Understanding Environmental Toxins

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We’ve all heard about the possible detrimental effects on our health from exposure to chemicals. There have been many debates in recent years over whether chemicals are something we should be concerned about. Certain chemicals are known to cause cancer and disrupt biological systems, so it is best to limit exposure to them to protect yourself and your family.

Environmental toxins can be found everywhere, including in the air, in the water and in our food. We encounter them every day, even in our households. Environmental toxins can be naturally occurring compounds or human-made chemicals, and many of the ones we encounter today did not exist a century ago. Therefore, it is best to be aware of where these chemicals are found and how to avoid them. Here’s a look at some of the ones we most frequently are exposed to.

Endocrine Disruptors 
Endocrine disruptors usually mimic estrogen and may interfere with the body’s endocrine system, which creates the hormones that regulate organs and cell activity. They can produce adverse developmental, immune, neurological and reproductive effects on the body.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is found in baby bottles, water bottles, plastic wrap, food packaging, toys, cosmetics, pesticides and other common products. A growing body of research suggests that BPA could have brain and behavioral effects on fetuses and young children and cause reduced male sexual function, cancer risk and endocrine disruption. Exposure occurs when BPA leaches out of the material into food and water. Switch to glass products or stainless steel bottles, or use BPA-free plastics when possible.

Phthalates are used to soften plastics and are found in shampoos, hair spray, soap, nail polish, detergents, flexible plastic and vinyl toys, raincoats and shower curtains. High levels of exposure may affect the male reproductive system. Phthalates have also been linked to asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, low I.Q., obesity, type II diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders and breast cancer. In 2008, Congress passed legislation to ban six phthalates from toys and cosmetics.

Pesticides are toxic substances that are used to kill, repel or control living things, including weeds, insects, rodents, bacteria, mold and fungus. They’re found in conventional food production as well as in homes, schools, parks, buildings, roads and forests. Pesticides have been linked to reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, many types of cancer and allergy syndromes. Children are particularly susceptible to adverse effects, and exposure to pesticides may greatly impact the development of the central nervous system. Reduce your exposure by buying organic fruits and vegetables, and washing and scrubbing all produce, whether it’s grown conventionally or organically. You can also grow your own produce in a garden!

Carcinogens are cancer-causing substances. Different toxins are linked to specific types of cancer, and higher levels of exposure can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Benzene is an organic chemical compound that naturally occurs in crude oil. You can find benzene in detergents, dryer sheets, tobacco smoke, gasoline, pesticides, plastics, inks, paints and solvents. Human exposure to benzene can result in leukemia and other blood cell cancers. Long-term exposure may harm reproductive organs. Cigarette smoke accounts for approximately half of the benzene exposure in the United States. Reduce your exposure by not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke, using non-scented laundry detergents, ensuring your home is adequately ventilated and limiting or avoiding exposure to fumes from paints and solvents.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas with a strong odor. It is used in the manufacture of construction products such as paneling, particle board, plywood, glues and adhesives. It also occurs in car exhaust and cigarette smoke. Although it is a naturally occurring organic compound, formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. Avoid it by buying formaldehyde-free furniture or exterior-grade pressed wood products. Ensuring adequate ventilation, reducing humidity with a dehumidifier or air conditioner, and keeping real plants in your home can help reduce exposure.

Radon, a naturally occurring colorless, odorless, radioactive gas, comes from the natural breakdown of uranium. It can be released from building materials or well water, and it tends to move up from the ground and into the home through cracks in foundations, walls and floors. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer. Many homes in the United States have elevated levels of radon, so it is best to get your home checked, which is simple and inexpensive. If needed, you can take steps to reduce the levels in your home.

The government has limited or banned many chemicals, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, in the past few decades, greatly reducing our exposure and health risks. However, there are still environmental toxins everywhere, and it is nearly impossible to eliminate exposure completely. Your best bet is to be aware of potential risks and take thoughtful, environmentally sound and healthful steps to reduce your everyday exposure. ■

Sources: cancer.org, emedicinehealth.com, epa.gov, precisionnutrition.com, radon.com and toxicsaction.org.