Living Clean and Pure: The Top 12 Most Harmful Chemicals and Toxins Hiding in Your Food, Home and Personal Care Products and How to Avoid Them
BY DR. PANKAJ VIJ
Battling Environmental Enemies
Editor’s Note: As the modern Western lifestyle spreads around the globe, so too does metabolic syndrome—a cluster of symptoms that increases the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other conditions. The good news: metabolic syndrome can be tamed by a sensible program of exercise, natural foods, stress management, and quality sleep. In his new book Turbo Metabolism, Dr. Pankaj Vij, MD, distills a mass of medical research into a simple, effective program for vibrant health. Avoiding fads and gimmicks, he provides practical advice, case studies of ordinary people, and brief sections that debunk common medical myths. We hope you’ll enjoy this short excerpt from the book.
Our increasingly synthetic world is immersed in unnatural chemicals. Many of these chemicals are ubiquitous environmental substances—toxins known to disrupt the normal functioning of the body’s natural systems. These toxins interfere with your quest to attain Turbo Metabolism. Did you know that we are exposed to over a hundred harmful chemicals every morning even before we leave the house?
Women are exposed to more chemicals than men because they use more personal-care products, such as perfumes and cosmetics, though anyone in close proximity to these products is also affected.
Environmental toxins are often endocrine disruptors; that is, they can block hormones or actually impair the production of hormones by the endocrine glands. In other cases, they are toxic to our “inner garden” of a hundred trillion gut bacteria, which are trying to help us by busily producing beneficial substances. Many toxins are poisonous for mitochondria, the energy-producing component of every cell and our best friends in the quest for Turbo Metabolism. In other words, these hazardous chemicals literally sap energy, short-circuit our power supply, and leave us tired, hungry, fat, and sick.
Environmental Toxins, Pollutants, and Preservatives
Here are a few of the main culprits of the 140 or so environmental pollutants to which most of us are exposed every day. They gain access to our bodies through food, water, our skin, and even the air we breathe.
The good news is that many of them (such as BPA, phthalates, and parabens) are not persistent, meaning that if we can minimize our daily exposure, they will leave our bodies quickly. However, some, like persistent organic pollutants and dioxins, can linger in the body for a long time.
Bisphenol A (BPA): Bisphenol A (BPA) has been linked to breast cancer, obesity, early puberty, and heart disease. About 93 percent of Americans have BPA in their bodies. BPA sources include plastics, canned goods, and heat-sensitive paper (used in gas station, grocery store, and restaurant receipts). BPA is also found in meat packaging. The good news? If you can avoid exposure to BPA, levels in the body drop rapidly.
Phthalates: Plasticizers used to make plastics more soft and flexible, phthalates are commonly found in toys, hoses, toothbrushes, food packaging, shower curtains, synthetic fragrances (including most perfumes, and labeled as “added fragrance”), shampoos, hair spray, plastic spoons, and plastic wrap made from PVC with recycling label 3. These toxic substances can trigger cell death in testicular cells, leading to lower sperm counts, less mobile sperm, and birth defects. In addition to affecting the male reproductive system, they contribute to obesity, diabetes, and thyroid irregularities. It is ironic that we use perfumes to attract people to us, but they actually impair our sexual performance. The good news is that they are nonpersistent. They can wash out of the body relatively quickly when we discontinue exposure.
Parabens: Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in skin products, such as shampoos, lotions, and creams (including many expensive “antiaging skin products”). They are also found in food, such as store-bought cinnamon rolls and cakes. An estrogen (female hormone) mimic, it has long been known for disrupting hormone function in animals. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley have linked parabens to breast cancer. The good news is that these toxic chemicals do not persist in the body; the bad news is that we re-expose ourselves every day.
Dioxins: Dioxins form during many industrial processes when chlorine or bromine are burned in the presence of carbon and oxygen. Dioxins interfere with both male and female sexual and reproductive function. Exposure in women early in life may permanently affect fertility. In men, sperm quality and sperm count may be affected, causing infertility. Dioxins are very long-lived and build up within the body and the food chain; in general, all toxins tend to become more prevalent as we move up the food chain. Dioxins are powerful carcinogens, and these harmful substances may affect the immune system. Dioxins are mainly found in products containing meat, fish, milk, and eggs. You can cut down your exposure to dioxins by eating fewer animal products, which means eating a plant-based diet.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs): Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), atrazine, and organotins. PCBs are the most commonly used pesticides in commercial agriculture. The way most synthetic pesticides work is by harming the ability of living things to reproduce or by harming their nervous systems. PCBs are mainly found in soil and sediment and in fatty parts of fish, meat, and dairy products. Fish and shellfish usually contain the highest PCB levels of any food, especially fish that are fatty, that eat many other fish, and that are caught near industrial areas.
