Environmental Medicine »

Green and Clean: Options for Non-Toxic Living and Techniques for Dealing with Toxic Exposures

by Kristie Ferreira, ND

Back to Environmental Medicine

1. Why is environmental quality an important consideration in health care today?
2. Who should be concerned about toxicity?
3. What does body burden mean?
4. What are some of the toxins that people are exposed to on a daily basis?
5. So where do we find these types of toxic substances?
6. Why are some people sensitive to certain toxins or allergens while other people are not?
7. What happens to toxins once they get into the body?
8. What types of foods do we need to worry about in terms of toxic contaminants?
9. There is so much talk about plastics lately, is there a way to know which plastics to avoid and which ones are ok?
10. There are so many possible sources of contamination how can we possibly be health in an unhealthy world?
11. What about using air filters in the home or office? What kinds are the best?
12. What are some of the techniques used by naturopathic doctors to remove toxins from the body?

1. Why is environmental quality an important consideration in health care today?

People are exposed to a wide variety of contaminants on a daily basis. Living in a supposedly pristine environment does not rule out toxic exposures. We can be exposed to a variety of toxins from many different sources. People who live in the Northeast for example are exposed to toxins in the air that actually originated from factories in the mid west. So even if you live in the Adirondacks or the upper reaches of Maine you still have some exposure from air pollution that originated many, many miles away. Then there are contaminants that are in our food, in products that we buy, and in the materials that we use to construct our homes and offices. Even the clothing that we wear and the bedding that we sleep on can emit low concentrations of toxic vapors. Frequently, through work, play, or just living, people are exposed to a high level of one or more toxins and symptoms begin to arise. For example, the factory worker exposed to a slug of indoor air pollutants, the fire fighter exposed to the multitude of toxins in a fire, workers and volunteers responding to the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, the home garden applying pesticides to their lawn and garden, or simply the person who remodeled their home and was exposed to contaminants in both old and new building materials.

When the body burden of toxic chemicals, aka the toxic load, gets too great, symptoms can arise such as thyroid dysfunction, prostate enlargement, high cholesterol levels, reproductive problems, bladder incontinence, arthritis, HTN, weight gain and inability to lose weight, hair loss, fatigue, insomnia, gallbladder problems, irritability and depression, and constipation.

The Standing Committee of European Doctors stated in September of 2005 that “the current proliferation of a number of diseases is a consequence of environmental degradation and that chemical pollution poses a serious threat to children and to the human race”. Television programs such as CNN’s Toxics In America with Sanjay Gupta, MD are continuing to shed light on this wide spread problem.

I believe that exposure to toxic contaminants is one of the top health issues our generation faces. There is a growing body of evidence linking endocrine, immune, and neurological heath issues to low dose exposures to multiple chemicals and toxins. It is becoming widely recognized that most cases of cancer can be attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that environmental factors account for 75% of all cancers and it has been estimated that 1 in 3 people will get cancer in one form or another. I like what Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald says in her book The Detox Solution: we are spending billions of dollars looking for the cure to cancer while we are also spending billions of dollars creating the cause.

2. Who should be concerned about toxicity?

We all need to be concerned about toxic exposures. Exposures come in such varied forms that we all need to be quite vigilant. Even those of us who try to avoid contaminants may be exposed in ways that we had previously not thought of. For example, it was previously thought by many people that polycarbonate water bottles such as nalgene bottles and water cooler bottles were safe. Evidence is now quickly coming to light that polycarbonate water bottles (recycle code 7) leache Bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA is an estrogen agonist meaning that it activates estrogen receptors. It has been shown to have effects on animals and human cancer cells at levels as low as 2–5 ppb (parts per billion). BPA has also been shown to have developmental toxicity, carcinogenic effects, and possible neurotoxicity. It has been linked to obesity and schizophrenia.

BPA has also been known to leach from the plastic lining of canned foods. The chemical is said to be found in almost everyone that lives in developed countries at relatively low concentrations. Studies indicate, however, that the average levels in people are above the levels that cause harm to animals in laboratory experiments. Infants fed with liquid infant formula have among the highest exposures of anyone eating canned foods.

The Environmental Working Group just broke a Mar 25th 2008 report from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which reveals that 97% of Americans are contaminated with a widely-used sunscreen ingredient called oxybenzone. Oxybenzone has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage. A companion study published just one day earlier revealed that this chemical is linked to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy. Oxybenzone is also a penetration enhancer, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin.

