Living Healthy in a Toxic Environment — Part I: Recognizing the Problem

Living Healthy in a Toxic Environment — Part I: Recognizing the Problem

The Industrial Revolution and the Information Age have been periods of enormous progress in terms of technology and prosperity. In some ways, this progress has improved our health, leading to advances in preventing and treating infection, diagnosing and curing acute illness, repairing injuries, and gaining a clearer understanding of genetics. Unfortunately, here at Restoration Healthcare — Southern California’s data-driven integrative and functional medicine practice that partners with patients to discover and treat root malfunctions that lead to chronic illness — we often see that this progress has come at a price (we now live in highly toxic environments… unnatural environments that make us sick).

Toxic Environment Image

Although we cannot reconfigure our DNA to adapt to our toxic environment, we can take two steps to live healthier and function more effectively:

1) Reduce exposure to toxins

2) Improve the body’s natural ability to filter and eliminate toxins

In this series, we call attention to the many toxins in our environment and then discuss action steps to reduce your exposure to these toxins and improve your body’s ability to effectively detoxify the rest.

Recognizing the Problem

Imagine yourself a goldfish, living on stale breadcrumbs in unchanged, unfiltered water. Now imagine someone tossing in a few drops of a common pesticide, a capful of household cleaner, some shampoo and conditioner, a couple aspirin, a dash of growth hormone, and so on. Instead of basking in sunlight, you live mostly in the dark or under the glare of fluorescent lighting and are bombarded by radiation from TVs, microwave ovens, cell phones, and other household sources. Given these conditions, you would probably live sick and die young.

While you are certainly no goldfish, your body suffers from a similar toxic assault. Everything from the air you breathe to the food you eat, the water you drink, the clothes you wear, the house in which you live, and the furniture on which you sit contains toxins. To give you some idea of just how polluted your environment is likely to be, the following sections explore the most common sources of toxins broken down by category.

Indoor Air Pollution

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We take breathing for granted, and a healthy body does an amazing job of filtering and neutralizing airborne particles and pathogens (think: bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing microorganisms). It can deal effectively with small doses of airborne toxins. However, given the numerous sources of air pollution in today’s world, the body can be quickly overwhelmed.

Depending on where and how you live, your indoor air is likely to be two to five times more polluted than the air outside and may even be worse. Sources of indoor air pollution include the following:

  • Tobacco: The most obvious and avoidable indoor air pollutant is smoke from cigarettes and cigars. It is a leading cause of cancer, heart attack, and stroke; it worsens allergies and asthma; and it contributes to a host of other illnesses. And while the research isn’t in on the safety associated with ‘vape’ smoking, you may soon be able to add that to the list, too.
  • Cooking oil: When cooking oil is heated to the point at which it smokes, it produces acrolein, a chemical that can be very irritating to the eyes, nose, throat, lungs, stomach, and skin. In fact, acrolein is one of the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke.
  • Non-stick pans: You can reduce your use of cooking oil by using non-stick pans, but the coatings used on those pans can emit harmful chemicals, especially when they are overheated. Some pans advertised as safe for humans contain warnings not to use the pans if you have pet birds in your house! And to think, in the old days, miners used canaries as an early warning for fatal fumes.
  • Building materials: Many building materials, including plywood, particleboard, foam insulation, and adhesives emit formaldehyde (a chemical used in the embalming process). Formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system and may cause nausea. Newly built and mobile homes are more likely to have higher levels of formaldehyde in the air. In older homes, asbestos from insulation, duct tape, and other materials also poses a potential hazard, as does lead-based paint.
  • Furniture: Furniture is made of many similar materials used to build homes, including particleboard, making it another source of formaldehyde. In addition, materials often contain flame-retardants, some of which are known or suspected to cause cancer. Newer furniture can pose a higher risk due to off-gassing — releasing chemicals into the air, resulting in that new furniture or new mattress smell.
  • Fireplaces and wood stoves: With a properly vented fireplace or woodstove, most of the harmful particles and gases, including carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, go up the chimney to become outdoor air pollution. However, small amounts often escape into the house, adding to the home’s toxic air.
  • Gas ranges: Unvented or poorly vented gas ranges may produce nitrogen dioxide, which can contribute to respiratory problems. The problem becomes worse when a gas range is used as a source of heat.
  • Beauty products: Hair spray, nail polish, nail polish remover, spray-on deodorant, and other beauty and personal hygiene products often contain chemicals that escape into the air, and they all have the potential to negatively impact your health.
  • Household products: Household products include cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, air fresheners, paints, paint strippers, adhesives, and solvents, all of which release harmful chemicals into the air. Many of these products come with warnings to use them outside or in a well-ventilated area, but many of us do not take the time to read the label — or we choose to disregard the warnings.
  • Biological agents and allergens: Bacteria, viruses, and fungi (including mold) can grow wherever the temperature, humidity, and light (or darkness) allow them to. Mold is common in bathrooms, basements, and kitchens, but it can also grow inside walls, beneath floors, and in and around carpeting. Many molds can produce toxins that become airborne and may trigger or contribute to a host of illnesses. Allergens from cats, dogs, dust mites, and other critters also become airborne, contributing to allergies and asthma.
  • Radon gas: Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States according to the National Cancer Institute. It seeps into homes through any cracks or gaps in the foundation, fireplaces and furnaces, exterior air vents, and even through water. It is a dense gas that can build up in a home, especially if the home is well sealed.

