How to reduce your exposure to everyday toxic chemicals

on Thursday, 13 May 2010. Posted in N21 Experts


Local resident Elizabeth Salter Green is a leading authority on clinical physiology and research into how the chemicals we use in our everyday life may be disrupting our hormone balance. She is the co-author of The Toxic Consumer, a former director of the WWF Toxic Chemicals Programme and regularly writes and broadcasts on the threats being posed by our exposure to toxic chemicals.

My name is Elizabeth Salter Green and I am Director of CHEM Trust – Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring Trust.  Prior to setting up CHEM Trust I was Director of the WWF Toxic Chemicals Programme for more than ten years.

My career has been spent highlighting the risks that man-made chemicals pose to the health of humans and wildlife.  Using the scientific evidence that exists, which shows the adverse effects that pesticides, industrial chemicals and chemicals in consumer products can have on health, I have worked for chemical legislative reform at the UK, EU and global (United Nations) level.

It has been a very interesting, rewarding and sometimes alarming experience.  Alarming because I had two children during this time, and it is now well known that it is the foetus developing in-utero that is most vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures.  The mother may not be affected at all, and may not even know she is pregnant, but her developing foetus may be exposed (via the placenta) to chemicals in consumer products that can lead to health problems in later life.

Starting in 2001 I was responsible for a ‘Biomonitoring’ campaign for the WWF Toxic Chemicals Programme.  We tested hundreds of people’s blood for the presence of toxic chemicals to investigate their degree of contamination.  We tested members of the public, young and old, new born babies, politicians and some celebrities.  Everyone was contaminated, even new born babies.  Some children had higher levels of worrying chemicals in them than their parents or grandparents.  WWF then used this data to lobby at the EU and call for improved chemical legislation.  We also tested polar bears in the Arctic to show the global nature of the contamination, and we tested lots of different food throughout Europe to show that the global food chain is also fundamentally contaminated with unwanted, harmful chemicals.

My particular area of concern is the class of chemicals called hormone disrupting chemicals (which are also called endocrine disruptors because ‘endocrine’ is another word for hormone) and they are sometimes called ‘gender benders’ because of the feminising effect that they can have on males.  Hormone disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with our hormone system – the body’s own chemical messaging system which regulates bodily functions such a sexual development, metabolism and growth.  Our hormone system is exquisitely sensitive and profoundly connected to our immune and nervous systems.  As the most miniscule levels of hormones can have great effect, hormone disruptors can play havoc with nature – particularly at crucial stages of development and especially during complex development before birth.

The effects of hormone disrupters were first seen in wildlife, for example where male fish did not have testicular material in their testes but female egg protein instead – they were being feminised.  Hormone disrupting effects are increasingly being seen in humans eg birth defects of the genitalia of baby boys, declines in sperm count and increases in sexually related cancers.  Today there are links between chemical exposures and diabetes, obesity, infertility, cancer and birth defects.

Many pesticides and industrial chemical are hormone disrupters and they are released into the environment and contaminate the food chain.  They may also be present in many consumer products that surround you in your home, office, school and public transport.  Personal care products, tinned food, electronic products, plastic utensils, toys and soft furnishings etc contain a variety of chemicals that are known or suspected of being hormone disrupters. 

Manufactured chemicals are an important part of modern life and they undoubtedly bring many lifestyle benefits, but many have not been adequately tested and assessed for safety particularly concerning their ability to cause hormone disruption.  Now, the toxicity studies of some of them are raising a lot of concern.  Plasticisers (called phthalates) used to make hard plastic soft (PVC flooring, shower curtains etc), polycarbonate (hard clear plastic made of Bisphenol A) used to make babies bottles, CDs and dental sealants and flame retardants in electronic goods and soft furnishings are all known or suspected of being hormone disruptors.  You and I are constantly exposed to the cocktail of these chemicals.

Clearly chemical legislation needs to react to new research, and where necessary ‘nasty’ chemicals need to be phased out and replaced with safer alternatives.  But we can take steps ourselves to reduce our unwanted exposure to worrying chemicals:

1. Eat less meat and dairy and more fruits and vegetables (animal fats can be particularly contaminated with hormone disruptors).

2. Eat food produced without pesticides (certified organic) when possible.

3. Prepare as much of your diet as possible from fresh ingredients as this helps to avoid the plethora of chemicals used in food processing and packaging.

4. Avoid using pesticides in your garden.  Weed by hand or go for the more natural look.

5. Avoid pesticide-based flea treatments on your pets.  There are alternatives.

6. Avoid pesticide-based treatments for head lice for your children.  There are alternatives.

7. Minimise the use of personal care and cosmetic products, especially during and before pregnancy and breast feeding.  Become ‘savvy’ - look at labels to avoid certain chemicals linked to hormone disruption and select soaps, shampoos, cosmetics and cleaning agents from certified environmentally-friendly brands using biodegradable ingredients.

8. Keep rooms well aired and vacuum regularly to remove dust as chemicals can accumulate in the indoor environment.

9. Avoid synthetic fragrances eg in air fresheners, candles and personal care products etc.

10. Do not microwave food in plastic containers and avoid plastic food boxes.

11. Avoid non-stick cookware.

12. Avoid stain repellents.

13. Avoid non-iron clothes.

14. Choose natural floorings over synthetic where possible.

15. Avoid exposure to DIY chemicals as much as possible.

16. Avoid soft plastics.

17. Educate yourself, ask awkward questions and demand greener alternatives.  For example ask local authorities how they control weeds in parks and on school playing fields.  Query the chemical content of products you are suspicious about with the manufacturer or retailer.  Discuss the issue of toxic chemicals in consumer products with other people – word of mouth has always been the best form of communication.  The more people know and talk about these issues the more pressure ultimately is bought to bear on the regulators and the industry they are supposed to regulate.

Elizabeth Salter Green  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


The Toxic Consumer is published by Impact Publishing

Local resident Elizabeth Salter Green is a leading authority on clinical physiology and research into how the chemicals we use in our everyday life may be disrupting our hormone balance. She is the co-author of The Toxic Consumer, a former director of the WWF Toxic Chemicals Programme and regularly writes and broadcasts on the threats being posed by our exposure to toxic chemicals.

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