Even though many of us do not come into contact with industrial chemicals per say on a daily basis, it is astonishing how many of these chemicals can make their way into our everyday life through different aspects of daily living. In fact, anything from our food, to cosmetics to personal care items and household items are contaminated with toxins.
Detecting these everyday toxins and pollutants can initially be challenging but with a little research and self-education, identifying these contaminants can become quite easy. And for the health-conscious consumer it is a must to have this knowledge on hand in order to eliminate the threat of many lurking potential health hazards.
This article has been put together with the intent of equipping readers to be better aware of how and where toxins are concealed in the food we eat, the personal care items we use as well as in various household cleaning items.
Toxins in Foods
Among foods, processed foods are the biggest threat. There are various unhealthy chemicals lurking behind attractive packaging, tempting pictures and nutritional claims. All these marketing perks are an easy and convenient way to disguise the serious health hazards that additives and preservatives used in processed foods can cause.
Another concern is the issue of environmental pollution which has a way of impacting the food that we eat. Environmental contaminants can be detected at high levels in everyday foods like fish, whole foods and meats from conventionally raised livestock.
Spotting Toxins in Foods
Although the list by no means covers all existing toxins, it takes a look at the most common ones to be found in everyday food choices:
- Mercury: High levels of mercury can be found in many of our favorite types of fish, but overexposure to this harmful toxin can cause many kinds of health problems.
- Bisphenol-A: Also known as BPA, this toxin is present in food and beverage can linings and as such in most foods that are canned. It acts as a hormone mimicker where it can trigger breast and prostate cancer while also causing other reproductive and behavioral issues. Obesity and diabetes have also been associated with ingestion of BPA.
- Pesticides: Most pesticides are neurotoxins that are harmful to the brain and the nervous system. While pesticides are used to treat produce and other products, they always leave behind poisonous residue that then enters our bodies upon consuming the treated produce. Ingestion of pesticides has been linked to severe problems of all natures ranging from birth defects to cancer.
- BVO Brominated Vegetable Oil: This harmful ingredient is found in citrus flavored sodas and other drinks. Its regular use is linked to behavioral and reproductive problems.
- GMOs: Used in a majority of processed foods, genetically modified organisms, are known to be responsible for causing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune disorders. GMOs are typically found in all food that have been processed using corn, soy, cotton seed, canola and sugar beet-based ingredients.
- Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame is a commonly used artificial sweetener which also happens to be a neurotoxic chemical additive. It is typically found in all diet sodas as well as different types of artificial sweeteners.
- Refined Sugar: One of the most toxic additives is refined sugar. It comes under many different names, mostly ending in –ose such as sucrose, maltose, fructose, dextrose and glucose among others. Refined sugars can be labelled using words like malt, syrup or cane.
- MSG: A flavor enhancer, MSG is used widely in canned soups, crackers, meats, salad dressings and frozen dinners among many other processed foods. Its prolonged use has been linked with serious conditions like obesity, depression, learning disorders and certain types of heart disease.
- Artificial colors: Coloring agents blue, red green and yellow are all coal tar dyes that are highly carcinogenic. These are used widely in juices, sports drinks, candies, maraschino cherries and gelatin. These are also strongly linked to neurological disorders like ADHD.
- BHT and BHA: These are commonly used food preservatives that come with the potential danger of causing cancer. Both ingredients are also responsible for promoting hormone disruption as well as affecting male fertility.
- Sulfites: Acting as an enhancer or preservative in foods, sulfites are included in many types of processed or cooked foods such as canned juices, baked goods, soup mixes, gravies and snacks like potato chips and trail mixes. It is one of the most common allergens in foods.
- Sodium nitrates and nitrites: These preservatives are commonly used in deli foods like processed meats. Sodium nitrate is used to give deli meats their appetizing red color but its consumption has been linked to different types of cancer.
What Foods to Avoid
Because processed and canned foods use a lot of these toxins and preservatives during their manufacturing and packaging process, it is best to cut out these foods from your meal plan.
