Updated: Feb 14
A few months ago, I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Peshtigo sits on the shores of Green Bay and next to a company that trained firefighters to put out fires with a special foam.
Unfortunately, that foam leaked into the groundwater, and thus into the private wells of homes miles away, as well as into creeks that flow into the bay, as WSJ reported. The foam contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS.
As the Journal reports:
PFAS also are used in consumer products—from fast-food wrappers to carpeting and cosmetics—and have been linked to health problems including kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.
The article got me thinking about environmental toxins in general. They are one of the things I screen for in my patients at Dignity Integrative because exposure to environmental toxins can be a clue to help unlock the root causes of many chronic diseases—not just cancers.
How prevalent are environmental toxins?
Unfortunately, living in the modern era it is almost inevitable that we will be exposed to environmental toxins. They are, quite literally, everywhere. Even in the fine dust inside your home, tracked in from the shoes you wear (taking your shoes off when you come is more than just a courtesy!).
The EPA has estimated that there are nearly 90,000 chemicals currently being manufactured, processed, or imported in the U.S. Of those, nearly half (47%) are actually in commercial use. Almost none of these chemicals have been tested on humans. Meanwhile, we produce approximately 1,000 brand-new chemicals each year. This means it’s virtually impossible to determine what the long-term effects on people might be.
Still, the scientific studies which are available point to some worrying consequences.
Why are environmental toxins important?
There are at least a thousand chemicals we know of that have been described as endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs. These EDCs disrupt your body’s endocrine system, i.e., the organs and glands which regulate your hormones. For women, these include the ovaries and uterus, and for men, the testes and the prostate. And for both sexes, it includes the thyroid hormone.
EDCs act in several ways to cause havoc. One of those ways is by mimicking your hormones and attaching to receptors in your body which control your natural hormone release and effects. For example, acting like estrogen which can over time triggers the development of breast tumors. Conversely, they can act in the reverse as an anti-estrogen impacting fertility.
When toxins disrupt how your body releases hormones over time, it can, of course, have long-term impacts on your health. One of those effects is thought to be toxins which lead to puberty beginning earlier and earlier. In the early 1900s, for example, women went into puberty at about 16 or 17 years of age. In the 1990s, about 5% of girls under the age of eight years old began what is called “precocious puberty.” By the 2020s, that number had jumped to 15%.
As the NY Times reported earlier this year in an extensive article on the trend, going through puberty that early is associated with higher rates of breast and uterine cancer in adulthood, as well as a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
There are a few potential culprits for the trend, including obesity, stress, and lifestyle factors. But exposure to chemicals is one of the leading theories, with studies such as this one, published last month, which show an association between early puberty and the levels of prenatal and postnatal endocrine disruptors in the blood.
Ways to protect ourselves
While it’s impossible to prevent all exposure to toxins, there are some things we can do in our homes to minimize it, starting with our food.
Cook at lower temperatures
Cooking meats on the grill especially can cause heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are carcinogenic. Meat and fish which have been blackened are likely to contain these. If you must cook on the grill, cook your food in seasoning which lessens HCA development. Or, bake or boil instead!
Cut out the plastic containers
Most of our Tupperware contains plastics with harmful chemicals. Of course, the manufacturers will say there is no way these chemicals could mix with the food we routinely store inside them, but to be safe I definitely recommend ditching the plastic for glass containers. The same goes for plastic water bottles (switch to glass or metal) and for the food you buy at the grocery store: avoid plastic packaging if you can. And never, ever microwave your food inside a plastic container.
Avoid non-stick coatings on your pans
These non-stick coatings contain plenty of environmental toxins, which will get into your food when you use them to cook. Instead, use stainless steel, glass-coated pans, or good old-fashioned cast iron.
Check out the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit research organization that maintains a list of foods that are most likely or least likely to contain harmful chemicals in the U.S. They are an essential resource for consumers looking to minimize their exposure to environmental toxins.
Each year, they publish a list of the “Dirty Dozen,” (most likely to have chemicals) and the “Clean 15” (least likely). A good rule of thumb is that fruits and vegetables with thick skins have more protection from all the pesticides sprayed on crops in this country (for example, onions & melons).
Finally, there are some additional, non-food-related strategies to limit your exposure. If you routinely spray something like RAID inside your home to kill pests, for example, that is the equivalent of spraying pesticides inside your home. I recommend finding another strategy to deal with those pests!
I also recommend against using those plug-in devices that spray citrusy fragrances in your home. They produce a substance called limonene, which if it interacts with ozone produces formaldehyde, which is not something you want to be breathing in.
Finally, consider devoting some real focus to the air quality in your home in general. Companies like AirDoctor make small, good-looking machines with HEPA filters that scrub the air in your home of smoke, bacteria, viruses (even COVID!), pollen, and mold. An excellent website from Dr Aly Cohen that provides more information on environmental toxins is here.
If you think environmental toxins or exposure might be a factor in your health problems or a chronic disease, please feel free to book a free, 15-minute consultation with Dignity Integrative.