The toxin-free way to a younger you
As our modern world becomes increasingly overloaded with an alphabet soup of chemicals, we’re often being affected without even realising we’re at risk. So, even if you choose natural products wherever you can — swapping citronella candles for mosquito spray and using face creams with natural ingredients such as green tea and almond oil — you may still be soaking up a cocktail of unseen chemicals at home, at work or while walking in the park or washing your hair.
Contact with harmful chemicals is a constant feature of daily life. We sleep on synthetic mattresses that have been treated with chemicals, breathe in vaporised chlorine from our shower water, use products on our skin that can contain harmful additives, clean our homes with harsh detergents, rely on electrical goods that release chemical vapours and eat and drink from plastic containers that can leach harmful chemicals into our food.
Limiting your exposure to this melting pot of environmental pollutants will not only keep your body healthy and looking younger for longer, it may also protect your genes from disease-related changes that can make you unwell and be passed on to your children.
Sick houses and buildings
In our Brave New World, chemical companies produce 400 million tonnes of chemicals and concoct a thousand new synthetic substances every year. Wood-burning stoves, open fires and gas heaters can lead to a buildup of toxic nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide and other respirable particles, particularly if not well maintained and flued. Then there are the gases and chemicals we breathe in every day from glues, varnishes and treated components used in building materials, furniture/office equipment and chemical treatments on stain-resistant couches and carpets. Called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), these contaminants also emanate from lighting, computers, desks and couches. A number of materials, including insulation, carpet glue, finishes, resins and particleboard used for walls and ceilings also outgas VOCS in the form of heavy-duty chemicals, including formaldehyde and solvents such as styrene (used in the manufacture of rubber, plastic and other materials).
The problem with VOCS is they remain trapped inside homes and office buildings, where they circulate and are breathed into our bodies again and again, entering the bloodstream, brain and nervous system. This can lead to chronic health problems, often referred to as “sick building syndrome”. Many of these chemicals are lipid-soluble, which means they can enter your cell membranes and cause all manner of symptoms including depression, anxiety, poor memory and feelings of grogginess.
Links are now being made between indoor pollution and certain cancers, respiratory illness, immune system changes, allergies and behavioural and learning disorders. The burden of eliminating these chemicals from your body plus the damage they cause to your genes and the components of your cells can lead to premature ageing.
Obviously, opening windows and doors to air your home is a good strategy for improving air quality, but even this approach does not completely clear these chemicals and, in many office buildings, windows are small and fixed closed. That’s why indoor plants are an important addition — because they help to naturally filter the air.
Plants to the rescue
When scientists were working on the space shuttle Skylab 3, they found the indoor air was contaminated with more than 100 chemicals. But since plants recycle oxygen, they reasoned that plants might have a hidden talent for breaking down pollutants as well — and they were right. NASA research that focused on keeping the air for astronauts as clean as possible has found that plants can do a great deal to remove pollutants from indoor air. They absorb and break down chemicals through their leaves, roots and the micro-organisms in the soil.
The NASA studies have found that one potted plant per 100 square feet of floor space is the minimum needed to improve indoor air quality. The plants found to be most effective at removing indoor chemical pollution include dracaenas, bamboo palm, fig species, peace lily, philodendron, chrysanthemums, gerbera daisies, aloe vera and spider plants. By placing several varieties of indoor plants in different locations around your home and office you will ensure you get the maximum chemical filtering benefits from your plants and boost your longevity in the process.
As you walk around the city, sit in a traffic jam on the freeway or wait at the traffic lights, your skin is being bombarded with a complex mixture of chemical pollutants. Ozone, lead, aldehydes, acid aerosols and carbon monoxide are all present in the air we breathe and they can accelerate the ageing process by increasing the production of free radicals in your skin and body. Daily exposure has been linked to a range of problems, from headaches and central nervous system problems to lung disease and cancer.
Harmful substances in air pollution have been known to reach high concentrations in urban centres, near power stations and around areas of intense industrial production. The chemicals found in smog and air pollution include ozone, airborne particles, nitrogen, oxides and sulphur dioxide, which may all cause damage to DNA and cells. A recent Canadian study found that living within 50m of a main urban road or 100m of a highway increased the risk of mortality by 2.5 years. Another study in Britain found that the release of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon chemicals that occur when petrol and other fossil fuels are burnt can trigger both heart disease and stroke. That’s good reason to relocate to bush or forest areas and live as far away as is practical from industrial sites and busy roadways.
