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There’s an ever-growing list of known environmental toxins in our food, water, air, household products, personal care products, bedding, clothing, furniture, building materials, furnishings, kid’s toys, offices, cars, parks and of course – our bodies.
The connection between toxins and health starts before we’re even born. Toxins are found in the breast milk of mothers (1), the umbilical cord blood of newborns (2), and children.
We breathe them in, ingest them and absorb them through our skin.
In the first article in this series, you discovered that of the 130 million chemicals in the environment, very few of the man-made ones have been tested for their safety or long term impact on health.
Here are some more sobering facts on environmental toxins and health:
Globally in 2012, 4.9 million deaths were a result of environmental chemicals (3).
Disease caused by endocrine disrupting chemicals in Europe costs $290 billion a year!
In Australia, cancer rates have nearly tripled in the past 35 years (4), particularly ones linked to environmental toxins, and cancer is now the leading cause of death globally.
Neurodegenerative diseases and autoimmune diseases have also skyrocketed, and have been linked to pesticide exposure (5, 6).
Chronic fatigue and depression are also linked to environmental toxin exposure (7, 8).
In chronic fatigue, toxins can damage mitochondria – the energy factories in our cells – causing their DNA to mutate.
When it comes to depression, inflammation in the brain is a leading factor.
I’ll share the long list of symptoms and diseases linked to environmental toxins in the next article in this series.
For now, I’ll give you an overview of toxins and health – sharing the main environmental toxins to be aware of, what health issues they’re associated with, and where you can find them.
Before we dive in to toxins and health…
While these chemicals are commonly called toxins, the more accurate description of them is ‘toxicants’.
Toxins are typically found in nature, such as a snake’s venom. A small dose is often fatal.
Toxicants are man-made chemicals that pose a threat to health by damaging a cell’s function and/or structure.
Therefore while I’ve used the term toxin so far, I’ll be using toxicants from now on.
So without further ado, here’s a list of the most common environmental toxicants.
Toxins and health: 20+ Environmental Toxicants to be aware of
So as to avoid this article getting super l-o-n-g (longer than it already is!), I’ve summarised:
- What each chemical is
- The known potential impact of the toxicant on health from chronic long term exposure, and;
- Where they can be found
The first six toxicants were found in the blood and urine of most participants in one US study and were identified by the Centre for Disease Control as probable health hazards (9, 10).
1. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
What: a flame retardant.
Health impact: damage to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys.
Found in: virtually every building, household dust (it’s in furnishings, mattresses, foam products such as pillows, carpet underlay, car interiors, baby seats, computer goods, and appliances), swimming pools as they leach out of clothing that contain them.
2. Bisphenol A (BPA)
What: a plasticiser (makes plastics more flexible).
Health impact: an endocrine disruptor which damages the reproductive system in men and women, is linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, is possibly carcinogenic, and causes developmental and behavioural problems in kids.
Found in: water bottles, baby bottles, dummies, food packaging, thermal cash receipts, plastic dental sealants, epoxy resin linings in cans and lids, plastic plates, plastic cutlery and kid’s toys.
Some manufacturers of baby bottles and canned food have removed BPA because of public concern, though be mindful their replacement such as BPF haven’t been properly tested for safety, so may still pose a problem.
3. Teflon (Perfluorooctanoic acid) and other perfluorinated chemicals
What: used as a flame retardant, to create non-stick surfaces and waterproofing.
Health impact: affects the liver, immune system, and reproductive system (it disrupts the function of hormones), is linked to cardiovascular disease, may raise LDL cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes, and is possibly carcinogenic.
Found in: Non-stick cooking pans, waterproof clothing (including in kid’s school uniforms), greaseproof paper, stain repellents for carpets and furnishings.
Teflon can be released from clothing when it’s in contact with water such as when it rains, so if your child gets stuck in the rain walking home from school, they’ll get exposed.
To find out why flame retardants and other endocrine disrupting chemicals ended up in our clothing and household items – watch the documentary Stink (available on Netflix).
What: a chemical formed during industrial production and cooking certain foods at high temperatures.
Health impact: carcinogenic and can be toxic to the nervous system.
Found in: The form polyacrylamide is used in plastics, food packaging, cosmetics, nail polish, inks, dyes – and even to treat drinking water. It’s also found in high levels in cigarette smoke. It’s been found in processed food cooked at high temperatures like fries, bread, cereals, potato chips, cookies and crackers (anything starchy that’s been browned by cooking), though also in whole food like asparagus, legumes, nuts, seeds, beef, eggs, and fish if they’ve been cooked alongside sugars.
