This article discusses the top three sources of toxic exposures: traffic pollution, personal care products and common household plastic goods; and offers tips to limit them.
Air pollution and chemicals found in common household- and personal care goods are major sources of exposure that can lead to an accumulation of toxins in your body.
Recent news articles have highlighted a number of sources of such toxic exposures, as well as new research linking traffic pollution to higher risk of heart disease.
The best advice I could give you should you happen to live in a heavily polluted area is to move, but I realize that isn’t always a practical option.
For most people, it’s better to focus your attention on your immediate environment, which you have more, if not full, control over. After all, what you put on, in, and keep around your body on a daily basis is going to have the greatest impact on your health.
Traffic Pollution Increases Risk of Heart Disease and Heart Attack
According to a German study presented at the EuroPRevent 2013 congress in Rome, long-term exposure to fine particle matter air pollution is associated with atherosclerosis, or thickening of the arteries.1 According to the featured article:2
“The study was based on data from the German Heinz Nixdorf Recall Study, a population-based cohort… with a mean age of 60 years…
Results showed that in the 4,238 subjects included in the study, small particulate matter and proximity to major roads were both associated with an increasing level of aortic calcification—for every increase in particle volume up to 2.4 micrometers the degree of calcification increased by 20.7 percent and for every 100 meter proximity to heavy traffic by 10 percent.”
Previous research has also identified traffic noise as a risk factor, and this latest study confirms that both small particulate matter and sound pollution are independently associated with subclinical atherosclerosis. According to Dr. Hagen Kälsch, who presented the research:
“These two major types of traffic emissions help explain the observed associations between living close to high traffic and subclinical atherosclerosis… The considerable size of the associations underscores the importance of long-term exposure to air pollution and road traffic noise as risk factors for atherosclerosis.”
Interestingly, both noise and fine particle matter are believed to increase your cardiovascular disease risk through similar biologic pathways, namely by causing an imbalance in your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Your ANS is intricately involved in regulating biological functions such as blood pressure, blood sugar levels, clotting and viscosity.
Another study by a French research team found that all the main traffic pollutants, with the exception of ozone, were strongly associated with an increased risk for heart attack. These pollutants include:
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
Reducing Air Pollution Can Alleviate Atherosclerosis
A third study, this one by American researchers, published in the journal PLoS Medicine,3 involved nearly 5,400 participants in six US cities between the ages of 45 and 84. None of the subjects had heart disease. Air pollution levels were measured at each participant’s home, and then compared to ultrasound measurements of their blood vessels. Both levels were then rechecked at least three years later.
On average, the thickness of the carotid artery increased by 0.014 millimeters per year after other risk factors such as smoking were accounted for. Those who had higher levels of exposure to fine particulate air pollution experienced thickening of the inner two layers of the carotid artery (which supplies blood to your head) quicker than those exposed to lower levels of pollution. According to the authors:
“Linking these findings with other results from the same population suggests that persons living in a more polluted part of town may have a 2 percent higher risk of stroke as compared to people in a less polluted part of the same metropolitan area.”
The good news is that reducing exposure to fine particulate air pollution can help slow the thickening of your carotid artery. An accompanying PLoS commentary4 urges policy makers to take note and enforce science-based clean air standards to help reduce healthcare costs:
“It has been known since the last century that ambient air pollution can trigger acute cardiovascular morbidities, and a comparative risk assessment of established triggers of myocardial infarctions concluded that a rather substantial fraction of these acute and life-threatening events can be attributed to current levels of air pollution. However, it is of importance to understand the causes of atherosclerosis, given that its prevention or deceleration could drastically delay and reduce the burden of CVDs…
In sum, the MESA study further supports an old request to policy makers, namely that clean air standards ought to comply at least with the science-based levels proposed by the World Health Organization. And we know it works: better air quality improves health—in rabbit, mice, men, and women alike.”
