Some time ago, I developed a list of what I consider the most toxic substances in our daily life. I share them with you along with the same advice I gave to my patients.
You obviously can’t dodge all these bullets. We live in a sea of chemicals. But do try to avoid or minimize exposure to as many as you can in order to keep your barrel from spilling over.
Are Harmful Toxins Around You?
As a young cardiologist many years ago I was surprised to learn that substances in the environment could cause cardiovascular symptoms. The very first case I encountered involved a young man (he was my own age at the time – 32!) who developed a wild, life-threatening arrhythmia while painting a windowless room in his house. It was touch-and-go for more than a day before we finally pulled him out of the toxic arrhythmia and into a normal heart rhythm.
I never forgot that case. It opened my awareness to a source of trouble that cardiologists-to-be were not taught about in medical school. But the potential is real and often something right under your nose. Like one patient who developed an arrhythmia as a result of breathing his wife’s perfume. When she stopped using that particular brand, her husband’s arrhythmia stopped.
Over the years it became obvious to me that anybody can be reactive to most anything in the environment – food, pesticides, solvents, mold, airborne particulates, even air fresheners, and, of course, the medications doctors use to treat symptoms − and that reactions are extremely individual. One person may have an allergic reaction, another develop fatigue or a headache, and another an arrhythmia.
Multiple things in the environment have the potential to spell trouble. According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, there are some 90,000 or so chemicals commonly circulating in our lives, with perhaps 10-15 percent of us said to be reactive to one thing or another, even natural substances. Pollens and pet dander are examples. Susceptibility is becoming more pervasive and symptoms more disabling.
Acute exposures aside, doctors specializing in environmental illness often talk about the “total load” of environmental stressors, or insults, that result in symptoms. Think of your immune system as a barrel with a specific capacity. You and I have different capacity that can shrink or enlarge depending on the stresses in our lives at a given time, and that includes psychological stress as a significant factor. You may or may not be aware of the specific things filling up your barrel and only know that something is wrong when the barrel spills over and you develop symptoms.
Worst Toxins to Avoid
Eat WASHED organic produce as much as possible as well as organic dairy products, eggs, and meat. Researchers have found that organic fruits and vegetables are much, much lower in pesticide residue, as well as substantially higher in natural antioxidants compared to non-organic produce. You can find a list of the non-organic produce with the most pesticides in this article.
2. Prescription drugs
Citing the Institute of Medicine, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that each year over 2 million adverse drug reactions (ADRs) occur, and these reactions account for 100,000 annual deaths, making adverse drug reactions the “4th leading cause of death.” ADRs are largely preventable, and side effects often compound the original problem drugs are taken for. Unfortunately, side effects are often dismissed by doctors and grossly under-reported. Pharmaceutical drugs also deplete the body of nutrients, something that doctors never tell you. Many drugs are too strong. There are often natural alternatives for chronic situations, for getting at the underlying causes of problems, and to minimize or eliminate risky medication usage. The alternatives include eating the right food, taking nutritional supplements, engaging in regular exercise, and following a good stress-reduction method. Always consult your doctor before changing your dosage.
Moderate intake− a glass for a woman, two for men – should be the daily limit and may have therapeutic value, but imbibing more is looking for trouble. Liver destruction is but one of many possible consequences of heavy drinking. Excess alcohol causes nutritional deficiencies and oxidative damage. It breaks down into aldehyde, a substance that damages cellular membranes and causes premature aging.
4. Indoor and outdoor pollution
Air pollution is no joke. Use an air purifier, at least in rooms where you spend the most time, to reduce dust and other particulate matter. Install a water filter system to purify the beverage your body needs the most: water. Be aware of sensitivities to outdoor chemicals, pollen, and mold. Don’t walk, jog or bike in the city during rush hour.
