Unfortunately, we live in a world with increasing micro-exposures to environmental toxins (ex. chemicals, additives, pesticides, plastics, and medications) that can cause harm to our health. They can be found in things like tap water, air pollution, furniture, food containers, conventional produce, water bottles, beauty/skincare products, and cleaning products among other things.
Some individuals are more frequently exposed or might be around larger amounts of these toxins (like a car mechanic around heavy metals or a farmer around pesticides) and others might be genetically less efficient at clearing these toxins.
Chronic exposure and bioaccumulation of environmental toxins can impact many aspects of our health, including:
Ultimately, it’s important to minimize exposure where we can, to help lower the burden on our bodies – then our detox organs should be able to take care of the rest!
How we cook and store food are two of the most obvious ways to reduce our exposure to microplastics, BPAs, and heavy metals. Most food at the grocery store and nearly all food deliveries come in plastic containers. Not to mention that those reusable food containers we have at home are also often made of plastic. Reusing these containers and running them through the dishwasher slowly wears them away and increases likelihood of microexposures to BPAs and plastics. I typically opt for glass or metal food containers when possible (and food grade silicone is also a better option). Not to mention that making the swap from plastic to glass or metal is much better for then environment, and will last you much longer!
The same guidance goes for plastic water bottles. Rather than drinking out of single use water bottles, try a glass or metal reusable water bottle (and fill it up with filtered water). Not only is the much better for your health, but also for the environment – and it puts some $$ back in your pocket!
When it comes to cookware, studies have found that the chemicals that make pots and pans “non-stick” often leech into food high heat, physical wear, and washing over time. For my own home, I choose stainless steel, glass, or ceramic cookware.
Many ingredients in our personal care products – cosmetics, makeup, skincare, shampoo/conditioner, toothpaste, sunscreens, etc. – have been linked to cancer, reproductive harm, and allergies. Contrary to popular belief, the FDA does not require safety testing on most ingredients in these products and many of them have actually been banned in other countries including Europe.
Some particularly common ingredients include: formaldehyde, methylene glycol, heavy metals like mercury and lead, quaternium 15, parabens, PFAS, phthalates, M- and O-phenylenediamine, and “fragrance.”
When we put a product on our skin, it is then absorbed through the dermal layers and into the body. So, even though we’re not exactly eating these products, they are making their way into our bodies. Fortunately, there are so many amazing companies today making great non-toxic and “clean” personal care products! Check products for any of the above ingredients, and check your products against the EWG.org Skin Deep Database.
Similarly to our personal care products, cleaning products are another area where we can significantly reduce environmental toxin exposures. Cleaning products span anywhere from multi-purpose sprays, to dish detergent, laundry detergent, and air fresheners. While some people opt to make their own cleaning products using things like distilled white vinegar and baking soda, there are so many great non-toxic products out there!
Staying well hydrated is critical to our health and something we do every single day! So, ensuring our water is clean should be super important. While drinking tap water will reduce BPA exposure from plastic water bottles, it’s not always better. Quality of tap water varies greatly by location. Filtering water is a simple way to reduce unintentional exposures to pollutants like heavy metals, pesticides, antibiotics, and PFAS. There are several ways to find out the quality of your tap water including through the EPA and EWG.
As a dietitian, this is the topic of environmental toxins that comes up most often. Minimally processed foods – as close to their natural form as possible – are inherently better for us. They are highest in nutritional value and easiest to digest and absorb nutrients from. The further a food gets from its natural form, the more likely it is that we are going to find food additives, colorings, and preservatives that may or may not be harmful to our health. This is another scenario in which many food additives are approved for use in the United States but banned in other countries including Europe.
In addition to additives in highly processed foods, unfortunately, most conventionally farmed (non-organic) crops in the US are sprayed with pesticide chemicals that have been directly linked to cancer. While we cannot be in control of exactly how our food was grown for every meal, I do recommend aiming to choose organic ingredients when possible. An excellent resource is the EWG “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” guides, which are put out every assessing the most and least pesticide-containing conventional foods in the US.
The term “fragrance” on a label can mean a variety of different things and the formulation can vary by company. However, many fragrances are made with phthalates, which are a known endocrine disruptors (meaning it messes with our hormone production). I usually recommend opting for fragrance-free lotions, detergents, perfumes, candles, and products. Many products now use essential oils to add a nice smell rather than synthetic fragrances. Rather than trying to cover up bad smells, try keeping spaces clean and take out the trash often (rather than using scented garbage bags, for example).
Maintaining a clean space free of dust and dirt is one of the best ways to ensure clean air. Dust particles often contain plastics and flame retardants from furniture, which are linked to endocrine disruption and cancers. While it’s unrealistic to furnish a home without any of these chemicals, by cleaning and vacuuming often (with a HEPA filter vacuum), we can help keep our space and air clean.
For smaller spaces and apartments, air purifiers can be a worthwhile investment. And contrary to popular belief, the air outside your home is probably cleaner than inside – so open those windows!
Morgan Goodstadt, MS, RD, CDN, LDN, IFNCP
Registered Dietitian, Master’s in Clinical Nutrition, Certified Integrative and Functional Nutritionist and Health Coach. Morgan combines her expertise in nutrition with evidenced-based functional medicine and experience in human behavior to help her clients improve their health, relationship with food, and overall wellbeing. Her philosophy aims to achieve balance in both the diet and other areas of life.
The term “detox” has been exploited as a way to sell diet programs. But is there some truth to it? Do we need to “detox”? The answer, as I typically say with nutrition, is that it depends.