Health Implications of Non-Foods

Last week I wrote about food and why we might want to eat organic to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals, However, food isn’t our only point of exposure to toxins. Our other daily choices are equally significant—personal care products we put on our bodies, chemicals we use to clean our homes, and furnishings in those homes. These pollutants are right around us and we absorb them daily through our skin and lungs.

But really, is this an issue?

You might wonder if we really absorb ingredients that are in our shampoo, toothpaste, household cleaners, and water bottles. Canadian environmental activists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie also wondered. And they decided to investigate by experimenting on themselves.

For two days, they lived in an apartment where they exposed themselves to seven major toxins in foods, personal care products, and household items. All these consumer products were readily available and widely used.

Smith and Lourie had their blood levels monitored before and after, and it was shocking to see the increase in levels of chemicals in their bodies from only two days’ exposure. Here’s their summary of the experience.

So, there is an issue. Who’s responsible?

Typically we think that pollution comes mainly from industrial plants and toxic waste dumps. Significant as those are, the real issue is our private spaces—our homes, where we spend most of our time.

The good news is that we are in charge. We make the choices about what to buy and bring home. With some basic information, we can steer clear of a lot of problematic products.

 

Lightening the toxic load

Slow Death by Rubber Duck is the book that Smith and Lourie wrote. Before we talk about non-toxic alternatives, here is a brief description of the seven chemicals they tested.

  • Fragrance (phthalates)  Watch for phthalates in body products, air fresheners, and soft plastics often used in shower curtains and toys (including the rubber duck for which their book is named).
  • Non-stick products (PFCs – perfluorochemicals)  You’ll find PFCs applied to frypans, carpets, and upholstered furniture, as well as in windshield washer fluid and lipstick. You might recognize them by the brand names Teflon, Gore-Tex, and Scotchgard. You will also find PFCs in fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave-able popcorn bags.
  • Flame retardants (PBDEs – polybrominated diphenyl ethers)  Flame retardants are used in highly flammable synthetic materials. PBDEs are typically found in electronics, and in foam used in furniture and carpet underlay.
  • Mercury  Mercury is found in some fish (especially tuna), certain dental fillings (amalgams), and products such as batteries, thermometers, compact fluorescent lights, and fluorescent tubes. Dispose of mercury-containing products mindfully. If you decide to have amalgam fillings replaced, be sure your dentist knows the protocols for safe removal.
  • Antibacterial/antimicrobial products (Triclosan)  Triclosan may be found in hand sanitizers, body products of many kinds, toothpaste, household cleaning supplies, and some clothing (socks, sandals, and underwear). Watch for this it on products like cutting boards, J Cloths, knives and even aprons under the brand name Microban. Other brand names include Irgasan DP 300 and Lexol 300, as well as the chemical name 5-chloro-2-(2.4-dichlorophenoxy) phenol.
  • Pesticides  Pesticide is a general term for chemical preparations that destroy plant, fungal, or animal pests. You may also encounter the specific terms herbicide (for plants), fungicide (for fungi), and insecticide (for insects). Washing fruits and vegetables is a good general practice, but be aware that it does not remove all pesticides because some are absorbed internally as the plant grows. Grow a chemical-free lawn and garden. If you have to use a chemical for a specific reason, choose the least-toxic one possible.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA)  BPA is a plasticizer widely used in the production of consumer goods, particularly food containers. Never microwave foods in plastic containers or wrap. Hot foods leach plasticizers from the plastic and you end up eating them. Although Health Canada issued this warning years ago, many people still don’t know about it. Instead, microwave foods in glass or china containers. If they need to be covered, place a plate on top to act as a lid. It does the job, keeps you from eating plastic chemicals, and is better for the environment because the plate is reusable.

Check out the products you use…

The best strategy is to avoid these chemicals as much as possible, which involves initial work to find out what your favourite products are made from. For me, the fine print on labels makes this challenging. One of my favourite tricks is to look up products on their website. There’s usually an ingredients list that I can enlarge enough to be readable.