Outdoor Air Pollution

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After you come to recognize all the sources of indoor air pollution, you may want to step outside for a breath of fresh air. Not so fast! Even here in Southern California, the outdoor air may be just as or even more polluted. Trains, planes, automobiles, buses, trucks, factories, dry cleaners, and numerous other products of progress continuously pump toxins into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets air quality standards for the following six common air pollutants:

  • Carbon monoxide: Automobiles are the biggest producers of carbon monoxide in cities like those scattered across Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego counties, but other sources include manufacturing plants, wildfires, fire places, wood burning stoves, space heaters, and cigarettes. Because blood cells latch on to carbon monoxide molecules more easily than oxygen molecules, breathing carbon monoxide reduces the oxygen supplied to tissues and organs, including the brain and can result in death.
  • Ozone: The Ozone Layer — a cloud of ozone ten to 30 miles above earth’s surface that protects the surface from the sun’s harmful radiation — is a good thing. Ozone at ground level, however, is harmful. It can irritate the respiratory system, causing coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath; aggravate asthma; increase susceptibility to bronchitis and pneumonia; and even cause permanent lung damage. And here in So. Calif., municipalities are adopting stricter health standards for ozone, the lung-damaging component of our persistent smog.
  • Sulfur dioxide: When fossil fuels burn, they produce sulfur dioxide, which irritates the respiratory system, causing coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Industries that burn coal or oil are major contributors of sulfur dioxide. Combined with nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide produces acid rain, which can damage forests and crops and harm wildlife in lakes and streams.
  • Nitrogen dioxide: The reddish brown smog that forms over our urban areas at times can be attributed to nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of fuels burned by vehicles, power plants, and various industrial plants. Like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide irritates the respiratory system. When mixed with other organic chemicals, it can create toxins that trigger genetic mutations.
  • Lead: Due to the discontinued use of lead-based gasoline, airborne lead is less of a concern than it once was, but certain metals-processing facilities continue to release lead into the atmosphere. However it is ingested, lead can cause damage to the kidneys, liver, brain, nerves, and organs and cause various neurological disorders (including seizures), memory problems, mood disorders, as well as behavioral and learning problems.
  • Particulates: Particulates are microscopic particles (solid or liquid) suspended in the air. Think hair spray, air freshener, and smoke. Sources of particulates include vehicles and industrial plants that burn nearly any type of fuel — coal, oil, gas, wood, and so on. Construction sites, unpaved roads, and various farming practices can also send dust, dirt, and other particles into the air (the same air we breathe when we go for our daily or weekend jog). Particulates are a primary cause of respiratory irritation resulting in asthma attacks, difficulty breathing, and chronic bronchitis.

Outside air can even be polluted if you live in the country. Damp leaves that serve as a breeding ground for fungi can carpet the forest floor. Farm equipment can kick up dust from fields, which may contain herbicides, pesticides, and other toxins. Your neighbors upwind may burn wood to heat their home in the winter or burn their leaves in the autumn. And pollen can overwhelm an already overtaxed immune system.

Water Pollution

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Because we drink water from a tap or a bottle, we generally consider it safe and healthy, but that is not always the case. Even a municipal water supply can become tainted. The tragedy in Flint, Michigan, where over 100,000 residents were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, is only one extreme example. A 2016 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found alarming levels of chromium-6 (the carcinogenic made infamous in the movie “Erin Brockovich”) in the drinking water of nearly 200 million Americans in all 50 states. Even clean municipal water can be unhealthy, because municipalities add chemicals to the water, such as chlorine and fluoride.