3. What does body burden mean?

Body burden is a concept that was first postulated by Dr. William Rae whom I had the pleasure of preceptoring with. Dr. Rae explains body burden as a Rain Barrel with rain water coming in to it from many different down spouts. However, instead of rain water each spout carries toxic contaminants. In the beginning, the barrel is able to handle all the water (or in our example contaminants) coming into it; there is plenty of room to accommodate the water coming in. At some point the barrel becomes full and can no longer accommodate all that is coming into it and it begins to spill over. When the barrel spills over, or in other words when our body can no longer accommodate the toxic substances coming in, we begin to express symptoms of exposure. At first, we may show sensitivity to certain substances such as colognes and perfumes or have more severe allergies than most other people to things like pollen and pet dander. As the burden increases, or as the barrel continues to over flow, and the body is further stressed, we may express severe sensitivities to more and more chemicals eventually becoming sensitive to multiple chemicals. These would be people with multiple chemical sensitivities.

4. What are some of the toxins that people are exposed to on a daily basis?

Toxins come in many shapes and forms. Dr. Rae divides toxins in to three basic categories: physical, chemical and biological toxins. Physical toxins include heat, cold, radon, light, noise, electromagnetic fields, weather and meteorologic changes. Chemical toxins include inorganic and organic toxins. Inorganic toxins include ozone, cyanide, chlorine, asbestos, nitrous oxide and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and aluminum. Organic chemicals include petroleum products such as benzene, toluene and xylenes; chlorinated solvents such as vinyl chloride and tetrachloroethylene; pesticides and herbicides, formaldehyde, and phenols. Biological contaminants include molds, dusts, pollens, bacteria, amoeba, worms, viruses, protozoa and other parasites. Biological contaminants may be found in the air, on dust, in our food, and in bioaerosols created when people cough or sneeze.

Among the three main categories, I would include a another category, namely, emotional and cognitive toxins because negative thoughts and depressed emotions can have a major impact on our bodies ability to handle stress including stress placed on the body by toxic substances. Going back to the body burden theory, negative thoughts and depressed emotions can shrink our rain barrel so to speak and cause symptoms of toxicity to occur earlier than they would have, had our thoughts and emotions been more positive.

5. So where do we find these types of toxic substances?

Building materials that form our homes, offices and schools may contain substances such as lead and mercury-based paints, asbestos-containing materials, formaldehyde, plastics in furnishings, computers, TVs, other equipment. Lead and asbestos are more common in older buildings but putting asbestos in building materials is no longer against the law and you could find it even in newer buildings.

Plastics and plasticizers are given off by things like TVs, computers, copiers and other equipment when they begin to heat up during use. I recently purchased a mini- trampoline or rebounder from one of the big box stores. When I got it home and set it up I couldn’t believe the amount of toxic vapors that were being emitted from the plastic skirting that covered the springs. I had to remove the plastic skirting before I was able to use the rebounder indoors. Even the paper instructions were so permeated with the toxic vapor that I had to read them outdoors.

Carpets, carpet backing and foam carpet pads can off gas volatile organic compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde both of which can irritate your eyes, nose and throat and are suspected carcinogenic substances.

Newly painted walls can also off gas VOCs including formaldehyde. Book cases and desks made of particle board with formaldehyde containing glues can off gas. Cushions to sofas and chairs are made of polyurethane foam plastic and can be covered with synthetic fabrics that contain acrylic, polyester or polyvinyl chloride. Formaldehyde resins are used to coat the fabrics to make them resistant to stains.

Considerable amount of toxic substances are released into the indoor air in personal items such as scents and hair sprays; in household products such as finishes, rug and oven cleaners, paints and their thinners, paint strippers, pesticides; dry-cleaning fluids off gassing from recently dry-cleaned clothing; office products such as correction fluids, carbonless copy paper, treated papers; graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions. Just to name a few.

Cosmetics and skin care products can contain numerous toxic chemicals. Synthetic perfumes used alone or included in beauty and hygiene items can contain up to 600 hundred ingredients in a single formulation; up to 4,000 ingredients are used by the industry. Many of the ingredients are protected by trade secrecy and not listed in the product ingredient list. Some known ingredients include methylene chloride, toluene, methyl ethyl ketone, methyl isobutyl ketone, ethanol, benzyl chloride, polyvinyl- pyrrolidone plastic (carcinogenic) and formaldehyde. Lipstick has recently been in the news due to the fact that many lipsticks contain lead. Lipstick is a double whammy because it is absorbed through the skin and swallowed. Fluoride toothpaste can contain ammonia, ethanol, artificial colors and flavors, formaldehyde, mineral oil, sugar and carcinogenic polyvinyl-pyrrolidone plastic.

Powders like talc, eye shadow, and some powdered blush can contain asbestos. Synthetic fabrics used in clothing include nylon, polyester and acrylic. These fibers are thermoplastics made from petrochemicals and they can contain among other things polyvinyl chloride and formaldehyde-based finishes. When warmed against the skin they can emit small amounts of plastic vapors.

