Environmental Toxins & Health

Environmental Toxins & Health


Environmental toxins are naturally occurring or human-made chemicals that can be harmful to our health by disrupting delicate biological processes and systems.

There are a variety of environmental toxins found all around us. They are in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, in the personal care and cosmetic products we apply to our skin, in the cleaning products, in the laundry and dry-cleaning detergents, in scented products creating aroma in our homes, in the products we apply to our lawns; environmental toxins are everywhere.

There is consensus that exposure to toxic chemicals plays a role in the incidence and prevalence of diseases and disorders in the U.S.

There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market. Few of these chemicals have been studied for their effects on human health. Young children, teenagers and special populations such as pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems can be especially susceptible to the negative effects of toxins. Not fully developed defense mechanisms, weakened or suppressed immune systems, bodies undergoing rapid development are all contributing factors in those cases.

Exposure to these toxic substances can be via inhalation, topical application and/ or ingestion.

The chemicals can enter our bodies through the olfactory system, travel through the air passages and lungs, where they can also be deposited, and be absorbed by the lungs into the bloodstream, which then carries them throughout the body.

When in contact with the skin, our largest organ, or ingested, toxins are absorbed into the blood and distributed in our bodies to the various organs where they may also accumulate over time.

Few of the large categories of environmental toxins that follow different physiological pathways to affect the body are Carcinogens, Endocrine Disruptors and Neurotoxins.



According to the American Cancer Society, carcinogens are defined as “substances and exposures that could lead to cancer”. Cancer is caused by cellular DNA changes. Some cancers are genetic, others are attributed by environmental factors. Carcinogens do not always affect DNA directly; sometimes, for example, they accelerate cell proliferation, which in turn increases the chances for DNA alteration.

Carcinogenic effect of environmental toxins is dependent on a variety of factors including intensity and period of exposure as well as genetic makeup. [3]

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 3 Americans will develop cancer in their lifetime. [4]

Here are a few noteworthy statements from the 2008–2009 Annual Report from the President’s Cancer Panel on Reducing Environmental Cancer.

  • “… the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action…
  • “… the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.”
  • 21% of Americans will die from cancer.

Another known cancer-related project – The Halifax Project – took place between 2012 and 2015. It involved an international group of more than 350 cancer researchers and physicians. While the focus of current regulatory policy is investigation of single chemicals that can cause cancer, the Halifax Project looked at chemicals that are not carcinogenic themselves but can rather make cells more prone to becoming cancerous.

The project emphasized the need to look at how chemicals work together to affect cells’ normal function and make them susceptible to cancer. [6]



Endocrine disruptors are naturally occurring or synthetic compounds that interfere with hormonal function of our bodies.

They intervene with the function of the endocrine system by increasing or decreasing hormonal production, mimicking hormonal action, interfering with hormone signaling, and so forth. Endocrine disruptors adversely affect developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife. [7]

There is limited scientific information on the potential adverse effects on human health. However, very low levels of endocrine disruptors in the environment have been shown to have significant effect on wild wife as well as in laboratory animals.

In addition, our endocrine system is extremely delicate; minor changes in hormone levels can have significant physiological implications.

As an example, the active ingredient in the NuvaRing, a contraceptive patch, is 0.035 parts per billion. This level of concentration can prevent contraception. Similar to the concerns expressed in the Halifax Project for carcinogens, there is unease that people are exposed to multiple such chemicals and frequently. [9]

Endocrine disruptors are found all around us – in plastic containers, liners of cans, detergents, cosmetics, pesticides, toys – just to name a few.



Neurotoxins are toxins poisonous or destructive to nerve tissue.

Neurotoxins can negatively affect developing as well as mature nerve tissue. Some neurotoxins cause permanent damage, others produce deterioration over time.

Some neurotoxins act directly on the nervous tissue; others induce neurological or behavioral dysfunction indirectly. The latter are frequently expressed as neurobehavioral disorders – disorders relating the action of the nervous system to behavior. Examples include: ADHD, autism, PTSD. [13]

Two of the well-known and regulated neurotoxins are lead and mercury. However, there are many toxins that affect the nervous system that are yet to be fully tested.