5. Cigarette smoke
Smoking is a cardinal sin against health. Lung cancer aside, this habit is the most destructive for the heart and nearly every other organ in the body. Each puff carries a toxic payload of chemicals and carcinogens, things like nicotine (used as a natural pesticide for hundreds of years), carbon monoxide, ammonia, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and formaldehyde, just to name a few of the 600 ingredients. If you smoke and recognize you need to stop, I’ve got some recommendations for you here.
Besides cigarettes, formaldehyde is used in the production of fertilizer, paper, plywood and particle board, urea-formaldehyde resins, vaccines, as a preservative in some foods, and in many products used around the house, such as paints, antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics, furniture, carpets, and cabinetry. Formaldehyde can irritate the skin, throat, nose, and eyes; high-level exposure, most commonly related to the resins industry, is linked to some cancers. In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, classified formaldehyde as a “known human carcinogen;” the U.S. government followed suit in 2011. The primary way you can be exposed to formaldehyde is by breathing air containing it. Open windows to bring fresh air indoors.
7. Soft drinks
Sodas are junk food − personified and liquefied – with no redeeming value. They contain phosphoric acid, which can deplete calcium from bones, and an abundance of sweeteners that can spike insulin levels when consumed in excess. Chronic excess insulin release can lead to diabetes and obesity as well as heart disease and other illnesses. Even just a moderate amount of sodas − the equivalent of about a single can a day – sweetened with either sugar or its popular replacement, high-fructose corn syrup can significantly increase the risk of heart disease; diet sodas are not without health risks either. An occasional drink is OK, but you’re looking for trouble if you drink sodas routinely. Opt instead for club soda with lime, lemon or a splash of fruit juice to get your carbonation fix.
8. Trans fats
You can recognize these harmful fats as the man-made partially-hydrogenated fats that food processors use to prolong shelf life in an estimated 75 percent of the food eaten in the standard American diet. They appear everywhere, including margarine, most packaged baked goods, fried snacks, frozen products such as fish sticks and French fries, microwave popcorn, commercial salad dressings, and pancake mixes.
Trans fats are associated with increased oxidative damage to cell membranes, injury that kindles inflammation, disease, and age-related changes. They promote LDL oxidation, lower HDL, and raise Lp(a), a highly inflammatory and thrombotic cholesterol particle, and are believed to contribute to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, auto-immune disease, tendon and bone degeneration, and problems with fertility and growth.
In 2006, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat content on labels, and in 2013 the agency proposed that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use in food (the FDA, as of May 2016, is finalizing that action). In response to increased public consciousness about trans fat content in food and its health implications, some manufacturers have changed their recipes – some for the better, and some for the “still unhealthy, but not any worse.”
For example, many commercial brands of peanut butter once contained trans fats, which gave the butters their characteristic silky-smooth texture; now, most, if not all, brands have replaced partially-hydrogenated oils with fully-hydrogenated ones to avoid including trans-fat content on the label. Fully-hydrogenated fats – made chemically through a process called interesterification which transforms unsaturated fats into saturated ones – can still contain some trans fat, and are still not “safe.” If you like to eat peanut butter, opt for a “natural” variety, free of any hydrogenated oils or other suspect ingredients like corn syrup, sugar, and polyunsaturated oils; go for something with just peanuts and possibly salt (if you prefer it and don’t have high blood pressure). But I diverge…
Not only are trans fats found in foods with partially, as well as some fully, hydrogenated oils, they also occur as a result of frying: the high heat leads to the partial decomposition of fat and the formation of toxic byproducts. Read labels and avoid processed products with any trans-fat content whatsoever. Be aware, however, that even if a label says “zero” trans fats, a small amount is still allowed. This is one reason to minimize processed food in your life, despite the convenience. Don’t cook with polyunsaturated vegetable oils. They break down too rapidly and form trans fats.
9. Cooked meats
Cooking meat at high temperatures, such as pan frying or grilling on an open flame, can form chemicals that may increase your cancer risk. The chemicals are called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and form when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry, is cooked. These substances are known to cause cancer in animals; in humans, the situation is still unclear. Continuously turning meat over on a high heat source can substantially reduce such formation. Pre-cooking in oven, using thinner cuts requiring less cooking, and, in general, avoiding prolonged cooking times, are also helpful.
