You have probably heard or read about the harmful effects of perfluorinated compounds, aka PFAS, aka “Forever Chemicals”. These substances have qualities that make products water and grease-repellant and so are used in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and fire-fighting foam. They do not bio-degrade and are not easily excreted from the body. When products containing PFAS end up in landfills, the chemicals leach into the ground contaminating ground water and ultimately springs and wells. Exposure to PFAS is associated with cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, asthma, and thyroid dysfunction.
PFAS and their chemical cousins are just one family of over 5,000 environmental chemicals that may be impacting our health. What are some other common ones, and how can you protect yourself from exposure? Keep reading and I will answer that question. You will be surprised at how doable it is.
Most of us know about the dangers of herbicides and pesticides. While these products increase crop yield, they contain harmful substances such as glyphosate and atrazine that contribute to cancers and reproductive problems. Other chemicals like BPA ( bisphenol-A), a plastic hardener, and phthalates, a plastic softener, leach out of food containers and are ingested. Parabens are another hormone-disrupting and cancer-causing chemical used as a preservative in cosmetics, personal care, and cleaning products. Triclosan, a synthetic anti-microbial found in hand wash soaps, may contribute to thyroid and reproductive dysfunction. These are just a few of the approximately 5,000 environmental chemicals our ancestors never had to deal with.
What are the bad health effects of these chemicals? How do they hurt our bodies?
In addition to cancer and thyroid problems, environmental chemicals may contribute to the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and reproductive disorders like endometrioses, polycystic ovarian disease, and low sperm counts. The occurrence of cancer and reproductive disorders is usually multi-factorial, but chemical exposure is one factor we have some control over because we can make safe choices.
Each category of chemicals has specific ways they disrupt our bodies. BPA, a plastic hardener, is an interesting example. It is known as an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine means hormone-secreting and includes thyroid hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. BPA was designed synthetically to look like natural estrogen in the 1940s and 50s to help women who had repeat miscarriages. Although BPA and its chemical cousins are no longer used as an estrogen replacement, somewhere along the line, it was discovered that it is an excellent plastic hardener. So plastic started being used to make food containers and packaging. The problem with plastic is that it is a very unstable compound, and when it gets too hot, too cold, or too old, it breaks down, and the plastic hardener can leach into food. This “exogenous” (meaning from outside the body) estrogen source in women can cause hormone imbalance and estrogen-fueled cancers. When men’s estrogen levels are high, testosterone can drop, resulting in a lower sperm count. We are all in this together—almost all people have environmental chemicals in their urine and body fat. Newborns have an average of 262 chemicals in their umbilical cord blood.
So what can we do to protect ourselves?
LOTS! Do what your grandmother or great-grandmother did.
- Cook in stainless steel, heatproof ceramic, and cast iron. Non-stick coatings scratch and break down after time, releasing potentially harmful chemicals.
- Drink from glass or stainless steel containers. “BPA-free” water bottles are not necessarily safe as the chemical that replaced them to harden plastic is also an endocrine disruptor.
- Buy your frequent foods like peanut butter, jelly, mayonnaise, and ketchup in a glass when possible.
- Store leftovers in metal or glass containers or empty jars from the above items.
- Limit foods from cans because of chemicals used in the linings. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers used to do “canning,” but if you recall, the pickles and pears they “put up” were in jars.
- Beware of the term “fragrance,” which usually refers to synthetically made fragrances that contain things like phthalates, which disrupt thyroid and reproductive hormones. Phthalates (a great scrabble word if you have primarily consonants and no vowels) are sometimes abbreviated to DBP, BZBP, and DMP.
- Clean with vinegar, a mild acid that can kill a few types of bacteria found in food.
- Clean with baking soda. Its alkaline quality gives it the ability to break down grease and dirt. It does an excellent job on sinks, tubs, and stained coffee cups. Just try it.
- Use caution when handling ATM and gas pump receipts. They are coated with BPS, so the ink doesn’t smear. It doesn’t go through the skin, but if you pick up food without washing your hands, you will ingest it. Easy solution—wash your hands.
All the sources of contamination and the extent of the problem sound overwhelming. Does making some of these changes help?
Yes! A woman obstetrician did a study where they sequestered some families and fed them for two weeks with food that had never touched plastic. After two weeks, their urine BPA decreased by 66%. In addition, the town of Oakdale, Minnesota, started filtering their municipal drinking water a few years ago for PFAS and has significantly decreased the rate of premature and low birth weight babies. The most fun study I read about the effects of reducing pesticides was done some time ago by a middle school student for her science fair. She boxed up one group of fruit flies, fed them only organic fruit, and had another box full and non-organic fruit. The organic fruit flies produced hundreds more fruit flies in a much shorter time. Her experiment piqued the interest of academic scientists, who repeated it in many different ways and found the same results.
Frequently asked (and excellent) questions from my patients.
“If chemicals are so bad for us, why does my sister-in-law, who microwaves in plastic, have five kids?”
