5 Steps to Reducing Toxic Exposures for You and Your Family

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment

Theo Colburn

Theo Colburn's Ted Talk

Environmental Working Group

Sandra Steingraber

Allergy Kids


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Read or leave comments 24 Comment

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Jennifer Zint

Great article .Reminded me to look into non toxic alternatives as we prepare to update our home and also to eat organic produce more this year. .We have been eating raw milk and cheese and pasture raised butter and beef .We use venison as a secondary meat source .and try to get organic or local produce as much as possible .Reaily want to invest in a water filter system and avoid plastics .

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Melinda Beth

Great article. Thanks so much for sharing this vitally important information. After suffering a miscarriage in 2011 I began slowly switching to a more natural lifestyle. I’m not 100%, but any improvement is improvement. I follow the dirty dozen rules and when I can’t because of budget I pray and do Reiki over my food. If Dr. Emoto can change the molecules of water with prayer, certainly it can work with food. I ditched deodorant completely when I’m not traveling for work, I ONLY clean with vinegar, peroxide and baking soda. I ditched the fabric softener, Lysol, fabreeze, etc. My only cheats are some aspects of my beauty routine. I tried the paraben free shampoos and conditioners for months and my hair looked terrible. Beauty is so important to me and I love makeup and hair, so I returned to my favorite hair products and switched my body wash to Dr. Bronners. I also love high-end perfume (in small amounts) but I avoid them unless I’m going out. I use mineral makeup and cornstarch as a loose translucent powder. I also drink lots of lemon water and Nettle infusion hoping to balance out those cheats. Reducing body burden doesn’t have to be costly. In fact, I find it more conducive to a thrifty lifestyle. One just has to do their research and get creative.

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Thank you for writing all these great posts. I am disturbed by one of you word choices in this post, "inorganic" kale. Did you mean to write non-organic kale, or conventionally grown kale? As a chemist (and one that believes in reducing toxic burden!), hearing the term inorganic kale makes me think that it is kale made from metals and other heavy elements. I understand we use the term "organic" in a somewhat different sense when talking about food versus chemistry, but inorganic kale sounds very out of place.

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    Quite right. It is out of place, and now updated.

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Great post, thanks. I have been wondering a lot about using bentonite clay and zeolites to remove toxins from my familie's bodies and even our home. Any insight on how to effectively use bentonite for binding/ removing metals and other toxins? I have three daughters, one a breastfed infant. Getting them to drink it seems unklikely, could bathing in it be usefull? I felt like mixing it into smoothies would kind of bind up the superfoods and other goodies in the smoothie and be wasteful, almost like taking calcium in a multivitamin. Thanks again, Anna

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    Not something I use. You actually run the risk of metals from the soil and there are much safer, natural food based ways to detox. I can do a blog on that down the road. Going organic even just for 3 days eliminates most toxins from kids' blood, according to the Washington State study. ~ Aviva

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      Wondering if this article on Bentonite Clay was ever written, I have been trying to find an article on this for a natural alternative to it. Most articles have been recommending it for Crohn’s and Colitis, and I don’t feel right drinking clay to remove toxins.

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        Aviva Romm

        I don't recommend it.

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Thank you for this very concise list! I have read books, done research, made my own lists and usually end up overwhelmed and just picking one thing to tackle. We (I) have been making my own cleaning products for about a year now. I have convinced my mom of doing the same. It is nice to know I can not only let my children help clean, but I don't have a second thought about them rolling around on the floor afterwards. I try to limit plastics, I don't buy my kids flame retardant pajamas and I buy as much organic as possible. When we were expecting our first child, everything got a fresh coat of paint, we got new furniture, all new clothes for the baby... I know better now, but I can definitely still do more!

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Lissa Farrell

Thank you so much for writing these awesome blogs, it's a service to the world and I share them widely! I'm curious what your thoughts are on chips, organic tortilla chips specifically? I tend to buy them but have to wonder about the packaging...any thoughts appreciated! Some are in plastic and some in another material that has a metallic looking inside...

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    Hi Lissa, Overall they are a tasty, healthier form of junk food. Many folks are sensitive to corn and they don't really provide much nutrition. That said, nothing really beats with guacamole, so as long as they are well tolerated, I'd keep them to treat level only - not a staple. And yeah, there's the plastic packaging that ends up in a landfill so we all just make the best choices we can.... Smiles, Aviva

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Aviva, This is a very real issue in our lives. My husband discovered about 12 years ago that he is allergic to many forms of plastic....Styrofoam being the most dangerous to him. He cannot eat or drink anything that touches Styrofoam; the result is distended stomach and his throat begins to close off. We have removed plastics from our home and environment as much as possible, but as you know, it is extremely difficult. We would be interested in learning as much as we can about how to remove these toxins from the body (we know they are already built up in his system). Thank you for posting this information and helping people become more informed and educated. Most people just don't realize the danger and importance of this issue. Thank you for being an advocate for good health!

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Hi, I purchase all organic fruits and vegetables for my family. Is it better not to purchase certain fruits and veggies if they are not organic. Sometimes Whole Foods is out of certain organic items, so I choose not to purchase them. Also, I am verrrrry sensitive to smells. Most perfumes and soaps give me a very bad headache and upset stomach. We recently purchased new furniture. I can not sit on the couches or even go into the living room for more than 5 minutes. I open my windows as much as possible, I even put white vinegar in bowls around the room. It really upsets me because I am very concerned about the toxins my children are breathing in. No one else in the family smells the odor. I would love to get rid of all the furniture, but we are still paying it off. It was so long ago that I purchased new furniture that I did not think about the odor. What can I do. Please give me any advice. Thank you, Lisa

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    Hi Lisa, Check out the resources in my Body Burden blog - these will be super helpful for you. And play around on the Environmental Working Group website - you'll find resources such as The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 to help guide your organic food versus not purchasing choices. Warmly, Aviva

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I found Ecover's fabric softener to have fragrance in it which is why I switched to 7th Generation.

