Living in a toxic world
Every day a potentially harmful cocktail of toxins can assail you as you lead your life. The clothes you wear, the deodorant you use, the food you eat, even the air you breathe can contain a volatile mix of dangerous toxins.
Some of these toxins in your interior and exterior environments cause immediate, acute effects such as nausea or skin irritations, others are only apparent after long-term exposure and some of them are deadly. According to a University of Technology report co-authored by Professor Margaret Burchett, urban air pollution in Sydney causes at least 1400 deaths per year. That is 1400 too many.
Dangers lurking in your building
The issue of toxins in buildings is so prevalent in contemporary western society it’s even earned its own dubious moniker: sick building syndrome (SBS). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, SBS refers to a workplace in which the building’s occupants experience health and comfort effects that are linked to time spent in that building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.
Exposure to contaminants in your workplace can be everywhere, from dust mites in air-conditioning systems to potent volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in some paints, glues and treated textiles and formaldehyde outgassing from products like carpets and pressed-wood products.
Symptoms of sick building syndrome can vary from individual to individual, says James Smith, corporate manager of Getex Pty Ltd and chairperson for Indoor Air Quality, Clean Air Society Australia and New Zealand.
“Likely symptoms can include sore throat, itchy eyes, cough and hay fever or flu-like symptoms,” he says. “If you are suffering from these symptoms, ask your manager to enlist the services of an occupational hygienist to undertake a workplace assessment,” he advises.
One of the challenges with monitoring indoor air quality is that there are no legally binding guidelines for acceptable standards, adds Smith.
“It’s difficult to come up with limits because we all spend varying amounts of our time indoors,” he says. “But there should be a benchmark criterion for standards — even a conservative estimate is a starting point.
“If these were legislated, it would put an onus on building managers and building controllers to implement those measures to get air quality to an acceptable level.”
Dealing with indoor toxins is one thing, but it’s quite another when we step outside. So how can we buffer ourselves against airborne toxins outdoors?
Out and about
When outdoors, be proactive in avoiding those things that are harmful; for example, cigarette smoke. If you are concerned, keep informed. Some government authorities do conduct daily air-quality monitoring and you can consult their websites to check what you may be exposing yourself to on any given day.
Air quality resources
For information about ACT, WA, and NT air quality contact:
The skin is the largest organ in the body and it can absorb toxins it comes into contact with. Most clothing produced in the 21st century is made from synthetic fibres such as polyester which is manufactured using harmful chemical processes involving petrochemicals and toxic clothing dyes.
On the other hand, cotton is a naturally sourced product; however, growing it accounts for 16 per cent of the world’s pesticide use. Processes used to create, manufacture and discard garments at the end of their lifecycle continue to place an increasing burden on the planet.
However, there are eco-friendly alternatives such as organic cotton and hemp. New-look hemp garments that have emerged over the last few years are soft and comfortable to wear — and they’ll last for decades.
There’s also a new kid on the block in an emerging range of eco fabrics and clothing that’s hitting the shelves: bamboo. It has a silky soft feel, it’s luxurious to wear and it’s the ultimate earth-friendly, sustainable resource, says Keshia Abeysekera, brand manager at Cylk.
“Bamboo uses almost no water to grow and it takes up more greenhouse gases and releases more oxygen into the atmosphere than cotton,” she says. “It also grows quickly, without the use of pesticides, fertilisers and the need for continuous replanting.”
Just like other eco-friendly alternatives such as hemp, organic cotton and soy, bamboo is 100 per cent biodegradable — so it’s good for the environment.
There’s also another way you can actively detox your wardrobe. Next time you purchase an item of clothing, look for the fair-trade label. More than five million people in 58 developing countries benefit from the system that aims to stem the tide of illicit sweatshop workers and unfair work practices.
Have you ever wondered what causes that fresh, clean, new car smell? It’s a result of off-gassing of toxic pollutants in the car’s interior. Studies show levels of hazardous emissions exist for months after the vehicle has left the showroom floor, says Dr Stephen Brown, consultant at Air Quality Sciences, CSIRO.
Chemicals being expelled into the air in new cars may include benzene, a known carcinogen; acetone, a mucosal irritant; cyclohexanone, a possible human carcinogen; MBIK, a systemic toxic agent; and xylene isomers, a foetal development toxic agent.
“To avoid exposure to the toxic chemical cocktail, people buying new cars should make sure there is plenty of outside air entering the vehicle when they drive for at least six months after the vehicle was purchased,” Brown says.
Yet winding down the windows isn’t always the answer — particularly if you’re driving in heavy traffic. Chances are you’ll be inhaling dangerous toxic fumes from other motor vehicles. According to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries in Australia, emissions from motor vehicles account for 12.6 per cent of national greenhouse gas emissions, with passenger cars contributing around 7.8 per cent.
The good news is recent figures released show the National Average Carbon Emission (NACE) figure was 218.5 grams of CO2 per kilometre — down almost 20 per cent on the 2002 figure of 252.4 grams.
