Updated: Jul 27
The human body is amazing. It knows when something toxic has entered and it knows how to remove those toxins, to keep its organs working effectively. The body has several in-built detoxification systems - most importantly the liver, kidney and lungs – which filter and remove toxins for us every single day. But when the bodies' rate of exposure is greater than its rate of elimination, toxins will begin to build up (1).
As incredible as our bodies are, its detoxification system was developed at a time when external, man-made chemicals did not exist. Which raises the question: have we evolved enough to handle the toxic exposure of modern life?
On this question I'm inclined to land on the side of Dr Ali Cohen, founder of www.thesmarthuman.com. She says;
“With all the chemical influx and immersion, the human body has not been able to appropriately evolve on the evolutionary timeline as fast as our surroundings have changed. The polluted air, food additives, toxins and emotional stressors, to name a few, have had a negative impact on our bodies. We are human, and we break.”
Global chemical production has increased fifty-fold since 1950, and it isn’t going anywhere - it is forecast to treble in volume by 2050 (2). This is because chemicals are used in virtually every product we consume daily, from food to toiletries, furniture to cookware. Man-made chemicals can speed up manufacturing processes, lower the cost of formulations, and increase the shelf life of products. As a result, we as consumers, have benefited from cheaper, more convenient products over the last 70 years. As for manufacturers? They’ve made a lot more money.
Are the right checks and balances in place?
Worryingly, the industry appears to be largely unchecked. The European Commission estimates that only a small proportion of the 100,000 chemicals released to the EU market have been evaluated for their impact on human health and the environment (3). Despite this lack of testing, experts believe that we are facing a significant risk - Eurostat estimates that the EU produced 85 million tonnes of chemicals hazardous to the environment and 223 million tonnes of chemicals hazardous to human health in 2017 (4).
With this level of exposure, it’s perhaps no surprise that the US Environmental Working Group (EWG) found 287 chemicals in the umbilical cords of babies in their 2005 study. In addition, Breast Cancer UK recently brought forward evidence to a UK parliamentary audit that women in the UK have the highest levels of flame retardants, which are commonly found on furniture, in their breast milk. In both cases, the chemicals that were found are known to cause cancer and birth defects, as well as being toxic to the brain and nervous system (5).
The UK parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee is clearly concerned. They wrote a report calling for urgent action in July 2019, but sadly, it was rapidly overshadowed by Brexit and things have been somewhat busy at No. 10 ever since. The report calls out the chemicals of highest concern, which include BPA, a plasticiser widely used in food and drink containers; parabens found in shampoo and other toiletries; flame retardants found on furniture; perfluorinated chemicals found on non-stick pans and toys; and phthalates found in clothes and food packaging.
Some argue that the concentration at which these chemicals are found in our products makes them safe, and they would only become toxic at much higher doses than what we experience day to day. However, the government report highlights that we cannot know this, given only a small proportion of the chemicals brought to market have ever been tested for toxicity. In addition, the report points out that there is a complete gap in knowledge around how different chemicals interact in our bodies - “Current regulation does not account for the cocktail of chemicals we are exposed to”.
What can we do about it?
As we are biologically individual, we all have different levels of sensitivity to chemicals. Depending on factors such as our age, sex, inherited traits and underlying state of health, some of us will experience the stressful and toxic effects of a chemical at a lower dose than others (1). We see the same thing with caffeine – it’s why some of us will be restless and jittery after just one cup and some of us can drink a cup before bed and still fall asleep. Alas, we may never know if we are in the sensitive camp or not, so perhaps it's time we all asked ourselves: How exposed to chemicals am I?
Although chemicals are ubiquitous, the good news is that we can choose to limit our exposure and consequently reduce stress on our bodies, if we want to. There are more and more companies providing alternative solutions to what is being mass produced. Although it's worth noting that the “clean” market can be confusing. For some brands, “clean” means to have recycled or re-used packaging, for others it’s about veganism, and then there are the ones manufacturing without toxic chemicals. If you want to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals the trick is to be more curious, check the ingredients of what you consume, and don’t just accept what a brand or retailer claims at face value.
The thought of overhauling every product you use can be very overwhelming, not to mention expensive, so my advice would be to start with the things you use most often such as food and toothpaste. You can make other changes over time - this is all about the long game.
Steps to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals:
1. Buy organic, local food
...As much as you can. Focus on the top of the food chain (meat and dairy) and the “Dirty Dozen” as a priority (the 12 plants found with the highest quantity of pesticides).
2. Go toxin free with anything you put on your skin
Check the ingredients list of your toiletries and make-up and try to avoid those containing parabens. You can check the safety rating for a product via the Environmental Working Group’s website here . Avalon Organic, Neal's Yard and Neom are a few brands that I use myself and would recommend for their ethical formulation approach.
3. Clean up your home cleaning
Again, EWG have a handy website which will help you stay informed about products from the big brands. Ecover is a good choice. Alternatively, make your own cleaning products from hard working natural products such as lemon juice, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Check out this article for tips here.
4. Avoid plastic
Switch to glass, silicone or stainless steel containers for food and water. It is particularly important not to heat up plastic containers in the microwave, as the toxins will leach into food even faster. Try also to avoid buying fresh food in plastic packaging from the supermarket - instead choose the loose fruit and vegetables.
5. Go back to basics with cookware
The invention of 'non-stick' has sadly brought with it a high risk of consuming toxins when we cook our food. To avoid this, choose more traditional cookware such as stainless steel, ceramic or cast iron. For safe non-stick try Greenpan.
6. Go au naturale in the bedroom
We sleep on our mattresses for around 8 hours every night so this is the area of highest exposure when it comes to furniture. When you are next considering an upgrade, look for options made from natural 'cellulosic' materials like cotton or wool. As these materials are naturally fire resistant, they do not need to be treated with flame retardant chemicals (6).
7. Think pure water
Buy a water purifier. At a minimum, buy something like a Brita which will filter out heavy metals from your tap water. If you are willing to make the investment you could look into a system for your house which will provide more extensive filtering of chemicals from all water sources.
8. Get green fingered
Buy lots of indoor plants! In this study NASA identify the best plants for improving air quality and these include the Peace Lily, Spider Plant, Aloe Vera, English Ivy and Snake Plant.
9. Get fresh air, no matter the weather!
The easiest and cheapest way to ensure chemicals in the air get dispersed is to open your windows daily. Again, prioritise the most used rooms such as the bedroom. Also take a daily walk - just a few minutes will make a difference to your body. If you'd like to hear more about the healing power of nature, check out my blog here.
(3) European Commission, Study for the strategy for a non-toxic environment of the 7th Environment Action Programme (2017), p 10.
(4) Eurostat, Chemicals production and consumption statistics (December 2018).