Stay away from processed meats, foods containing mercury and reduce the amount of canned foods consumed. Cut back on meat and dairy products as they contain contaminants from the soil. Stay away from sodas, artificial sweeteners, manufactured snacks which are full of hydrogenated oil as well as artificially colored foods.
Not only are these food options linked with the increasing prevalence of diabetes and heart disease, they are also supplemented heavily with salt, corn syrup and other unhealthy ingredients that put consumers’ health at risk.
Among these, breakfast cereals and cereal bars feature prominently as these are full of sugar, refined grains, stripped of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. They also contain a multitude of additives such as flavorings, colorings and preservatives. Make it a habit to read labels carefully as labels will reveal all that is wrong with processed foods.
Consuming wheat has become a dietary dilemma for the modern consumer because of its highly genetically modified form. Some prefer to completely eliminate it from their diet, but if you find it hard to give up wheat and want to keep it in your diet, then opt for certified organic and choose sprouted wheat instead. When sprouted, wheat is easier to digest and is higher in protein.
Avoid artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, sweeteners and claims saying “low-fat”, “cholesterol free” and “trans-fat free” for when manufacturing foods devoid of fats or sugars, manufacturers need to supplement them with something else to make up for the lost flavor. Typically, these supplements are synthetic flavors and toxins that are no good for our health.
When reading labels carefully, also ditch these toxic fast foods including fried foods like fries, onion rings, chicken fingers, potato chips, and all frozen dinners which are full of salt and additives.
Another one to watch out for are soy products where soy burgers, soy cheese, soy yogurt, soy milk, soy hot dogs, tofu, soy protein, soy formula are simply junk foods of the soy industry known as healthy options.
Fish is one of the most polluted foods you can eat. Our oceans, lakes, rivers are polluted with large amounts of toxic chemicals and fish are heavily contaminated. When shopping for fish, choose fish lower in heavy metals and toxins like whitefish, halibut, haddock, striped sea bass, trout, tilapia, sole or mahi-mahi.
Avoid fish high in toxins like swordfish, tuna, shark, bluefish, shellfish, shrimp, Atlantic or farmed salmon, mackerel as well as avoid store-bought canned tuna fish which is very high in mercury. Be sure to broil or bake your fish to allow as much fat as possible to drain out as lots of the chemicals are stored in the fat.
Wherever possible, opt for buying organic meats and produce as this will minimize the threat of pesticides presence and residue on the food. Much of the produce that is grown conventionally has astonishing amounts of pesticide residue and what would otherwise be considered healthy foods become hazardous due to the high levels of pesticide residue remaining on them.
In fact, here is a list of the dirty dozen in terms of produce that retains the highest to lowest levels of pesticides when they hit the market:
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
- Imported nectarines
- Sweet bell peppers
- Collard greens
- Summer squash (zucchini)
Source: Environmental Working Group: www.ewg.org/foodnews
The same survey lists fifteen clean foods that are safe to buy non organic as they come with the lowest levels of pesticides:
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas (frozen)
- Sweet Potatoes
Source: Environmental Working Group: www.ewg.org/foodnews
Health Hazards Involved
Many of the foods mentioned above have dangerous additives, some even carcinogens. For instance, overexposure to mercury can lead to health issues like memory problems, fatigue and other issues. Too much mercury can attack the nervous system and may also lead to learning disorders, autoimmune disease and even heart related concerns. Instead stick with low mercury fish options.
Fruits and vegetables that are grown conventionally can contain harmful contaminants present in the soil, which upon entering our bloodstream can wreak havoc with our hormonal balances.
Likewise, livestock that is conventionally raised will be exposed to feed that has been grown with pesticides. Conventionally raised livestock will also be given growth hormones for faster growth and these synthetic hormones in both milk and meats from these animals can mess up our hormones as well.
Common preservatives like BHA prevent food spoilage but at the same time is a major endocrine disruptor and can mess up hormonal activity. And just as too much of a good thing can be bad, exposure to artificial sweeteners overtime has been associated with various issues like nerve cell damage, dizziness and headaches.
