10 ways to reduce your chemical load

There’s no doubting we live in a chemical world. A 2013 study by Canadian action group Environmental Defense found up to 121 chemicals in the cord blood of newborn babies, including now-banned PCBs, perfluorinated chemicals used in non-stick coating and organochlorine pesticides. These three chemicals alone are linked to cancer, are toxic to the brain and nervous system and have the potential to disrupt hormonal balance.

The last group of chemicals is particularly worrying. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs as they’re known, are under close watch by the World Health Organization, which has stated that our current understanding of disease risk due to EDCs may be “significantly underestimated”.

“Close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis or hormone conversion. However, only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated … The vast majority of chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested at all,” says a WHO report on EDCs.

While it’s impossible to avoid synthetic chemicals altogether — it’s believed each of us contains an average of 27 harmful chemicals in our blood or tissues — you can drastically reduce your exposure to some of the worst offenders through diet and lifestyle changes, and by developing some chemical-combating habits.

Leave your shoes at the door

Throughout the course of a day, you may have walked on roads splattered with engine oil, grass verges sprayed with pesticides, lead-contaminated dirt and countless other harmful chemicals in our environment. All this collects on your footwear and enters your home as dust. Nicole Bijlsma, naturopath, building biologist and author of Healthy Home Healthy Family, says you can reduce the dust levels in your home by 50 per cent simply by removing your shoes before entering.

Always wash new clothing

You know that eye-watering smell that wafts out of a three-pack of socks or a cheap department store? It’s most likely formaldehyde, a preservative used by fabric and clothing producers to prevent mildew during shipping and to give the product a smooth finish. Formaldehyde can trigger an allergic reaction, making eyes water, blocking the sinuses and irritating the skin. The chemical, most famously used for preserving dead things, has also been classified as a human carcinogen by the United Nations International Agency for Research on Cancer.

In addition to formaldehyde, the fabric may contain residual pesticides, dyes and bleaches that can be an issue for those with sensitivities. Choose natural fibres, organic where possible, and quality garments. “Always wash new clothes and bedding and dry them in full sun before you wear them,” says Bijlsma.

Choose organic produce

Australia has tight restrictions on the level of residual pesticides, hormones and antibiotics allowable in our fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat and dairy. However, according to Friends of the Earth, testing is “haphazard and not properly co-ordinated” and doesn’t take into account the effects on our hormones or immune systems. The implications of consuming a cocktail of residual pesticides and the long-term effects are also overlooked by current testing methods.

With agricultural chemicals linked to learning and behavioural problems, autism, leukaemia, Parkinson’s disease, thyroid issues and hormone disruption, avoiding them should be your top priority, especially if you’re raising a family.

Certified organic produce is widely available through home-delivery box schemes, greengrocers, farmers’ markets and, these days, the major supermarkets. To make it more affordable, focus on the top 15 foods with the highest levels of pesticides identified by Friends of the Earth: apples, wheat, strawberries, pears, grapes, lettuce, nectarines, peaches, bread, bran, biscuits, tea (imported), barley, tomatoes and apricots. If you are eating conventionally farmed meat, trim it, as many toxins are stored in the fat.

If organics are out of reach, nutritionist and founder of Changing Habits, Cyndi O’Meara, says, “Create relationships at your farmers’ market so you can trust them and know they are selling you chemical-free meat, chicken and plants.”

Avoid numbers

Food additives are used to preserve food, stop ingredients from separating or to enhance colour and flavour. While most are considered safe, some additives can trigger asthma, skin and nervous disorders or digestive problems.

“I used to rattle off a list of additives and E-numbers that we know cause hyperactivity in children, may cause liver or kidney damage, or cause a problem with your hormones. But now we’re seeing that two or three food additives deemed safe on their own are causing problems when combined. These days, I just say don’t eat anything with numbers in it,” says O’Meara.

To do this means scrutinising the ingredients of all processed foods. “If the food has been fortified with vitamins and minerals, they will be from a chemical laboratory and not from a natural source,” she adds.

