Reduce your toxic body burden

Right now, there could be more than 200 man-made chemicals in our bodies, according to reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We’re constantly surrounded — we ingest them, absorb them through our skin and inhale them on a daily basis. What is this toxic load doing to our health? No one is quite sure, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to protect ourselves.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the safety of all these chemicals. Chemical industry lobbyists and government regulatory bodies say most of the chemicals in our food, water, air and products are safe or appear in safe levels — plus they’re carefully regulated. With the exception of proven hazards like mercury, there isn’t enough evidence to raise the alarm.

However, many health experts warn these chemicals are doing us harm. No one really knows how much is “safe” in the long run, and we’re just beginning to consider how chemicals interact in our bodies rather than studying them individually. With all the unanswered questions about the causes of cancer, hormone disruptions and autoimmune disorders, do we really have enough prove that chemicals are safe?

The bottom line: the research is often confusing and conflicting, and a lot more of it needs to be done. However, while experts debate the issues, as consumers we have more information and more choice than ever before.

If you’re worried about how chemicals could be affecting your health, here’s what you can do about it.

Some top offenders

There’s a long list of chemical culprits out there. Here are a few common contenders we should avoid:

Bisphenol A (BPA): It makes plastics hard and is also used as a liner in aluminum cans. It can leach into our food and drink and potentially cause hormonal disruptions. Canada recently added BPA to its list of toxic substances.

Mercury: We’re usually exposed to this toxin from eating contaminated fish, but fish get it from their environment from industrial pollution and hazardous waste in landfills that seeps into the water supply.

Parabens: They’re frequently used — often in combination — as preservatives in cosmetic products, foods and pharmaceuticals. They’re also a potential hormone disruptor and can impact men’s fertility.

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs): They make things “non-stick”, but they may also be carcinogenic (i.e. cancer-causing). You’ll find them in non-stick cookware, and they’re used in stain resistant or slippery fabrics and fast food containers.

Phthalates: They give fragrances staying power and are commonly used in scented products like air fresheners and cosmetics. They’re also used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to soften the plastic, as in shower curtains, medical tubing and some children’s toys.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs): They make items flame-retardant. While newer furniture and electronics are often PBDE-free, older items still contain the chemical in fabrics, foam and electrical components.

Triclosan: From socks to soaps, this chemical shows up in anti-bacterial products. It is thought to be a hormone disruptor and contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Of course, this just a partial list. There are numerous dyes and preservatives that cause pose problems, not to mention chemical agents to give products certain properties and textures.

How to reduce the toxins in your life

Read labels. Whether it’s food, cleaners or other products, it pays to read the ingredients. Watch out for known hazards as well as any questionable ingredients. Confused? Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you can’t pronounce it and you don’t know what it does, don’t eat it or use it.

Look at the packaging too. While you’re pretty safe storing food and beverages in glass or stainless steel containers, take a closer look at plastics — particularly the recycling number. In general, numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are safe, but the rest should be avoided when storing food.

Consult an expert. Can’t find the information on the packaging? Ask the sales person for more information or do some online research before you buy.

In addition, many websites have smarter shopping guides like, The Zrecs Guide to Safer Children’s Products, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s Guide to Less Toxic Products.

Choose less harmful products. When in doubt, opt for products that contain fewer chemicals. For instance, look for cosmetics products that are paraben-free. When comparing products, experts recommend looking for the shortest, simplest list of ingredients.

Avoid non-stick. Time to return to the classic cast-iron frying pan! Skip the non-stick coating for your pots and pans and use alternatives. If you keep the coated pans, avoid cooking at high temperatures and get rid of them when they’re scratched.

What about fabrics? Look for natural fibres like wool, cotton and hemp and avoid stain resistant and non-wrinkle coatings.

Keep things clean. Chemicals like PBDEs can get released into the air and accumulate in dust. Regular vacuuming and dusting can help keep them to a minimum.

Use natural cleaners. Many companies now offer eco-friendly products, but you can go one step further and use baking soda and vinegar to tackle most jobs around the house. (See Natural cleaners for more solutions.)

Eat organic. Avoid the pesticides used to produce food by buying organic. If money is tight, it will be well spent on organic versions of foods that absorb the most pesticides while they grow — like berries, celery, leafy greens and potatoes. (See the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides for a complete list.)

Even if a food isn’t certified organic, many farmers still use sustainable and pesticide-free farming methods. Talk to growers at markets or visit farms to purchase products.

If you aren’t eating organic, make sure to give your produce a good wash.

Be fussy with your fish. Mercury moves up the food chain, so experts advise to choose smaller fish whenever possible. In general, fish like tilapia and wild pacific salmon have lower levels of mercury than others, like tuna and swordfish. You can further reduce your risk by choosing wild or eco-friendly options. If you can, shop local at markets or co-ops and learn more about what you’re buying. (See the EWG’s Fish List for more details.)

Limit fatty foods. If the risks of heart disease and diabetes didn’t scare you off, chemicals and pesticides can build up in animals’ fat tissue. Experts recommend avoiding or limiting high-fat foods and dairy.

Filter your water. Concerned about what’s in your water? No need to go bottled — experts recommend using a filter instead.

Wash your hands. A good scrub with regular soap is still your best defence against germs. If you have to use antibacterial products like hand sanitizer, look for ones that contain alcohol rather than triclosan.

Wash or air out items. Clothing, furniture and other household items often have sizing and finishing to make them feel and look their best. Wash your new clothing before you wear it, and air out new furniture before using it. Also, open the windows when bringing new items home or using and home improvement products like varnishes and paint. These items can “off-gas” — that is, release chemicals into the air.

Avoid artificial fragrances. Even if you aren’t sensitive to chemical fragrances, studies have shown that many air fresheners and candles contain phthalates and contribute to indoor air pollution. For a sweet scent, look for essential oils or use a natural option like boiling orange peels on the stovetop. Use baking soda to absorb odours, and deal with smelly problems like mould. (See Sweet-smelling toxins for more information.)

Leave your shoes at the door. Your footwear can track in all kinds of chemicals and allergens. Have a pair of slippers or “indoor shoes” on hand.

Properly store and dispose of hazardous waste. Keep it out of the house if possible, and always store in safe, properly labelled containers that won’t leak. When you’re through with old electronics, CFL light bulbs and other hazardous waste, make sure it goes to the local hazardous waste or recycling facility. (See Get rid of your toxic garbage for more tips.)

Learn more. Not sure what a chemical does and how you’re exposed to it? Look them up using websites like:
The Environmental Working Group
– The David Suzuki Foundation’s Dirty Dozen Cosmetic Chemicals to Avoid
– Government of Canada’s Chemicals at a Glance
– The CDC ‘s chemical Fact Sheets
– The FDA’s Product and Ingredient Safety

There are also many books on the subject, such as Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie.

To get a balanced perspective, consult a couple of sources — including at least one non-government resource.

Take action. Change often happens because people demand it. Get involved with an environmental cause or health and safety organization, or take steps like writing a letter to your politician.

Overall, we don’t really know what effects industrial chemicals are having on our health, and we might not see the effects until decades down the road. While we shouldn’t be paranoid, it does pay to stay informed and be proactive about our health.

Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the David Suzuki Foundation, The Environmental Working Group, Health Canada,, Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Photo © Steve Debenport

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