Pesticide exposure may lead to ADHD and other developmental disorders. Normal hormonal activity can be impacted leading to infertility.
The best options for conscious consumers are to choose from organic produce and organic meat.
Going organic guarantees minimal exposure to pesticides, is safe from GMOs, petroleum-based fertilizers and offers better soil quality in which produce is farmed. Likewise, organic livestock has greater access to organic feed, is bred in their natural habitat and not treated with any growth hormones, antibiotics or animal by-products.
A strong point favoring organic produce is the absence of nutrient depletion in the soil. Nutrient depletion happens to soil over time and if soil for farming is weak, the outcome is plants that are weak and more susceptible to diseases and pests. For organically farmed produce, organic farms rotate crops which naturally nourish their soils resulting in healthier plants which are nutritionally richer.
Conventionally grown produce, farmed livestock and processed foods may be cheaper options to their organic counterparts but do not measure up in terms of their health benefits. In fact, the fewer ingredients a food has, the closer it is to its natural form and the more nutritional value it will offer.
And now since most of our everyday food choices consist of many refined foods such as white pasta, white rice and white bread that have been stripped of nutrients, as well as vegetables and fruits that contain far less nutrition that they did 50 years ago, it is not a bad idea to consider including more superfoods into your diet plan.
Superfoods are foods that are naturally packed with beneficial nutrients, come with disease fighting potential and provide a range of anti aging oxidants.
Toxins in Cosmetics and Personal Care Items
Although manufactured with the intent of doing so, not all cosmetics or personal care products will help to make you look and feel beautiful. In fact, many of these items, laden will chemicals, will not contribute to the health of your skin or your overall health in the long term. When cosmetic and beauty companies use chemical ingredients to improve the texture or increase the shelf life of their products, using the very same products can become detrimental to your health.
Toxins found in everyday personal care items can affect consumers of all ages. While use of makeup products is primarily confined to women consumers, studies have found evidence of toxins from personal care products in the blood and urine of babies, teens and adults.
From regular use over time, specific cosmetic ingredients found in our bodies can include toxins like phthalate plasticizers, paraben preservatives, the pesticide triclosan, synthetic musks and sunscreens. All these chemicals are known hormone disruptors which with prolonged use start to build up in our body and start to mess up our hormones.
But how do these toxins end up in our body one might ask?
Well, by applying chemical laden cosmetics and personal care items to the body, these toxins get absorbed through the skin. They can just as easily be inhaled when used in the form of sprays or powders, or even be swallowed from a lipstick or gloss. In fact, smearing and massaging cosmetics over different areas of the skin or scalp provides a more direct route into the bloodstream than actually ingesting them.
To make matters worse, there are minimal safety regulations regarding use of chemicals in personal care items. The cosmetic industry is not under any obligation to label these ingredients as hazardous on their products. So, if you’ve never thought about this aspect of your health, now is the time, because the cosmetic industry isn’t cleaning up their junk anytime soon.
Spotting Toxins in Cosmetics and Personal Care Items
The following list of ingredients looks at the top offenders found in many of today’s cosmetics and personal care items:
- Imidazolidinyl urea: A widely used preservative, imidazolidinyl urea can be found in almost all types of cosmetics ranging from skin creams, baby lotions, sunscreens, shaving creams, shampoos, deodorants, eye liners and much more. It is used to allow cosmetics and other products to retain freshness and prevent early spoilage caused by yeast, bacteria or mold.
- Parabens: Another commonly used preservative in cosmetics and fragrances, parabens can very easily be absorbed by the skin. Once in the bloodstream, parabens can act as hormone disruptors, especially mimicking estrogen, the primary female sex hormone. Their use has been linked with growing breast cancer as well as impacting male reproductive functions.
- Phthalates: Phthalates are chemicals that are used in cosmetics and personal care items to make the products softer and more flexible. When used in cosmetics, phthalates are used to improve the texture of products and can be found in nail polish and perfumes.
