Nobody knows just how much of a risk toxins in our food really pose. Most of the associations between chemical exposures and disease are just that—associations. But we’re exposed to dozens, if not hundreds, of chemicals, and the effects of some multiple exposures may be more than the sum of their parts, say experts. Or, in some cases, they might cancel each other out.
What’s more, toxins get into our bodies through more than just food. We are exposed to them through our carpets, lawn chemicals—even our clothing. Check out these 7 toxins you can avoid in your diet and get simple solutions for minimizing these chemicals and toxins in your diet and life.
From rat (and bug) poisons to sprays that keep lawns lush and crop yields high, “pesticides” include hundreds of chemicals. Some interfere with animals’ nervous systems; others disrupt hormones, causing abnormal growth that kills the plant or animal. Thus, it’s not surprising that synthetic pesticide exposure is linked with diseases of the nervous system and problems with cell growth, including reproductive problems and some cancers.
“Dioxins” are a family of chemicals (including some polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) with known cancer-causing properties. Dioxins are by-products of combustion—released via industrial processes, volcanoes, forest fires, even backyard burn piles—widespread in the environment but in low levels. They take years to degrade and they accumulate in fat—so they concentrate up the food chain. More than 90 percent of our exposure to dioxins is through food, mostly meat, dairy, fish and shellfish.
Don't Miss: Green Choices: Meat & Poultry Buyer’s Guide »
This group of chemicals is used to make soft, squishy plastics, such as rubber duckies, medical tubing and polyvinyl chloride, a.k.a. PVC. Some phthalates are used to make synthetic fragrances last longer. Research suggests that phthalates act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body’s hormone systems and potentially leading to reproductive abnormalities, problems with fertility and increased risk for diabetes.
Research has suggested that 98 percent of Americans contain trace levels of PFCs (perfluorocarbons), chemicals that are used to repel water, grease and stains and are found in nonstick cookware, clothing, carpeting, furniture and food containers. Our bodies absorb PFCs through food, our skin and via fumes from overheated pans. They’re linked with liver damage, developmental problems, cancer and, according to one 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, early menopause.
We drink water to stay hydrated and flush out toxins. But could tap water actually be exposing us to more potentially harmful chemicals? Perhaps. A 2009 analysis by the Environmental Working Group found a whopping 315 pollutants in U.S. tap water, including arsenic (a heavy metal) and pesticides. More than half of the compounds are not regulated by the EPA, which means they can legally be present in tap water in any amount.
For instance, perchlorate—a currently unregulated chemical (though that’s soon to change, the EPA announced in early 2011) that’s used to make rocket fuel, flares and explosives—contaminates the drinking water of up to 26 million Americans. The chemical has been shown to reduce thyroid hormone production; experts worry about the risks it poses particularly to babies and children. “Potentially even a very mild degree of low thyroid function could have an adverse effect on cognitive outcomes for a fetus. However, no studies to date have shown effects of low-level perchlorate exposure on thyroid function in pregnant women,” says Elizabeth Pearce, M.D., an endocrinologist at the Boston University School of Medicine.
In December 2010, the Environmental Working Group also reported finding hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), the “Erin Brockovich” contaminant that the EPA considers “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” in the drinking water of 31 U.S. cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles. In the wake of this report, the EPA is reassessing the “oral reference dose”?(or upper limit of what is considered safe), with a final ruling expected by the end of the year.
—Melinda Wenner Moyer
BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical traditionally used to make hard, clear plastics—including food containers, reusable water bottles and some baby bottles—and the resins lining some food cans. It leaches into food, particularly acidic items, such as tomatoes, or when containers are scratched or heated. Similar in structure to estrogen, BPA is considered a so-called endocrine disruptor. Based on animal and (limited) human studies, scientists are concerned that BPA may be linked with prostate and breast cancer, infertility, heart disease and diabetes.
The most common exposure to mercury—which is both naturally occurring and man-made—is from eating contaminated fish. Other sources: compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), silver dental fillings and batteries. In high doses, mercury can harm the nervous system, heart, lungs, kidneys, and immune system; even in low levels it can affect brains of young children, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued seafood guidelines for children and pregnant/nursing women.