You’ve likely heard of the “nature vs. nurture” question. The more we learn, the more we discover that nurture, i.e. our environment, more directly shapes our and our children’s future. Your genes only account for about 30% of your risk for chronic illness. Our environment plays a much larger role in our families health, development, and disease. In fact, the epigenetic effects of your environment can even change your gene expression.
So, the pressing question is: what’s in your environment that could throw your systems out of whack? In our modern society, we’re surrounded.
Synthetic vs. Natural
We’ve heard some people criticize the green living movement by saying that “everything is made of chemicals” and that “natural chemicals can be harmful too.”
Both of these statements are true, but neither of them debunks the fact that toxin exposure is a major public health concern. Even the CDC is closely monitoring the issue. Let’s address these claims to clarify what we mean by “synthetic toxic chemicals.”
“Everything is made of chemicals”
Technically, every enzyme, hormone, and food has a molecular formula. The issue is that some synthetic chemicals are molecularly similar to critical hormones. This isn’t a good thing. Our body’s receptors mistake them for the real thing, which triggers a chain reaction that leads to disorder. For example, a molecule of bisphenol A (BPA) is
Also, similar formulas don’t mean that the chemicals will behave the same. Something as minuscule as a carbon bond placement or the number of ions can drastically change the molecule’s function. The perfect example of this is cannabidiol (CBD) vs tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Both derived from cannabis, they have the same molecular formula. However, CBD has a hydroxyl group on the fourth carbon atom whereas THC has only an oxygen atom. That simple difference makes THC psychoactive while CBD is not.
“Natural chemicals can be harmful too”
Nature is indeed full of toxins that can cause illness, deformity, or even death. Chemicals such as arsenic and cyanide are natural. So, it is not always correct to say that “natural is better.”
However, comparing synthetic chemicals to arsenic is a matter of apples and oranges. Synthetic chemicals often have structures that mimic naturally occurring chemicals. As mentioned above, the problem is that similarity allows them to trick our bodies — but they’re molecularly different enough to cause damage. Also, the sheer excess of mimics in our system can disrupt a delicate balance that would otherwise be easy to maintain.
No one is advocating that we consume arsenic or cyanide. But we are constantly surrounded by phthalates, parabens, and other substances that manufacturers try to assure us are “safe.”
It’s time to take action and see exactly what our exposure to these chemicals entails — and how it may be causing dangerous health and epigenetic effects.
Synthetic Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life
Benzylbutyl phthalate (BzBP)
BzBP is a solvent found in many adhesives and sealants, as well as automotive and personal care products. It’s also used in some types of vinyl flooring. It easily escapes into the atmosphere, where it’s absorbed by crops. While more research is needed, it appears that BzBP may be a common toxin for people around the world. High levels of exposure have been linked to developmental and reproductive defects in mammals.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA is a common ingredient in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It’s often used to make plastic products more durable. You can find it in everything from CDs to baby bottles to safety goggles to canned food liners.
BPA can enter our bloodstream through oral contact or by leaching into our environment. It is easily broken down by the liver. The IARC currently does not consider BPA to be a carcinogen. However, BPA does mimic estrogen, which means that chronic exposure could lead to endocrine disruption. BPA has also been shown to cause reproductive effects in aquatic life — and sadly, it’s been found in more than 41 percent of U.S. streams.
Di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP)
DiNP is used to make plastics more flexible. It appears in everything from toys to disposable gloves to drinking straws to garden hoses. While the IARC has not yet evaluated DiNP as a potential carcinogen, rodent studies have shown that exposure may cause liver tumors, as well as kidney toxicity. Thankfully, overall exposure levels seem to be low, but it’s worth noting DiNP’s potential health effects.
Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP)
Found in insect repellants and many plastic products, DMP has been linked to reproductive defects. More than 75% of male subjects at an infertility clinic had high levels of MMP, the metabolite of DMP. However, more research is needed to determine DMP’s effects.
There are dozens of parabens, which are short alkyl chain esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA). The CDC conducts biomonitoring of four main types: methyl, ethyl, n-propyl, and butyl (n– and iso-butyl) parabens. These are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics, personal care products, processed food items, and food packaging.
Parabens are quite biodegradable, so they do not linger in the body or environment. The problem is that they have been linked to reproductive defects, estrogen mimicry, and even allergic reactions. However, more research is needed. And with up to 99% of all U.S. carrying methyl- and n-propyl parabens in our blood, it’s worth considering the potential effects — and playing it safe by minimizing our exposure.
Styrene is a hydrocarbon chemical used to make polystyrene resins, which can be found in plastic packaging, Styrofoam containers, insulation, fiberglass, and many adhesives. It is easily dispersed into the air, especially when products degrade or break. Most people absorb styrene by inhaling it, which is much more likely if you work around it or smoke cigarettes.
The IARC classifies styrene as a possible carcinogen, and studies have linked styrene exposure to lung tumors. Chronic exposure also seems to have neurological effects, including distorted vision, hearing loss, and mapped disorders.
And of course, Styrofoam and many other styrene products are not at all biodegradable. All in all, styrene is anathema to green living.
Derived from crude oil, toluene, also known as methylbenzene, is a flammable liquid solvent used in gasoline, paint, glue, and nail polish. It is highly volatile, so it doesn’t accumulate in our soil — but instead, permeates our atmosphere as a major component of smog and industrial pollution.
We easily absorb toluene through our airways. High exposure, even short-term, causes lethargy, cognitive impairment, eye irritation, and stupor. It has also been linked to developmental defects and behavioral disorders in animals. People who spend a lot of time around gasoline or exhaust have toluene blood levels up to 3 times higher than the general population.
One of the most popular antibacterial and preservative ingredients, triclosan appears in soaps, mouthwashes, skincare products, antimicrobial kitchenware, and even some children’s toys. It can be absorbed through the skin and mouth, and tends to linger in the body for a while.
Thankfully, there appears to be a low risk of toxicity or endocrine disruption in mammals, although we must consider our aquatic friends, especially as we wash our hands in antibacterial soap. Also, triclosan promotes antibiotic resistance, which means that harmful bacteria may be harder to kill.
While not all these chemicals present an immediate health risk, they deserve our attention. Sometimes, adverse health effects are most likely among those whose occupations greatly increase their exposure. That’s anything but ideal. By raising awareness about synthetic toxic chemicals, we can urge regulatory authorities to take action by setting safe exposure levels and restricting substances that cause undue risk.
As for the rest of us, it’s likely a good idea to minimize our exposure to these chemicals. Even if our bodies can easily metabolize them, that’s extra stress on our livers — and we’re still experiencing potential endocrine disruption. Plus, the chemicals can further harm our remarkable aquatic life when we wash them down the drain or dump them in the trash.
Conscientious consumption can help all of us live better, longer, and healthier lives. And that’s definitely worth our consideration.
This article was inspired by an interview with Jenna Hua, the founder of Million Marker, which allows people to assess their chemical exposure with a mail-in test kit.