- Triethanolamine: Triethanolamaine can be found in variety of cosmetic and personal care items such as eye liners, mascara, eye shadows, hair care products, skin cleansing products, shaving products and others where it is used to act as a buffering agent, masking and fragrance ingredient as well as a surfactant.
- Polyethylene glycols: PEGs are petroleum-based compounds used commonly in many personal care items and cosmetics, especially in cream based products. When used in these products, they modify the texture of products making them thicker and softer, or act as solvents or moisture carriers. PEGs are suspected carcinogens and may also interfere with human development.
- Synthetic colors: Synthetic colors in cosmetics and personal care items are chiefly obtained from coal tar dyes. They can be found in a range of products including makeup, hygiene products, baby care products, oral care items and men’s grooming products. Coal tar itself is a respiratory and skin toxin that is also considered an environmental toxin.
- Synthetic fragrances: Used to scent cosmetics and personal care items, fragrances are a blend of many synthetic chemical compounds. Many of these can be allergens and sensitizers that cause and trigger asthma.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate: A known surfactant, detergent and emulsifier, SLS is used in many cosmetic products as well as in industrial cleaners. Its prolonged use in personal care items can lead to irritation of the skin and eyes, organ toxicity, developmental or reproductive toxicity along with cancer causing properties.
- Stearalkonium chloride: This ingredient is used in various hair products and has shown to exhibit skin irritation and eye irritant effects.
- PVP/VA copolymer: A derivative of petroleum PVP polymer is used in many hair products, styling aids and cosmetics such as mascara because it helps keep hair in place. However, it is known to cause respiratory system damage when inhaled.
- Toluene: Used as a solvent in nail polish, toluene is used to ensure that the polish is applied smoothly and effectively. Considered neurotoxic, toluene is also used as a paint thinner and has the potential risk of acting as an irritant, can impair breathing and has been linked to toxicity of the immune system.
- Lead: A heavy metal, lead is used in a variety of cosmetics including lipstick. It happens to be neurotoxin which has been associated with learning disorders, as well as language and behavioral problems.
- Aluminum: Aluminum is used in various personal care products, including deodorants and antiperspirants to regulate the flow of sweat from the skin. At the same time aluminum salts can act as hormone mimickers especially estrogen. This has some believing that using deodorants containing aluminum for a long period may be linked to the development of breast cancer in women.
- BHA and BHT: Both toxins are known endocrine disruptors and may also be carcinogenic in nature. They are used in various cosmetic and personal care items including moisturizers and lipsticks.
- Coal tar dyes: Coal tar contains many chemicals all derived from petroleum. They have huge potential for being carcinogenic as these dyes are often combined with various levels of heavy metals. Used in colored cosmetics as well as in hair dyes.
- Cyclomethicone and siloxanes: Toxic ingredients that are used in moisturizer, makeup, hair products, have the potential to interfere with hormones and disrupt liver function.
- DEA/ MEA/ TEA: Chemicals found in creamy, foaming products like moisturisers, sunscreens, soaps, cleansers and shampoo are linked to cancer development and progression.
- Dibutyl phthalate: This ingredient is used in nail products to prevent nail polish from becoming brittle. It can be absorbed through the skin interfering with reproductive and hormone function.
- Petrolatum: Included in hair products, lip balm/lipstick and other skin care products, petrolatum is used for shine and as a moisture barrier to lock in moisture. However, prolonged use can expose consumers to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs that contaminate petrolatum. These PAHs are carcinogenic and can also cause skin irritations and allergies.
- Triclosan: Found in “anti-bacterial” products such as toothpaste, soaps, hand sanitizers, triclosan may actually help antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Easily absorbed through skin, triclosan can disrupt regular hormone function.
Source: David Suzuki Foundation http://www.davidsuzuki.org/
How to Avoid Using Toxins in Cosmetics
The first step is to educate and familiarize yourself with a list of toxins and contaminants.
Stay away from products that have fragrance; a generic term for many different chemical ingredients.