Atrazine is widely used as an herbicide spray in corn crops in the United States, and it is commonly found in drinking water because it gets into groundwater. Researchers have found that a low level of atrazine can turn male frogs into females that produce completely viable eggs! Atrazine has been linked to breast tumors, delayed puberty, and prostate inflammation in animals.
Organotins are organic and inorganic tin compounds, used as fungicides, as stabilizers in plastics, as molluscicides (to kill snails), and as miticides (to kill mites). They have also been used as insect killers and for other industrial uses.Many of these hazardous substances are unpalatable when mixed into diets and have been used as rodent repellent. Food chain accumulation and bioconcentration have been demonstrated in crabs, oysters, and salmon exposed to POPs. Not-so-fun fact: DDT is an example of a POP that was banned after it was found to be behind the shrinking population of bald eagles.
Triclosan: Triclosan is a known endocrine disruptor that affects thyroid function as well as liver toxicity. It is commonly used in body washes, antibacterial soap, and antibacterial toothpaste. Though it is included in toothpaste to fight gum disease and bad breath and labeled as such, it also “carpet bombs” healthy gut bacteria, which influences food choices, appetite, and ultimately weight and metabolic diseases.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are used to make nonstick cookware, an invention designed to get us to use less oil in cooking during the low-fat mania. They are so persistent that 99 percent of Americans are estimated to have these toxic chemicals in their bodies. PFCs are clearly linked with reproductive health, kidney disease, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and many other health issues. Animal studies suggest that PFCs can affect thyroid and sex hormone levels.
Medications: Ironically, common prescription medications for treating diabetes, high blood pressure, and other metabolic diseases actually slow down metabolism and can cause weight gain. For example, a five-day regimen of antibiotics can destroy 33 percent of friendly gut bacteria, which affects mood and food choices. We now know that having a higher count of Firmicutes bacteria than Bacteroidetes bacteria in the gut microbiome is associated with weight gain. This evidence is consistent with “feedlot efficiency”—the practice of giving antibiotics to feedlot cattle to increase weight gain by up to 30 percent.
Plastic contaminants: The familiar “chasing arrows” symbol on plastic containers and other plastic products does not mean the product is recyclable. The little number inside the triangle tells the real story. Within each chasing arrows triangle is a number ranging from 1 to 7. The purpose of the number is to identify the type of plastic used for the product, and not all plastics are recyclable or even reusable. Numerous plastic-based products cannot be recycled.
Products with recycling number 7 are the worst (think: unlucky 7). The number 7 category was designed as a catchall for polycarbonate (PC) and “other” plastics, so reuse and recycling protocols are not standardized within this category. Of primary concern with number 7 plastics, however, is the potential for chemical leaching into food or drink products packaged in polycarbonate containers made using BPA (see above). BPA is a xeno-estrogen (xeno means “foreign” or “other”), which is a known endocrine disruptor. Plastics with recycling numbers 2, 4, and 5 are better.
Arsenic: This hazardous substance is a poison that lurks in your food and drinking water. If you ingest enough of it, arsenic will kill you outright. In smaller amounts, arsenic can cause skin, bladder, and lung cancer. It is less well known that arsenic messes with your hormones! Specifically, it can interfere with normal hormone functioning in the glucocorticoid system that regulates how our bodies process sugars and carbohydrates.
Environmental Working Group Produce Recommendations
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an excellent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. The mission of the EWG is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Publishing breakthrough research and providing educational resources, the organization drives consumer choice and civic action.
On its website, EWG publishes a ranking of common produce based on pesticide load. This ranking, as well as a database of potentially toxic household substances and personal-care products and other practical information, is available at EWG.org.
One thing I learned on this website is that washing and peeling nonorganic, store-bought produce does not solve the problem because the pesticide is sprayed into the soil and absorbed into the plant.
The USDA does not strictly define or regulate the use of the word “natural” except in the meat category. This means a tub of “all-natural yogurt” could legally contain synthetic pesticides, hazardous chemicals, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), antibiotics, and growth hormones. The label “organic,” however, requires that toxic, persistent synthetic pesticides and herbicides are not allowed, and neither are GMOs, antibiotics, growth hormones, or irradiation.