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Gen Parmentier

Hi, Yes, eat and grow organic as, much as possible! Kale, in particular, is easy to grow and will give you tasty greens for much, if not all of your growing season. Even organically grown kale will show beads of water when washed, so if you are careful of your sourcing, no need to ditch the kale when you see that beading. It is actually quite lovely!

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Lacey @ KV Organics

Great post, Aviva, thank you. All 5 of your tips are so important. My journey over the past 8 years has landed me in a niche helping people decipher the marketing claims and labels on the personal care products. This is perhaps the easiest place to start, habit-wise, as it's a simple matter of swapping out toxic for non-toxic products, whether one is a higher or lower maintenance kind of person; BUT, it's in some ways very difficult because the industry is absolutely RIFE with unregulated, false and misleading marketing claims. SO much greenwashing in the personal care industry, it's difficult to navigate and easy to be tricked. Even "certified organic" on a personal care product can mean many different things - many of the cosmetic "organic" standards allow synthetic chemicals that would NEVER be allowed in organic food standards. For whatever it's worth, as a general tip I can share with your readers, always ask, "certified organic by whom and to what standards exactly?" :) Thank you for all you do, Aviva! I really appreciate your perspectives, knowledge, and wisdom. Many blessings to you. ~ Lacey :)

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Thank you as always Aviva for not only telling us the lurking dangers around us but also how to limit them and become an aware parent and consumer. I sometimes feel like a basket case with all my sitpulations about food and plastics (as I'm sure we all do sometimes). My question is, how do you avoid plastics all of the time. I'd like to trim down more as I switched klargely to using cloth produce bags and I lug around my mason jar for drinking water, but how can I avoid it as you were talking about with the cheese? I feel like cheese and meats are the hardest area to find safe containers for.....thank you again!

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    Hi Jacquie, I totally understanding - on the one hand we can make ourselves crazy - on the other -these are real issues. Bottom line - we do the very best we can. Sometimes we might have to push the local coop or Whole Foods or other store to make changes. For example, long ago I spend a couple of years working on the co-op's product policy committee in my community - we sourced products and advised the co-op on what to carry - and what no to carry. You're doing an amazing job already. Yes, we have to carry water bottles and teach our kids to do the same. I love my LifeFactory bottle. The think is practically indestructible - I've dropped it on concrete more than once! Not on purpose, of course. :) As for cheese, it's more expensive, but artisanal cheeses are often wrapped in paper - the lining I am hoping of which is wax! Again, best we can do....

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I'm concerned about lead exposure during pregnancy... I live in an old apartment building, and while there is no visible peeling paint (and the apartment has been repainted multiple times over the years, including most recently with non-toxic paint), I have spent about 15 minutes in another apartment while construction was being done. Are there herbs / supplements that would be effective for reducing risk of passing lead on to the baby? Do I need to worry about 15 minutes? The rest of the time, we eat mostly organic, don't get flu shots, wear cotton clothes, and use natural products, so maybe I'm already less exposed than most other people.

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    Hi Kaya, Congrats on being pregnant! It's an amazing time in life - the baby years! :) I would absolutely not beat yourself up over 15 minutes of exposure of that sort. Just avoid it in the future. As for knowing the risks of your own apartment, you can buy home test kits for lead at a decent hardware store. The biggest risk areas are the window casings - opening and closing windows rubs against the layers of paint and releases the dust. For your little one, dust on the floors becomes the major risk due to crawling then hands and toys to mouth. Doing an assessment of the expsoure in the aprartment is a good idea just so you know what you need to do to get ready for baby. As for herb and foods, just avoid unnecessary exposures - check out the Environmental Working Group. Avoid hair dyes, things that are sprayed like paints, hairspray, that kind of stuff -- which it sounds like you already do, and try to take walks at NON traffic times of day to avoid exhaust exposures from cars. Enjoy that pregnancy and try to be smart and practical but not worry too much. That's a toxin too! :)

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Thank you for this valuable post. My nose is perhaps not as sensitive as yours, however I also share the ability to smell off-gassing that many people can't detect. My sense of smell is really not that great, but horrible chemicals are something I just seem to be tuned into. I find I cannot bear to go down the detergents aisle in the supermarket because of the toxic smells (perhaps a combination of all the plastic bottles and also some of the contents!) Once we bought a car-seat organizer (to hold kids books and toys in the car), and it was some kind of synthetic material, but the off-gassing was so bad in the car I instantly knew we could not expose ourselves to that product. Everyone thought I was mad. My father-in-law has neoprene car seat covers, and I become nauseated within a minute or 2 of being in his car, because the smell is so strong (and my body tells me it is poison!). I avoid letting my kids drive with grandpa as a result, which is a shame, but everyone thinks I'm paranoid or being really weird over the smells. Since this happened I am avoiding neoprene too, which is a pity because some cute lunch-bags are neoprene, but the idea of putting food into that stuff seems rather scary given the chemicals that are clearly coming off it. I must share this post with my husband so he realizes I am not just imagining things!

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    Hi Hazel, What you are describing is chemical sensitivity - and you are not crazy. It is becoming an increasingly common problem for many people. Our systems can only handle just much toxic exposure. It's much like allergies and certainly the approaches in this blog can help, but it also has to do with the ability of the body's natural detoxification system in the liver and elsewhere to handle the toxic load. You're very smart to avoid those noxious odors - though I am sorry it is causing family tension! Stick to your mama sense! :) Aviva