An article published in The Atlantic in 2014 summarized the findings of several studies which investigated the health concerns of neurotoxins and identified those responsible for ‘widespread behavioral and cognitive problems’. The studies reviewed severity of brain damage caused by early exposure to these chemicals as well as noted the financial magnitude of the impact as measured by healthcare cost and loss of IQ points. [13]

Another concern brought up in the context of neurotoxins is food genetic engineering or modification. Due to growing health concerns over the use of insecticides and pesticides in the late 1990’s, the United States adopted GMO crops, which used biotechnology to engineer the pesticides and insecticides into the plants themselves. However, the long-term implications of GMO-modified food containing neurotoxins and newly introduced substances has not been studied.

What has changed is that the incidence of asthma, allergies, autism or ADHD has surged. Now 1 in 3 children suffers from one of these disorders. [12]



  • Get in the habit of reviewing labels
    • Download the free HEALTHY LIVING APP – EWG’s ratings for more than 120,000 food and personal care products
    • Look up ingredients in the SKIN DEEP database – it rates and reviews ingredients for safety.



  • Use fresh produce
    • Choose organic whenever affordable and at least for fruits and veggies on the Dirty Dozen List
  • Eat local for the Clean 15 List
  • Avoid fruits and vegetables known to be GMO modified – e.g. corn, papaya, corn or soy-derived products [14]
  • Purchase products that are Non-GMO certified
  • Choose:
    • Organic, grass-fed full-fat dairy products
    • Wild-caught seafood known to have with low mercury levels (e.g. salmon, oyster, sardine, tilapia, trout)
    • Organic, pasture-raised chicken
    • Organic, grass-fed beef
    • Free-range organic eggs
  • Limit consumption of processed foods
  • Avoid canned food



  • Use only glass containers
  • Avoid products that contain BPA
  • Limit microwave use
  • Avoid any household product containing synthetic fragrance, scent or perfume such as:
    • Candles
    • Air fresheners
    • Plug ins
    • Laundry detergents
    • Personal care products
  • Use cleaning products without or limiting harmful synthetic ingredients
  • Do not use fabric softener
  • Do not use dryer sheets
  • Be cautious with selection of weed killers for your lawn
  • Inquire of dry cleaning agents used by your service provider
  • Do not buy fire retardant clothing
  • Substitute synthetic fragrances with pure essential oils




  • Select safer personal care & cosmetic products that eliminate harmful ingredients
  • Select colored cosmetics that have a limited threshold of heavy metals
  • Note that there is no regulation behind ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in cosmetics; these terms do not reference a safer product
  • Limit use of hair spray
  • Select safer nail products
  • Avoid products containing synthetic fragrance, parabens, phthalates, oxybenzone, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), toluene, triclosan, rethinyl palmitate and retinol (Vitamin A), hydroquinone – to name a few
  • My preferred cosmetics line is Beautycounter




[1] https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/chemicals/toxic_substances.htm

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/environmental_chemicals.html

[3] https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/known-and-probable-human-carcinogens.html

[4] https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/lifetime-probability-of-developing-or-dying-from-cancer.html

[5] https://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf

[6] https://www.ewg.org/research/rethinking-carcinogens/executive-summary-0#.Wm-s7pM-fq0

[7] https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/index.cfm

[8] https://www.epa.gov/chemical-research/research-endocrine-disruptors

[9] https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/endocrine_disruptors_508.pdf

[10] https://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/pollution-environment/neurobehavioral-effects-developmental-toxicity

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK219113/

[12] http://www.allergykids.com/uncategorized/our-childrens-food-a-complex-truth/

[13] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-toxins-that-threaten-our-brains/284466/

[14] https://www.ewg.org/research/shoppers-guide-to-avoiding-gmos#.WnCWZZM-fq0


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