Rather than avoid these whole foods – simply replace frying, grilling, roasting and baking with steaming, boiling or limiting the browning effect when cooking at high temperatures.
What: a heavy metal found in the Earth’s crust and as a by-product of industrial processing.
Health impact: associated with neurological dysfunction (11), thyroid dysfunction (12), disruption of the liver, kidneys and immune system (13), and is linked to cardiovascular disease (14), obesity, depression (15), chronic fatigue syndrome, and diabetes (16) .
Found in: Amalgam fillings, vaccinations (though most are being phased out), large fish like swordfish, whales, dolphins, and tuna, coal and gold-mining plants, fungicides, solvents, hair dyes, and eco light bulbs.
While mercury has been detected in fish like tuna (17), eating tuna has health benefits that may outweigh risks. The recommendation is to consume 3 portions of fish per week, that can include one portion of canned tuna (18).
6. Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE)
What: a chemical added to gasoline.
Health impact: reproductive problems, liver, kidney and nervous system toxicity, as well as cancer in animals.
Found in: exhaust fumes.
7. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
What: a group of chemicals that occur when burning wood, coal, gasoline, and food.
Health impact: liver, kidney and eye damage, are possibly carcinogenic (19), and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (20).
Found in: exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, cooked food (especially when foods are ‘browned’) and wood fire smoke.
What: a herbicide as well as a registered antibiotic.
Health impact: carcinogenic, is endocrine disrupting (21) (so affects the reproductive system and thyroid function, and is linked to hormone-sensitive cancers like breast, testicular and prostate cancers), chronic fatigue, can harm our healthy bacteria and therefore our immune system, is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, obesity, plus ADHD, ASD, and related learning disabilities in kids.
Found in: food – especially grains like wheat, corn and oats (one study of kid’s oat-based cereals in the US found levels of glyphosate above safe levels for kids) (22), plus cotton, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and wine, insecticide products, weed killer (e.g. Round-Up), public parks, gardens, nature strips, farms, waterways and animal feed for livestock and pets. Pesticides are often dragged into homes via shoes and animals as they’re so pervasive in our environment.
Other pesticides, as well as insecticides and fungicides, have also shown to cause adverse health effects. Anything ending with ‘cide’ is designed to be toxic and cause death. While they kill insects, fungi and the like – they can disrupt our biochemistry from long term exposure.
For example Pyrethrin, a widely used insecticide, can negatively impact neurological development in children who are exposed in utero – doubling the chance of autism. Pyrethrin is also endocrine disrupting, carcinogenic and an immune suppressant.
What: a group of chemicals used to soften plastics and prolong the smell of fragrances.
Health impact: reproductive issues (23), carcinogenic (particularly breast, thyroid, and prostate cancer), cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, depression, obesity, diabetes, delayed sexual development in children and impacts sexual development and brain development in utero.
Found in: fish and other aquatic animals, plastic bags, cling film, kid’s toys, vinyl flooring, air fresheners, scented candles that use synthetic fragrance (rather than essential oils), incense, deodorants, perfumes, skin care products, shave lotions, nail polish remover, washing powder, clothes conditioners and household products, hair products, oral pharmaceutical drugs, intravenous products prepared in plastic bags, insecticides, insect repellents, adhesives, lacquer, explosives, print inks, safety glasses and varnishes.
When you see ‘fragrance’ in the ingredients list of a product, this can actually mean hundreds of synthetic chemicals, including hormone-disrupting phthalates.
That wonderful smell of freshly washed clothes? Brought to you by, most likely, phthalates and other endocrine disrupting chemicals.
Phthalates get stored in fat tissue, though the good news is if you remove them from your environment, your body can eliminate them effectively if your detoxification pathways are working well.
‘Fragrance’ in the ingredients list of a product can mean hundreds of synthetic chemicals, including hormone-disrupting phthalates. That lingering smell of freshly washed clothes? It's partly due to, most likely, phthalates. Click To Tweet
What: a group of chemicals used in products to prevent bacterial and mould growth.
Health impact: possibly carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting (24), linked to infertility, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes (25).
Found in: beauty products, skin care, and personal care products.
There’s a range of endocrine disrupting chemicals in cosmetics and skin care products – too many to mention here.
If you want to check how safe your favourite skin care products are (even the ones that make claims of being natural and organic! The regulations here are extremely loose) – plug in your products to get a safety/toxicity score here: www.ewg.org/skindeep
What: a group of chemicals used as pesticides (this includes glyphosate), flame retardants and plasticisers – even biochemical weapons!