“Improved engines, better transmissions and technologies like direct injection and cylinder deactivation have all contributed to lowering the emissions from new vehicles,” says Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries chief executive Andrew McKellar.
The introduction of better-quality “clean diesel” fuel in recent years has enabled a rapid increase in the number of diesel cars on Australian roads. Over the next few years there are even more changes in the pipeline as the motor vehicle industry strives for even greater reductions in emissions, says McKellar.
“Hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles and alternative fuels will all have a role to play,” he says.
However, it’s not just switching to a more eco-savvy car that can help reduce toxic emissions. Getting stuck in traffic jams on your way to work not only raises your stress levels; it also pumps out even more C02 into the environment. If you have to drive to work, consider travelling before or after peak hour. Opt to work from home one day a week if possible — it might not sound like much but it equates to taking your car off the road for at least 48 days a year.
To check out some cleaner greener options for motor vehicles go to http://www.greenvehicleguide.gov.au/GVGPublicUI/home.aspx.
There are also other eco-friendly alternatives to make your way to work. Catch a bus or a train, or car pool. And, of course, if you live close enough, try pedal power or strap on your joggers and walk.
A clean and green workplace
A greener workplace not only equates to a more productive and enjoyable place to be, it also reduces your workplace carbon footprint. Be the agent of change in your workplace. Seek to develop a sustainability ethos among staff. Encourage recycling and get management on board to take part and motivate staff to make your workplace a cleaner, greener place to be.
“When purchasing supplies for the workplace, look beyond the purchase price,” says Heather McCabe, resource manager at Greenpeace Australia Pacific Limited.
“When you buy a product you really need to think about the impact of your purchase on the environment,” she says. “Look at where the product came from, the manufacturing process, energy and resources used to create it. Check the components that make up the product and where it’s travelled from.”
You can also take positive steps to detox your workplace by switching off power-zapping office equipment such as computers. Standby settings on computers will continue to draw power even when not being used. According to RMIT University studies, a computer left on for 24 hours will consume around 1000 kilowatts of electricity in a year, producing more than a tonne of carbon emissions.
Power-zapping computers are one thing but some office equipment can be downright dangerous. According to Professor Lidia Morawska from QUT’s International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health, tiny particles are emitted from some printers. These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs.
“In the printing process, toner is melted and when it is hot, certain compounds evaporate and these vapours then nucleate or condense in the air forming ultrafine particles,” she says. “The material is the result of condensation of organic compounds which originate from the hot paper and the toner.”
Printers with better temperature controls emit fewer particles, according to the research. When printing it’s also a good idea to print only what is necessary. Do you really need to print out that email? Reuse printer cartridges and print on both sides of the paper.
If you’re concerned about radiation leaks from your office microwave, there’s usually no need, according to the National Health and Medical Research Council. However, it’s a different story if the microwave oven has any corrosion or damage or the door doesn’t shut properly. Talk to your manager about having it replaced to stop potentially harmful radiation leaching out into the environment.
When at work, aim to stock your lunchroom with organic foods sourced via local farmers. It’s not always possible but if you can you’ll be slashing food miles from paddock to plate and supporting your local community. You can also ditch paper coffee cups and bring in a mug from home.
Chi in the workplace
Keeping the energy free-flowing through your workplace is an important way to rid your environment of toxins. According to feng shui practitioner Jeanette May, to help chi energy flow, place raw amethyst crystal onto anything electrical such as your computer.
Place a small rooster on your desk: it improves self-esteem and promotes authority. Add plants to the workplace for an additional calming energy.
For workplace issues such as bullying or harassment, use six I Ching coins, suggests Ms May. “Hang them off your seat on red ribbon with the symbols facing outwards as a form of protection. They help promote an even flow of energy.”
It’s a wrap
You’ll find it in food containers, fridge liners, eyeglasses, pipes and guttering and thousands more products, many of which we use every day: plastic. Once it was touted as one of the most useful inventions for mankind but now the safety of some plastics is under question, particularly those used for bottles and food storage.
The polymer molecules from which the plastic is made are too big to leach into food or drinks; however, other smaller molecules present can break down into food.
Polycarbonate and the epoxy resin used to line cans may release bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that can cause serious health problems. BPA has been linked to problems such as infertility, obesity, breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In response to growing consumer concerns, a voluntary phase-out of bottles containing BPA began in June of this year.
It’s a good idea to play it safe and choose glass bottles over plastic. Always use specially designed microwave plastic containers to store and heat food, not plastic wrap. Research into these hazards is still in its infancy but it’s suspected that phthalates and di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA), added as plasticisers to make it pliable, may also contain harmful compounds.
Getting up close and personal
Did you know many of the personal care products we use are chock full of toxins? Phthalates, which are in deodorants, hair spray, perfumes and nail polish, can disrupt hormones and research has shown a potential link to breast cancer, says Katherine Maslen, naturopath and herbalist.
“There is also a growing body of evidence that another chemical, parabens, found in skin care and other personal products, can affect the hormones and fertility,” says Ms Maslen.
