It's time for a spring cleanse! Bruce Lourie, co-author of Toxin Toxout, offers advice on how to remove toxins and chemicals from our bodies and homes.
Earth, air, water, food—we’re surrounded by sources of potential toxins. Indeed, tests conducted by Canadian watchdog group Environmental Defence since 2006 indicate that our bodies are storing unhealthy levels of chemicals, including pesticides, flame retardants, lead, and stain repellents.
The good news: never before has there been such awareness and information available to help us make better choices and to support companies that deserve our dollars.
That’s one of the key messages in Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our World (Knopf Canada, 2013), co-authored by Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith. While their first book, the international best-seller Slow Death by Rubber Duck (2009), focused on the problems and sources of toxic pollution, “this book is a direct answer to how you can avoid these chemicals and get them out of your body,” says Lourie in a phone interview.
Every attempt to reduce toxin exposure is beneficial, says Lourie. He uses the term “detox lifestyle.” “You really need to shift your thinking. Because you’re being exposed to chemicals every day, ask yourself, ‘What am I doing to help my body eliminate chemicals every day?’”
Here are a few simple strategies to help you do just that.
Clean out your kitchen
The kitchen is the best place to start the transition. Stock your pantry with nutrient-dense whole foods. If you have to buy packaged goods, become an avid label reader and start a list of your favourite go-to brands.
If you want to avoid genetically modified foods, artificial colours, additives, flavours, and pesticides, organics are your best bet. And you wouldn’t be alone in your choice. Canada’s booming organic market has reached $3.5 billion.
A recent CBC report confirmed previous studies that organic products have significantly lower pesticide residues. Conventionally grown produce is considerably more likely to contain pesticide residues, and in this study, conventional foods tested above the maximum allowed levels of residues 2.5 times more often than organic.
One of the recommendations in their book Toxin Toxout, says Lourie, is to eat organic as often as possible. They conducted an original experiment with nine children who ate conventionally grown foods for four days, then switched to organic for four days, and then back again. Testing the pesticide levels in the children’s urine revealed a very rapid drop during the organic days, which doubled again once the children went back to eating conventionally.
“It was a dramatic demonstration that if you’re eating organically, you’re avoiding chemicals going into the body,” said Lourie.
Look under the bathroom sink
Cleaning supplies are another common source of toxic chemicals, including lung irritants, formaldehyde and other known carcinogens, antibacterial products that can lead to antibiotic resistance, and chemicals that can trigger allergies and asthma. Thankfully, there are many resources to help you make healthier choices.
- Let the Guide to Less Toxic Products do just that—guide you. Produced by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, lesstoxicguide.ca lists safer alternatives for every budget.
- US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) has produced its own Guide to Healthy Cleaning, ranking more than 2,000 household cleaners. ewg.org/guides/cleaners
- Independent product reviews are another good way to research a product or company. Founded in 2007 by a professor of environmental and labour policy at the University of California at Berkeley, GoodGuide rates consumer products based on their health, environmental, and social impacts. goodguide.com
Review your toiletries
The average Canadian uses nearly 15 personal care products containing more than 100 toxic ingredients, according to Environmental Defence, a watchdog group that draws attention to poorly regulated consumer products and our unknowing exposure to harmful ingredients.
Take parabens, for instance. They’re the most commonly used preservative in items such as shampoo, toothpaste, moisturizer, and deodorant, and they are absorbed through the skin. These estrogen-mimickers are thought to lead to increased breast cancer risk and affect the male reproductive functions.
To avoid them, look for “paraben-free” on the label, or for ingredients ending with “paraben” (such as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben). Unfortunately, parabens are often hidden in perfumes and are unlisted due to trade secrecy, so err on the side of caution and avoid products containing “fragrance,” “perfume,” or “parfum” unless the label states “paraben-free.”
As for the rest of your cosmetics bag, check out EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (ewg.org/skindeep) to learn which products—everything from moisturizers to mascaras—contain fewer toxins.
Make a shift in your sheets and shirts
When you’re on the hunt for anything made from fabric—be it a new sheet set, mattress, sofa, or shirt—avoid those with pretreatment options including flame retardants, stain repellents, or wrinkle resistance. Say “yes” to 100 percent: unbleached organic cotton, hemp, linen, or wool.
