As a Naturopath, I am concerned about our everyday exposure to chemicals in the modern world. I'm not writing this to cause unnecessary alarm. I understand that this type of information can often seem like a gross exaggeration or even a nuisance to think about on top of everything else we are trying to juggle in our lives. But this is important. Possibly even life changing for some of us. So I wanted to share my thoughts.
Why worry about everyday chemicals? Emerging research is revealing that exposure to chemicals in our everyday lives is having an affect on our complex hormonal systems and even the expression of our genes. Referred to as 'endocrine disruptors', some chemicals can mimic the effect of our natural hormones and influence the way that our cells are dividing. This can be especially problematic at key times of growth and development, making pregnant women, infants and children the most vulnerable part of our population.
But chemicals are tested to be safe, right? Sort of. There are regulations (that differ in each country) in place to test the basic safety of the chemicals approved for use in food, agriculture and manufacturing. However, these chemicals are generally tested in isolation and the many chemical combinations that we could potentially be exposed to are not. Added to this is the layer of complexity of our individual genetic and environmental influences, which could make some of us more sensitive to these compounded effects.
What conditions can everyday chemicals influence?
- Fertility - Due to the oestrogen mimicking effects of many environmental chemicals there are real implication for individuals suffering from infertility. Semen quality is known to be decreased by phthalate exposure (1) and the process of multiplication that the cells from a female egg undergo can be disrupted by bisphenol-A (BPA) exposure resulting in abnormalities and altered fertility (2). Female hormonal balance can be disrupted by exposure to chemicals through different stages of life (3)
- Cancer - While cancer is undoubtedly a condition of multi-factorial cause, the ability of chemicals to interfere with the process of normal cellular division is shown clearly in research. This study shows the ability of parabens found in many skin care products to enhance breast cancer cell multiplication (4). There is also a question mark regarding the role endocrine disrupting chemicals may play in the development of testicular cancer (5). More research will certainly be exploring this area.
- Children's health - Prenatal exposure to everyday chemicals may be associated with lower intelligence and negative long term cognitive development in children (6). A recent US study showed an association with higher urinary BPA levels and the presence of ADHD in children, especially boys (7). Higher rates of phthalate exposure have recently shown an association with the development of Autism (8), another multifactorial condition that requires more research regarding connections with chemical exposure. A recent review concluded that unborn and young children require more protection from chemical exposure than current provided by regulations and that more research is needed into complex chemical combinations and their effects on children's health (9).
- Weight gain - Greater occupational exposure to pthalates have been linked with issues with body weight homeostasis (10). Childhood obesity has also been connected to higher maternal exposure to endocrine disruptors (11). Considering the health impact of metabolic disease on our population, this connection certainly warrants further investigation and proposed preventative strategies for high risk groups.
- Many more - The research is mounting for a wide range of conditions including high blood pressure, cardiovascular health, respiratory disease and immune conditions. This information is not meant as a comprehensive review, and many more individual studies have ben conducted with a range of results. My aim is to illustrate the very real potential effects that everyday chemicals can have on our health.
What can we do?
- Choose foods that are fresh, natural and unpackaged where possible
- Reduce your exposure to pesticides by choosing organic produce where possible
- Filter your water for drinking and cooking
- Avoid water in plastic bottles
- Avoid synthetic skin care products and perfumes
- Replace plastics in food and beverage storage and preparation
- Avoid heating food in plastic containers
- Avoid BPA-lined cans, including canned drinks
- Improve indoor air quality through open windows and house plants
- Choose natural cleaning products and air fresheners
- Don't use chemicals in your garden
- Circulate air in your car when driving on busy roads
- Avoid exercising near traffic
- Take a look at the Go Low Tox eCourse that starts on the 17th October 2016
What is the good news? There is evidence to suggest that our overall levels of exposure to some chemicals has decreased over recent years due to stricter regulations (12). However, many studies still reveal chemical levels in individuals higher than know safety limits, especially in children. The real good news is that as individuals we can exert a degree of influence over our personal environment. Focusing on the changes mentioned above to decrease our overall everyday chemical exposure can help lighten the burden of the modern world on our bodies. This is a great step to living the fullest and healthiest life possible.
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