Biologically, a toxin is naturally occurring substance that harms other living organisms. Man-made chemicals are not technically “toxins,” but in practice, the term is also used to refer to artificial substances that are hazardous to human health. Followers of Paleo are familiar with food toxins like gluten, lectins, and phytic acid: these are all harmful parts of the modern diet and should be avoided whenever possible. Unfortunately, though, eating toxins is not the only way to ingest them. In the modern world, man-made toxins are everywhere. Megacorporations care as much about the environment as they do about human health: they don’t. Commercial agriculture and animal farming operations pump thousands of tons of pollutants into the water and soil every year; manufacturing plants cloud the skies with poisonous smoke and churn out plastics that leech chemicals into our food and water.
Living in the modern world forces all of us to cope with these environmental toxins to a greater or lesser degree. While it’s always a good idea to limit your exposure as much as possible, realistically, there’s no way to escape altogether. Under these less-than-ideal circumstances, a Paleo diet can help your body defend itself against the toxins that you will inevitably encounter, and also help you avoid contributing to the problem for future generations.
Environmental Toxins and Endocrine Disruption
Environmental toxins have a wide variety of effects, and attack the body in several different ways. Endocrine disruptors are toxins that disturb the normal function of the endocrine system, the network of glands that secrete and regulate your hormones. While the endocrine system is highly complex and involves many different hormones, one of the most worrisome targets for endocrine disruptors is the sex hormones, specifically estrogen.
Estrogen (also spelled oestrogen) is the most important sex hormone in women: it controls the menstrual cycle and regulates the development of female secondary sex characteristics (breasts, larger hips, and other typically “feminine” traits). In its natural state, estrogen is not only harmless, but necessary. Several toxic industrial chemicals, however, contain a type of endocrine disruptors called estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EEDCs), which mimic the action of estradiol (the most important form of estrogen). EEDCs artificially magnify the amount of estrogen in the body, creating an imbalance in your sex hormones.
This imbalance has serious consequences for reproductive health and development. For girls, exposure to this unnatural influx of hormones can cause early puberty; for women, it can lead to all kinds of reproductive and fertility issues. Boys exposed to endocrine disruptors have higher rates of genital abnormalities, and men show decreased sperm count and quality. Endocrine disruptors also affect immune function, behavioral patterns, and brain health. They have also been linked with certain types of cancers, especially cancers of the reproductive system. The hormonal derangement that they cause also been linked to weight gain and diabetes. Since EEDCs are so closely related to developmental problems, they’re especially dangerous for children and pregnant women.
Clearly, EEDCs are best avoided. Unfortunately, they’re also very difficult to get away from. One way that many people are exposed to EEDCs is through plastic products, especially food packaging– EEDCs can leech from the packaging into the food, especially when the package is heated. One of the best-known hormone disruptors, Bisephenol-A (BPA), is found in various plastic substances; receipt tape also contains very high levels of BPA, in a form that might even be more dangerous (since it’s not bound up in a plastic molecule, the BPA in receipts gets directly onto your skin, and from there onto your food). Pthalates, another type of EEDCs, are commonly used to soften commercial plastic products (for example, to make plastic tubing, IV bags, and other products that need to be flexible). Many conventional beauty products, such as nail polish, shampoo, and hair spray, also contain phthalates.
As well as leeching out of plastic containers, some environmental estrogens lurk in the water supply. Prescription drug residue – from household and especially agricultural wastewater – is one source of these EEDCs. Birth control pills contain a type of synthetic estrogen called ethynyl-estradiol. While a woman is on the Pill, some of the hormones she ingests will inevitably pass out through her urine, eventually ending up in the water supply. But while birth control pills are an attention-grabbing headline topic for newspapers, wastewater from agricultural use of estrogen drugs in veterinary medicine is actually a more serious problem. Thus, while hormonal birth control pills often have serious negative consequences for individual women, conventional methods of animal husbandry are more to blame for the presence of estrogen-containing drugs in the general supply of drinking water.
Another water contaminant, industrial pesticides also have estrogenic properties. The best-known of these is DDT, which can disrupt normal estrogen activity so much that it causes breast cancer. DDT has been banned in the United States, but other pesticides also have the same harmful effects. These chemicals can leach into rivers, lakes, and streams from pesticides sprayed on crops, or float through the air to contaminate nearby areas.
Food is another source of EEDCs. Dioxins, created as byproducts from a variety of industrial processes, and occasionally also produced by natural events like volcanic eruptions, are one type of EEDC that many people ingest through food. These chemicals are classified as “persistent organic pollutants,” meaning that once they enter the body, they are very chemically stable and often get stored for long periods (up to around a decade) in fat tissues. Animals eat contaminated food, and the dioxins are stored in their tissue and passed on to the person who eats the meat. While acute exposure to very high levels of dioxins is possible (for example, in the event of a serious industrial accident), long-term exposure to low levels (eating dioxin-contaminated meat every day for several years) is more common. Closely related to dioxins are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are not technically dioxins, but have very similar toxic effects.