Toxicant health impact: some are known to be possibly carcinogenic (26), neurotoxic (27), disruptive to the function of the reproductive system, are known to cause depression (28), aggressiveness, and abnormal behaviour, as well as ADHD, ASD, and related learning disabilities in kids (29).
Found in: air, food and clothes (it’s sprayed on cotton, grain, fruit, vegetable, nut, seed and wine crops), waterways (due to run-off from farms), outdoor areas, home furnishings, clothing, materials, insecticides and pest repellants.
12. Heavy metals
What: a group of chemicals (including mercury) found in the earth’s crust that when exposed to in their inorganic forms (often from industrial processing) can build up in the body and become toxicants.
Health impact: These metals accumulate in the brain, liver, kidneys (30), immune system and other tissues where they disrupt function. Metals are linked to many neurological conditions including Parkinson’s, depression and Alzheimer’s (31), they disrupt the reproductive system and thyroid function, are linked to chronic fatigue, cardiovascular disease, diabetes (32), and can cause birth defects and cancer. They can also displace minerals like calcium from the body (lead does this in bones)(33) and increase inflammation through the body. Lead, aluminium, cadmium, and mercury lower the IQ of children (34).
Found in: most metals are in our air, food, and waterways, as well as many products in and around the home.
To demonstrate just how prevalent they are, here’s where these metals are found:
Arsenic: copper/lead smelting, smog, beer, tobacco smoke, pesticides, glass manufacturing, electronics, drinking wells, the fat in meat and fish (as animals are exposed to arsenic in the food, air, and water), rice, and wine (arsenic is often found in the soil and water where grapes and rice are grown).
Cadmium: predominantly in the air, brake dust from cars, electroplating, industrial paints, cigarettes (there’s 2-4 mg of cadmium in each cigarette) and cigarette smoke, waste sites, fertilisers (phosphates), coats iron, steel and copper, pigments in artist paints, soldering/sealing cans, old galvanised water pipes and other pipes, PVC, inks and dyes.
Lead: paint pre 1970, old water pipes, food, smelter from metal refineries, household dust, plumbing and construction, firing ranges, shot animals, rainwater tanks, lead crystal, canned fruit with a soldered seal, pesticides, chloramines (a derivative of ammonia put in water which breaks down lead in old water pipes and pollutes drinking water).
Aluminium (technically not a heavy metal though just as damaging): Municipal water (it takes ions out of suspension in water to make it look clean!), antiperspirants, OTC medicines, some salts – especially table salt, baking soda and sodium bicarbonate (aluminium makes things flow), antacids, tin foil, painkillers, bleached flour, aluminium cookware, and non-stick Teflon cookware that’s anodised with aluminium.
Copper: hot water pipes, copper IUD (intra-uterine device), hot tubs made with copper, copper sulphate (used in pesticides so is in our food chain), high oestrogen from the contraceptive pill, hair dyes, pans and lining in some cookware.
Antimony: Flame-retardants (bromine), metalwork factories, is used in rubber processing, hazardous waste sites, and plastic bottles.
Nickel: manufacturing of steel, stainless steel cookware can contain nickel, nickel/cadmium in batteries, heating fuel, nickel-plated ceramics, exhaust fumes, jewellery, hairpins, coins, smoke, and some hair dyes.
What: Certain toxic strains of fungi that 25% of the population can’t create antibodies for (35).
Health impact: possibly carcinogenic, neurotoxic, disrupts the reproductive system (36), causes respiratory issues including asthma (37, 38), is known to cause depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, systemic inflammation and an ever-growing list of health problems. Mould illness is becoming such an epidemic that the Australian government launched an inquiry into it.
Found in: water damaged buildings such as homes and offices. Up to 50% of new build homes have water damage and potential mould in Australia and the US because they aren’t designed with adequate ventilation. There are also mycotoxins in food, particularly grains that are stored for a long time in silos such as corn.
14. Benzene, Xylene, and Toluene
What: solvents used in a variety of products.
Health impact: carcinogenic (39), cause oxidative stress and inflammation, genetic mutations and nervous system depression (in high doses).
Found in: cigarette smoke, nail polish, paints, lacquers, pesticides, insect repellents, perfumes, cleaning fluids, glue and rubber products, exhaust fumes (including planes!) and unflued gas heating. Benzene out-gasses (releases gas) from synthetic materials and is extremely toxic.
15. Not a chemical though still a toxicant – Electromagnetic Frequency Radiation
What: man-made electromagnetic frequencies emitted by wireless technology.
