Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Toxicants - A Day's Exposure

What is a toxicant? Simply, a toxicant is a chemical compound (usually man made) that has an effect (usually negative) on living organisms. There is a lot of talk (and confusion) in alternative medicine about "toxins", mainly because the term is so misused. The term "toxin" means, specifically, a chemical that has an effect on living organisms, but the difference is that the chemical must be from a biological origin.

Strictly speaking, the term "toxins" is a subset of toxicants. So, all toxins are toxicants, but not all toxicants are toxins. The venom of bee stings or snake bites are toxins (and toxicants); insecticides are toxicants (but because they are man-made, they are not toxins). Since the mainstream (non-technical) use of the word is overwhelmingly common, we will, for the purposes of this post, simply refer to toxicants as "toxins" and assume they mean the same thing.

In an average day, we are exposed to hundreds of different toxins in our environment. Most of these are invisible to us. Some are airborne, others waterborne, they are often colorless or odorless, and many of these toxins are impossible to avoid. The human body is capable of clearing many toxins and is actually quite good at it. The problem is the quantity and type of toxins that exist today. Humans did not evolve to face the sheer number and type of chemical toxins that have been invented in the last century.  As our natural detoxification pathways struggle to keep up with the toxic load, many toxins start to accumulate.  The accumulation of toxins eventually leads to illness as the body cannot rid itself of these toxic substances.

Consider, if you will, an average day…

You wake up in the morning, lying on a mattress that contains brominated flame retardants (so you don’t burn your house down when you make crème brulee in bed). Long term research has shown a correlation between brominated flame retardants and problems such as infertility, hormone disruption, and thyroid problems.

Then you go to the bathroom for a quick shower. A torrent of chlorinated, fluoridated water that contains the remnants of hundreds of chemicals, pharmaceutical products, illicit drugs, and even hormones rain down all over your skin. The skin is able to absorb some of these chemicals (in the same way that nicotine or hormone patches work), especially when warm water opens up your pores.

Then comes the real chemistry experiment. In a morning routine, it is not uncommon to use shampoo, conditioner, antibacterial soap, shaving cream, moisturizer, aftershave, perfume/cologne, and probably a few types of makeup. You’re also likely to brush your teeth with fluoridated toothpaste. Chances are, unless you're a chemist, if you try to read the ingredients on any of these products, you probably have no idea what any of the chemical names mean.

Workers spray pesticides on plants are
required to wear full body protection.
What protects you at the breakfast table?
The morning bathroom dose is enough to keep your body busy for most of the day clearing out toxins, but it’s breakfast time already and another dose is on its way. If you cook your breakfast on a non-stick pan, it’s possible you’ll have some perfluoroctanoic acid mixed in with your meal. Do you drink coffee, milk, or orange juice? Unless they’re organic, you’re being exposed to pesticide residues. Many of these pesticides are known to bioaccumulate in fat and can remain in your body, causing serious problems, for many years. When your body burns this fat, the pesticides are released back into your blood stream and cause the same symptoms as a direct exposure.

It’s time to hop in the car and head to work or school. Most people live in urban areas where there is at least moderate traffic for the morning commute. Car exhaust fumes are a diverse collection of toxic chemicals. Carbon monoxide, benzene, nitrogen oxides, and smog (particulate matter) are just a few of the toxins shot at you from the exhaust pipe of the car in front of you. How long do you spend commuting through this sea of emissions?

If you have children, it’s time to drop kids off at school. There, they may very well be exposed to a dizzying mix of chemicals. In many schools, the antiquated lighting systems in classrooms or hallways can contain PCBs in the ballasts. The carpet is likely to contain at least several different pesticides or herbicides (some phased out over 20 years ago) that are unknowingly tracked in by any student who stands in a grassy area. As the pesticides are not able to properly break down in the carpet, it is possible that they will persist for a long time. The sobering image of a child dropping a pen or pencil on the carpet and then picking it up and chewing on it comes to mind.

Now that the children are at school, it’s time to go to work. Though less likely than in schools, the issues with PCBs in old lighting ballasts and pesticides/herbicides in carpets is still possible. The air conditioning that we take for granted has the added effect of increasing the concentration of the particulate pollution from the outside air.

Plywood and MDF contain formaldehyde
that can leech out for many years
and make you sick.
Any time you walk into a new building or into a new home, there are dozens of vectors from which you can be exposed to toxic chemicals. New carpet can off-gas any number of “Volatile Organic Compounds” (VOCs), not the least of which is formaldehyde (which the EPA now considers to be a “likely carcinogen”). A new coat of paint on the walls can off-gas VOCs as well. Plywood, fiberboard (MDF), and most flooring products are held together with an adhesive that readily off-gasses formaldehyde. The laminate layer of many flooring products can off-gas formaldehyde slowly, for over 20 years. This is especially true if you are near any construction, as many construction products are vaporized through sawing, soldering, or gluing.

It’s a wonder that anyone makes it home after being bombarded with all of these different toxins. The body is able to withstand this barrage of chemicals, but often to its detriment. Common symptoms of exposure to most of these chemicals are headache, blurred vision, fatigue, inability to concentrate, and increased sensations of pain. How many times have you dismissed a headache thinking that it is just a random occurrence, only to notice that it happens at a similar time every day? Chances are good that the cause could be environmental in origin.

Some exposure routes are unavoidable, but there are many that you can choose to avoid. Clearly, lowering the amount of toxins you contact on a daily basis could make a significant difference in your health and well being. Eating organic or biodynamic food significantly reduces the amount of pesticide products that you ingest. Look for personal hygiene products that have natural and safe ingredients, as vetted by sites like EWG's Skin Deep. Filter your water with a good filter to remove many of the chemicals and toxins found in tap water. If you are remodeling your home or work place, find alternatives to common building materials that do not give off VOCs like formaldehyde. Check your mattress to see if it contains brominated flame retardants and consider finding a manufacturer who does not add them. Consider changing your cookware to safer alternatives, such as copper clad or stainless steel.

Every choice you make to avoid toxins lowers the burden on your body and makes a difference. Every choice you make to seek out healthy alternatives matters. The support you give products and businesses that embrace healthier ingredients and products allows them to continue doing business in a way that is healthier for everyone. Ultimately, the choices we make can greatly impact our health and well being; every choice matters.
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Follow Up Reading:
Cosmetics may be more than skin deep


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Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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