Can’t relocate far from the city? Then combat air pollution in other ways. Close windows that open towards busy roads, install indoor plants to improve air quality and purchase an air purifier. Walking or cycling to work to reduce the number of hours you spend driving will also decrease the amount of air pollution you are exposed to (reduce inhalation of pollution by wearing a filtering mask en route). A recent study in California showed that, although the average driver spends only 6 per cent (one-and-a-half hours) of their day behind the wheel, that accounts for 33 to 45 per cent of their total exposure to air pollution via fumes entering into and recirculating inside the car cabin. That new-car smell is also problematic, indicating the release of VOC gases, which you are breathing in.
A toxic world
Environmental pollution and toxins are not just present in the air you breathe and in your home, they are also in the food you eat, the water you drink, the soil on which you walk, the medicines you take and the cosmetic and beauty products you apply to your skin. Regular chemical exposure comes from:
- Cleaning products and sprays: Reducing the use of conventional cleaning products in your home will help cut indoor chemical pollution. There are many natural, plant-based varieties available that contain no synthetic solvents, detergents or artificial fragrances. Simple soap and water is as effective as antibacterial sprays at removing germs from household surfaces and will also help prevent the development of resistant bacterial strains, which can cause serious disease. Alternatively, you can use a little warm water mixed with effective cleaning agents such as lemon, eucalyptus oil, bicarb soda and vinegar.
- Food and pesticides: The food we eat contains various pesticide residues from agricultural production. Most pesticides sprayed on food crops have degraded by the time we eat them, but some very small amounts can remain and enter our bodies. Some chemicals are excreted quickly from the body, but others remain for many years, locked away deep in your cells with the potential to cause damage. Although organochloride pesticides (eg DDT) have been banned for several decades in Australia, their harmful effects endure, as they take a very long time to degrade in the natural environment. These lingering chemicals are called persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and will continue to be found at low levels in our food supply for many years to come.
Choosing organic food where available and drinking filtered water reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and POPs. Washing produce thoroughly and peeling fruits and vegetables also helps reduce exposure. A 2008 report by Choice magazine found the fresh fruit and vegetables that contained the highest amount of pesticide residues were peaches, strawberries, nectarines, plums, apples, capsicum, celery, cherries, grapes, potatoes, spinach and raspberries. To limit exposure, it’s advisable to choose organic varieties when buying these types of produce. Growing your own fresh fruit and vegetables at home is another way of reducing your exposure to environmental pollutants and pesticide residues.
Many environmental pollutants are fat-soluble and are often found in foods that contain fat such as meat, dairy foods and eggs. Choosing organic meat and dairy foods will reduce your exposure to pesticide residues as well as the many harmful substances used in animal farming, such as antibiotics, hormones and other growth promoters.
- Plastics: Another major source of toxin exposure is the plastics used in food production, packaging and general household furnishings. There is growing concern among health associations about the impact of PVC, a common plastic, on long-term health. PVC is used extensively in building materials, merchandise and children’s toys in Australia. It has been successfully banned in the EU and California from 2009 after research was published that showed PVC released harmful chemicals over time.
In addition, increasing evidence indicates that plastics may leach chemicals and synthetic hormones into food, compromising our health. These endocrine disrupters mimic hormones such as oestrogen and can also block and interfere with natural hormone signals in the body. They are released when microwaving food covered by plastic or stored in plastic containers (even if they are “microwave proof”).
To protect your health, avoid plastic packaging where possible and store food in glass, particularly if it contains acidic foods such as tomato or fatty ingredients. These encourage higher release of chemical additives from plastic, including cadmium, pthalates, bisphenol-A, fungicides and DEHA (diethylhexyl adipate), which have been linked to illnesses such as cancer. Wrap sandwiches in paper rather than clingwrap. If possible, carry glass or steel drink bottles (and use glass or BPA-free plastic bottles for babies).
If you must use plastic, avoid washing recycled or reusable plastic drink bottles at high heat. Though controversial, research by a student at the University of Idaho indicated that reheating and reusing PETA plastic bottles may cause the plastic to break down and leach more DEHA into the liquid. In addition, when buying takeaway coffee, make sure you take your own mug to avoid drinking from polystyrene cups. If you must use plastic products, go for polyethylene and polypropylene, which appear to have less toxic additives.
- Heavy metals: The growing quantity of heavy metals found in our environment and in the foods we eat is a major cause for concern. Increased concentrations of heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and aluminium within our bodies has been implicated in the development of several age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as various types of cancer. The main dietary contribution of heavy metals is from dental fillings, contaminated fish and seafood and trace amounts in food and water. The risk of heavy metal exposure has increased in recent years as people have begun to eat more fish and seafood to gain the benefits of the omega-3 fats. When choosing fish, opt for deep-sea varieties such as sardines and salmon in preference to fish such as shark and swordfish, which have higher mercury content.
