I have a very keen sense of smell. Maybe I was meant to be a perfumer. I could even join the K-9 force! And my keen sense of smell has served me well…
You see, about 20 years ago I purchased some organic cheese from our local food co-op. It was wrapped in soft plastic. As I was unwrapping it I noticed the permeating smell of petroleum oil. I thought that was incredibly odd so I sniffed closer. It was coming from the plastic. I told my husband who thought I was a bit nuts when I announced we weren't going to purchase anything in that soft plastic. And we didn't.
Some months later, I was washing some kale from the farmer's market in preparation for dinner. Yup, we've been eating kale for decades. I know the green leafy is all in vogue now (in fact, it probably had been written up in Vogue in a cleanse or juice detox…). Actually, folks have been eating it for generations. The kale had that same strange gasoline smell though it was from an entirely different store. The rinse water beaded up on it. And my hands smelled like gasoline. I told my husband, and yup, he thought I was nuts again. I even started to wonder if I was having olfactory delusions which signal seizures. But I had young kids and didn't want to take a chance. So we made a firm commitment to only eat organic greens and we haven't turned back.
Here's the crazy thing: soft plastic has turned out to contain a motherlode of toxins, including phthalates, and non-organic kale turns out to be one of the most heavily pesticided products on the market – it's even on the Environmental Working Group's “Dirty Dozen” list of the most pesticide-contaminated foods.
My nose knows!
Have you ever heard the term body burden? Body burden refers to the total amount of toxic chemicals in your body at a given time, or the amount of a single chemical, for example, arsenic, lead, mercury, or PCB to name just a few.
Body burden has become a critical health and environmental problem. It affects us all and can cause health problems ranging from cancer and diabetes to infertility and autism. It affects all ages – even our babies before they are born.
Scientific organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG), estimate that most of us have stores of hundreds of environmental contaminants in our bodies. Babies are born already carrying a toxic load of as many as 300 different chemicals in their bodies, and breast milk is rife with environmental pollutants. These toxins are coming from our foods, our water, our air, our household cleaners, our cosmetics, plastic containers, building materials, and about a million other places.
The chemicals are not benign. Even in practically unmeasurable tiny amounts, many can wreak havoc on our hormones, immune system, and nervous system. They can cause people to become overweight by disrupting the endocrine system. And we really have no idea how multiple different chemicals interact in the body, yet we are living with a veritable soup of environmental chemical interactions!
Here’s a small breakdown of some of the conditions associated with various contaminants:
- Heavy metals and organochlorides affect the nervous system causing anxiety, insomnia, ADHD, chronic fatigue, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s dementia.
- Endocrine disruptors in plastics and pesticides affect our hormones leading to thyroid disease, diabetes, PCOS, and infertility.
- There are well-established connections between toxin-mediated changes in our endocrine (hormonal) and immune systems and obesity. More environmental chemicals = More fat. And since these chemicals are stored in our fat cells, more fat = more stored chemicals (though you can be thin and have a high body burden, too). And check this out: a high body burden can keep people from losing weight – even on a good diet and exercise program!
Unfortunately, as individuals, we can’t always control or eliminate all of our toxic exposures. Major regulatory and industry policy changes (which we can accomplish in groups!) are needed.
But we can do our part to reduce our own body burdens and thus the environmental load with 5 simple steps:
- Eat organic. While there is some controversy over whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods, there is no doubt from a body-burden perspective that they are safer and healthier. Eating organic prevents you from being exposed not only to the pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and myriad other chemicals in our food supply in the US, but also prevents exposures to chemicals that are banned in the US but which are still used in other countries and which show up in our foods – and bodies – through imported produce and meats. If eating all organic is too expensive, at least make sure your meats and dairy products are organic, as these are repositories for environmental contaminants, and make sure that you avoid or eat only organic picks from the “Dirty Dozen,” the most contaminated foods as determined by the EWG. These include: Apples, Celery, Strawberries, Peaches, Spinach, Nectarines (imported), Grapes (imported), Sweet Bell Peppers, Potatoes, Lettuce, Blueberries, and Kale. A famous study on kids in Washington state showed that even after just a few days on an organic diet, the levels of toxic chemicals in kids' blood dropped dramatically, while there was no change in kids who were kept on a similar, but not organic diet. Visit http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ to learn more about safe and healthy shopping, and the Dirty Dozen.
- Use eco-friendly household cleaning products. What we clean our homes with leaves residues on our counters, bedding, in our air, and just about everywhere – and we ingest, breathe, and absorb these chemicals. Yes, eco-friendly household cleaning products are more expensive, but we can no longer put a price on our health or that of future generations. You can also make your own – it’s actually not that difficult. Even large supermarket chains are carrying eco-friendly cleaning products by companies like Ecover and 7th Generation. The EWG also has a great resource for environmentally friendly cleaning here.
- Avoid plastic beverage bottles. Completely. Most plastic bottles leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals into your water and other beverages. Switch to a glass bottle that you carry around with you. Yes, it’s a little work to remember it, but believe me, it’s less work than having cancer or diabetes, and those are just a few of the risks of plastics exposure. Good old-fashioned mason jars are a terrific and inexpensive alternative. And I carry my Life Factory bottle wherever I go. It’s virtually indestructible.
- Use environmentally friendly cosmetics and body products. Did you know there is lead in some lipsticks? Sure enough, most commercial cosmetics are laden with heavy metals and other toxic ingredients. Ditto on body products ranging from shampoos and deodorants to sunscreens and lotions. For the ladies, consider taking the French-women’s approach to beauty – au natural, simple elegance, minimal make-up. There are also some fantastic companies providing cosmetics with safe ingredients. Learn to read labels and avoid those ingredients known to be especially harmful. For more information and resources, including companies with clean ingredients and eco-friendly policies – and those to avoid – visit here.
- Green up your home. Fabric protectant chemicals and flame retardants are just two classes of the numerous seriously harmful toxins that are built into your sofas, chairs, carpeting, and other household décor and building materials. Nearly all of these toxins are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Minimize exposure by emphasizing wood, metals, and untreated natural fibers, and learn more about green building and décor here. And here’s a blog on eco-friendly upholstery.
I promise you that by becoming mindful of the above habits, you will reduce your toxic chemical exposure, decrease your risks of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, you might find that your mood improves, some aches, pains, itches or rashes clear up, and if you already have a generally healthy lifestyle but are carrying a little extra weight, you might just shed a few extra pounds in the process!
Love to hear your experiences and challenges on this topic!
For more information, great talks, books, and things you can do: