I’ve been posting about detoxification for a while now, including how the body detoxes and what nutrients you need to keep your detoxification pathways humming. But the fact is, if we were to reduce the chemicals that we put into and on our bodies, then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about helping our bodies detox more effectively. I’ve touched on this briefly as it relates to food chemicals and superfoods, and really feel that you deserve a more in-depth look at where all these toxins come from so you can reduce your toxic burden from the source. After all…
Fewer toxins in means fewer toxins to get out.
So, let’s talk about the sources of the various toxins. (I promise all this talk about toxins in our environment is not a fad.) With this increased awareness, you can start making choices that are better for your health and that of your family. And without further ado, here they are:
1. Heavy Metals, including mercury, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum and lead
Although heavy metals are natural materials, as evidenced by their listing in the periodic table, they weren’t intended to be in the human body. Once they get in, they create oxidative stress by producing free radicals and damaging cell membranes, tissues and organs.
Sources of heavy metals include:
- Seafood, especially predatory and fish that live long lives like tuna, swordfish, shark, and orange roughy
- Amalgam (silver) fillings, especially if they are where your teeth meet during chewing or grinding or if you ever had a silver filling removed or replaced by someone who wasn’t trained in mercury contamination
- Vaccines (ethylmercury is a component of thimerosal, a preservative)
- Some industrial paints or paint in older homes (before lead-based paints were banned)
- Brightly colored plastics (often from China) and older plastic mini-blinds
- Some ceramic glazes
- Industrial batteries (ex: car batteries) and car radiators
- Air in industrial areas such as near coal-fired power plants
- Phosphate fertilizers
- Dust (depending on the environment in which it as generated)
- Soil (depending on what it was exposed to)
- Drinking water (especially in older homes with lead pipes; if your water has a slight yellow or brown tint when you fill up the bath, it may contain lead.)
Petrochemicals are environmental toxins that are produced from fossil fuels, such as petroleum, natural gas and coal. Their basic names include ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene, and xylene and may be referenced in their final form as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs).
Exposure to these chemicals can cause hypersensitivity reactions. This is when the immune system becomes overly reactive, not just to these toxins, but to other substances as well. Symptoms of immune hypersensitivity range from rashes to anaphylaxis.
Although it seems like fossil fuels have limited applications in our world, their reach is much, much farther than you probably think due to all the things produced from them. The following are some (probably not all!) sources of petrochemicals in our lives:
- Car, bus and truck exhaust
- Plastic (almost all of it… like polyethylene terephthalate [PETE] and high-density polyethylene [HDPE])
- Synthetic fabric such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, especially those that are treated to be stain-resistant and/or flame resistant (double or triple whammy)
- Dry cleaning chemicals
- Food additives, especially artificial colors
- Food, especially fish, butter and processed meats that contain PCBs
- Personal care products, including toluene (in nail polish), petroleum jelly / petrolatum / mineral oil, and propylene glycol (in lotion, conditioner, etc), etc, etc… seriously, petrochemicals are in tons of products that we put on our bodies
- Household cleaners
- Nonstick cookware
- Smoke from cigarettes, cigars, coal fires and wood fires
- Synthetic latex found in many products including gloves, balloons, bandages, erasers, teething rings, paint, condoms, sport racquet handles, baby bottles, etc.
- Synthetic rubber, even that used for tires and the soles of shoes
- Parrafin wax as found in crayons, candles and masks used for manis and pedis
- Fire extinguishing agents
- Varnishes, solvents and adhesives
3. Pesticides, insecticides, herbicides
This is a pretty broad category whose members include organophosphates (OPs), organochlorides (OCs), and glyphosate and can cause a bunch of different problems in our bodies. From interfering with protein metabolism to impacting neurobehavioral development to increased food allergies and sensitivities, these products are really jacking with us. (Some people believe it’s the glyphosate routinely sprayed on wheat at harvest that is causing the sharp rise in gluten sensitivity.)
