The environment is full of toxins. Petrochemicals, Carcinogens, Halogens, Xenoestrogens– there are so many names and categories for so many chemicals that are out there, waiting to make us ill.
They are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we consume, and the products we use.
In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the average American has 116 our of 148 synthetic compounds in his or her body, including dioxins, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and organochloride pesticides. The average umbilical cord contains 217 neurotoxins, 208 of which are known to cause birth defects.
There are about 80,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States, and only about 2% of those have been assessed for their safety.
The Environmental Working Group, a U.S. environmental health research and advocacy organization, keeps an updated list of the worst offenders. We encounter many of them daily.
Environmental toxins can cause organ failure, developmental problems, cause cancer, and act as endocrine disruptors. (More on that in another article.)
Or, they can do all three.
Let’s talk about cancer, the scariest end result of toxic exposure. So many chemical compounds out there are being vilified as causing cancer. The truth is, they may all be implicated in the development of cell dysfunction that can lead to cancer- but the road is too long to follow it back. When people are diagnosed with cancer, Scientists can’t usually point to a specific chemical and say, “This is what caused it.”
The human body has defenses to guard against all sorts of harmful exposures. For example, damage to DNA cells can lead to cancer, but often, DNA damage can be repaired.
But the thing about cancer is, it starts years before the actual diagnosis. Let’s say somebody’s body is less able to deal with incoming toxins and the DNA doesn’t get repaired.
It’s the unrepaired DNA damage that can lead to mutations in genes or the cellular structure. Mutations in certain genes or cellular structure can cause cancer.
You can also inherit mutations when your parents have been exposed to toxins. The time between the first, slight cell damage and actual cancer has a long latency period, which makes it hard to tell which exposure to which toxin led to the mutation.
Remember that there are 80,000 different chemicals we people are exposed to over our lifetime. This is why it is hard to determine whether a specific chemical causes cancer.
Having said that, the Cancer Panel Report and the ATSDR single out Asbestos, Arsenic, Beryllium, Vinyl Chloride, Radon, formaldehyde, and benzene as known human carcinogens.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos was adapted and widely used in building materials for its fire and chemical proof properties. It also has soundproofing and insulating qualities. Asbestos has been used in thousands of products which are still found in millions of homes today.
Asbestos is a risk when its fibers become airborne after it’s been disturbed in some way. If inhaled, these fibers can lodge themselves in the lungs, causing scarring and abnormal cell growth, leading to a number of cancers, including mesothelioma.
Common asbestos-containing products that can be found in the home include: Insulation materials for pipes and furnaces, attic insulation, shingles, siding and roofing tiles, soundproofing, plaster and joint compounds, casings for electrical wires, some floor tiles and flooring adhesives, and some plastics and paints/adhesives.
Researchers began to find links between asbestos and Cancer already in the 1950’s, but a lot of the products are built into homes and haven’t been removed.
Reducing Asbestos Exposure:
Asbestos is not a problem if left undisturbed. It’s only harmful when it’s airborne. If you suspect a product or home contains asbestos, it is important that you don’t touch or disturb it in any way. It is especially critical to take care if you are planning to remodel or if you find any damaged building materials in your home.
Check with your children’s school. Many schools use older buildings.
According to law, every school in the US is required to have a detailed asbestos management plan, in accordance with The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).
Schools should inspect their building for asbestos, and re-inspect it at least every three years. They need to provide training in asbestos awareness to custodial staff, and if asbestos is found on premised, write up a detailed plan on how they will get rid of it using people who are trained and certified to handle asbestos properly.
Arsenic is toxic, bio-accumulative and carcinogenic. It is a metalloid element that occurs in nature, in both organic and inorganic compounds. Organic arsenic is “natural” and therefore less toxic than the inorganic arsenic.
Arsenic was used as a straight-out poison in the olden days. At a concentrated dosage, it is lethal.
Lesser dosage and exposure to arsenic via water and foods can lead to (a) Various kinds of cancer (lung, bladder, liver and kidney), (b) reproductive and developmental issues; (c) cardiovascular disease; (d) reduced intellectual function in children and (e) possibility of diabetes and high blood pressure.
There are two inorganic arsenic species that are found predominantly in groundwater.
Arsenic poisoning via groundwater has become a worldwide problem. See Bangladesh. The worst toxic exposure issues are usually traced back to the groundwater.
When contaminated groundwater is, or even was, used for irrigation, people can be exposed to arsenic via foods that were grown in soil that was saturated with arsenic-laced groundwater.