The EWG has done a good job of listing produce in order of pesticide load (highest to lowest). Because buying everything organic can be cost-prohibitive, being aware of which items of produce are highest in pesticide load is very helpful. In the list below, buying organic forms of only the first twelve items (the “dirty dozen”) can reduce your pesticide exposure by up to 80 percent. For a grower to certify and sell produce as “organic,” the grower must undergo seven consecutive years of soil-testing for synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and petroleum-based (and sewage sludge–based) fertilizers. Also, organic certified crops cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. Genetic modification is often used to make corn and soy more pesticide tolerant (the crop lives but all the insects and weeds get killed), allowing it to be sprayed abundantly with these toxic chemicals. When these pesticides and herbicides (like Roundup) enter the body, they wreak havoc on the delicate ecosystem of gut bacteria.
The way these synthetic pesticides and herbicides are designed to work is by disrupting the endocrine (hormone) systems of the bugs or poisoning their nervous systems (neuro-toxicity). This explains why we are seeing so much more infertility and neurodegenerative disorders in humans, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s, especially in farming communities where these hazardous substances are more ubiquitous.
What is the main problem with petroleum-based fertilizers? Using nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) fertilizers creates shorter root systems, leading to lower micronutrient levels and compromised immunity to disease, requiring even higher levels of intervention. Using synthetic fertilizers, which are common in modern agriculture, is like providing a “junk food diet” to crops.
The 2017 EWG Ranking of Produce Based on Pesticide Load
Below is EWG’s 2017 ranking of produce based on most to least exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizer. The top twelve are called the “dirty dozen”; buy these organic whenever possible.
EWG consistently ranks apples among the worst in terms of pesticide load. The average age of an apple in the grocery store is between four and eleven months, which may be why the soil around apple trees has to be so heavily saturated with pesticides. The industry term “birthday apples” is sometimes used because apples sold in supermarkets are often one year old! Washing and peeling does not help because the harmful chemicals are inside the fruit.
1. Strawberries (the worst)
11. Sweet bell peppers
14. Cherry tomatoes
16. Snap peas (imported)
17. Blueberries (domestic)
18. Hot peppers
19. Kale/collard greens
20. Blueberries (imported)
21. Green beans (domestic)
26. Winter squash
28. Summer squash
29. Green beans (imported)
30. Snap peas (domestic)
32. Green onions
35. Sweet potatoes
41. Honeydew melon
46. Sweet peas (frozen)
51. Sweet corn
Case Study: Andrew
Andrew, a sixty-seven-year-old retired business owner, underwent a quadruple bypass operation nine years ago. When he became my patient, he started eating “clean and green,” removing harmful substances and pesticides from his diet and choosing personal products that did not contain toxicants. He started to get lean and reclaim his energy, youth, and vitality that his old lifestyle and surgery had stolen from him.
Andrew now walks ten thousand steps every day, eats plant-based foods, meditates every day, and sleeps like a baby. His new mission in life is to spread the message of health and wellness to everyone he meets.
Rules to Live By:
+ Environmental pollutants and toxins are everywhere, so avoidance is key.
+ When you enter your home, take off your shoes so that you do not bring in unwanted harmful chemicals. Change into dedicated indoor shoes or sandals.
+ Decrease or eliminate animal fats.
+ Check your public water source.
+ If your tap water is sub-optimal, use a water filtration system (I prefer reverse osmosis systems) or drink filtered spring water.
+ Wash your hands before you eat (but avoid harsh antibacterial soaps with chemicals like triclosan).
+ Avoid plastic utensils and Styrofoam plates, especially when heating food (contaminants are released when these are heated). Stainless steel or even bamboo are much better.
+ Throw away scratched nonstick pans, which release PFCs. Stainless-steel pans are probably the best.
+ Avoid printed receipts (most printers in commercial establishments use heat-sensitive paper loaded with BPA). Get electronic receipts, if possible.
+ Stop wearing synthetic fragrances, perfumes, and scents and try essential oils instead.
+ Insist on environmentally friendly dry-cleaning chemicals.
+ Buy organic produce when possible.
About The Author
Pankaj Vij, MD, FACP, is the author of Turbo Metabolism: 8 Weeks to a New You: Preventing and Reversing Diabetes, Obesity, Heart Disease, and Other Metabolic Diseases by Treating the Causes. As a doctor of internal medicine, he has helped thousands of patients lose weight, manage chronic health conditions, and improve their physical fitness. Visit him online at doctorvij.com.