By Melinda Wenner Moyer, "How you can avoid BPA, mercury, pesticides and more chemicals in your food.,"September/October 2011
I still remember the sentence I read nearly a year ago that catapulted me from carefree foodie to chemical-cautious health nut. I was perusing the landmark 2010 report by the President’s Cancer Panel (a group The New York Times has called “the mission control of mainstream scientific and medical thinking”) and there it was: “The incidence of some cancers, including some most common among children, is increasing for unexplained reasons.” I kept reading: breast cancer rates among Americans are among the highest in the world. And then: “Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.” I was floored. I was also pregnant—which, I knew, meant that the toxins that were sneaking into my body were also invading my child’s. Suddenly, I saw a lot of trips to the farmers’ market in my future.
Even though some experts downplayed the report, I became nervous. In our daily lives, most of us don’t come into regular contact with every industrial chemical out there but many do end up in our food and water. Chemicals linked not only with cancer but also heart disease, obesity, diabetes and infertility leach into our leftovers from plastic storage containers, linger on our produce and seep into our water via runoff from farms and golf courses. And then they get into our bodies.
In fact, research shows that potentially harmful compounds, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, course through the bodies of virtually every American—including more than 99 percent of pregnant women, according to a recent analysis. Also concerning: in a 2011 University of California, Berkeley, study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, pregnant women who had high levels of organophosphate pesticides had children who scored lower on IQ tests years later. (Organophosphates are synthetic pesticides linked with neurological problems, among other health conditions.)
Photo Credit: Brand X Pictures/©Getty Images
I realized that I had to do what I could in the next eight months to minimize my exposure—and my baby’s—to potentially harmful chemicals. Babies and children are particularly vulnerable because they’re smaller and growing so rapidly. Sure, it was going to be impossible to control everything—I still had to breathe in the city smog, and I wasn’t going to stop ordering takeout food, even though the vegetables in my Drunken Noodles almost certainly weren’t organic. But there was still a lot I could do.
Bite by bite and sip by sip, I analyzed my daily food habits, discovering toxins hiding in places I least expected. Then I made some simple changes to cut these chemicals out of my life—and my unborn child’s.
I’ve always loved fruit, but as my pregnancy progressed I saw a boost in my cravings. Although I’d generally settled for conventionally grown produce—organic can be more expensive!—a little research made me reconsider my habits.
In 2010, researchers from Harvard University, Emory University and the FDA analyzed fruits, vegetables and juices consumed by elementary school children and found 11 different synthetic pesticides present among the samples. Apples, bananas, blueberries, peaches and strawberries were among the laced items. That same year, researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health analyzed more than 300 nonorganic foods—from fruit to fish, peanut butter to pork—at supermarkets around Dallas and found that every single one of them contained multiple pesticides.
While levels of each pesticide measured individually were low—none exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) reference doses or the European Union’s maximum residue levels—consuming mixtures of these chemicals may cause health problems, the researchers said.
There are hundreds of pesticides approved for use in the United States and they all present different risks: some are linked with cancer, while others can cause birth defects or harm the nervous system. One new study in the European Journal of Epidemiology, for example, found that people who worked near fields spread with synthetic pesticides had a considerably increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Some pesticides—including organophosphates commonly used on crops—are what are known as endocrine disruptors, which means that they affect the body’s highly sensitive endocrine (hormone) system. There’s good reason to be concerned about this: the body uses hormones to coordinate just about everything—cell growth, appetite and metabolism, among other things.
Some experts argue that we shouldn’t worry so much about pesticide residues. Yes, the Centers for Disease Control’s 2009 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals found that most people had organochlorine pesticides (commonly used to protect crops from insects) in their bodies, but the levels detected were too low for concern.
Other experts disagree. Hormones are incredibly potent, says Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., a biologist at Tufts University. “Our endocrine system is so finely tuned,” she says. Even if a chemical is present in only trace amounts, it can still be “at a level where it’s incredibly biologically active.” As an example, she says, a recent study linked low levels of BPA with an increased risk for heart disease.
Vandenberg’s words were enough to convince me to make the switch to organic. But I didn’t go all-out. I downloaded the iPhone app for the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list (ewg.org/foodnews), which includes the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables—apples are currently the worst, followed by celery, strawberries, peaches and spinach—and prioritized accordingly. For things that weren’t on that list, and produce I was going to peel anyway, I didn’t stress, but I made sure to wash pieces well before eating them, since research has shown that rinsing produce thoroughly under running water removes some pesticides (and special washes don’t do any better than regular water).
