From forever chemicals to plastics, pesticides and heavy metals, how can we protect ourselves against the harmful chemicals that we habitually eat and drink?

The following is extracted from a feature by Hatty Willmoth, in the Summer 2022 issue of Optimum Nutrition.

Toxic chemicals are all around us. Watch the 2019 film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo, and you’ll learn all about the ‘forever chemicals’, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are now in our blood, water, air, and even on Mount Everest.

First used to coat military tanks, PFAS then found their way into everyday products, including non-stick pans, waterproof clothing, food packaging, furniture, makeup, carpets, and shoes.

They almost never break down, building up in the environment and living organisms in a process called ‘bioaccumulation’, and have been associated with a plethora of diseases.

PFAS have been linked to increased risk of:

  • kidney cancer
  • testicular cancer
  • thyroid disease
  • high cholesterol
  • pre-eclampsia
  • ulcerative colitis
  • breast cancer
  • decreased vaccine responses in children
  • changes in liver enzymes
  • low infant birth weights
  • diabetes
  • increased blood fats

A significant source is grease-resistant packaging, especially in the packaging at fast food chains, and also takeaway restaurants and supermarkets.

Some evidence even suggests people who regularly eat fast food may have more PFAS in their blood.

Toxic chemicals: a wider problem

We live in a world filled with artificial chemicals. Many of these may harm our health, but routinely enter our bodies through what we eat and drink.

There are ways we can protect ourselves; Dr Jenny Goodman, practitioner of ecological medicine and author of Staying Alive in Toxic Times, says:

“If you simply knew what was wrong and didn’t know that there were any solutions, it would be depressing,” she says. “But finding out how much is wrong is step one to changing it.”

Why buy organic?

According to Goodman, “the single most important thing you can do” is buy organic.

Organic meat comes from animals reared without hormonal injections or antibiotics and, crucially, organic farming uses no artificial insecticides, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides — the collective term for which, Goodman points out, is ‘biocides’.

“[This] literally means ‘substances that kill living things’,” she says. “That includes us, unfortunately.”

Some farmers have taken legal action against weed killer manufacturers over links with Parkinson’s disease and cancer.

But it is perfectly possible to farm without harsh chemicals, as insisted by those involved in the regenerative farming movement.

“These are farmers who were doing it chemically,” explains Goodman, “and have changed their minds. They really know that if it’s in the soil, it’s on your plate.”

What to do if organic food is too expensive

The most common objection to buying organic is the price, to which Goodman offers three responses.

One is that it should be cheaper, but the government subsidises the wrong farmers.

Another is, perhaps we should pay more for food: “We’re accustomed to cheap food, but it isn’t really cheap; the price is the torment of the battery hens and the poison that we’re eating.”

And thirdly, organic meat is significantly more expensive than non-organic alternatives, but people should eat better quality meat less regularly.

Eating entirely organic food is still unattainable for many, so registered nutritional therapist Dr Kirstie Lawton recommends referring to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) ‘Dirty Dozen’: a list of 12 foods to prioritise when buying organic food to avoid pesticides.

And if that too is out of your budget, even washing and peeling your fruit and vegetables will go some way towards limiting your biocide exposure.

Why is plastic bad?

Plastic is a significant source of toxicity in our modern lives, especially due to phthalates and bisphenols.

Known as ‘plasticisers’, they make plastic soft and pliable but can disrupt the hormones that influence puberty and fertility.

Phthalates and bisphenols have also been linked to cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, learning disabilities and attention-deficit disorders.

And they’re in our food. Researchers testing fast food chains last year found them almost everywhere they went.

In supermarkets too, plastic packaging and plastic-lined tin cans may contain phthalates and bisphenols, which can transfer into food if heated.

Microplastics in human blood

We also ingest plastics in the form of micro- and nanoplastics.

Their effect, and how long they stay in the body, is contested, but some studies suggest they could be dangerous, especially with early exposure.

Meanwhile, adults ingest around a credit card’s worth of nanoplastics each week, finding their way into our organs and blood, notably from teabags, cling-film, fast food and supermarket packaging, plastic-lined cups, and plastic water-bottles.

The solution? Cut down on plastic where you can.

Food additives

Harmful chemicals can also be deliberately added to food, so Goodman advises reading labels before buying.

Not everything complicated-sounding is bad, but she says to check for (and avoid) synthetic chemicals and vague listings like ‘natural flavourings’.

“The word ‘natural’ is completely meaningless in that context,” says Goodman.

“You can define anything as natural because it’s all been made from materials found on planet Earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Even better than checking the labels, though, is buying things without ingredient lists and making your own food.

Heavy metals and anti-nutrients

Other toxins that we may ingest in large amounts include mercury, nickel and aluminium.

Dubbed ‘anti-nutrients’, some believe these heavy metals push out nutrients that we need, like zinc, selenium, sulphur and silicon, and can lead to deficiencies and many other health issues.

“But again,” says Goodman, “if you know what the sources are, you can avoid them. If you’re cooking some fish in the oven, and you’re squeezing lemon juice on it, you can put a ceramic lid on the pot instead of wrapping it in aluminium foil.

“If you’re wrapping it in aluminium foil and you’ve got something acidic there, you’re leeching the aluminium into your food, whereas if you’re wrapping your sandwiches in it, then it’s not really going to make contact.”

How to remove toxins

Our bodies can expel many of these chemicals by itself, but opinion varies on the extent to which we can improve natural processes of detoxification with external methods.

Goodman even argues that methods of detoxification – from saunas to vegetable juicing – may be necessary due to the extent of pollution our livers encounter.

But Lawton instead recommends supporting vital organs, especially the liver, with good nutrition.

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