Or you can check out the Environmental Working Group (EWG) cosmetics database of 70,425 products. and their healthy cleaning database of 2500. I looked up a fabric softener I have used and it came back with enough information to make me glad I stopped using it. (The rating was D in a scale that goes from A-F.) It also referred me to the page where I could check out which products got higher scores. Very helpful for making better choices.

Phone apps make it even easier…

Phone apps are convenient because you can scan the UPC code and get information in the store before you choose to buy an item. Scanning uses the camera, so you will asked to allow the camera to be activated and transmit data from the bar code. Here are some apps you might want to play with. All are free.

  • Think Dirty checks cosmetics and personal care products. Offers you a chance to try it before setting up an account.
  • GoodGuide has more than 75,000 items in the categories of personal care, food, household, and children’s products.
  • The Non GMO Project Shopping Guide has an up-to-date list of products that have been verified through the Non-GMO Project’s Verification Program. There are several reasons for avoiding genetically modified foods. One is that some have been modified to survive heavy spraying with herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup is a common brand). This leaves the plants with high levels of residue which we consume.

If you don’t like what you find out, make your own.

Making at least some of your own cleaning and personal care products is the easiest way to avoid toxic exposure. Household cleaners use various combinations of vinegar, baking soda, borax, salt, and hydrogen peroxide. Personal care products include moisturizing oils such as coconut, olive, and avocado: essential oils for their healing and antibacterial properties; and baking soda or arrowroot starch for absorption of odour. From there, you can branch out to include cocoa butter, shea butter, and various tropical oils that are highly nourishing. If you buy organic ingredients, you’ve covered all bases.

There are lots of recipes online. One source I’ve used is Wellness Mama. Katie is the mother of six kids under the age of ten. She posts real food recipes, natural living and cleaning tutorials, beauty recipes and health hacks with natural ingredients—all well-researched and practical. You’ll find an example at the link below the photo.

And here’s a simple weed killer recipe, recommended by a friend who has a large yard and refuses to use glyphosate. Combine 1 gallon white vinegar, 1 cup salt, and 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap. Spray onto weeds at the sunniest time of day for best results. The vinegar and salt draw moisture out of the leaves and the soap makes sure the liquid sticks to the leaf surface. Hot sun accelerates the process.

A product I love…

I decided against making laundry and dishwasher detergent, though I did find DIY recipes. Instead, I looked up reviews of natural products I could buy. A dishwasher detergent made by the Canadian company Bio-Vert does an awesome job in the hard water where I live. It’s far better than anything else I’ve tried, and has only four simple ingredients.

I’m mentioning this product because it didn’t show up in the app or the database. That’s one of their downsides—with so many products out there, they don’t yet include everything.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are one of our best resources when researching products. If you have non-toxic discoveries to share, please leave them in the  comment box so everyone else will know too.

Reference chapter: “The Complexity of Health and Safety” from Conscious Spending, Conscious Life

Organic food. Worth the bother?

Where will you live?

Is organic food better? The short answer is yes. On several fronts.

Better for you

Widespread use of pesticides is a major issue in conventional fruit and vegetable production.These chemicals are absorbed by the plant as it grows, and cannot be removed simply by washing. Organic foods are grown without pesticides, so you don’t consume toxic residues when you eat organics.

Issues with meat production relate to what the animals are fed. Conventionally raised animals are typically fed grass and hay that has been sprayed with pesticides. Those residues end up in the meat, and eventually in your body if you eat that meat.

Even more troubling, though, is the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to healthy animals—not because they are sick, but to promote growth or prevent disease. This is resulting in drug-resistant strains of bacteria, and that means common antibiotics will no longer work in treating human illness. Organic animals, in contrast, are raised on plants grown without chemicals, and their daily feed does not contain antibiotics.

Better for workers

If pesticides pose a health risk for those of us eating them, imagine the health implications for workers who must apply the pesticides and then work in those fields day after day. This is especially concerning in developing countries, where there are few safety regulations to protect workers. When we buy products produced under these conditions, we contribute to harming to the workers. When we buy organic, we know that the workers have not been subjected to chemical exposure.