Chemicals from Personal Care Products Pervasive in Chicago Air
In related news, Scientific American5 recently reported that chemicals found in personal care products such as deodorants, lotions and conditioners, are detectable in Chicago’s air at “alarming” levels. The chemicals in question, cyclic siloxanes, are known to be toxic to aquatic life. According to Keri Hornbuckle, an engineering professor at the University of Iowa, these airborne compounds are pervasive all around us. Hornbuckle and her team evaluated air samples from downtown Chicago, IL (my home town) and two locations in Iowa.6 As reported by Scientific American:
“Concentrations were 10 times higher in Chicago’s air than in the air of West Branch, Iowa, and four times higher than in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But whether there are any risks from breathing the chemicals is unknown. There have been no studies to measure people’s exposures or investigate potential health risks. In Chicago’s air, the most prevalent compound, known as D5, was at levels three times greater than what polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) typically are there. PCBs are persistent chemicals banned in the 1970s. D5 is most commonly used in soaps, lotions, shampoos and conditioners.”
Another chemical, known as D4, is commonly used in polishes, detergents, sealants, adhesives and plastics. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), D4 is toxic to wildlife, and to certain species, including rainbow trout, it’s toxic at the levels found in our environment. In animal studies, the compound has been shown to cause tumors and reproductive problems. Like so many other chemicals, it acts like a weak estrogen. D5, on the other hand, has been shown to cause problems in the nervous systems, liver, and immune system in animals. Despite this, no country on earth is currently regulating either of these chemicals.
New Report Shows Lipsticks and Lip Glosses Contain Toxic Metals
A study recently published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives confirms previous findings that link lipstick to toxic metal exposure.7 California scientists found nine toxic metals in the 32 lipsticks and lip glosses tested, including:
According to the researchers, some metals were detected at high enough levels to “raise potential health concerns,” and although no name brands were identified, they advised the public to “treat these results as applicable to all lipsticks.” According to their findings, a woman who frequently reapplies lipstick or lip gloss may ingest as much as 87 milligrams of the product each day. An “average user” may ingest about 24 milligrams a day. At the average rate, 10 of the 32 products tested would exceed your “safe” level of chromium, which has been linked to certain tumors. High use could also result in overexposure to aluminum, cadmium and manganese.
Ten Retailers Urged to Discontinue Potentially Toxic Products
To tackle the problem of toxic chemical exposures, health and environmental groups are launching a national campaign aimed at 10 major retailers, urging them to discontinue the sale of products containing potentially toxic materials and develop a plan to phase out the use of the listed chemicals within the next 12 months.8
Nearly four dozen groups have signed on for the campaign, including the Breast Cancer Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The retailers targeted include Kroger, Walgreens, Home Depot, CVS Caremark, Lowe’s, Best Buy and Safeway. More than 100 chemicals are listed on the Campaign’s phase out list, and these chemicals can be found in hundreds, if not thousands, of products, including:
Personal care products
Stain-resistant fabrics and furniture
Common Chemicals to Avoid
Some of the most well-known chemical hazards that most people are exposed to on a daily basis include:
BPA and BPS: Bisphenol-A (BPA) can be found in a wide variety of plastic products, such as water bottles, microwaveable plates, tooth sealants, canned foods, and baby toys. It’s a potent endocrine disruptor that can also interfere with your thyroid hormones. Brain damage, decreased intelligence, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism were also found to be potential side effects.
California recently added BPA to its “dangerous chemicals” list,9 which means any product using the chemical will likely be required to include a warning label.
Bisphenol-S (BPS) has been shown to have estrogenic activity comparable to estradiol, the most potent human estrogen.10 It’s also capable of enhancing estradiol-mediated cell signaling, making it a particularly potent endocrine disruptor. Furthermore, recent research has shown BPS can induce apoptosis (cell death) and interfere with cellular secretion of prolactin (PRL)—a hormone that regulates hundreds of biological functions, including metabolism, reproduction and lactation.