Toxic Metals (also called heavy metals) are another serious source of environmental pollutants in the food supply. Although they are often necessary in very small amounts, these metals have estrogenic properties and can build up in the body over time, seriously damaging the endocrine system. Toxic metals include arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, and mercury. These metals are often released into the air and water supply by mining operations; humans can then ingest them directly or by eating plants, fish, and other animals that lived in contaminated areas. Some heavy metals, like aluminum, are also ingredients in everyday products like deodorant and medications.
Even if EEDCs were the only environmental toxins in the world, we’d still have a job avoiding them: they’re everywhere! Unfortunately, endocrine disruptors are not the only contaminants polluting our air, water, and homes.
Other Environmental Toxins
Endocrine disruptors are the most common class of environmental toxins, but they’re far from the only one. Several other toxins also attack various other parts of your body. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are used in all kinds of household products and cleaning chemicals like paint, solvents, preservatives, cleaning products, air fresheners, and craft supplies. One VOC that most people will recognize is formaldehyde, the strange-smelling liquid that anatomy teachers everywhere use to preserve dead rats as classroom decorations. For most people, formaldehyde only brings up memories of 3rd Period Biology, but it’s also a known carcinogen found in pressed-wood products like plywood, insulation products, and several different glues. The most harmful VOCs are methylene chloride, benzene, and perchloroethylene – if at all possible, avoid buying or using products containing these chemicals. VOCs first cause general irritation (weepy eyes, irritated nose and throat, skin rashes), nausea, fatigue, headaches and dizziness. Long-term exposure has been linked to certain kinds of cancer.
Another common household toxin, asbestos is a strong, easily woven, and heat-resistant mineral fiber that can cause serious illness if inhaled. Because it has such useful properties, it has been used for all kinds of manufacturing applications: roofing materials, tiles, insulation, and flame-retardant materials all commonly contain asbestos. Long-term exposure to asbestos can cause lung cancer and a lung disease called asbestosis, which has no known treatment.
Other flame retardant substances, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are also so highly toxic that, like dioxins, they are considered persistent organic pollutants. PBDEs are commonly found in several household products, including polyurethane foam (mattresses and furniture pads) and electronics.
Chlorine is another toxin that most of us are exposed to every day – it was actually used very effectively as a chemical weapon in the First World War, which ought to give us all a clue that this is a substance we don’t want to ingest. Unfortunately, in a much more diluted form, it’s used to kill bacteria in water. Like other anti-bacterial substances, though, chlorine can damage the helpful bacteria in your gut along with the bacteria that make you sick. Furthermore chlorine in the water supply can react with organic matter to form a poisonous chemical compound called chloroform. The amount of chloroform that you’re exposed to in the shower won’t kill you, but constant exposure can make you feel sick and run-down.
Avoiding Environmental Toxins
Avoiding environmental toxins is difficult because they’re literally everywhere: in the air, in the water, in the food supply, in your house, your clothes, and your belongings – it’s impossible to get away entirely. But there are prudent ways to reduce your exposure as much as possible.
First, cut down on your plastic use, especially for anything that comes into contact with your mouth. Many commercial plastic containers are currently marketed as BPA-free, but even these aren’t necessarily a safe bet, since they may contain other estrogenic compounds. Your best bet for avoiding these toxins is to steer clear of plastic food containers altogether – choose glass or stainless steel containers for refrigerating leftovers, packing lunches, and any other application that will bring them into contact with your food. To minimize your BPA exposure, also be cautious with your receipts – wash your hands after touching them, don’t give them to children, and throw them away as soon as possible.
Second, keep your diet as “clean” as possible: even healthy Paleo foods can be contaminated with toxins. Avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides by choosing organic produce and free-range, grass-fed meat. If you can’t afford to buy everything organic, use the "dirty dozen" list to help prioritize your money. Also, be aware of the fish you buy: many species of fish and shellfish are contaminated with mercury, especially shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Be picky with your tuna: Skipjack Tuna has less mercury than Yellowfin or Albacore. Choose wild-caught fish instead of farmed fish if at all possible: farmed fish (especially farmed salmon) has very high levels of PCBs.
To reduce the damage from building materials and household products, make sure to take appropriate precautions when you’re doing home improvement projects. Use breath masks when appropriate, leave the windows open and run a fan to provide fresh air, never mix products, and throw away anything you don’t use. When you’re buying new furniture or carpets, look for a brand with minimal or no toxic flame retardants or preservatives. While there isn’t any need to throw out all your old furniture and bedding immediately, keep an eye out for any signs of wear and tear: if you start to notice foam poking through a cover, throw it out.
Take the same precautions with insulation, to avoid asbestos exposure. An expert inspection can determine whether or not your house actually contains any asbestos; if it does, be careful to check the asbestos-containing elements regularly; if they start showing signs of wear, you’ll need to have them either sealed off or replaced entirely. In general, before you embark on a new project, take a few minutes to research any chemicals or building materials you’ll be using and find the best options – paints, varnishes, and stains, for example, can be very toxic.