Consider eating fewer processed foods and more wholefoods that require no intervention. Cooking from scratch will significantly reduce your exposure to food additives.

If you must buy packaged foods, naturopath Anthia Koullouros from OVViO Organics says foods containing vegetable oils, sugar, refined salt, soy, wheat and corn are the most industrialised food ingredients, so are to be avoided.

“Also stay away from foods whose packaging contains bisphenol A (BPA), such as many plastics and tinned foods. This chemical has been shown to increase testosterone levels in women and can affect fertility, mood and skin health,” adds nutritionist and chiropractor, Rebecca Harwin.

Smell fresh air

Air-fresheners, perfumes and personal care products such as shampoo, body lotion and deodorants often contain chemicals that help the smell to linger. This group of chemicals is known as phthalates and they are also used to soften plastic. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that mimic oestrogen and have been linked to early puberty, undescended testes in baby boys, cancer, birth defects and other developmental issues. However, manufacturers are not required to list all the ingredients used to make their fragrances as they are protected as “trade secrets”.

To protect yourself from this nasty bunch of chemicals, avoid any personal care or cleaning products that list “fragrance” or “parfum” in the ingredients.

Give up air-fresheners for good — Bijlsma says a healthy home smells like fresh air, not alpine forests (unless you live in one). “Paradichlorobenzene is the active ingredient used in many air fresheners, which is an eye, skin and throat irritant and causes kidney and liver tumours in mice.”

Adds Harwin: “Include plants like the peace lily or the weeping fig in your home and office. These help to detoxify the air.”

Clean green

“My mother was convinced that unless her cleaning product gave her a headache, it didn’t work,” says Bijlsma. The cleaning chemicals we are so familiar with have only been around since the end of the Second World War and, in many cases, their effects were viewed as miraculous. Switching from elbow grease to chemical warfare in the kitchen has, however, come at a price.

Asthma has increased significantly and occurs at much higher levels in developed countries, and it’s believed that overuse of anti-bacterial cleaning agents, including handwash, may be contributing to the growth of multi-antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Many of these anti-germ products contain the EDC, triclosan, while other common household cleaners use lung and skin irritants such as ammonia, bleach and solvents.

To keep your home clean, use traditional cleaners such as bicarbonate of soda, vinegar, soap and lemon juice, or try some of the many natural cleaning products now available — although be wary of greenwash and carefully read the labels.

“Most cleaning can be done using good-quality microfibre cloths and some water,” says Bijlsma.

Ditch the non-stick cookware

The world’s slipperiest substances, perfluorinated chemicals, are used to waterproof furniture and clothing, in stain-proof carpeting and also to coat non-stick cookware. According to the Environmental Working Group, one of the compounds used to make PFCs such as Teflon causes cancers of the testicles, liver and pancreas and possibly mammary cancer in rodents; it also disrupts foetal development and affects the immune and the nervous systems. Exposure occurs when a pan is overheated or scratched.

While manufacturers have been forced to phase out the chemical family in question (PFOAs) by 2015, there are concerns about what replacements will be used and whether these will be safe. Best practice is to avoid non-stick cookware altogether, using enamel-coated iron, stainless steel, ceramic, Pyrex and cast iron instead.

Filter your water

“If you went out onto the street and dug up the mains pipe feeding water into your house, you wouldn’t drink it,” says Brent Daisley from Sydney Holistic. “Tap water contains chlorine, fluoride, rust scale, sediment, bugs, even traces of prescription drugs.”

Tap water can also contain lead, copper, chemical stabilisers and pesticides, all of which can have a drastic effect on your health. Bore and tank water come with their own health risks.

Bijlsma says, “I truly believe that a water filter is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. There are simply too many variables that may affect water quality beyond our control.”

Your choice of water filter will depend on your water source and budget. To find out which is most suitable for your situation, visit

Do some offgassing

Your kitchen cupboards, the paint on the walls, the foam in your sofa and the kids’ plastic toys all release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which “offgas” into the air. The government guidebook Healthy Homes says the health problems associated with VOCs are many and varied, including nasal or airway irritation, headaches, vomiting and drowsiness. The US EPA adds loss of co-ordination, dizziness, and damage to liver, kidneys and central nervous system to the list.

