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Everything You Need To Know About Environmental Toxins And Their Effects On Your Health

Article at a Glance

Toxins are found throughout our environment – in our oceans, drinking water, air, soil, and even our food and homes. Some of these toxins, such as arsenic, naturally occur on earth but have increased in our environment due to human activities such as mining and manufacturing. Other toxins, such as BPA and triclosan, are man-made and completely foreign to our bodies.

Inevitably, you will face toxic exposures over your lifetime. However, when your cumulative toxic burden is left unaddressed, it may contribute to health problems.

Developing an awareness of environmental toxins and how they affect your body is a crucial step towards better health. Once you’ve taken stock of the toxins in your life, there are actionable steps you can take to minimize further exposure and support your detoxification pathways, ultimately leading to a reduced toxic body burden and better health!

The environment in which we live is increasingly laden with toxins from human activities such as agriculture, manufacturing, and energy generation. A rapidly-growing body of research indicates that these toxins can have significant effects on our health and possibly the health of future generations. While the list of environmental toxins we face is extensive, far too long to list in this blog post, some of the most researched and concerning ones include:

  • Heavy metals
  • Air pollution
  • Plasticizers or chemical compounds found in plastics – BPA and “BPA-free” alternatives such as BPS and BPF
  • Phthalates
  • Microplastics
  • Triclosan
  • Mold and mycotoxins
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants such as dioxin and PCBs
  • Pesticides such as glyphosate

Read on to learn where these toxins are found in our environment, and how they may impact you.  Make sure to stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series, where we’ll discuss strategies for limiting exposure to these harmful toxins and how to rid your body of these harmful pollutants.

Where are Environmental Toxins Found?

Toxins are found throughout our environment. They pollute our oceans and drinking water, contaminate industrial farmland, and even reside in our food and personal care products.

Land

Industrial agriculture, with its heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, has led to widespread contamination of our soils with these man-made chemicals. Once applied to soil, pesticides and herbicides can travel deep into the ground, contaminating groundwater that eventually makes its way back to the Earth’s surface in our drinking water.

Glyphosate

Glyphosate is an herbicide that is widely spray on genetically-modified (GM) crops. Shockingly, it is the most sprayed and distributed chemical substance in human history!1 Glyphosate can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, consumed in contaminated food, or tracked into the home as dust from contaminated soils.1 It is even found in consumer products made from genetically-modified cotton, such as diapers and female intimate hygiene products.2

Arsenic and Lead

Arsenic also widely contaminates our soils due to its use as a pesticide, from mining operations, and as a result of thoughtless waste disposal. It readily accumulates in rice, depositing itself in the outer germ layer of rice rather than the starchy white endosperm; this means that whole grain brown rice can have up to 80 percent higher arsenic levels than white rice!3

Even though the use of leaded gasoline in on-road vehicles has been banned for over two decades, lead persists in our soils and may be tracked indoors as dust. Lead was also once used as an ingredient in interior paint, before it was banned for this purpose in the U.S. in 1978. Regardless, homes built before this year may harbor lead-laced dust that can be breathed in or inadvertently eaten by young children who play on the floor, in close proximity to dust.4

Water

Mercury and microplastics are two of the most concerning forms of pollution we face in our oceans and fresh water supplies today. Many consumers are familiar with the issues posed by mercury, but many remain unaware of the potential health problems posed by microplastics.

Mercury

Mercury is one of the most significant pollutants affecting our seas. Off the east coast of the U.S., methylmercury bioaccumulates within the marine food web, reaching high levels in swordfish, Atlantic bluefin tuna, harbor porpoise, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, and the common thrasher shark.5

Microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces less than 5 mm long shed from items such as plastic bottles and bags, clothes made with synthetic fibers (polyester and nylon), and from plastic fishing ropes and nets. These tiny particles widely contaminate our oceans, seafood, and drinking water supplies. The effects of microplastics on human health are poorly understood at this time; however, we have reason to be concerned because animal research indicates that these particles deposit in the gastrointestinal tract and can also be transported to other organs.6

Air

Ambient air pollution – the particulates and gases emitted from industries, households, and cars, among other human activities – is a growing problem in many cities across the United States. A report by the American Lung Association indicates that four in ten Americans – that’s 14 million people – breathe unsafe air!7 As climate change progresses, ozone is an increasing problem in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Denver.

Recent research indicates that monomethylmercury contaminates marine fog in California. In fact, it was detectable in the fur of pumas that live in the mountains adjacent to the coastline!8 Besides marine fog, fuel combustion represents another significant source of airborne mercury in our environment.9

Indoor Environments

Your home might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about environmental toxins.

However, indoor environments can be a significant source of toxic exposure, particularly considering that we modern-day humans spend a whopping 93 percent of our lives indoors!

For this reason, we must address the health impact of our indoor environments.