It’s all in the water, folks… and then it’s in the soil. And then, it’s in the foods.
The elevated level of arsenic in soil has resulted in elevated concentrations of arsenic in food crops, such as rice and some vegetables. There are different levels of arsenic in the vegetables’ roots, stems, or grain parts. Just like in humans, arsenic bio-accumulates in crops, so the arsenic level depends on the duration and level of exposure.
Then, if cows or other cattle eat the arsenic-laced crops— guess where the arsenic ends up.
Another way the arsenic reaches us humans.
Arsenic exposure can occur via water, soil, crops (vegetables and grains), milk, and meat.
On top of that, According to the FDA, poultry farmers are allowed to feed arsenic to birds, for “growth promotion, feed efficiency, and improved pigmentation.” The arsenic affects the blood vessels in chickens and turkeys, causing them to appear pinker and therefore fresher.
“When the Minnesota-based advocacy group Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy tested conventional poultry, it found the poison (arsenic) in 55 percent of chicken parts tested, with the highest amount–21.2 parts per million–occurring in generic brands.
If you want to know how safe that is, the EPA considers 10 parts per billion in drinking water to be high enough to pose a cancer risk. The chickens tested had up to2,000 times more of these cancer causing arsenic levels!
The European Union has outlawed the use of arsenic since 1999.
Reducing Arsenic Exposure:
According to the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy “American- grown rice contains 1.4 to 5 times more arsenic on average than does rice from Europe, India and Bangladesh— scientists think the likely culprit is the American practice of growing rice on former cotton fields contaminated with long-banned arsenic pesticides.”
Scientists at Consumer Reports recommend restricting rice and rice-based hot cereal, ready-to-eat cereal, rice pasta, and rice cakes to two to three servings a week for adults, and one to one-and-a half servings a week for children.
Thoroughly rinsing and cooking your rice with six cups of water to one cup of rice and then draining the excess water can reduce inorganic arsenic content by about 30 percent.
Additionally, purchasing foreign rice can be a safeguard.
Choose organic poultry. In order to use the label of USDA-certified organic chicken, it is legally prohibited to use arsenic in the feed. (The poultry must also be free of pesticide, chemical fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics, among other requirements.
Beryllium is used industrially in three forms: as a pure metal, as beryllium oxide, and most commonly, as an alloy with copper, aluminum, magnesium, or nickel. Beryllium oxide (called beryllia) is known for its high heat capacity and is an important component of certain sensitive electronic equipment.
Workers in industries where beryllium is present may be exposed to beryllium by inhaling or contacting beryllium in the air or on surfaces.
Inhaling or contacting beryllium can cause an immune response that puts you at risk for developing a debilitating disease of the lungs called chronic beryllium disease (CBD). Beryllium-exposed workers may also develop other adverse health effects such as acute beryllium disease and lung cancer.
Reducing Beryllium Exposure:
Follow workplace protocol!
What Is Vinyl chloride?
Most of the vinyl chloride produced in the United States is used to make a polymer called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which consists of long repeating units of vinyl chloride. PVC is used to make a variety of plastic products including pipes, wire and cable coatings, and packaging materials. Other uses include furniture and automobile upholstery, wall coverings, housewares, and automotive parts. At one time, vinyl chloride was used as a coolant, as a propellant in spray cans, and in some cosmetics.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has determined that vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that vinyl chloride is carcinogenic to people, and EPA has determined that vinyl chloride is a human carcinogen.
Use of Vinyl Chloride has been highly restricted so it’s not very likely to be a major concern today. Inhalation causes a large variety initial symptoms way before there is damage to internal organs or cells. You’d notice if you’ve been exposed to Vinyl Chloride.
Vinyl Chloride also has an easily detectable smell.
There is Vinyl Chloride in cigarette smoke.
PVC products tend to have phthalates in them too, which are endocrine disruptors. It would be smart to avoid phthalates as well.
Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastics. They are found in a wide variety of products, including shampoo, cosmetics, lotions, bottles, nail polish, and deodorant.
At one time most flexible plastics contained high levels of phthalates. Fortunately, they are being phased out in the US and Europe due to emerging recognition of their risks.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
(NIEHS), part of the National Institute of Health, has found that pre-natal
exposure to phthalates is associated with adverse genital development and can significantly reduce masculine behavior in boys. This is true for all endocrine disruptors, but phthalates are documented.
Women with high exposure to phthalates while pregnant report significantly more disruptive behavior in their children, while other research by NIEHS has found phthalate exposure can lead to thyroid dysfunction in adults.