10. Personal hygiene products
We smear and spray our skin with all sorts of creams, lotions, soaps, perfumes, and what-not. The best anti-aging strategies are to opt for natural products whenever possible, and to use personal care products minimally, because what goes on the skin also can go into the skin…and into the body. That means multiple chemicals. Most deodorants, for instance, contain aluminum to prevent perspiration; aluminum is known to cause DNA alterations and daily dermal exposure may, over time, lead to breast cancer. Another example is anti-bacterial soap, either in bars or in liquid. Americans scoop up nearly $1 billion worth of these products a year even though studies show they are no more effective than regular soap and water at reducing the spread of germs. These products contain two active ingredients – triclocarban and triclosan – that have been found in experiments to disrupt reproductive hormone activity and interfere with cell signaling activities, including in the brain and heart. Buyer beware!
For those personal care products you can’t live without, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has established Skin Deep, an electronic product database through which you can learn about the known chemical toxicity of almost 64,000 cosmetic products. Even though product labels don’t give you all the information you need to decide whether products are safe, reading them carefully is a good place to start. Choose products with the least amount of ingredients and chemicals, and avoid fragrances altogether.
Surprise! Derivatives of petrochemicals are found in most processed food, personal care, and cleaning products. Households are literally brimming with the stuff that has the potential to increase your risk of short and long term health issues, including cancer. Try to minimize exposure. For sure, cut down on processed food as much as possible and eat organic. Be aware that solvents can cause lung and throat irritation, and furniture polishes may be flammable and can cause serious injury if accidentally swallowed (avoid products, when possible, with the word DANGER on the label). An excellent resource for learning more about petrochemicals and other toxins in your everyday life is the Environmental Working Group (http://www.ewg.org).
12. Heavy metals
Lead from dust, dirt, old house paints, batteries, new toys, and even water flowing through lead-lined pipes can increase the risk of a number of health issues. The nervous systems of young children and the unborn are most vulnerable. Cadmium is another toxic metal, and exposure can contribute to hypertension, among other things. Cigarette smoke is a common source. Cadmium is also found in batteries, pigments, metal coatings, plastics, and fertilizers. You are more prone to develop toxicity if you are deficient in calcium, iron, zinc, and/or protein.
13. Processed meats
Consumption of sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meats, usually processed with nitrates, is associated with higher colon cancer risk. Eat these foods only in moderation and be sure to accompany them with plenty of fiber-filled fruits and veggies.
14. Radon gas
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends testing all homes for radon gas, a radioactive gas generated through the breakdown of granite. Unfortunately, you cannot see, smell, or taste radon, which has been identified as the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. You can obtain a radon test kit from the National Safety Council or your state radon contact. See http://www.epa.gov/radon/whereyoulive.html.
15. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) accounts for as much as 40 percent of caloric sweeteners used in the United States as a replacement for sugar in processed foods such as sodas, breads, and cereals, and many beverages. The U.S. leads the world in per-capita consumption – about 55 pounds a year. Excess consumption is regarded as one explanation for the rising global epidemic of diabetes, a factor independent of total sugar intake and obesity levels.
16. Chlorinated water
Chlorine is the most widely used chemical for water disinfection in the United States. It is used both in drinking and swimming pool water to kill bacteria. Researchers over the years have recognized a long-term higher risk for bladder cancer as a result of regular exposure to chlorine from drinking water, and showering and swimming. Swimming can also generate a chlorine-related rash and/or redness of the eyes. You can reduce exposure by installing filters in your house – for drinking water and for the shower head.