Self-care at a cost
Each year, we use hundreds of different products in the bath and shower or directly on our skin. Most of these products are based on petroleum compounds and contain synthetic preservatives, chemical detergents, foaming agents, artificial fragrances, emulsifiers and UV absorbers. Some of the most problematic chemicals found in personal care products include parabens (a class of preservatives), propylene glycol, phthalates and laryl-sulphates, which have been implicated in everything from minor skin irritation and increased signs of ageing to hormone disruption, birth defects and cancer.
Some chemicals used in personal care products are absorbed through the skin and remain in your body for a long time. The complex variety of different chemicals used in formulating cosmetic products and the fact that many of these chemicals are routinely combined with ingredients that increase penetration deep into the skin is cause for concern. Many regulatory bodies refuse to ban the use of certain chemicals by the cosmetics industry as they have been shown to be safe in animal experiments. However, these experiments have not examined the combined effects of these chemicals or the long-term effects of exposure.
Some synthetic products can irritate your skin and change its texture and function, resulting in long-term inflammation and damage and accelerated signs of ageing. Using personal care products made with natural and organic ingredients will reduce your exposure to potentially harmful synthetic chemicals and may also improve the appearance of your skin. In addition, make sure you install filters on showers and taps to remove chemicals such as chlorine.
How toxins age you
Even low or moderate levels of synthetic chemicals can cause health effects in some people with sensitivities. You may have signs of chemical overload for years without realising the cause. Health problems include:
- Liver function: Your liver function influences your ageing process. First, your liver filters and excretes the toxic byproducts of your bodily functions and the nasty chemicals you absorb from food, water and through your skin, which cause inflammation, cellular ageing and damage to your DNA. Second, your liver is essential for the digestion of the food you eat; it produces the bile that digests fat and is involved in metabolising, processing and storing many other proteins, nutrients and antioxidants needed for the protection and repair of other areas of the body.
The signs of problems with liver function include nausea after eating fatty foods such as fish and cheese, recurrent headaches, intolerance of alcohol, recurrent bad breath, skin and eye discolouration, sluggish metabolism, coated tongue, bloating and poor digestion. Many natural treatments are available to help improve liver function, including herbal medicines such as milk thistle and nutritional supplements, such as the amino acid cysteine.
- Genetic damage: A growing number of age-related diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and some aspects of heart disease and cancer, are believed to be caused by the damage produced by free radicals to your DNA and cells. Many of the pollutants now present in our environment have been found to damage DNA directly or by leading to the production of more free radicals. Ensure that you are consuming adequate quantities of a broad mix of antioxidants from your diet for protection.
- Mitochondria damage: Mitochondria are the powerhouses within your body cells. They are responsible for turning the food you eat into the energy your body uses to power your muscles and brain. The DNA found within mitochondria is highly susceptible to damage from free radicals, which is believed to be the main route by which exposure to environmental pollution leads to mitochondrial damage.
A recent study from the University of California confirmed that exposure to ultra-fine particle pollution (present in large amounts in car exhaust fumes and urban smog) causes damage to the mitochondria of human cells. Many diseases are thought to be kick-started by mitochondria damage, including problems of the nervous system, several genetic disorders and some age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Protecting your body from the onslaught of modern chemicals involves a whole-of-life approach that takes into account everything from your choice of food and cleaning products to your place of residence and daily mode of transport. By being more aware of how to reduce your exposure to these synthetic toxins, you can substantially minimise the level and number of chemicals you absorb, reducing their effects on your health and ageing process.
Dietary protection from environmental pollutants
Foods to choose
Contain powerful antioxidant pigments that protect your cells and DNA from the damage caused by the free radicals found in air pollution.
Beetroot helps improve liver health and increases the elimination of toxins from your body.
Rich in phyto-oestrogens, which help block the harmful effects of some oestrogenic environmental pollutants.
One of the richest sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, plant pigments that protect cells from the damage caused by the free radicals in pollution.
One of the richest dietary sources of selenium. Selenium recycles the antioxidants vitamins C and E within the body, which prevents damage to DNA and mitochondria.
Contains several anti-cancer compounds and also helps support the elimination of toxic chemicals from the body.
This bright-yellow root has potent anti-cancer properties and protects your DNA from the damage caused by free radicals and environmental pollutants.