Fortunately if exposure is decreased, phthalates quickly exit the body. Studies found that phthalate levels in the urine decreased by
53-56% within three days of stopping exposure.
- Minimize use of plastics with the recycling code #3.
- Use PVC-free containers. Buy plastic wrap and bags made from polyethylene and use glass containers. If you do use plastic containers, do not heat or microwave them.
- Choose phthalate-free toys. Many large toymakers have pledged to stop using phthalates, but be sure to look for toys made from polypropylene or polyethylene.
- Purchase phthalate-free beauty products. Avoid nail polish, perfumes, colognes, and other scented products that list phthalates as an ingredient. Many scented products simply list “fragrance” as an ingredient, which often incorporates a number of different chemicals including phthalates. Try to minimize these products, or for more information on phthalate-free cosmetics and personal care products, visit the National Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group, which maintains a database on cosmetic products and their ingredients.
What Is Radon?
Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas. It comes from the natural decay of uranium or thorium found in nearly all soils and it typically moves up through the ground and into the home through cracks in floors, walls, and foundations. It can also be released from building materials or from well water. Radon breaks down quickly, giving off radioactive particles. Long-term exposure to these particles can lead to lung cancer.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that radon causes about 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year. 1 in 20 homes in the United States have elevated levels of radon present.
Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and the leading cause among non-smokers.
Radon Mitigation is the process of decreasing radon in homes found to have elevated levels present.
Reducing Radon Exposure:
- Get your home air checked. It is simple and inexpensive.
- If you use a well, check your water.
What Is Formaldehyde?
Formaldehydeis a known human carcinogen. It is a colourless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is used in building materials and in the manufacture of many household products. It also occurs naturally in the environment and is produced in small amounts by most living organisms as part of normal metabolic processes.
Formaldehyde sources in the home include pressed-wood products such as particleboard and plywood, glues and adhesives, permanent press fabrics, cigarette smoke, and fuel-burning appliances. In addition, formaldehyde is commonly used as an industrial fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant, and as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories.
Research studies of workers exposed to formaldehyde have suggested an association between formaldehyde exposure and several cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.
Reducing Formaldehyde Exposure:
- Use “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products to limit formaldehyde exposure in the home.
- Ensure adequate ventilation and moderate temperatures.
- Reduce humidity levels with air conditioners and dehumidifiers.
- Go natural and grow plants in your home.
What Is Benzene?
Benzene is a colourless liquid that evaporates quickly. It is naturally found in crude oil and is a basic petrochemical (Petrochemicals are endocrine disruptors.) It is also a known human carcinogen.
Substantial amounts of data link benzene to aplastic anemia, bone marrow abnormalities, and leukemia — particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute non-lymphocytic leukemia (ANLL).
Benzene is found in tobacco smoke, gasoline (think car exhaust), pesticides, synthetic fibers, plastics, inks, oils, and detergents.
Benzene has also been found in some dryer emissions from scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets
It has been in soft drinks, although they have since reformulated to exclude it.
About 50% of the benzene exposure in the US results from smoking tobacco or from second-hand smoke.
Reducing Benzene Exposure:
- Don’t smoke and try to avoid second hand smoke.
- Ensure adequate ventilation in your home.
- Use non-scented laundry detergents.
- Keep plants in the home.
Poison is in the dose. Environmental toxins cause serious health concerns when there is an accumulated exposure. The more prolonged or excessive the exposure is, the worse the effect.
Ironically, prolonged, acute stress can also disrupt endocrine function, cause organ failure, hinder development and is implicated in cancer! So don’t stress out about all these toxins in your environment.
Using a plastic cup every once in a while is not going to kill you.
It’s impossible to completely avoid exposure to known human carcinogens.
However, a few simple steps can go a long way towards protecting you and your loved ones.
*Don’t expose yourself to secondhand smoke.
*Get your home air and water checked for radon.
*Use a water filter. An air filter is great too.
*Check your home for asbestos materials.
*Keep your home well-ventilated.
*Use less products with “fragrance” as a listed ingredient.
*Keep plenty of plants in your home.
*Decrease use of plastic. Transition to glass, stainless steel, and porcelain containers, mugs and glasses.
*Eat more organic poultry and produce. Wash all produce. If possible, purchase only organic options from the Dirty Dozen.
*Transition to less processed foods and products. The less processed, the better.
There’s no need to freak out over occasional exposure to environmental toxins. Just look for simple ways to reduce your everyday exposure. Make changes slowly, one at a time, in a manageable way, and you will decrease your risk with minimal stress to yourself and others.
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