Health impact: possibly carcinogenic (40), causes oxidative stress and inflammation (41), DNA strand breaks, enhances the permeability of the blood-brain barrier and causes neurological problems (42). Linked to chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, disturbed immune function, miscarriages, tinnitus, and sleep disturbances (43).
Found in: Wi-Fi modems, computers and devices like phones and tablets, Wi-fi towers, anywhere there’s Wi-Fi access. We get exposed to multiple sources at once, at far greater levels than the current safe exposure standards set, which aren’t satisfactory as they only take into account short-term exposure, when we’ve all been exposed daily since this technology was introduced. And it isn’t going anywhere!
Following the World Health Organisation stating that EMF radiation is possibly carcinogenic (44) , childcare centres and schools in France banned Wi-Fi technology and switched back to ethernet cables because of the concern with children being exposed to EMFs. Some childcare facilities in schools in Australia and other countries have followed suit – and some smart ones have also banned electronic devices, because of health concerns. Kids are most vulnerable because their skulls are thinner; therefore they’re more at risk of radiation exposure damaging their fragile brains (45, 46).
16. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
What: vinyl chloride and polyvinyl chloride.
Health impact: nausea, headache, dizziness, liver damage and cancer (47), and nervous system depression.
Found in: vinyl flooring, kid’s toys (especially plastic play mats), PVC clothing, PVC water pipes (hence can potentially leach into water) (48) and various products.
What: a powerful oxidising/bleaching agent
Health impact: disrupts thyroid function (49), is possibly carcinogenic, is a respiratory irritant and can cause allergic reactions like asthma and skin reactions.
Found in: bleach, fireworks, matches, flares, fertilisers, swimming pools and is often in the water supply.
What: used as a preservative and antibacterial agent.
Health impact: carcinogenic (50), and irritates eyes, skin, and lungs.
Found in: building materials such as particleboard or fibreboard, furniture, carpets, mattresses as well as household products, nail polish, clothing, and air in polluted cities.
What: was used as an insulator and to strengthen building structures before being banned.
Health impact: can cause asbestosis or lung cancer if inhaled (51).
Found in: water pipes, roofs, gutters, cement walls of houses and buildings built between 1920 and 1980, fencing, sheds, vinyl, carpet and tile underlays, water tanks and talc powder. There may also be asbestos fibres in the water supply – however, this currently isn’t monitored.
What: an antibacterial agent.
Health impact: is hormone disrupting (52), linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, is a skin and eye irritant, and can cause antimicrobial resistance (defeating its own purpose!).
Found in: hand washes, body washes, toothpaste, mouthwash, skin care products, pesticides, over the counter drugs, antibacterial clothing, and bedding, shower curtains.
Triclosan has been banned in some countries including the US. Unfortunately, it’s still prevalent in Australian products.
So, what’s a girl to do?
It’s quite natural to feel shocked, angry and a little scared when discovering how pervasive these chemicals are, and how our governments and regulating bodies aren’t doing enough to keep us safe and protect the health of ourselves, our kids and future generations.
Before you decide the only solution is to pack up your life and go live on a mountain (far away from pesticide-spraying farms), there’s so much you can do to limit your exposure and get these toxicants out of so many products we use daily.
If we each use our individual power to make better choices, share this critical information with loved ones and encourage governments and manufacturers to improve safety standards (and care about people over profits), our combined efforts will make a big difference in what products are allowed in our environment, how products will be regulated… plus manufacturers will have no choice but to take notice of what we want when their sales plummet!
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
~ Alice Walker
Want some strategies to get these toxic chemicals out of your life? Grab my free detox report where you’ll discover how to eliminate these nasties from your pantry, home and environment, plus learn more about the science of detoxing, what symptoms of toxicity are, and some simple and advanced ways to detox your body.
Before you go – I’d love to know – what’s one thing you’re going to remove from your environment right away? Share in the comments 🙂
References and Resources
Bijlsma, Nicole (2018). 3rd Edn. Healthy Home Healthy Family: An essential guide for every home. Australian College of Environmental Studies, Warrandyte, Victoria, Australia.
Bland, J et al (2010) Textbook of Functional Medicine. Institute of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA.
Gore, A et al (2014) Introduction to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs): A Guide For Public Interest Organisations and Policy-Makers. Endocrine Society. Published online.
Pizzorno, J, Murray, M (2006) 3rd Edn. Textbook of Natural Medicine. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier. USA
Stuart, Alexx (2018) Low Tox Life: A handbook for a healthy you and a happy planet. Murdoch Books. Kindle Edition.
Melissa is a naturopathic nutritionist and health coach who helps exhausted women get their energy back. She consults with people worldwide via the web from her home in Melbourne, Australia.