Very little research has been done into the effects of long-term exposure to small amounts of VOCs such as most of us would experience at home — studies have found the levels of some VOCS to be two to five times higher indoors than outdoors.

Ventilate your home well by opening doors and windows. When choosing furnishings, go for natural, organic fibres or choose secondhand — VOCs dissipate over time. Heat speeds up the release of VOCs, so if you have a new piece of furniture, Bijlsma recommends plonking it out in the sun until it stops smelling new. When renovating, look for building materials that are pre-dried or quick-drying and use water-based surface coatings.

Personal care

Between haircare, deodorant, moisturiser, cleaning your teeth and wearing makeup or perfume, you’re likely to be using at least 10 personal-care products and up to 200 different chemicals a day.

Both expensive and cheap personal-care products can contain petrochemicals and surfectants, both of which can irritate the skin, and preservatives such as parabens, which disrupt hormones and are absorbed through the skin. A Choice study in 2009 found all kinds of chemicals in makeup, nailpolish and other personal-care products, many of them banned. These included toluene, restricted fragrances, banned phthalates and coal tar, a known carcinogen. The EWG also recommends you avoid products containing DMDM hydantoin, PEG, Ceteareth and polyethylene glycol.

Wherever possible, look for personal-care products that contain no preservatives, no synthetic fragrances and no SLS, a common surfectant. To find out more about what’s in your cosmetics, visit the EWG’s Skin Deep database

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

For most of us, the dangers of chemical exposure are chronic and play out over a lifetime, but for others, being surrounded by even the tiniest amounts of toxins can have a debilitating effect.

Known as 20th-century disease or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), this complex condition can make life a constant trial as the sufferer reacts to even the tiniest whiff of chemical fragrance, solvent or car exhaust; preservatives in foods or cosmetics; even the electromagnetic frequency emitted by mobile phone towers or wi-fi.

In some cases, the cause is obvious: a chemical spill or working in a toxic environment, for example. But for others, the effect is cumulative, where long-term exposure to numerous chemicals meets an especially susceptible immune system. Treatment for such sensitivity is diverse but involves immediate removal of all toxins in the environment; however, the condition is controversial, with some doctors unwilling to recognise it exists at all.

Symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are vague and varied but can include headache and chronic fatigue, dizziness, breathing problems, nausea, hayfever-like symptoms, a sore throat, chest pain, muscle pain and stiffness, bloating, itchiness and rashes, difficulty concentrating, memory issues, moodiness and depression.

For support and information, visit the Allergy and Environmental Sensitivity Support and Research Association,

Defend yourself against chemicals

As it’s virtually impossible to avoid synthetic toxins at all times, it’s important to build up a solid defence system to help your body deal with any invasions. These experts share their advice:

  • Brent Daisley from Sydney Holistic says, “Eating right for your metabolic type and adopting some foundation-level health principles are two of the best things you can do to detoxify your body of harmful toxins. It gives you the metabolic efficiency to release these chemicals from your body.”
  • Anthia Koullouros from OVViO Organics says, “We are all born with a unique health savings account, which we inherit from Mum and Dad. Ensure you are building your wealth by paying attention to the foundations of good health: good nutrition and digestion, getting enough sleep and sunlight, reducing the chemicals in your immediate environment. This will allow your liver and cells to do their job and remove toxins.”
  • “Avoid gluten and improve gut health. Your gut should act like a funnel to toxins, not a sieve. A healthy digestive system helps us to effectively remove toxins from our bodies; a ‘leaky’ gut does the opposite,” says nutritionist and chiropractor, Rebecca Harwin. “Include cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower and broccoli, in your food plan. These great foods contain indole-3-carbinol, a substance that has been shown to help remove excessive oestrogens from your body. This helps you to deal more effectively with xeno-oestrogens in the environment.”


Jo Hegerty is a freelance journalist specialising in health and sustainability. Visit her blog for eco-living tips and inspiration.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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