In addition to their obvious use as so-called plant protectors which means they are in and on our food, other uses include:
- Additive in feed and water for food-producing animals including chickens and cows
- Flea treatment for pets
- Mosquito sprays
- Water chlorination
Xenoestrogens are synthetic chemicals that either act like estrogen in the body or change how our bodies respond to the estrogen that we produce. This hormonal effect is why these are considered endocrine disruptors. Some xenoestrogens fall into other categories as well, such as petrochemicals, but they are often considered a separate category of toxins because of the far reaching effects of endocrine disruptors.
The most powerful xenoestrogens include:
- Bisphenols including BPA, BPAF and BPS, which are plastics used in lots of products including:
- Food containers
- Water bottles
- Baby bottles
- Coffee cup lids
- Reusable cups
- The lining of many metal food cans
- Canning jar lids
- Some dental sealants
- Receipts and slick paper like luggage tags
- Phthalates, including DBP, DEP, DEHP, BzBP, and DMP, found in:
- Flexible plastics and vinyl used in kids’ toys, food packaging (it can leach into the food it contains!) and plastic wrap
- Cosmetics and personal care products, including (but definitely not limited to) perfume, hair spray, shampoo, powder and lotions
- Detergents and other household cleaners
- Plastic pipes
- Triclosan, an antimicrobial agent found in hand soap, deodorant, toothpaste and mouthwash
5. Food additives
There are a few other things that can be toxic to our bodies that don’t really fit into the categories above. These include:
- Mold (many people are sensitive to and have mold in their home, and don’t even realize it!)
- Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs), which develop in foods when exposed to high heat such as when searing a steak or toasting bread
- Gluten (read this post to understand why it is at least mildly problematic for everyone)
- Sugar (read this post to see how excessive amounts can have a toxic effect in the body)
- Radiation as from cell phones, wireless routers and medical imaging devices (I’m not saying radiation isn’t useful in some situations. However, it does have a negative impact in the body like other toxins, and, therefore, needs to be considered in this list.)
- Asbestos (not as big of a concern as it used to be, but may still be an issue if you live, work or go to school in an old building)
- Stress and negative thoughts (Constant stress, poor stress management and negative thoughts change how the body functions biochemically and can have some of the same effects as the other toxins listed.)
Note: You will also hear the term persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in reference to toxins which do not readily degrade and, therefore, persist in the environment. The term is more of an umbrella term to describe a property of some chemicals, rather than being a category of toxins. For example, POPs include PCBs (a petrochemical), aldrin (an insecticide) and DDT (a pesticide). Unfortunately, because of their properties, POPs biomagnify as animals higher up the food chain consume food lower on the food chain. That means humans are one of the beings where POPs are found in the greatest concentration. 🙁
Now that you know where many of the toxins in our lives come from, you can start making changes to reduce your toxic burden.
— Allen S. Topic #3: Introduction to Oxidative Stress and Detoxification. Webinar presented in IFMNT Mentor Training Series Level 1. 2015.
— American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. Petrochemicals. Accessed on June 27, 2106.
— Environmental Defense Fund. Mercury in seafood. Accessed on June 27, 2016.
— Environmental Working Group. Skin Deep. Accessed on June 27, 2016.
— Minich D. Toxins and Detoxification. Webinar presented in Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy Track 2. 2016.
— National Institutes of Health. Bisphenol A (BPA). In Health & Education > Environmental Health Topics > Environmental Agents. Last updated March 3, 2016. Accessed on June 27, 2016.
— National Institutes of Health. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs). In Chemicals. Last updated June 27, 2016. Accessed on June 27, 2016.
— National Institutes of Health. Phthalates. In Chemicals. Last updated June 27, 2016. Accessed on June 27, 2016.
— Storrs C. Fast food serves up phthalates, too, study suggests. In Health. April 18, 2016. Accessed on June 27, 2016.
— The Institute of Functional Medicine. Reducing Exposures to Harmful Chemicals. [Handout]
— Uribarri J, Woodruff S, Goodman S, Cai W, Chen X, Pyzik R, Yong A, Striker GE, Vlassara H. Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2010 Jun 30;110(6):911-6.
— World Health Organization. Chlorophenols in Drinking-water: Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality. 2003. Accessed on June 27, 2016.