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, cars, parks and of course — offices.
We breathe these chemicals in while sitting at our desks, we ingest them through food served at work and we absorb them through our skin when we wash our hands in the bathroom.
The sad reality is that out of the 130 million chemicals in the environment, very few of the manmade ones have been tested for their safety or long term impact on human health.
Here are some more sobering facts on environmental toxins:
Globally in 2012, 4.9 million deaths were a result of environmental chemicals.
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, particularly ones linked to environmental toxins, and cancer is the leading cause of death globally.
Neurodegenerative diseases and autoimmune diseases have also skyrocketed, and have been linked to pesticide exposure.
Chronic fatigue and depression are also linked to environmental toxin exposure.
In chronic fatigue, toxins can damage mitochondria– the energy batteries in our cells — and cause their DNA to mutate.
When it comes to depression, inflammation in the brain is a leading factor.
Hence limiting exposure to these chemicals by removing them from your workplace will go a long way to helping improve the health of your staff, especially the ones who have the typical signs of a high toxic load that precede many of the above diseases such as persisting fatigue, brain fog, unexplained weight gain, increased allergies and headaches.
Before we dive in…
While these chemicals are commonly called toxins, the more accurate description of them is ‘toxicants’.
Toxins are naturally found in nature, such as a snake’s venom.
Toxicants are manmade 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.
20+ Environmental Toxicants
Below I’ve summarised what each chemical is, the known potential impact 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.
1. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
What: a flame retardant.
Health impact: damage to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys.
Found in: virtually every building and is prominent in dust as it’s in furnishings, foam products such as pillows, carpet underlay, computer goods, and appliances.
2. Bisphenol A (BPA)
What: it 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: soft plastic food packaging, thermal cash receipts, epoxy resin linings in food cans and lids, plastic plates and plastic cutlery.
Some manufacturers of have removed BPA because of public concern, though be mindful the 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 (such as 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 which will increase your risk of absorbing it through your skin.
To find out why flame retardants and other endocrine disrupting chemicals ended up in our clothing and household items — watch the fascinating documentary Stink (available on Netflix).
What: 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, inks and 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 using 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, thyroid dysfunction, disruption of the liver, kidneys and immune system, and is linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and diabetes.
Found in: solvents, eco light bulbs, fungicides, vaccinations (though most are being phased out), large fish like swordfish, whales, dolphins, and tuna, and coal and gold-mining plants.
While mercury has been detected in fish like tuna, eating tuna has health benefits that may outweigh risks. The recommendation is to consume 3 portions of fish per week, that can include canned tuna.
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, so can enter buildings near heavy traffic zones.
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 and are possibly carcinogenic.
Found in: exhaust fumes, cooked food (especially when foods are ‘browned’), wood fire smoke and coal power plants.
What: a herbicide as well as a registered antibiotic.
Health impact: carcinogenic, is endocrine disrupting (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: insecticide products (e.g. bug sprays), weed killer used in gardens (e.g. Round-Up), non-organic grains like wheat, corn and oats, plus fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and wine. Pesticides are often dragged into offices via shoes 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, is also known to be 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, 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: plastic bags, cling film, vinyl flooring, air fresheners, scented candles that use synthetic fragrance (rather than essential oils), incense, perfumes, skin care products, shave lotions, cleaning products, insecticides, insect repellents, adhesives, lacquer, 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.
Those air fresheners or candles that smell like sea breeze? 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.
What: a group of chemicals used in products to prevent bacterial and mould growth.
Health impact: possibly carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting, linked to infertility, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Found in: skin care and personal care products like hand wash and moisturisers in office bathrooms.
There’s a range of endocrine disrupting chemicals in 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!
Health impact: some are known to be possibly carcinogenic, neurotoxic, disruptive to the function of the reproductive system, are known to cause depression, aggressiveness, and abnormal behaviour, as well as ADHD, ASD, and related learning disabilities in kids.
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) and drinking water, outdoor areas, furnishings, fabrics and 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, immune system and other tissues where they disrupt function. Metals are linked to many neurological conditions including Parkison’s, depression and Alzheimer’s, they disrupt the reproductive system and thyroid function, are linked to chronic fatigue, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and can cause birth defects and cancer. They can also displace minerals like calcium from the body (lead does this in bones) and increase inflammation through the body. Lead, aluminium, cadmium, and mercury lower the IQ of children.
Found in: most metals are in our air, food, and waterways, as well as many products in the office.
To demonstrate just how prevalent they are, here’s where these metals are found:
Arsenic: copper/lead smelting, smog, pesticides, glass manufacturing and electronics. It’s also in 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, inks and dyes, waste sites, fertilisers (phosphates), pigments in artist paints, PVC, soldering/sealing cans, old galvanised water pipes and other pipes.