Bedding can also emit vapors which we then breathe while we sleep. The fact that we sleep for about 1/3 of our life means that we inhale these chemicals for 1/3 of our life. Most mattresses are made of polyurethane foam, sprayed with chemical fire retardants and covered with polyester plastic fabric. Polyurethane foam can itself cause respiratory problems and skin and eye irritation. Polyurethane foam also contains toluene diisocyanate which can also produce lung problems. Polyester mattress pads and sheets are treated with a formaldehyde-based permanent-press finish. Many blankets and comforters are made of polyester or acrylic causing additional vapor release. (Success in the Clean Bedroom - Dr. William Rae and Natalie Golos ) Recent studies have shown that our drinking water is contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs such as antibiotics and hormones, as well as, petrochemicals and heavy metals. Electromagnetic Fields

6. Why are some people sensitive to certain toxins or allergens while other people are not?

I have had the opportunity to assess various businesses where there were complaints of several employees getting sick at work. Upon assessment of most of these places you find that two or three people have symptoms of exposure while the majority of employees do not. Why is that? People have different susceptibilities to toxins. A person’s susceptibility and response to toxins is dependent on a number of factors including their age, gender, genetic factors, health status, nutritional status, metabolism, and life style factors. Often young people are more sensitive to toxins than adults; and the effects can be much more serious. Someone with an autoimmune disease will be more susceptible than someone who is in a higher state of health. A person who exercises may have less susceptibility that someone who does not. Someone whose rain barrel is full or nearly so, in other words who has a high toxic load, will react more readily to toxic exposures than someone with a low toxic load.

7. What happens to toxins once they get into the body?

First of all how do toxins get into the body? Toxins can be inhaled, swallowed, absorbed through the skin or injected in the case of prescription or illegal drugs. Once taken in by the body they can then be distributed throughout the body in the lymph system or blood supply, and be absorbed by various tissues such as fats cells, bone, cartilage and muscles. There toxins can exert effects: pharmaceutical, pathological, and DNA damaging.

Toxins can then accumulate in different tissue and organs such as the liver, serum proteins, bone (Pb), kidneys, and fat. Of course, fat is present throughout the body and is very abundant in the brain.

The liver is the body's primary detoxifying organ. Detoxification is carried out in the liver in two related processes known as Phase I and Phase II. Phase I serves to biotransform substances through oxidation, reduction or hydrolysis, using the cytochrome P450 enzymes. This process increases the solubility of molecules and prepares them for Phase II reactions which will further increase their solubility.

The Phase I reactions are necessary for detoxification, but the resulting production of reactive oxidative products can at times be very damaging.

In Phase II, conjugation reactions add a polar hydrophilic molecule to the metabolite or toxin, converting lipophilic (fat loving) substances to water-soluble forms for excretion and elimination. Major Phase II pathways include glutathione, sulfate, glycine, and glucuronide conjugations. Supporting these pathways is extremely important in a successful and safe detox program.

Major excretion pathways

Kidney - urinary excretion (mostly hydrophiles)

Liver - biliary excretion (mostly lipophiles)

Lungs – air - passive diffusion into exhaled air in lungs - mostly low-MW volatile lipophilic compounds (organic solvents) Sweat, saliva, tears, breast milk and semen.

8. What types of foods do we need to worry about in terms of toxic contaminants?

Many processed foods contain artificial colors and flavors, as well as, pesticides. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharine can also be a problem.

The EWG has published The Dirty Dozen - fruits and veges which contain the most pesticides these are: Apples, Bell Peppers, Celery, Cherries, Grapes (imported), Nectarines, Peaches, Pears, Potatoes, Red Raspberries, Spinach, Strawberries.

Fish with highest levels of mercury: Atlantic (farmed) Salmon, Large carnivorous fish such as Swordfish, Shark, Tuna, and Halibut. Dr. Chris Spooner, ND, professor of environemental medicine at the University of Bridgeport, calls Farmed Atlantic Salmon the most toxic food currently available. Go to www.EWG for fish found to have the lowest toxicity levels.

9. There is so much talk about plastics lately, is there a way to know which plastics to avoid and which ones are ok?

Rule Number 1: Avoid plastic when possible; otherwise opt for safer choices in plastics:
1 PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate ethylene, used for soft drink, juice, water, detergent, cleaner and peanut butter containers.
2 HDPE: High density polyethylene, used in opaque plastic milk and water jugs, bleach, detergent and shampoo bottles and some plastic bags.
3 PVC or V: Polyvinyl chloride, used for cling wrap, some plastic squeeze bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles.
4 LDPE: Low density polyethylene, used in grocery store bags, most plastic wraps and some bottles.
5 PP: Polypropylene, used in most Rubbermaid, deli soup, syrup and yogurt containers, straws and other clouded plastic containers, including baby bottles.
6 PS: Polystyrene, used in Styrofoam food trays, egg cartons, disposable cups and bowls, carry- out containers and opaque plastic cutlery.
7 Other: Usually polycarbonate, used in most plastic baby bottles, 5-gallon water bottles, “sport” water bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups and some clear plastic cutlery. New bio-based plastics may also be labeled #7.