Environmental journalist and bestselling author Michael Pollan famously wrote, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That last part is hard for me—hand me a burger and I’ll snarf it. Indeed, I’m a big fan of meat and eggs. But the more I began reading about conventionally farmed meat and meat products, the more put off I became.
Foods—particularly meat, dairy and eggs—are responsible for more than 90 percent of our exposure to dioxins (which include some PCBs), contaminants that are by-products of combustion, such as backyard trash burning, and some industrial processes. These compounds are prevalent in the environment and, once ingested, camp out in fat. They are highly stable and remain in the human body for decades. They also get more concentrated as you move up the food chain. Bigger fish, for example, generally have more toxins than smaller ones. The same concept applies to conventionally raised animals, which are often fed the by-products of other animals. (This is banned by organic regulations.) “When a cow [from an industrial farm] is butchered, all of the waste fat is fed back to other animals,” says David Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health & Environment at the University at Albany. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the U.S. government “give high priority” to ending this common practice. No action has yet been taken.
I replaced some of my meat with fish, selecting fish that were lower in fat (read: lower in the PCBs and dioxins that concentrate in fat), such as halibut and cod. I made sure that my choices were also low in mercury, a neurotoxin that could harm my baby’s brain development.
Since I generally don’t like the taste of fish that are high in omega-3 fats, such as salmon and sardines, I took an omega-3 supplement to fuel my little one’s growing brain. I also switched to organic meat from animals that ate only grass. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit working for fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems, grass-fed animals are generally leaner than grain-fed (factory-farmed) animals and aren’t fed any animal products, so they accumulate fewer of these fat-residing toxins. I also began cooking with plant-based fats like olive oil rather than lard or butter.
Limiting processed and packaged foods, such as frozen dinners and individually wrapped snacks, can help you reduce your intake of sodium, trans fats and added sugars; it may also cut exposure to another class of chemicals that may mess with our hormones: phthalates, used to make plastics pliable. In a March 2011 study, Ruthann Rudel, M.S., director of research at the Silent Spring Institute, an organization that conducts environmental research related to women’s health, collected urine from 20 people who ate diets rich in foods packaged in plastics. Then she asked them to eat only fresh (unpackaged) foods for three days and tested them again. In just those few days, the subjects’ levels of phthalate metabolites decreased by more than half. They didn’t disappear entirely, because we’re exposed to phthalates from things besides food, too, including plastic and vinyl in car interiors, flooring and household goods, such as shower curtains, as well as fragrances in our soaps, dish detergents and other products.
So what types of packages contain phthalates? Unfortunately, because neither food nor plastics manufacturers are required to disclose what’s in the packaging, we can’t be sure. Manufacturers of the plastic wraps Glad and Saran say that their products, made from a type of plastic called LDPE, do not contain any phthalates.
Shanna Swan, Ph.D., vice chair of preventive medicine at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, knows the potential dangers of phthalates well. She has spent much of her career studying factors that affect male fertility; in 2005, she showed that male babies exposed to phthalates in the womb were born with smaller penises, less-descended testicles and physical characteristics associated with poorer semen quality. Her findings landed her on 60 Minutes and ended up “driving the legislation that removed phthalates from children’s toys,” says Swan.
Swan has also found that men with higher levels of phthalates in their blood are more likely to have thicker waists and insulin resistance, a strong predictor of type 2 diabetes. And a 2011 study published by other researchers at Mt. Sinai found that children who had been exposed to high levels of phthalates in the womb were more likely to show signs of behavioral impairment—attention problems, aggression and disruptive behavior—during their early school years.
The good news is that, as Rudel’s study suggests, phthalates do not stay in our bodies for long—we clear them within hours—and limiting them in our diets may significantly reduce our levels. Upon reading about her study, I, too, made a commitment to opt for fresh, unpackaged, minimally processed foods whenever possible—and not just for three days. Making this change wasn’t easy. I started buying celery and carrots at the farmers’ market instead of commercially wrapped at the grocery store and baking homemade granola bars instead of buying them. This not only made me feel good about reducing my exposure to phthalates—everything tasted better. Plus, I also loved knowing exactly where the food my family was eating was coming from.
