Between Earth Day and the start of spring (and spring cleaning!) more and more people are becoming concerned about what chemicals are hidden in their day to day activties. Senior Planet asked Sarah Evans, PhD MPH, an expert from the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City to answer some top questions about toxins:
What are the most prevalent toxic chemicals that people are exposed to daily?
There are more than 84,000 chemicals in use today, the majority of which have not been thoroughly tested for human health effects. Tests conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find detectable levels of hundreds of chemicals in the bodies of nearly all Americans, proof that chemicals in our environment enter our bodies through breathing, ingestion, and skin absorption.
Some of the most prevalent chemicals are found in everyday items like soaps and cosmetics, cleaning products, building materials, and pesticides. Many have been shown to interfere with hormones in the body, impact brain development, or are linked to cancer. Health effects of many common chemicals are seen even at low levels of exposure, reflecting the impact of chronic exposure. Because we are exposed to multiple chemicals at a time, environmental health researchers are studying how the “exposome”- the combination of all chemical, social, and nutritional factors – impacts health and disease throughout life.
Who are most vulnerable to toxins?
Studies show that young children and the developing fetus are most vulnerable to the impacts of environmental exposures because their bodily systems are rapidly growing and changing. Children also experience higher exposures to common chemicals than adults due to their normal propensity to put their hands in their mouths, relative closeness to the ground where chemicals settle, lack of variety in their diet, and higher breathing rate than adults.
Other life stages when environmental exposures pose increased risk, or “windows of susceptibility”, include puberty, menopause, and old age. Health risks that increase during aging such as heart and lung disease and diabetes can worsen the effect of toxic environmental exposures like air pollution. In addition, diseases that onset later in life such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases may have their origins in environmental exposures that occurred as early as childhood.
If people think they’ve been exposed to toxins what should they do?
Extreme adverse events resulting from toxic exposures are relatively uncommon. Most people’s exposures to individual chemicals are relatively low and in nearly all cases, testing or detoxification is not recommended. The good news is that many of the common chemicals that we’re exposed to today leave the body quickly. This means that by changing product use or taking other simple steps to reduce exposure, you can quickly and effectively reduce the level of toxins in your body and any associated health risks.
- If you suspect you have experienced a harmful exposure and are concerned about health effects, contact your physician.
- If you are concerned about chemicals in your water, home, or air your local health department may be able to provide assistance.
- For pediatric concerns, contact your local Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (www.pehsu.net).
- If you think you have been exposed to an acute, high level of a chemical, contact Poison Control immediately.
What can people do to lessen their exposure to toxins in their daily life?
The good news is that making simple changes to your lifestyle and product choices can reduce chemical exposures.
- Switching to fragrance free soaps, lotions, and household products can reduce exposure to hormone-disrupting phthalates and numerous other chemicals contained in fragrance.
- Changing to an organic diet for just a few days has been shown to reduce pesticide exposures.
- Because many common chemicals settle in dust and soil, wet mopping or dusting and leaving shoes at the door can reduce exposures indoors.
- Ventilating your home by opening windows or using fans can improve indoor air quality.
- Finally, support companies that are reducing the use of toxics and legislation that strengthens chemical regulations.
Want more information on simple steps you can take to reduce toxic exposure? Visit www.cehcenter.org.
Sarah Evans, PhD MPH, is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, home to the Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) and the Institute for Exposomics Research. The CEHC translates the research of the Institute to educate the public and policy makers about how early environmental exposures affect health and disease across the lifespan with an emphasis on strategies for prevention and treatment.