Indoor air quality in the average office building, school, and home leave much to be desired. Indoor air may harbor volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon-containing gases emitted from items such as furniture, cars in attached garages, and building materials. Indoor environments that have suffered water damage may also be contaminated with mold and mycotoxins, two types of toxins that are particularly harmful to our health.11

Indoor Mold and Mycotoxins

Scientific research and news in the mainstream media indicate that indoor mold is a significant problem in many buildings in the United States. The population-weighted average prevalence of mold and dampness in homes in the U.S. is a shocking 45 percent!12 Why are water leaks and indoor environments a bad combination? When building materials such as drywall and wood get wet, they create the perfect growth medium for fungi such as molds, which like to break down plant-based materials for food. This can lead to mold growth and, subsequently, the production of mycotoxins by those molds. Mycotoxins, the toxic byproducts produced by mold, have many adverse health effects, a topic we will discuss in more detail soon.

Water damage and mold affect a diverse array of building types, including homes, schools, and workplaces. Mold has been found to plague college campuses, with universities as prestigious as Harvard and Georgetown succumbing to terrible mold issues in campus buildings.13,14

Healthcare settings are also not immune to water damage and mold growth. A Pittsburg hospital has suffered from five mold infection-related patient deaths since 2014; the assessment did not consider how mycotoxins and molds might have affected the health of other, less severely impacted patients in the hospital. In 2019, a mold outbreak also sickened 14 and killed 6 patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital.15,16,17

Surprisingly, “green” buildings” may be particularly susceptible to developing indoor dampness and mold issues due to the current building standards for these structures. Green buildings encourage the introduction of more outside air than current industry standards, which may lead to indoor humidity issues and mold growth. These buildings also tend to use carbohydrate-based building materials, vegetated roofs, and increased amounts of insulation, all of which may foster mold growth.18 Unfortunately, some of the most harmful indoor molds may not be visible to the naked eye. Mold often hides in places where it is only noticeable upon close inspection, such as on the insides of walls.

If you are concerned that your home may have a mold problem, consider getting in touch with Environmental Analytics, a highly reputable company offering indoor environmental health assessments, including comprehensive assessments for mold.

Food

Food is a surprisingly significant source of environmental toxins, far more than the average consumer might think! Some of the important toxins in foods include:

  • Heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic
  • Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as brominated flame retardants, chemicals added to consumer goods such as upholstered furniture that are intended to reduce flammability
  • Pesticides and herbicides
  • Mycotoxins
  • BPA

Methylmercury is a common contaminant in seafood due to oceanic mercury pollution and bioaccumulation of mercury within the marine food chain. POPs accumulate in animal fat when animals are exposed to these chemicals in their diet and environment.19

Whole grains have been found to harbor elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead, as well as a toxic processing byproduct called acrylamide.20

Mycotoxins in Food: An Overlooked Health Concern

Very few consumers, or healthcare practitioners for that matter, are aware of the problem of mycotoxins in our food supply. While water-damaged buildings harboring mold growth are a significant source of mycotoxins, they are not the only source! A variety of foods are commonly contaminated by mycotoxins, including grains, peanuts, coffee, cacao, dried fruit, and spices.20,21,22,23,24 Animals fed mycotoxin-contaminated grain store mycotoxins in their meat, milk, and eggs, which are subsequently eaten by consumers.25,26 Diets heavy in grains may increase your body burden of mycotoxins. High mycotoxin levels are particularly concerning for infants fed heavily on grain-based “first foods.”

Last but not least, bisphenol A (BPA) is a plasticizer that commonly contaminates foods due to its presence in the lining of canned food containers and in plastic food storage packaging. BPA has been found to leach into fatty foods because it is a lipophilic (“fat-loving”) molecule.27

Consumer Goods

Last but not least, consumer goods are a significant source of environmental toxins. Brominated flame retardants are mixtures of man-made chemicals used to make consumer materials, such as crib mattresses and children’s clothing, less flammable.28 BPA and the “BPA-alternatives” BPS and BPF are plasticizers, chemicals that make plastics soft and flexible. They are prevalent in plastic water bottles and food storage containers, children’s toys, tin can liners, and cash register receipts.29,30

Phthalates are another group of plasticizers with concerning health effects. They are found in body care products, plastic toys, pacifiers, plastic tubing, IV bags, diapers, and sanitary pads.31 Furthermore, research shows that phthalates bioaccumulate in meat and dairy products due to their “fat-loving” properties, meaning we may unwittingly be eating them. Phthalates are particularly high in fast food, possibly due to leaching from the packaging.32

When the chemical triclosan was first developed in the 1960s, it was lauded for its broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects. However, decades later, we came to discover that it not only kills harmful bacteria, but beneficial bacteria in our bodies and our environment as well! While FDA has banned this notorious chemical from antibacterial hand soap as of September 2017, it continues to be allowed in other personal care products including dish soap and Colgate total toothpaste.33 It may also appear in plastic cutting boards, food containers, and shower curtains.

How do Environmental Toxins Affect the Body?

Environmental toxins impact a wide array of body systems, including the gut, liver, kidneys, brain, immune system, hormones, and the skeletal system.