Canned beans and diced tomatoes have long been staples in my pantry. (I cook a lot of Italian, Mexican and Indian dishes.) Unfortunately, to prevent corrosion, many tin cans are lined with a resin containing bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical similar in structure to the hormone estrogen. BPA easily detaches from the resin and can contaminate the food inside the can.
Dave Zuckerman, an organic farmer in Hinesburg, Vermont, is quite familiar with BPA: he recently found out he’s chock-full of it. In 2009, he participated in a study co-sponsored by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Vermont, a nonprofit committed to protecting Vermonters from toxic chemicals, and the River Network, a group of grassroots organizations dedicated to river protection. “I’m no saint when it comes to how I treat my body, but I do live an active life and eat well,” Zuckerman says. So he wasn’t expecting to learn that his blood level of BPA was six to eight times the national average of 1 nanogram per liter.
Zuckerman rarely eats canned food, but he blames plastic reusable bottles: he’d refill his 32-ounce bottles two to three times during his long days out in the field. While most water bottles sold today are made from BPA-free plastics, this wasn’t the case a few years ago when hard clear polycarbonate plastics often contained BPA. He has since switched to BPA-free metal bottles (and, again, many companies have transitioned to making bottles with BPA-free plastics and labeling them as such). Although he hasn’t been rechecked for BPA—his initial test was part of a study—he feels pretty confident that his levels have gone down. Nevertheless, “with so many environmental toxins it is hard to pinpoint where they are coming from,” he says.
The American Chemistry Council, the trade organization representing the plastics industry, maintains that BPA “poses no known risks to human health.” Nevertheless, a consensus statement published by 38 academic and EPA researchers in 2007 noted “a relationship between treatment with ‘low doses’ of BPA” and many negative health outcomes. (By “low doses,” they mean doses to which humans are regularly exposed—resulting in blood levels of about 1 nanogram of BPA per milliliter.) For instance, two studies published by researchers at the University of Exeter in England reported an association between higher everyday exposure to BPA and increased risk of heart disease. A study published in 2010 by researchers at Kaiser Permanente reported that the more BPA men have, the lower their sperm count and motility. And in 2009, researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill reported that children who were exposed to high levels of BPA in the womb were more likely to exhibit aggression and hyperactivity as 2-year-olds.
The FDA admitted back in January 2010 that it had “some concern” about the safety of BPA; still, it has not taken action to restrict use of the chemical—unlike Canada and the European Union, which banned the chemical from baby bottles in 2008 and 2011, respectively. But 10 states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin—have taken the matter into their own hands, passing legislation to ban BPA from baby products. As of June, California was advancing legislation to do the same. And it is possible to buy BPA-free canned foods: for instance, Eden Organics’ canned beans and all Kroger-brand canned foods are now BPA-free. I also discovered that Pomi, an Italian brand, sells diced and strained tomatoes in BPA-free cardboard boxes, so I now use those.
Truth is, nobody knows just how much of a risk toxins in our food really pose. In fact, organizations including the American Cancer Society have accused the President’s Cancer Panel report of being alarmist, estimating that only about 6 percent of cancers can be attributed to environmental exposures. It’s virtually impossible to prove that chemicals are causing the reported health effects, because we can’t intentionally expose people and see what happens. So most of the associations between exposures and disease are just that—associations. Plus, most research conducted today focuses on the effects of individual chemicals, but we’re exposed to dozens, if not hundreds, of chemicals at a time, 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. And we can’t control everything we put in our mouths anyway. When I’m at a party and suspect that the crudités are “conventional” and the hummus came from a BPA-lined can of chickpeas, I try my best to forget about my concerns and enjoy. As researcher Rudel says, “In the big scheme of things, these are probably small risks. You don’t want the fire department coming to rescue a kid’s lunch because a parent accidentally sent it in plastic [containers].” Ah, yes. The changes I made certainly have made my diet healthier, but it’s important to remember that a good healthy dose of perspective goes a long way toward keeping the threat of chemicals from poisoning our world. Sure, I’d like to be able to control every little aspect of my baby’s life. But I know that motherhood is sometimes about having the courage to take a deep breath and simply let things go.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and health writer in Brooklyn, New York, and an adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.