17. Toxic fish
Mercury is a nasty environmental toxin produced by coal-burning power plants. It progressively infiltrates our marine food supply through rain. Among other things, it can cause developmental disorders in fetuses and young children. The FDA recommends avoiding the fish highest in mercury: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel. White albacore should be limited to no more than six ounces a week. The agency urges fishermen to pay attention to local mercury advisories on fish in streams, rivers, and lakes. Fish contain important nutrients for fetuses and young children, so eat fish regularly − two or three servings a week – but choose from among fish lower in mercury, such as salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), and cod. Mercury, along with other toxic metals (cadmium and lead – see above), also can poison bodily enzyme systems as well as the mitochondria, the structures inside cells that produce energy. These metals can cause blood vessel damage and contribute to hypertension, arterial disease, and heart attacks.
All vaccines carry some kind of a risk for side effects, just as does any medication. For this reason I have always advised patients to learn as much as they can about the subject. In many cases, the benefits outweigh the risks, but you need to educate yourself. According to the National Vaccine Information Center, adverse effects related to individual susceptibility are widely variable, and can range from mild to severe. Some vaccines, such as the tetanus, rabies, and influenza vaccines, contain thimerosal, an established anti-microbial preservative that includes mercury. Most vaccines recommended for children six and under, are now thimerosal-free. The influenza shot does contain thimerosal, but a limited supply of the preservative-free version is available for infants, children, and pregnant women. As far as the effectiveness of flu shots are concerned, I have my doubts based on the research I have done. If you ask me, I say most people should pass on them.
19. Industrial cleaning products
Products such as those used in dry cleaning contain an A to Z of chemicals and can enter the body through the lungs and skin. Warnings about the use of these substances should be provided to workers handling them. For home use, consumers should always read label instructions before use. You can find valuable information on various kinds of cleaning products, hazards, and how to protect yourself, in this guide provided by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration.
20. Phthalates and BPA
Phtalates and bisphenol A are common compounds used in plastics. Both are under ongoing scrutiny because of potential health risks to humans, including reproductive risks. Phthalates are used in soft plastics, and BPA in hard plastics and food can linings. They are commonly found in personal products ranging from cosmetics, soaps, lotions, food packaging, and water bottles. People at the highest risk of exposure to phthalates are dialysis patients, hemophiliacs, or people who receive blood transfusions from sources that use tubing or containers made with phthalates. The FDA has recommended steps to minimize exposure of patients to medical devices that contain phthalates and recommended use of alternative devices for certain procedures. Others at high risk are painters, printers, and workers exposed to phthalates during the manufacture, formulation, and processing of plastics. While there are many concerns over potential risks for BPA, the FDA has not banned it and has deemed it safe in low doses. I have seen research describing an association between higher levels of BPA and risk of high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, however, the degree of influence on health is far from clear. My advice is to just reduce your exposure. Avoid canned foods as much as possible and drink your water out of glass bottles or containers. Stay away from plastic containers as much as possible.
21. “Electro-pollution” / EMFs
A collective term for the unseen, unfelt, and unnatural electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that we are increasingly exposed to, electro-pollution may be contributing (along with other standard reasons such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, stress, and environmental toxicity) to the increased prevalence of chronic illnesses in recent years such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune disorders.
EMFs are generated by everything from high-tension electrical wires, wiring in the walls of homes and offices, cell phones, wireless networks, and even such accepted home appliances as radios, televisions, and microwave ovens. Visit the EMF section here at HMDI to learn more about how EMFs may be negatively impacting health, as well as ways to minimize your exposure to them.
Learn More – References and Resources:
- American Academy of Environmental Medicine, 2008 Position Paper on Chemical Sensitivity. https://www.aaemonline.org/chemicalsensitivity.php
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- Baranski M, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Brit J Nutrition, 2014; published online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24968103
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- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and public health. http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#moderateDrinking
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- American Chemical Society, 2010; Tobacco and its evil cousin nicotine are good as a pesticide, published online at http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/presspacs/2010/acs-presspac-october-27-2010/tobacco-and-its-evil-cousin-nicotine-are-good-as-a-pesticide.html
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- National Institutes of Health. Lead poisoning, at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002473.htm
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- National Institutes of Health. Phthalates, at http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=24
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