The answer is simple: we all have a different body and “constitution” and therefore handle substances differently. Some people can safely drive after a beer, but I need a nap after half a beer. I could jump into a vat of pollen and never sneeze. Some people are miserable with the first appearance of pollen in the spring until the first frost. We have no system for tracking chemical sensitivity, which genes may control. So the solution is to prevent the build-up by doing what you can to prevent exposure. Do your homework just once by finding and using clean products and sticking with them. When you see an article on upcoming legislation meant to protect our water, food, and air, email or call your representative and ask them to support it.
So are BPA-free baby bottles and water bottles safe?
No, not necessarily. When consumers became aware of the dangers of BPA, and clamored for alternatives, the plastics industry tweaked the formula for BPA and renamed it BPAS, BPAF, and BPAB. The problem is that recent research has revealed that the new substitutes are just as disruptive or possibly even worse.
Do I really have to get rid of my scented candles?
Scented candles often contain formaldehyde which can cause lung swelling and benzene which can contribute to cancer, and immune and bone marrow problems. So if you must use them, be sure to have good ventilation. Try to find natural beeswax candles and candles that are scented with essential oils. A scented candle industry rebuttal stated that we are exposed to more harm by being out in traffic and breathing the air. But that misses the point. We cannot avoid traffic, but we can choose unscented candles. I love my pine-scented candles at Christmas time, but I do not burn them every day for long periods during the season.
Just because something is “natural” does not mean it is safe, right?
Right. Arsenic, cadmium, mercury, etc., are some of the earth’s natural substances and minerals on that periodic table you had to memorize in chemistry class. Many are necessary components of soil that sustain and nourish plant life, which in turn nourishes us. But many of these naturally occurring elements cause health problems if we are exposed to large amounts. Fish is healthy food for reproductive and cardiovascular health, but pregnant women are given limits on consumption due to high levels of mercury in our oceans.
Some cosmetics, shampoos, and soaps are advertised as having all “natural ingredients” but are potentially hazardous to health. Cadmium, used for its lovely red color, is toxic at high levels but safe at low levels. But Mother Nature, when she put it in the earth’s crust, could not have foreseen that teen girls would reapply tinted lip gloss up to 50 times a day, resulting in the dangerously high levels of cadmium that were found in one study of teen girls.
The lists of chemical “Badditives” in products can be overwhelming. My simple (but not foolproof) guideline is that if the list of ingredients in a food or personal care product is long with too many letters in the words, it probably contains some disruptive stuff. If you want to know about an ingredient, just Google the name, preceded by “harmful effects of.”
How can breathing in chemicals hurt us?
Over the years, we have learned a lot about the unhealthy effects of tobacco and polluted air on the lungs. The concerns I have for my patients now are the potentially harmful chemicals they breathe in from scented candles, air fresheners, fabric softeners, and cleaning products. The Mayo Clinic website describes a study in which 6,000 women who were professional cleaners were followed for 20 years. The decline in their lung function was MUCH higher than what would be expected in the general population.
Is bottled water safe if the label says “purified” or “filtered”?
It depends. All water, whether bottled or on tap, comes from lakes, rivers, and underground springs. So, in theory, it can be contaminated with bacteria from birds and animals, pesticides and herbicides from agricultural and industrial run-off, lead or bacteria from transport pipes, and hormones that flush from toilets out into the waterways. The problem with filtration is that no one filter removes all contaminants. For example, carbon filters remove chlorine, sediment, odors, and taste. Reverse osmosis filters remove some metals and microbes. Combining the two may reduce but not completely remove hormones in the water. So depending on what type of filtration was done, some but not all chemicals may have been removed from the water before it was bottled. And remember, even if the water was filtered, it might contain chemicals that have leaked back into it from a plastic bottle if the bottle became too hot, too cold, or too old.
Sometimes water in plastic bottles is better than risking dehydration, especially for pregnant women. If you do not want to invest in a home filtration system, you can consider using one of those carbon filter pitchers and transferring the water into a glass pitcher after it runs through the filter.
Don’t despair about our chemically saturated environment. Our bodies can tolerate and wall off a lot of stuff. Think about the beautiful, healthy babies born every day and those who never get cancer. To avoid all chemical exposure, you would have to live in a bubble, and the bubble would probably have to be plastic. The name of the game is doing what you can to reduce exposure.
The chemical industry, food packaging manufacturers, etc., are not the enemies here. Plastic and chemical products, including antibiotics and synthetic hormones, have changed our lives. And responsible manufacturers are looking for alternative recipes for their products. There was a time when we did not know how harmful tobacco and alcohol could be. But we got a handle on it, educated ourselves, and can make healthy choices. We can all live without scented products and plastic water bottles. There have been some exciting experiments on what to do with the build-up of PFAS in landfills and water. You can read about that on my Instagram, @fertilityexpertjane. Bottom line: do what you can now for our health and well-being. It’s easier than you think.
For more information on endocrine disruption and what you can do about it, check out my book, “Who Stole My Ovaries?” available on Amazon.
Other sources of great information are the Environmental Working Group (EWG.org) and the University of California San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (prhe.ucsf.edu)