It can be overwhelming to think about the toxins infiltrating our surroundings and lacing the products we rely on. Take your morning routine, for example: You might dab on artificially scented makeup, eat eggs cooked in a chemically coated nonstick pan, and then bike to work through a 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.
What’s an environmental toxin?
Environmental toxins are chemicals or other factors that may cause adverse health effects in people exposed to them.
These include naturally occurring compounds like lead, mercury, benzene, and formaldehyde, as well as synthetic substances like bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S (BPS), phthalates, triclosan, and pesticides (see page 34 for more on these). The categories can overlap: Some toxins are naturally and synthetically produced.
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, secondhand smoke, mold, and vapor 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.
What’s the risk?
Many environmental toxins are carcinogenic and/or have been linked to other serious health issues like obesity, asthma, and developmental delays.
Some environmental toxins, like BPA, can act as endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic naturally occurring hormones. Exposure to endocrine disruptors has been linked to adverse effects on reproductive health, as well as thyroid problems.
Supplements for detoxification
Antioxidants support the liver to metabolize harmful compounds. Some common antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium.
Bitter herbs like artichoke leaf have been shown to promote liver health and function.
Zinc supports the liver and promotes a robust immune system.
We can reduce the impact of environmental toxins on our health in two ways:
- We can support our bodies’ natural detoxification systems.
- We can minimize our exposure to avoidable environmental toxins as much as possible.
These two strategies work together to give our bodies a break from the flood of toxins, which allows us to eliminate those toxins we can’t avoid more efficiently.
Supporting your body
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, says 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 like BPA. Antioxidants are also potent detoxifiers. Consider adding antioxidant-packed organic blueberries and blackberries to your morning smoothie.
Despite the buzz around detoxification tools like juice cleanses, Nicholas cautions against any regimen that deprives your body of the energy it 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.
Minimizing your exposure
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 toxin free in a single day. Instead, make a commitment to choose a toxin-free product the next time one of your current products runs out.
Common environmental toxins and how to avoid them
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical produced in large quantities for use primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics (a type of strong, clear plastic).
To reduce your exposure,
- avoid microwaving polycarbonate plastic food containers (these containers usually have the recycle code “7” or “3” stamped on the bottom)
- opt for glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers, particularly for hot food or liquids
- use baby bottles that are glass or stainless steel
Be wary of BPA plastic alternatives like bisphenol S (BPS), as these substances may cause similar health effects.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manufactured chemicals widely used in everyday items, including certain types of nonstick pans and waterproof clothing. If possible, avoid purchasing products that contain PFAS.
Pesticides are agricultural chemicals used in food production. Choose organic produce, and make sure to give all fruits and veggies a good wash.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics (such as those in packaging and children’s toys) more flexible and harder to break. Phthalates are also used in cosmetics and fragrances. Avoid putting your food in phthalate-containing plastic, choose phthalate-free cosmetics, and avoid artificial fragrances.
Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical sometimes found in toothpastes, hand sanitizers, and deodorants. Look for all-natural alternatives and read labels carefully if a product claims to be antibacterial.
For more information on how to avoid common environmental toxins, check out the Environmental Working Group Consumer Guides (ewg.org/consumer-guides).