Safer Choices for Food and Beverages: 1, 2, 4, and 5
Avoid: 3, 6, and 7 Use alternatives to polycarbonate plastic baby bottles and “sippy” cups.

BPA and plastisizers are likely to be leached at a high rate from old scratched and worn plastics and from plastics exposed to hot, acidic or oily foods and drinks. Harsh detergents also increase the rate of leaching.

10. There are so many possible sources of contamination how can we possibly be healthy in an unhealthy world?

We are all exposed to many different toxins from many different sources. Some of the exposures are often unavoidable while others we can do something about. Often we choose to accept certain exposures because to do otherwise would restrict our ability to lead our lives the way we want. For example, I was exposed to petroleum emissions every day that I drove I-95 down to Bridgeport, CT for school. I saw cars and trucks spewing black exhaust that I had to drive through and breath. On the other hand, there are some are risks that we might decide to avoid if we have the knowledge to make informed choices. Indoor air pollution is a good example of exposures that we can reduce by reducing exposures to plastics. Avoid those toxins that you can, but don’t become overly stressed about things that you can’t control because as I have said before, stress chemicals released into the body by negative stress and worry are also a form of toxin and will affect the bodies toxic load.

11. What about using air filters in the home or office? What kinds are the best?

Start with a good HEPA vacuum cleaner, then get a good HEPA air filter (eg., Austin Air) with activated carbon to help filter VOCs.

12. What are some of the techniques used by naturopathic doctors to remove toxins from the body?

The first and most important step in a detoxification program is to eliminate or reduce the underlying cause. In other words stop the exposure if at all possible. For example, if you are a painter and you are intoxicated from heavy metals and VOCs, you may have to consider using better personal protective equipment or changing careers. Reduce total toxic load by reducing exposure as much as you reasonably can to other sources of toxins like perfumes, fragrances and scented products, cleaning agents, paint, new carpeting, pressboard furniture, auto exhausts, gasoline, new carpet and fabrics, tobacco smoke and alcohol, dry cleaning, etc. Avoid foods with pesticides and foods that you might be allergic to. Beyond eliminating the cause and avoiding other exposures, naturopathic doctors use many different techniques depending on the patient and their type of intoxication.

• Appropriate vitamins and minerals to support and modulate detoxification pathways as well as to support the body prior and during the detox process.

• Nutriceuticals such as indol-3 carbonal found in cruciferous veges induces detoxification pathways and helps with estrogen metabolism.

• Herbal supplements such as Milk Thistle and curcumin are antioxidant and heptatoprotective (that is they protect the liver). Taraxacum root extract –has both cholerectic and cholegogue effects. It is a source of choline which will help phase 1 clearing.

• Isothiocyanates found in watercrest helps increase the metabolism of detoxification intermediates.

• Single and complex homeopathic remedies to open the pathways of elimination and encourage the movement of toxins at the cellular level.

• Colonics and other bowel cleansing techniques including fiber and probiotics can help optimize bowel function and prevent the reuptake of toxins that have been secreted with the bile into the GI tract during the detoxification process. (Enterohepatic recirculation). A rule of detox is never do it on a constipated person.

• Phytogreens such as spirulina and chlorella gently bind toxins and gently promote elimination.

• Amino acids are used to strengthen detoxification reactions, act as antioxidants to protect the liver from damage, and as direct chelating agents.

• Saunas, hot baths and hydrotherapy can encourage the release of toxins through the skin while helping to increase a person’s vitality. Exercise prior to the sauna can increase circulation and enhance the release of toxins. The increased rate and depth of breathing during exercise can help promote release of toxins through the lungs and breath.

• When necessary, Toxic metals can be removed from the body by more aggressive chelation techniques which utilize substances that bind metals and remove them from the body.

• Mind / body therapies such as counseling, meditation may be very helpful during the detoxification process.

Recommended Reading:

Success in the Clean Bedroom by Natalie Golos, Dr. William J Rea
Your Home, Your Health, and Well Being by David Rousseau, WJ Rea, Jean Enwright
Home Safe Home - Creating a Healthy Home Environment by Reducing Exposure to Toxic Household Products – by Debra Lynn Dadd
Natural Detoxification - A Practical Encyclopedia by Jacqueline Krohn MD. Hartley & Marks Publishers Inc. 2000.
Indoor Air Quality. US Environmental Protection Agency. www.epa.gov
Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org

hand icon, links Links
Learn more about healthy living at some of these sites!
form icon Forms for New Patients
Here you will find the forms needed for your first appointment here.
acupuncture, icon Acupuncture
Learn about it here!
clipboard, appointment icon Set Up An Appointment!
Start living your new healthier life now!