Better for the environment

Pesticides pollute the air and ground water wherever they are used. And they are persistent, accumulating over time because they don’t degrade and disappear quickly.

The earth in our hands

We used to think they went “somewhere” and weren’t a problem for us. Now we know better. We know that air and surface water circulate around the globe. As pollutants disperse into the air and water, they become part of that circulation. Eventually they reach everyone. What we do affects others. What they do ultimately affects us.

The issues of cost, price, and value

The consumer culture promotes a narrow view of value, focusing mainly on price. And although it may seem that going for the lowest price saves you money, that isn’t necessarily so. If you buy food with chemicals that cause your health to deteriorate, you might make  a short-term saving but will pay for it in the long run. It’s all in how we look at it.

Basing our decisions solely on price is like wearing blinders. We don’t see the long-term consequences because we are focused on the low price of what we are buying right now. We overlook the fact that we are spending a lot on supplements to make up for the deficiencies in our food. We forget that we haven’t been feeling great for the last couple of years but the doctor hasn’t found a reason.We ignore the little inner voice saying that maybe we should eat better food.

From the viewpoint of a conscious consumer, value encompasses many other factors—including healthy bodies, healthy farm workers, healthy environment, better taste, and leaving a better world for those who come after us.

Managing the cost of eating organic

It’s true that organic foods usually cost more, and there are several reasons for this. Production is more labour-intensive, certification is expensive, and businesses are small so there are no economies of scale.

Grow some food…

One way to get organic foods and keep your cost down by growing your own. You’ll know exactly what went into growing it, and will have free food to put away for winter.

You don’t have to live in the country to grow food. There is a huge movement of city-dwellers starting backyard gardens or growing edibles on balconies, in window-boxes, and at community garden plots.   There are also innovative ways that unused backyard space is being used to grow food. To explore possibilities, google “urban farming” or “urban gardening” for lots of examples of what people are doing.

Garden produce

Photo of some of her awesome organic produce by Teresa van Bryce

Buy real food in season…

For those who aren’t up for a gardening adventure, let’s look at some principles of managing food cost. This is good advice whether you’re buying organic or not.

  • Buy food that is as close to its original state as possible. Avoid processed and pre-prepared foods, which are expensive because of the extra work that’s gone into making them. If you buy a ready-made hummus or apple pie, it will cost you more than if you made it yourself. So buy real food.
  • Buy produce that is in season. Imported produce is costly, whether it’s organic or not. Buying local products in season is better for the environment because less fuel is used to transport it. And seasonal food tastes better because it comes from a short distance and can be left to ripen longer before picking.
  • Meat is generally expensive, and organic meat more so. Eat small portions and purchase less-expensive cuts such as ground lamb and beef instead of chops and steaks. Liver is economical and very nutritious…if you will eat it.

Make exceptions judiciously…

Free range turkey is about half the price of organic turkey. My feeling is that producers using free range practices are generally conscientious about how they raise the animals, so I choose the more economical option.

I apply the same logic to buying vegetables. Since the organic certification process is time-consuming and expensive for growers, I know that some opt for using good practices but not going through the formal certification process. If the sign says “pesticide free” and I trust the grower, I buy the produce.

Some fruits and vegetables are more contaminated  than others. Useful information about this comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which publishes a yearly shopper’s guide reporting on pesticide residues in produce. They identify the “dirty dozen” and “clean 15” based on USDA data.

The 2017 Dirty Dozen list singled out, in order, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes. These are foods you would be wise to buy organic. The Clean Fifteen are the ones where you could make exceptions with fewer health consequences.

Other guidelines to consider…

  • If you have children, pay the extra cost of organic for the things they consume most.
  • Chemicals are stored in fat. So you may want to make sure fatty foods you buy are organic. This would include oils, meat, butter, milk, and other dairy products.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re eating out and don’t know if the food is organic or not, don’t worry about it. You won’t die from eating non-organic food now and then.

Worth the bother? All in all, I’d say that eating organic as much as reasonable and possible will be worthwhile in the long term and one of those things you’ll likely be glad you did. Your thoughts?