Also be aware of what household cleaners you use. Conventional dish soap, shampoo, furniture polish, laundry detergent, and other cleaning products can contain all kinds of VOCs and phthalates. Avoiding these toxins doesn’t mean that you have to spend three times as much on special organic Windex alternatives, though: cheap household ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice can clean almost anything.
Cosmetics are another area of concern. Choose a deodorant or antiperspirant that does not contain aluminum, and look for makeup and hygiene products that do not contain phthalates and parabens. Also be careful with sunscreens: if you’re just going outside for a few minutes, leave the sunscreen entirely and let your skin soak up the sun to produce Vitamin D. For longer periods of sun exposure, look for an all-natural sunscreen. Insect repellents commonly contain DEET and other potentially harmful chemicals; if possible, choose citronella candles or other methods of insect repellent that you don’t have to apply directly to your skin. If you’re hiking or camping somewhere that makes candles impractical, several companies now make a clip-on product that wafts insect repellent away from you, reducing contact with your skin.
Not all water companies use chlorine as a disinfectant, but those that don’t probably use some other kind of toxic chemical – call your water supplier to ask, and plan accordingly. Chlorine-filtering shower heads can help remove chlorine from your water supply – make sure to get them not only for your taps and faucets, but also for your shower. Whole-house water filters are the best way to remove as many contaminants as possible from your water supply, but these are expensive and laborious to install, and may not be an option if you live in an apartment building.
Removing toxic chemicals makes for a discouragingly long to-do list. Most of us are so used to these products that we don’t even think about using them, and suddenly there seems to be a new threat at every turn. There’s no need to rush out and spend hundreds of dollars updating your entire household, though – take the process one step at a time. Detoxifying any one room in your house would make a great weekend project; at that rate, after a couple months you’ll have a chemical-free home. The checklist below organizes problem areas by room, for a convenient guide.
- Canned foods (check to see if the lining contains BPA)
- Plastic containers (Tupperware, Gladware, etc.)
- Plastic utensils
- Foods in plastic packages (bottled water, etc.)
- Dish soap
- Cleaning chemicals (bleach, Comet, etc.)
- Plastic food bags (Ziploc bags, etc. – plastic garbage bags are fine, since they don’t touch anything you’ll be eating)
- Unfiltered taps
- Fish with high levels of mercury concentration
- Conventionally grown produce and factory farmed meat
- Old grocery receipts
- Soap, shampoo, and other personal hygiene items
- Cleaning chemicals (bleach, Comet, etc.)
- Makeup and makeup remover
- Shaving cream
- Lotions and moisturizers
- Bug repellent
- Hand soap
- Unfiltered taps
- Old or fraying mattresses and bedding
- Old or fraying chair and couch cushions
- Cleaning chemicals (bleach, Comet, etc.)
- Exposed or fraying insulation
- Old chemical products (paint thinner, varnishes, etc.)
- Air fresheners or odor removing sprays
- Laundry detergent and fabric softener
- Old or fraying chair and couch cushions
Resisting Toxins on Paleo
Since nobody can completely eliminate their exposure to environmental toxins, it’s a good idea to give your body as much help as possible in handling them. The organ primarily responsible for this is the liver, which filters toxins out of your bloodstream. Unfortunately, since the liver plays such an important role in handling these toxins, it’s also one of the organs that they damage the most.
One way to keep your liver (and the rest of your body) healthy is to get enough antioxidants. Environmental toxins cause a kind of damage known as oxidative stress; antioxidants, as the name implies, protect against it. The best-known antioxidant is Vitamin C, but Vitamins A and E also have antioxidant properties, as do beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, and selenium. Many commercial supplements claim to provide high levels of antioxidants, but on a micronutrient-rich Paleo diet, you should be able to get all the antioxidants you need from your food alone. Bone broth is also a great (and delicious) way to support your body against the damage of environmental pollution.
Protecting yourself this way also helps in a more long-term sense: it prevents you from contributing further to the levels of environmental toxins in your area. By supporting grass-fed meat and organic produce, you encourage farmers to find ways of producing food that don’t poison the air and water. By staying away from chemical cleaning products, you avoid flushing them down the toilet into the water supply. Everything you do to protect your own family from environmental toxins also has long-term benefits for future generations.
Toxins are everywhere. Many type of environmental pollutants disrupt the natural balance of sex hormones in the body, but others also harm you in different ways. Since environmental toxins are so many and so varied, trying to attack each one individually is a full-time job in itself. The unethical and destructive companies that pour these pollutants out into the atmosphere aren’t worth that much of your time and energy. Unless you have hours to spend every day on research and protection, focus on increasing your general resilience with a healthy Paleo diet and lifestyle, and resist the urge to panic over every bite of food and sip of water. Do your best for yourself, and rest assured that everything you can is helping to solve the problem for the future.