Well water is also susceptible to contamination. Run-off pollutants, including bacteria, lead, copper, and household wastes can seep into groundwater and make their way into a well. Because the EPA does not monitor the quality of well water, you may accidentally be drinking contaminated water.As for bottled water, while it is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), independent lab testing performed by the EWG found 38 contaminants in 10 popular brands. Water in plastic containers may also contain bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that can cause structural damage to the brain (particularly in fetuses, infants, and young children), behavioral issues, increased risk of obesity, altered immune function, abnormal sexual behavior, early puberty, increased prostate size and decrease sperm production, and stimulation of cancer cells in the prostate.

Chemicals in Clothing

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When you dress in the morning, it probably never occurs to you that your clothes may be killing you. After all, who would suspect that thousands of chemicals are used in the manufacturing and cleaning of clothes, as revealed in a 2015 study from Stockholm University. Some of these chemicals are known to increase the risk of allergic dermatitis; others are proven carcinogens; and some carry the risk of causing aquatic toxicity.

While some of these chemicals are removed or reduced as clothes are cleaned, the chemicals used to clean clothes and make them smell fresh are also harmful. Dry cleaning products and dryer sheets are particularly bad. Dry cleaners commonly use perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene, which can continue to off-gas after clothes are brought inside or worn. Although dryer sheets typically list their ingredients as “cationic and nonionic softeners,” they contain numerous chemicals known to contribute to dysfunction and disease of the nervous system, including:

  • Alpha Terpineol
  • Benzyl Alcohol
  • Camphor
  • Chloroform
  • Ethyl Acetate
  • Linalool
  • Pentane

Chemicals in Cosmetics and Personal Hygiene Products

While we all want to be clean, beautiful, and aromatic, the products most of us use on a daily basis to stay that way are loaded with toxins, including the following:

  • Dioxane: Many shampoos, body washes, and lotions contain dioxane to make other harsh chemicals milder, but this chemical is known to be toxic to the kidneys, to the neurological and respiratory systems.
  • Parabens: An ingredient in many deodorants, shampoos, conditioners, sun tan lotions, and cosmetics, parabens are potent endocrine disruptors, which can mimic the hormone estrogen.
  • Methylisothiazolinone (MIT): Used as an antibacterial agent in some shampoos, MIT negatively affects the brain and nervous system and is allergenic and cytotoxic (harmful to living cells).
  • Toluene: This is a chemical that occurs naturally in crude oil and tolu trees and is commonly used in synthetic fragrances, such as perfumes. Toluene is a neurotoxin that irritates the respiratory system, impairs breathing, and causes nausea. Chronic exposure is linked to anemia, lower blood cell count, liver and kidney damage, fetal development problems, immune system toxicity, and blood cancers, such as malignant lymphoma.
  • Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent commonly found in antibacterial soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, and body washes. It is linked to heart disease, impaired muscle function, and altered hormone regulation.
  • Sodium and Ammonium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfates: These chemicals, which are listed by various names, including sodium dodecyl sulfate, monododecyl ester, and aquarex methyl, are linked to skin and eye irritation, endocrine disruption, biochemical or cellular changes or mutations, organ toxicity, and neurotoxicity. They can be found in hair coloring and bleaching products, scalp treatments, make-up foundation, shampoo, toothpaste, liquid hand soaps, detergents, bath oils, and so on.
  • Propylene Glycol: Commonly found in fragrant oils, cosmetic moisturizers, and shampoos, propylene glycol is an organic alcohol. It is a known skin irritant that can cause allergic dermatitis and contact urticaria (hives). It may also inhibit cell growth and cause kidney and liver problems.

You may find this list of chemicals, organized by category, overwhelming, but that is the point. Every day, we are awash in toxic chemicals that assault our bodies. Even if you do not use many of the products mentioned here, when other people use them, these toxic chemicals escape into our air and water.

How do you protect yourself and your family?

Throughout this series, we provide suggestions and tips on how to avoid the most common and potentially harmful environmental toxins and how to support your body’s natural ability to eliminate them. The first step is to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins. For guidance, see Part II of this series, “Living Healthy in a Toxic Environment — Part II: Reducing Your Exposure to Environmental Toxins” (scheduled to publish this Thurs., Feb. 16, 2017).