These fibres are not only nontoxic, but also ecologically better. They’re renewable resources, and at the end of their life cycle they’re 100 percent biodegradable.
Conventional dry cleaning uses tetrachloroethylene (also known as “perc”), a carcinogenic solvent, so try to avoid buying clothes that are “dry clean only.” Or if you dare, do an online search to see if you can wash “dry clean only” clothes at home—sometimes it’s possible to clean them gently by hand.
Taking positive steps
To some people, the issue of toxic exposure could feel a little overwhelming, but as Lourie points out, “It all starts with consumer awareness. There’s only so much we can do as consumers, and we need to start exerting our power.”
When their first book was released in 2009, Lourie says that barely anybody knew about bisphenol A (BPA; see “Common chemicals to watch out for” sidebar for more details), and now companies and governments are taking BPA toxicity more seriously, largely in response to consumer pressure. “I’m quite encouraged by the pace of change in the last few years,” he says.
As for stressing out at the thought of change, rid yourself of these psychic toxins with your favourite relaxation technique—yoga, meditation, journalling, or soaking in a hot bath complete with a soy or beeswax candle and your personal copy of Toxin Toxout.
The book also investigates various detoxification methods, including sauna therapy and chelation therapy. “It’s important to maximize all the ways to detox naturally,” says Lourie. “Your body is a system with its own detox mechanisms.”
Ready to detoxify?
Here are a few handy resources for your less toxic lifestyle.
- EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database rates more than 74,000 products for safety. Research which brands are safest for you and your family at ewg.org/skindeep.
- The Organic Pages by the Organic Trade Association is a quick way to find certified organic products, services, producers, and ingredients. theorganicpages.com
- Women’s Voices for the Earth Non-Toxic Shopping Guide includes tips and resources for finding safer products, and highlights experts on fitness, cosmetics, organic baby goods, and greening your lifestyle. womensvoices.org
- Environmental Defence (environmentaldefence.ca) has numerous PDF shopping guides to download. Sign up for its Toxic Nation E-News at toxicnation.ca.
Did you know?
Extra chemical caution for mom and baby
Pregnant women and children are considered especially vulnerable to toxins. As children eat, drink, and breathe more per unit of body weight compared to adults, they potentially absorb higher levels of toxins relative to their body size. Exposure to toxins during key developmental stages—including in the womb—can cause long-term health problems.
Common chemicals to watch out for
Here are some chemicals found in many common products. Keep in mind that some chemicals can fall into more than one group (for instance, a chemical can be both a hormone disruptor and reproductive toxicant).
Hormone disruptors are chemicals that cause adverse health effects due to interference with our hormonal systems, such as reproductive, developmental, and behavioural problems.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a pervasive hormone disruptor found in hard, clear plastic goods, plastic bottles, the lining of food cans, and a coating on thermal paper (receipts). Choose BPA-free plastics or use glass or stainless steel reusable drink bottles rather than hard plastic varieties. Buy fresh, frozen, or glass-contained fruits and vegetables over canned varieties, or look for “BPA-free” on the label—and say no to your receipt when possible.
Carcinogens are substances that cause or aggravate cancer.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are two examples of possible human carcinogens. They’re synthetic preservatives in lipstick, eye shadow, moisturizers, and other personal products. Put your label reading to good use and avoid these toxic partners.
Reproductive and developmental toxicants
Reproductive toxicants can affect the sexual organs and function, behaviour, fertility, and pregnancy factors such as gestation time and outcome. Developmental toxicants can adversely affect development of a growing child, including birth defects.
Phthalates are an example of a developmental toxicant, according to animal research. While consumer awareness has encouraged companies to go “phthalate-free” and label products as such, phthalates can still be found in some cosmetics and toiletries, especially fragranced and nail products.
Organic, one food at a time
The EWG has released its latest “Dirty Dozen Plus” list of fruits and vegetables. These fresh produce are the most contaminated with pesticides, according to testing, and are the best to buy organically when possible.
- cherry tomatoes
- hot peppers
- kale/collard greens
- nectarines, imported
- sweet bell peppers
- summer squash