It’s What You Don’t Do That Counts

The most important thing you can do for your health is the things you don’t do. By this I mean, while eating a whole foods diet if the food you are eating is pesticide laden and you are cooking it a Teflon pan or reheating in BPA plastic containers in the microwave. Or perhaps you are active every day but most of your activity is walking alongside a heavily trafficked road or you live by a coal plant.

chemicalsJust a few generations ago, we lived in a world where most of our material needs were met by extracting resources from the natural environment. But things are very different today; we live in a world where nearly everything we touch is derived (at least in part) from chemical compounds. In fact, their pervasive presence in our daily lives has prompted science to study what is commonly referred to as our chemical body burden–the total amount of residue from chemicals that are either stored in or passing through our bodies.

While this might seem shocking, it is realistic. Let’s consider the following the following scenario:

A woman wakes up each morning on a mattress coated with flame-retardant chemicals (like bromine) that emits a formaldehyde gas which her body has been absorbing all night. Walking barefoot toward the bathroom on synthetic carpet, her skin absorbs benzene, styrene, and several other cancer-causing chemicals used to manufacture it. Once in the bathroom, she splashes tap water laced with fluoride and chlorine (both carcinogens), opens a mouthwash, and gargles with a half dozen chemical-based flavoring and coloring agents. She picks up her name-brand toothpaste, full of all kinds of toxic ingredients like titanium dioxide, aspartame, and artificial coloring, uses it then raises her arms to apply a best-selling deodorant that contains seven chemicals, including aluminum, parabens (a hormone-disrupting preservative), propylene glycol (a lubricant and suspected cancer agent), phthalates (shown to cause both cancer and infertility), and ten different chemicals disguised under the name “fragrance.”

Chances are, she needs to take a few prescriptions which are washed down with water from a plastic bottle (ingesting another dose of phthalates). By this time, she needs to use the toilet, flushing the remnants of those medications back into the tap water supply for others to unwittingly drink. Municipal water sources do not test or filter for medications in tap water.

Back in the bedroom, she puts on clothes fresh from the dry cleaner rife with fumes and residues of trichloroethylene and n-hexane, chemicals known to cause nerve cell damage, memory loss, cardiac abnormalities, and cancer. If her clothing is made of synthetic fibers, she’s getting a double dose of plasticizer fumes by breathing them in and absorbing them through her skin.

In the kitchen, she pours herself a quick bowl of cereal that contains genetically-modified corn or soy, high fructose corn syrup (which contains heavy metals) and a dozen synthetic food additives. Before heading out the door, she grabs her lunch–a sandwich with luncheon meat that contains nitrates, synthetic hormones, and antibiotics kept fresh in plastic wrap which contains vinyl chloride–one of the deadliest chemicals there is. It’s barely into the first hour of her day and she hasn’t even made it to work where there will be dozens (if not hundreds) of other toxic chemicals to contend with.

She closes the door to her home hoping that the medications she took this morning will kick in; her mood swings, headaches, and inability to concentrate have been getting a lot worse lately.
While it’s tempting to characterize chemicals as evil, many were at least intended to fulfill some positive purpose. Even DDT, the archvillain of Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic book Silent Spring, which launched the modern environmental movement, was once hailed as a miracle because it killed the mosquitoes that carry yellow fever and malaria.

It’s also tempting to discredit the impact toxic chemicals have on our collective health because many health statistics have actually been improving over the past few decades, despite the massive number of new chemical compounds being introduced into the environment (and into our bodies) with each passing year.

chemicalsAccording to the Environmental Working Group (www.EWG.org), women use an average of 12 personal care products containing 168 different chemicals every day. Over the past fifteen years, more than 10,000 Americans have had their blood tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in an attempt to determine their “chemical body burden.” The results of the CDC study were stunning: even those who lived in remote areas were found to have hundreds of synthetic chemicals in their bloodstream. More disturbingly, this chemical exposure begins even before we take our first breath— an astounding 287 chemical toxins have been detected within the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

And to make things even worse, part is that very few of them have ever been tested or proven safe for human use.

Each year the Environmental Protection Agency reviews an average of 1,700 new chemical compounds that a wide variety of industries seek to introduce. About 90 percent of them are approved without restrictions or a review thanks to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act which requires some proof of a chemical’s potential toxicity before it mandates testing. Only a quarter of the 84,000 chemicals–including the majority of those used in shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, lotions, perfumes, and cosmetics–currently used in the U.S. have ever been tested for toxicity.

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (www.FIGO.org) and the Endocrine Society (www.Endocrine.org), the world’s oldest and largest organization devoted to researching hormones have expressed concerns that the, “Widespread exposure to toxic environmental chemicals threaten long-term healthy human reproduction.”  The facts are that men’s sperm have been decreasing in number and getting worse at swimming for some time now—and new research says it’s getting worse. And the scary facts are sperm concentration in men are down 50% over the past 40 years.

And other illnesses, however, are rising mysteriously. From the early 1980s through the late 1990s, autism increased tenfold; from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, male birth defects doubled, and childhood brain cancer rose 40 percent. Breast cancer rates have gone up more than 30 percent (in both men and women) since 1975. Rates of asthma have increased by 80 percent and ADHD by 53 percent in the last 45 years.  

Many health experts suspect a link to the man-made chemicals that have become prevalent in our food, water, and air. And some attribute the lack of available information about the relationship between chemicals and disease to the political influence of the $770 billion chemical industry. Dow, Exxon, and other major firms spend millions each year lobbying Washington for favorable legislation and funding the campaigns of industry-friendly representatives. Still, the fact remains that over the years, one “safe, harmless” chemical after another has turned out to be just the opposite–once the facts were in.

We live in a toxic world. There is no denying or escaping it. And while its next to impossible to do anything about eliminating all the toxins we’re exposed, we can make choices that reduce or minimize our exposure to many. It’s a process that requires changing some habits and doing few things differently. And one that demands an ongoing cost-versus-benefit analysis. Is it worth spending more on organic produce or saving what might add up to several dollars by buying the same fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides?

And while you should actively focus on eliminating as many of these toxins as you can reasonably remove from your life, using nutrients such as milk thistle, turmeric and bentonite to support liver and gastrointestinal function can help lessen your body burden.