Lead: paint pre 1970, old water pipes, food, smelter from metal refineries, dust, plumbing and construction, canned fruit with a soldered seal, pesticides, and 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’s used to make water look clean!), antiperspirants, some salts — especially table salt, baking soda and sodium bicarbonate (aluminium makes things flow), tin foil, aluminium cookware, and non-stick Teflon cookware that’s anodised with aluminium.
Copper: copped lined hot water pipes, pans and lining in some cookware.
Antimony: Flame-retardants (so furnishings and materials listed above), 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, coins, and smoke.
What: Certain toxic strains of fungi that 25% of the population can’t create antibodies for.
Health impact: possibly carcinogenic, neurotoxic, disrupts the reproductive system, causes respiratory issues including asthma, is known to cause depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, systemic inflammation and an evergrowing 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, cause oxidative stress and inflammation, genetic mutations and nervous system depression (in high doses).
Found in: paints, lacquers, pesticides, insect repellents, perfumes, cleaning fluids, glue and rubber products, exhaust fumes (including planes!) and unflued gas heating. Benzene outgasses (releases gas) from synthetic materials and is extremely toxic in high levels.
15. Not a chemical though still a toxicant — Electromagnetic Frequency Radiation
What: manmade electromagnetic frequencies emitted by wireless technology.
Health impact: possibly carcinogenic, causes oxidative stress and inflammation, DNA strand breaks, enhances the permeability of the blood-brain barrier and causes neurological problems. Linked to chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, disturbed immune function, miscarriages, tinnitus, and sleep disturbances.
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, 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.
16. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
What: vinyl chloride and polyvinyl chloride.
Health impact: nausea, headache, dizziness, liver damage, and nervous system depression.
Found in: vinyl flooring, PVC based building materials.
What: a powerful oxidising/bleaching agent
Health impact: disrupts thyroid function, is possibly carcinogenic, is a respiratory irritant and can cause allergic reactions like asthma and skin reactions.
Found in: bleach, fertilisers, swimming pools and is often in the water supply.
What: used as a preservative and antibacterial agent.
Health impact: carcinogenic, and irritates eyes, skin, and lungs.
Found in: building materials such as particleboard or fibreboard, furniture, carpets, 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.
Found in: water pipes, roofs, gutters, cement walls of houses and buildings built between 1920 and 1980, vinyl, carpet and tile underlays, and water tanks. 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, 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, antibacterial clothing, and shower curtains.
Triclosan has been banned in some countries including the US. Unfortunately, it’s still prevalent in Australian products.
Steps you can take to limit your exposure
While removing all of these chemicals often isn’t possible, some can be removed easily, and there’s much you can do to limit exposure.
Here are 5 steps you can take right away.
- Clear the air
With indoor air being on average 5 times more polluted than outdoor air, one of the simplest solutions is to make sure to aerate your office daily, and properly remove dust particles where many of these chemicals end up.
If you’re in a highly polluted area, or in offices where opening windows isn’t possible, investing in good quality HEPA air filters that remove particles as small as 0.3 microns will help remove particles found in the environment.
As much dust settles on carpets and floors, make sure your vacuum cleaner has HEPA filters than can remove particles at 0.3 microns too.
Making sure filters in airconditioning units and heaters are checked and every few months will avoid dust recirculating through the office.
2. Go natural and non-toxic
Replacing products like hand wash, moisturisers, air fresheners and cleaning products with non-toxic sources will help reduce exposure to many of the toxicants above.
Cleaning brands like Method or Abode are great options for kitchen, bathroom, toilet and floor cleaning.
For hand wash, soaps and lotions, check out Dr Bronner’s range.
As for air fresheners, go for options that only use essential oils – or perhaps now that you’re opening up your windows and clearing the air, you no longer need them?
3. Go organic
Replacing the office fruit bowl with organic produce may not be as expensive as you think – especially if you buy local produce that’s in season.
Local farmers may do you a good deal if they know you’ll be a regular long term customer.
4. Get filtered water
If you’re an office of just a few people, a carbon based filter like a Brita jug can be a low cost option, and it’s effective at removing some of the particles in water.
If you’re in a bigger office, consider getting a water filtration system in your kitchen with a special tap for drinking water. I’d recommend this over a water cooler to avoid consuming water that’s been bottled in plastic (and to avoid using those plastic cups, too).
5. Get wired
I recognise this step isn’t so practical in our age of technology – and may take longer than the others depending on the size of your office – but you might want to consider going back to wired ethernet cables given the growing concern of our exposure to EMFs.
Perhaps create a wi-fi free workzone and limit wi-fi to just one area in your workplace?
You can also consult a building biologist to assess how much EMF radiation your staff are being exposed to daily, and work out a plan to limit exposure in the EMF hotspots (where there are multiple sources of radiation) in your office.
I’d love to know — what’s one thing you’re going to remove from your office right away?
This article was adapted from the original article published on melissasmith.pro