That’s just the beginning. Many lipsticks contain harmful amounts of lead, a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage. Aluminium in deodorants is added to stop sweat glands manufacturing perspiration. This dangerous metal absorbs into the skin. “High aluminium levels can increase your risk of osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.
Despite its pleasant smell, one of the worst offenders is perfume. Some scents contain a staggering 400 chemicals. There are safer, natural options. “Nature has provided us with a bountiful harvest of beautiful aromas we can use without relying on potentially harmful alternatives,” she says.
To create a fresh, natural fragrance, add a couple of drops of your favourite fragrant oil into a base oil such as almond or coconut oil. “Jasmine and rose essential oils have a fragrant floral undertone; citrus oils such as lemon, orange and mandarin also work well as natural fragrances,” says Ms Maslen. You can also develop your own signature fragrance by experimenting with different oil blends.
When choosing other personal-care products, always opt for organic. To ensure the product is the real deal, always check for a Certified Organic logo.
Want to green up your workplace or home? Leafy green plants not only look great, they help remove toxins from the air. Indoor plants create a microcosm that absorbs and degrades all types of air pollutants, reducing air pollution levels, says Professor Margaret Burchett from the Faculty of Science at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“Indoor potted plants can reduce urban air pollution including carbon monoxide (C0) and carbon dioxide (C02) levels and eliminate high or low doses of airborne volatile organic compounds by over 75 per cent,” she says.
All plants work equally well at reducing volatile organic compounds, provided they are well positioned according to the light requirements and fed adequately. To reduce C02, the most effective plants are those of a broad-leaf variety, according to Professor Burchett. Overseas studies have also shown plants reduce dust levels and stabilise temperature and humidity in the workplace.
When it’s time to update your furniture, consider choosing pre-loved furniture. New furniture can contain a toxic plethora of chemical residues and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including formaldehyde and more, which takes time to dissipate. Revamp your home or office space with carpet that’s low VOC, consider bamboo flooring and redecorate with low-VOC paint.
Natural timber products are another alternative. Buy timber furniture sourced via ecologically sustainable means, not from ravaged rainforests. According to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, it’s estimated $400 million (nine per cent) of timber products imported into Australia are suspected to be illegally sourced — extracted without the permission of indigenous populations — and their removal damages soil and waterways.
In 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was developed to promote responsible and sustainable forestry management. Choose timber products labelled with the FSC logo: it’s been given a “green” tick of approval.
For floor coverings, choose untreated and natural fabrics and materials such as wool, hemp, cotton or bamboo. For soft furnishings in reception offices and lounge areas, try bamboo cushions and clay or pottery vases filled with fragrant flowers so there’s no need for artificial aromatic sprays.
For a cleaner, greener life, here are the top 10 environmental toxins to avoid:
Sources: drinking water, fish, pesticides, dust, paints.
Can cause: headaches, stomach pain, behavioural problems and anaemia. Lead can also affect a child’s developing brain.
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)
These were used up to the 1970s in a range of industrial products. They were phased out due to bioaccumulation in animals and fish.
Sources: old refrigerators, toaster ovens, inks, and paint additives, soils.
Can cause: acne, rashes, damage to stomach, liver and thyroid; can be passed to a foetus.
Designed to kill pests, some pesticides pose known risks to humans. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, some pesticides are carcinogens. Pesticide residues have been detected in 50 to 95 per cent of foods.
Sources: food and clothing.
Can cause: birth defects, cancer, nerve damage.
Microscopic fungi (related to mushrooms).
Sources: damp houses and buildings and some foods.
Can cause: allergic and respiratory problems. Moulds can also aggravate asthma.
VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
Chemical compounds that can vaporise and enter the air.
Sources: thinning agents, paints, carpet backing, adhesives and cosmetics.
Can cause: eye and throat irritation, headaches, kidney damage, cancer.
Chemicals found in fragrances and plastics.
Sources: cosmetics, plastic wrap, food storage container, bottles.
Can cause: damage to liver, kidneys, reproductive systems.
Highly toxic and reactive gas that occurs naturally.
Sources: household cleaners, breathing air near industry (such as a paper plant), drinking water (small amounts).
Can cause: coughing, chest pain, water retention in the lungs.
Toxic organic chemical compounds from combustion processes, waste incineration and chemical processing.
Sources: the World Health Organisation says more than 90 per cent of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish.
Can cause: skin lesions, reproductive and developmental disorders, mild liver damage, cancers.
Building insulating material used from the 1950s to 70s. Fibres can be inhaled deep into the lungs.
Sources: buildings, brake linings, oven mitts and stands for stoves.
Can cause: asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma (a form of cancer).
A colourless liquid with a slightly sweet taste, it’s used in the production of many other chemicals.
Sources: pulp and paper mills, industrial waste sites.
Can cause: depression, irritability and damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system.
Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist based in the lush tropical Sunshine Coast hinterland. She writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia and loves climbing mountains, trekking and exploring the great outdoors with her young family.
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