Take in the good—clear out the bad
It can be overwhelming to think about the potential toxins lurking in our environment. Take your average morning routine: you might dab on scented makeup, eat scrambled eggs cooked in a chemically coated nonstick pan, then bike to work through a heavy veil of car exhaust. Daily exposure to environmental toxins affects our health, but by taking some practical steps we can reduce our toxic load and support our bodies’ natural detoxification processes.
Environmental toxins are chemicals or other factors that may cause adverse health effects in the people exposed to them. These include naturally occurring compounds such as lead, mercury, benzene, and formaldehyde, as well as synthetic substances such as bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS), phthalates, triclosan, and pesticides. These can be overlapping categories, as some toxins can have natural sources but are also produced synthetically.
These toxins can be found in a range of cosmetic, cleaning, and household products—even on the thermal paper used to print receipts.
Common air pollutants include fine particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels, second-hand smoke, mold, and vapour from household products. Water pollution can occur as a result of agricultural runoff; clothing dye production; sewage and food processing waste; and contamination by lead, mercury, and other heavy metals and chemicals.
The precise health risks of environmental toxins depend on several factors, such as the type of toxin, the amount you’re exposed to, and how long and how often you’re exposed. However, many environmental toxins are carcinogenic and/or have been linked to other serious health issues such as obesity, asthma, and developmental delays.
Some environmental toxins, such as BPA, can act as endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic naturally occurring hormones. Exposure to endocrine disruptors has been linked to adverse effects on men’s and women’s reproductive health, as well as thyroid problems.
We can reduce the impact of environmental toxins on our health in two ways:
These two strategies work together to give our bodies a break from the flood of toxins, which in turn allows them to eliminate those we can’t avoid more efficiently.
Our bodies are designed to detoxify themselves. However, our systems often can’t keep up with the level of toxins we are being exposed to in the modern world, according to Dr. Laura Nicholas, ND.
“We’re essentially being bombarded by toxins,” Nicholas explains. “We often can’t flood our bodies with enough of the good stuff to push out the bad.”
Food is a powerful detoxification tool. According to Nicholas, cruciferous vegetables are great for detoxifying synthetic estrogens such as BPA. Antioxidants are also potent detoxifiers. Consider adding nutrient-packed organic blueberries and blackberries to your morning smoothie.
Despite the buzz around detoxification tools such as juice cleanses, Nicholas cautions against any regimen that deprives your body of the energy it actually needs. If you’re thinking about starting a detox, she recommends consulting a medical practitioner to come up with a holistic plan that works for you.
When it comes to minimizing your exposure to environmental toxins, Nicholas says to start with things that go in your body, such as food, water, and even certain menstrual products.
You can then move on to things that go on your body, including cosmetics, soaps, lotions, and household cleaning products (which often come into contact with our hands and feet). If encountering certain toxins is unavoidable; for example, due to home renovations or work on your car, Nicholas recommends minimizing your exposure by wearing gloves or a mask.
Finally, she says it’s important to be realistic about how many changes you can make at once, given it would be extremely costly—financially and emotionally—to go totally green in a single day. Instead, try making a commitment to choose a toxin-free product the next time one of your current products runs out.
There’s a close link between going toxin free and living more sustainably, says Leah Payne, a writer, editor, and sustainability blogger. “It’s important to take a wider perspective on the issue,” Payne says. “For example, palm oil is thought to be nontoxic, but its production threatens our environment.”
Payne recommends first looking for low-waste options such as shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion bars.
Not only are they better for the planet, but these bars also don't contain any water and, hence, don't typically need potentially toxic preservatives such as parabens. You can often make products such as household cleaners yourself by using simple ingredients like vinegar, plain soap, and baking soda.
"When shopping, remember that 'natural' does not inherently mean safe, in the same way that 'synthetic' does not inherently mean dangerous," says Payne. However, because companies don't have to put all their ingredients on product labels, it can be tricky to decipher what many products contain.
When slapped on a label, "natural" can refer to just one ingredient within an entire product. The same goes for the words plant-derived, green, and eco-friendly. Fragrance, a frequently used ingredient in personal care products, is a vague term ostensibly used to protect industry secrets that can conceal a cocktail of chemicals.
When it comes to food, look for products with a certified Canada Organic label. Non-food products aren't regulated in the same way, but some other certifications do exist.
Environmental toxicity can feel like an overwhelming issue, but it's important to remember that we all have a voice. If you're unhappy with what's in a product or its packaging, speak up!
Contacting companies by telephone is a great option if you want an immediate answer to your question or concern. Meanwhile, using email or social media allows you to keep a digital paper trail and mobilize others behind your cause.
Given many companies' reluctance to act, the burden of responsibility for better labelling and more bans also need to come from the top. "The government needs to have a much stronger voice in regulation systems," says Payne. "You shouldn't have to be a scientist or chemist to make healthy choices."
Right now, the push for change often comes from advocacy groups such as Environmental Defence. Consider signing their petitions, which pressure the government and industry to act against the use of certain chemicals.
Payne also recommends attending local political events, such as climate strikes, where you have a more direct line to policy makers. "When we think of the big issues - breathing in toxic pollution from forest fires or fossil fuels, for example - it's possible that a good climate action strategy will be the most powerful tool we have for reducing our exposure to environmental toxins."
The Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS) collects national-level data in two-year cycles on important indicators of Canadians' health status, including those related to environmental toxin exposure. In it's 2014-2015 cycle, for the first time the CHMS started monitoring parabens, a class of widely used preservatives in cosmetic and pharmaceutical product.
Super Supplements for Detoxification
A former alive editor, Isabela Vera is a hiking enthusiast, ocean lover, and dog mom from the West Coast now living in Berlin, Germany. You can find her on Instagram @isabelajvera.
This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title "Environmental Toxins."