Gut Health

In recent years, glyphosate has been found to interact adversely with gut bacteria, disrupting the balance of good and bad bacteria in the intestine. In animal studies, glyphosate-exposed mice have been found to suffer reductions in beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria and increases in a bacteria called Prevotella, which can be harmful when it is present in the gut in large quantities.34

Mycotoxins, triclosan, BPA, and mercury also alter the gut microbiota, promoting the growth of inflammatory opportunistic and pathogenic bacterial species and inhibiting the growth of beneficial species.35,36,37,38 Triclosan encourages the growth of scary antibiotic-resistant bacteria, so stay away from it if you want to preserve your gut health.

Liver and Kidneys

The liver and kidneys are essential organs for detoxification, transforming toxins into water-soluble compounds that can subsequently be excreted in bile, stool, and urine. Many environmental toxins are harmful to the liver and kidneys, inducing dysfunction in these critical detox organs. Ultra-low doses of Roundup (the primary ingredient of which is glyphosate) and BPA have been found to cause an unhealthy buildup of fat within the liver.39,40 Mycotoxins damage the liver and kidneys by inducing oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an odd number of electrons; this means they like to go around “stealing” electrons from important molecules in your own body, causing damage to proteins, cell membranes, and even your DNA.

Mercury also harms the kidneys, damaging their physical structures and preventing them from filtering urine at full capacity.41,42

Brain

Environmental toxins can have devastating effects on the brain. Pesticide exposure may contribute to neurodegenerative conditions.43,44 Mercury triggers an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in brain cells and increases the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, the brain’s first defense against harmful microbes, chemicals, and other outside substances.45,46

The relationship between mold, mycotoxins, and the brain has been documented throughout human history. In the Middle Ages, exposure to ergot alkaloids, a type of mycotoxin produced by the ergot mold, caused a hallucinatory illness called “St. Anthony’s Fire.”47 Early North American settlers who consumed mold-contaminated grain were known to suffer psychotic episodes, some of which may have contributed to the paranoia and hysteria that led to the Salem Witch Trials.48 Today, research indicates that mold and mycotoxins do indeed have potent effects on the brain, triggering brain inflammation and mood disturbances49

Particulate matter from outdoor air pollution is also linked to impaired brain function. Airborne particulate matter, such as diesel exhaust, triggers neuroinflammation and elevates amyloid-beta, an abnormal protein that impairs brain function.50 Exposure to air pollution may also negatively impact cognition function and intelligence, as indicated by a Chinese study that found rising levels of air pollution exposure were inversely associated with verbal and math test scores.51

Lungs

Do you struggle with respiratory issues such a stubborn cough or difficulty breathing during exercise? Air pollution may be partly to blame! Ozone and particulate matter inflame the lungs, preventing healthy respiration.52 Prenatal BPA exposure is also associated with diminishing lung function and wheezing in young children.53

Immune System

Concerning research indicates that environmental toxins not only affect the individual who is first exposed to the toxin, but the children and grandchildren of that individual! A recent study published in iScience found that parental exposure to dioxin, a type of POP, impaired their offspring’s immune defenses against the influenza virus, without the offspring ever having been exposed to the chemical!54

These findings suggest that parents-to-be should be conscious of their toxic exposures, avoiding harmful chemicals as much as possible for the health of their future children and grandchildren.

Bone Health

While it may seem like an unlikely target, even bones are susceptible to damage from environmental toxins! Prolonged exposure to heavy metals such as lead alters the balance between bone building and bone resorption, degrading the integrity of the skeletal system.55 BPA also impacts bone health by inhibiting the production of bone-building cells and osteoclasts bone-degrading cells, thereby altering bone dynamics.56

Hormones and Blood Sugar

Hormones are chemical messengers that travel throughout the body regulating growth, development, metabolism, and reproduction, among other functions. The endocrine system is the collection of glands that produce hormones and control their functions. Toxins that disrupt normal hormone function are thus referred to as “endocrine disruptors.” A growing body of research indicates that endocrine disruptors contribute to a diverse array of hormonal and metabolic conditions, including excess body fat and impaired blood sugar control.

Blood and urine levels of BPA, BPS, and BPF are linked to excess body fat and impaired sensitivity to insulin, the primary hormone that regulates blood sugar.57,58,59,60 The consumption of rice high in arsenic is suspected to be contributing to the obesity epidemic in Asia, where rice is a dietary staple, due to its adverse effects on blood sugar control.61 Interestingly, lentils may also represent a significant source of dietary arsenic when they are grown in arsenic-contaminated soil.62

Finally, prenatal exposure to phthalates is associated with changes in fetal sexual development, suggesting  that endocrine-disrupting chemicals have transgenerational effects.63

Although environmental toxins are abundant in our world, it doesn’t mean we are destined to suffer from their harmful health effects! Stay tuned for the next blog in this series, in which we’ll discuss strategies for minimizing your exposure to environmental toxins and how you can improve your health through successful detoxification practices.  

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