Phthalates: Another chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics is phthalates, which make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible and resilient. They’re also one of the most pervasive endocrine disrupters so far discovered. These chemicals have increasingly become associated with changes in the development of the male brain as well as with genital defects, metabolic abnormalities and reduced testosterone in babies and adults.
PFOA: Non-stick cookware is the primary source of dangerous perfluorinated chemicals (PFOAs), which have been linked to cancer, birth defects and thyroid disease. I highly recommend you throw away your non-stick cookware immediately and replace it with either ceramic or glass. My personal choice is ceramic cookware, because it’s very durable and easy to clean, and there’s virtually no risk of exposure to harmful chemicals.
Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde, most commonly known as embalming fluid, serves a number of purposes in manufactured products. It is actually frequently used in fabrics to give them a variety of “easy care properties” as well as being a common component of pressed-wood products. Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in animals, and may cause cancer in humans. Other common adverse health effects include fatigue, skin rashes, and allergic reactions. Choosing all natural materials for your clothing and furniture can help cut down on your exposure.
PBDEs: These flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to altered thyroid levels, decreased fertility and numerous problems with development when exposure occurs in utero. PBDEs are commonly found in household items like upholstery and television and computer housings. Fortunately, several states now ban the use of PBDEs, so there is some progress toward reducing exposure.
Another common source of PBDEs is your mattress, and since you can spend up to a third of your life in bed, this is a significant health concern. Mattress manufacturers are not required to label or disclose which chemicals their mattresses contain. Look for 100 percent wool, toxin-free mattresses. Another viable option is to look for a mattress that uses a Kevlar, bullet-proof type of material in lieu of chemicals for fire-proofing. Stearns and Foster uses this process for their mattresses, which is sufficient to pass fire safety standards.
What Can You do to Reduce Unnecessary Chemical Exposure to Your Family?
Rather than compile an endless list of what you should avoid, it’s far easier to focus on what you should do to lead a healthy lifestyle with as minimal a chemical exposure as possible:
As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic foods to reduce your exposure to pesticides and fertilizers.
Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity.
Eat mostly raw, fresh foods, steering clear of processed, prepackaged foods of all kinds. This way you automatically avoid artificial food additives, including dangerous artificial sweeteners, food coloring and MSG.
Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA-containing liners).
Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).
Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a great database11 to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals. I also offer one of the highest quality organic skin care lines, shampoo and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances.
Replace your Teflon pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware or a safe nonstick pan.
When redoing your home, look for “green,” toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric, or install a glass shower door. Most all flexible plastics, like shower curtains, contain dangerous plasticizers like phthalates.
Limit your use of drugs (prescription and over-the-counter) as much as possible. Drugs are chemicals too, and they will leave residues and accumulate in your body over time.
Avoid spraying pesticides around your home or insect repellants that contain DEET on your body. There are safe, effective and natural alternatives out there.
Limiting Chemical Exposure is Important for Optimal Health
A typical American comes in regular contact with some 6,000 chemicals and an untold number of potentially toxic substances on a less frequent basis. Disturbingly, many of them have never been fully tested for safety. To protect your health, it’s important to make these positive and gradual steps toward decreasing your chemical exposure.
While you make the switch to remove and reduce chemicals around your home, remember that one of the ways to significantly reduce your toxic load is to pay careful attention to what you eat. Organically-grown, biodynamic whole foods, along with fermented foods, are really the key to success here, and, as an added bonus, when you eat right, you’re also optimizing your body’s natural detoxification system, which can help eliminate toxins your body encounters from other sources.
Environmental pollution is a massive problem, but for most there aren’t many immediate solutions to address it. Your time is better spent focusing on your environment; your home, and all the products you use or come in contact with on a daily basis. Cleaning that up can go a long way to reduce your toxic load, and hence decrease your risk of chemical-induced health problems.