Toxic truths: eight ways to avoid environmental toxins
We know the rules for a healthy lifestyle – more vegetables, more exercise, less alcohol and definitely no tobacco. But should ‘reduce your exposure to toxic environmental chemicals’ join the list too?
Yes, says Dr Marc Cohen, Professor of Complementary Medicine at RMIT University and a medical doctor who believes the potential threat from environmental chemicals in food, plastics and other products should be part of the conversation about disease prevention.
“A lot of people are unaware that these chemicals are a problem and assume that if something is on our shelves it’s safe – but that’s not always the case,” says Cohen.
The hidden dangers in packaging
The chemicals he’s talking about include pesticides, BPA (bisphenol A) – found in plastic food and drink containers, the plastic linings of canned food and in thermal cash register receipts – as well as pthalates found in a range of consumer products from food packaging to personal care products and children’s toys.
BPA and pthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) meaning they can affect hormones including those that influence reproduction and weight. Then there are flame retardants – EDCs found in everyday items like furniture, electronics and car seats which some studies have linked to lower IQ and ADHD in children.
But avoiding these chemicals isn’t as simple as, say, avoiding foods high in added sugar. There’s no handy ingredient list on a sofa declaring what its levels of flame retardants are – and it’s not until you open a can of tomatoes that you know whether it’s plastic lined and therefore likely to contain BPA.
It’s also a grey area with many unanswered questions including what’s a harmful dose and who’s most at risk says Cohen, who spoke about the impact of toxic chemicals at the Anti-Ageing and Aesthetic Medicine Conference held in Melbourne at the weekend.
“Regulations around the safety of environmental chemicals assume that the size of the dose determines the risk but with endocrine disruptors we now know that even a small dose below recognised safety levels can have a significant effect, “ he says.
“Then there’s the timing of the dose – some hazardous chemicals can have more of an effect on small children, for instance. There’s also the impact of genes which can influence how well – or not – your body detoxifies these different chemicals. ”
It’s not just Cohen who’s concerned. Organisations like the World Health Organisation and the Endocrine Society, the organisation of specialists treating hormone-related disorders, make it clear that many environmental chemicals are a problem for human health.
In 2012 the WHO State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals Report described EDCs as a ‘global threat that needs to be resolved’ because they can interfere with the development and function of organs and tissues.
A statement last year from the Endocrine Society said that the growing evidence for the effects of EDCs leaves no doubt that they contribute to rising rates of chronic disease including obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“But there are a number of studies that show it’s possible to reduce exposure – one US study found that when families ate fresh organic food for three days, their levels of BPA dropped by 66 per cent and their levels of phthalates by 55 per cent,” Cohen says.
- Buy products packaged in non- plastic containers. This isn’t always easy – even whole foods like yoghurt come in plastic but, where possible, favour products packaged in glass, cardboard or paper or better still, products with no packaging.
- Learn to cook. Eating more fresh food and less highly processed food automatically reduces the amount of food you eat that’s packaged in plastic.
- Eat more organic food. Cohen’s own research in adults found that after just one week on a diet made up of 80 per cent organic food there was a 90 per cent reduction in urinary output of organophosphate residues. Not everyone can afford a diet that’s mostly organic so Cohen suggests buying organic when it comes to produce that’s heavily sprayed such as leaves and berries and favouring organic animal products like meat and dairy. “Toxic chemicals magnify up the food chain so they accumulate in animals,” he says.
- Avoid using plastic in a microwave – use microwavable ceramic or glass containers.
- Avoid plastic drinking bottles; use food storage containers made of glass, not plastic. BPA-free labels on plastic bottles and food containers aren’t necessarily reassuring. There’s evidence that a BPA substitute – Bisphenol S – may be problematic too.
- Wash hands frequently. Flame retardant chemicals can end up in household dust.
- Avoid personal care products containing artificial fragrance or ‘parfum’. They are likely to contain phthalates.
- Keep plastic out of the nursery. A child’s world is full of plastic, points out Cohen – opt for more wooden toys and non-plastic cups, bottles and dishes.
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