as fluoride, heavy metals (i.e., 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.

Using a water filter can help remove toxins found in your water.

Supporting 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. (13)

Exercise regularly

Exercise doesn’t just keep you fit, it also helps your body eliminate toxins through increased respiration, circulation, and sweating. Again, be sure to hydrate appropriately during exercise. (13)

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. Examples of these include 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. Chlorella, a type of algae, is another example of natural detoxification support. Chlorella may assist in the detoxification process by binding to potentially toxic compounds and preventing their absorption. (13)

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

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 due to environmental toxin exposure.

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