Green cosmetic companies have entered the mainstream market, offering safer alternatives to commercial makeup. Their products are manufactured from synthetic free ingredients and rely on natural ingredients to deliver results. Opt for these products to keep yourself and your family safe.
Associated Health Hazards
Because many of these chemical ingredients are also used in industrial manufacturing to clean equipment, grease machines, as well as stabilize pesticides, it is small wonder that they may not be the most beneficial option to put on your skin. Some are suspected carcinogens while many others are irritants, allergens and can cause cellular damage and hormone disruption.
Cosmetics and personal care items also use an array of sensitizing chemicals that can lead to allergic reactions like asthma, wheezing, headaches along with serious long terms effects causing birth defects and learning disabilities.
Moreover, based on findings by the Environmental Working Group, around 89 % of the 10,500 ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care items have not been evaluated for safety by the FDA. On the contrary, there are no mandatory requirements for testing on personal care items by the US federal government. These loopholes need to be addressed properly so that health concerns associated with cosmetic and personal care items use can be minimized.
Toxins in Household Cleaning Items
Another area of daily living where we are constantly exposing ourselves to toxins and possible contaminants is when we use common household cleaning products. Not unlike food and personal care items, many household cleaning products are also laden with highly toxic ingredients that can seriously impact our health.
Although we buy these products to clean and sanitize our homes, while fighting germs and odors, yet many of these cleaning products contain chemicals which are harmful to the environment as well as to our health.
Spotting Toxins in Household Cleaners
While some chemical names like ammonia, fragrance, phosphates and sodium hydroxide may sound more familiar, there are a bunch of others that may not be so recognizable.
To make sure that consumers know the hazardous effects of these other dangerous toxins, here is a look at some of the most common toxins found in household cleaners:
- Ammonia: Ammonia is a common ingredient in many cleaning products such as window cleaners, drain and toilet cleaners, and car polishes whose vapors have the potential to severely irritate the skin, eyes, throat and lungs. Asthmatic patients are very sensitive to the effects of inhaling ammonia while others may be susceptible to kidney and liver damage.
- 2-BE: Found in glass cleaners, laundry stain removers, oven cleaners, and carpet cleaners, 2-BE is a skin and eye irritant. Prolonged exposure to this toxin is believed to lead to reproductive problems in individuals.
- Coal tar dyes: Very widely used in many cleaning products coal tar dyes are petrochemical derivatives. Many of these may also be contaminated with heavy metal trace amounts like lead, cadmium and arsenic. When used in household cleaning products, coal tar dyes can be easily absorbed through the skin or else be ingested as residue on kitchenware.
- MEA/ DEA/ TEA: Many liquid laundry detergents, floor cleaners, and all-purpose cleaners contain these toxins which can cause skin or eye irritations and trigger asthma for some individuals.
- Fragrance chemicals: Many of the 3000 chemicals used in fragrances are common irritants and allergens causing asthma and migraines. Some are known endocrine disruptors that can upset normal hormone functioning in individuals. Fragrances are used in almost all types of cleaning products.
- NPEs: Laundry detergents, stain removers, degreasers are all sources of NPEs. These nonylphenol ethoxylates are hormone disruptors and can also impact reproductive functions. Some have been observed to encourage breast cancer cell growth.
- Phosphates: Dishwater detergents, laundry detergents and bathroom cleaners all contain phosphates. Phosphates have the ability to cut soap scum and mineral up for more effective cleaning, but prolonged exposure comes at a price. When used for long periods, exposure to phosphates in cleaning products can lead to an increase in symptoms like rashes, dizziness and scratchy throats.
- Quaternary Ammonium Compounds: Found in bathroom cleaning products, fabric softeners and all-purpose cleaners, these Quats have ample opportunity to come into regular contact with skin. Upon contact, they can become irritants and sensitizers and may trigger asthma.
- Silica powder: Used in abrasive cleaning powders, silica is a known human carcinogen.
- Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dehydrate: Found in toilet bowl cleaners, deodorizers and disinfectants this toxin can be severely corrosive, causing eye and skin irritation. For some people, it may also be a serious respiratory irritant. This ingredient can form chlorine gas which can in turn, burn eyes, nose and mouth.
- Sodium hydroxide: Oven cleaners, bathroom cleaners and drain openers all contain sodium hydroxide for cleaning purposes. It is highly corrosive and can easily burn eyes, skin and lungs. Also considered a respiratory irritant, sodium hydroxide can over time cause nasal passage ulceration along with chronic skin irritation.
- Sodium lauryl sulfate: Used in dish soap, liquid laundry detergent and toilet bowl cleaners, SLS is a serious skin irritant. And while its corrosive properties may make for better cleaning, they are not doing consumers’ health any favors. SLS is a penetration enhancer meaning that it can allow other toxins to penetrate skin and cell membranes more easily.
- Triclosan: Found in a variety of household cleaning products, triclosan is an active ingredient in products like dish soaps and disinfectants. It is a suspected endocrine disruptor that disrupts normal hormone functioning.
- Trisodium nitrilotriacetate: Many of today’s bathroom cleaners will have this toxic ingredient in them and is considered a possible human carcinogen.
Source: David Suzuki Foundation http://www.davidsuzuki.org/
Impact on Health and Environment
Due to the nature of corrosive, acidic and irritant ingredients found in many household cleaning products, we are exposed to their residues at low levels on an everyday basis. With frequent use of these chemical compounds around the home, their emission lingers on in the air with people breathing them in. The same chemicals can also enter our body when they are absorbed through the skin or even ingested when residue is left on kitchen ware and dishes.
In addition, these cleaning chemicals are also active contributors to indoor air pollution. In fact, many of these cleaners contain some of the most toxic ingredients found in homes, especially when they remain on various surfaces around the home.
The type of health or environmental hazard posed by these chemicals varies with some causing acute or immediate discomfort like skin or eye irritation, watery eyes or chemical burns while others can have long term chronic effects such as triggering and developing cancer cells.
Acutely corrosive cleaners contain ingredients like ammonia and chlorine bleach that can produce fumes that are highly aggravating to eyes and the respiratory tract. When fragrances are added to cleaners like laundry detergents or fabric softeners, they can trigger sensitivity issues like sneezing, watery eyes, headaches or respiratory irritation. Ingredients with a low toxicity but prolonged exposure over time can just as easily cause long term health effects such as hormone disruption or be carcinogenic in nature.
Chemicals in cleaners also present an equal environmental threat. When cleaning products are drained down, they are discharged into the waterways. While some ingredients can be broken down into harmless substances after treatment, some others do not and become an active threat to the water system, aquatic life forms and other wildlife.
To make better and safer choices when looking for greener alternatives, one such green cosmetic company is Miessence, offering skin care, body, oral, cosmetics and home care products.
All their products are manufactured from 100% all natural, non-synthetic ingredients. There is a wide variety of beauty and skin care products ranging from organic soaps, body washes, deodorants, hair care products to oral hygiene products and makeup items that are all organic certified and free from any toxins.
At Miessence, consumers can also choose from green home care products for everyday cleaning chores around the home. To make sure that consumers receive only the best and freshest products, all products are manufactured fresh every month and delivered to customers.
Their complete range of products can be viewed at http://miessence.com/evaorganics
Despite some valiant efforts, the food and beauty industries are still highly unregulated.
With chemical contaminants penetrating our skin through cosmetic or personal care items usage or entering our bloodstream through bad food choices, we become more and more susceptible to the harmful effects of these toxins. Acting as skin irritants, skin penetrators, endocrine disruptors, and hormone disruptors, toxins can play havoc with our overall well being and general health.
Likewise, the absence of regulatory requirement for ingredients to be listed on cleaning products to identify toxins of concern should also be addressed. The health damaging effects of these chemicals along with environmental hazards need to be made clearer to the consumers.
I hope this article was able to help you understand more about toxins and provide you with effective solutions to avoid them in your food, home and personal care products.