• Dr. Tania Dempsey

The Hidden Impact of Toxins in the Home



Certain products in your environment have the potential to be toxic to human health. We know from a wealth of research that exposure to some chemicals is dangerous and can have a lasting influence on your well-being.


Your body has robust systems in place to protect itself from damage from exposure to toxins. Your liver and kidneys filter and remove toxins from your bloodstream. Your digestive and immune systems are naturally designed to neutralize and repel foreign substances and invaders.


However, when exposure to toxins exceeds your body’s ability to defend itself, problems arise. The unfortunate truth of modern life is there are more toxins around us than ever before. Hidden toxins in our everyday environment are quite literally making us sick.


In my practice, we see patients with complex health issues that are often highly reactive to toxins in their environment. For their health and safety, reducing exposure to toxic substances is essential.


Your home can be a surprising source of hidden toxins that negatively affect your health and well-being. I would even go so far as to say that exposure to some household toxins may be the root cause of some chronic health conditions.


Thankfully, there are better options available. Once you know where toxins are hiding, you can remove them from your home and choose safer alternatives.



Known Toxins


It is no secret that many of the products in our homes can be toxic. Researchers and non-profits have been sounding the alarm for years, and even the federal government admits there’s a problem. Yet, home toxins remain rampant and poorly regulated.


Some high-profile known toxins in the home are fairly easy to spot. These include:

  • Lead

  • Asbestos

  • Radon

  • Pesticides

Other toxins fly more easily under the radar. They are present in common household items and products we encounter every day:

  • Cleaning products

  • Skincare products

  • Makeup

  • Plastics

  • Cookware

  • Carpet

  • Furniture

  • Clothing

Let’s take a closer look at some of the toxins found in these everyday items.


Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s)


Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic or interfere with the body’s hormone system. These chemicals can be natural or artificial, and even small amounts cause significant health impacts.


Due to the way many chemicals are processed their structure is similar to the structure of some of our body’s own chemicals, namely hormones. As a result, man-made chemicals can bind with receptors designed for hormones and cause some of the same effects, or worse! In effect, they disrupt the body’s ability to manage its own hormone system.


The body’s hormone system is highly sensitive to any alteration in hormone levels. This level of sensitivity allows it to be finely tuned and responsive. However, when exposed to EDC’s, this sensitivity works against you and means even low-level exposure can have a significant effect.


Common EDC’s found in the home include:

  • Bisphosphanol A (BPA) and bisphosphanol S (BPS) - A component of plastics and food storage containers, including the lining of metal cans. BPS has replaced BPA in many places however both act as EDC’s, interfering with sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. Exposure is linked to infertility, obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, oxidative stress, and an increased risk of breast cancer.

  • Phthalates - This man-made chemical is used to make plastics flexible and durable. Phthalates are considered plasticizers and can be found everywhere in food storage containers, toys, vinyl flooring, and tubing. They are used to dissolve other substances, so they can be found in personal care items such as soap, shampoo, and hair care products. Because they are widely used in personal care products, women have been found to have higher levels of phthalates in their urine than men. Exposure to phthalates is linked to testicular dysgenesis syndrome, as well as growth and reproductive disruptions.

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) - These chemicals are fire retardants used in a wide range of products such as furniture foam, plastics used to surround electronics, and the backings in rugs, carpets and drapes. These EDCs easily leach into the air, water, and soil during processing and use. PBDEs are toxic to the liver, thyroid, and nervous system. Exposure is linked to developmental delays, thyroid dysfunction and cancer.



Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s)


VOCs are chemical compounds that enter the air as a gas. They are emitted from numerous household products, especially paint, cleaning products, air fresheners and cosmetics. Essentially, if something gives off a scent, it is releasing VOCs.


Even natural products such as essential oils contain VOCs.


Some VOC’s are more dangerous than others and some people may be more sensitive. For example, people with MCAS may experience chemical sensitivities to specific VOCs and could be more impacted by low-level exposure. In addition, because VOCs are inhaled, those with respiratory issues are easily affected.


VOCs can be immediately irritating, causing eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. If you’ve ever been in the line of fire when someone sprayed an air freshener, you probably know what that feels like.


However, there are long-term effects of exposure to VOCs as well. They are linked to liver and kidney damage, cancer, and nervous system disruption.



Formaldehyde


In 2011 the National Toxicology Program designated formaldehyde as a “known carcinogen.”


Yet, formaldehyde is still widely used in the manufacturing and building of homes and furniture and also as a preservative in consumer products. The formaldehyde contained in these products is released into the air as a gas making it a toxic VOC.


Unfortunately, formaldehyde is in more products than you might realize:

  • Permanent press fabrics

  • Paints and coatings

  • Plywood and particleboard

Insulation

  • Preservative in medicine

  • Fabric softeners

  • Dishwashing liquids

  • Cosmetics

  • Paper products such as paper towels

  • Glue

  • Personal care products such as soap, body wash, lotion, and baby wipes.

Exposure to formaldehyde causes burning in the eyes, nose, and throat, sneezing, coughing, nausea, and skin irritation. Some people are very sensitive to even the smallest amount of formaldehyde in a product, while others might not notice the effects.


Long-term exposure is linked to cancers such as leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer.



Symptoms of Toxicity


There is no question that you are being exposed to toxins in the home. What remains is to determine how much exposure you are subject to and what specific toxins, natural or not, are irritating to you.


The patients I see are often very sensitive to chemicals at levels that may not be obvious to others. However, some people may be experiencing symptoms and just not realize it is related to toxins in their homes.


Symptoms from exposure to toxins in the home can range from mild reactions to severe. Some symptoms may take years to develop, making it very difficult to pinpoint the connection between exposure and health outcomes. More research is needed.


Common toxicity symptoms include:

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Fatigue

  • Sneezing

  • Rashes

  • Swelling

  • Body pains

  • Diarrhea

Anytime someone regularly experiences these symptoms, they should evaluate their exposure to toxins in the home.



Health Impact of Home Toxins


While I touched on some of the health impacts of the known toxins, I really want to highlight the concern around regularly exposing ourselves to these chemicals. While, in many cases, we don’t know exactly how much exposure leads to adverse effects, we do know these products are not innocent.


Over the years, as the quantities of man-made chemicals and pollutants have increased, we find more and more that the level of these toxins is rising in our air, water, soil, and our own bodies. It is no coincidence that along with this rise in chemical use, rates of chronic disease, autoimmune conditions, and MCAS have gone up.


Some of the significant health implications of exposure to toxins in the home include:

  • Damage to the organs such as the kidney and liver.

  • Hormone disruption from EDC’s contributes to everything from infertility to acne.

  • Immune system disruption. Some products reduce normal immune response, while others stimulate select immune actions. The result is disruption of normal function and an immune system that may be under or over-reacting.

  • Asthma

  • Migraines



How to Avoid Toxins in the Home


Investigating potential toxins in your home can feel like a full-time job. All you have to do is look at the ingredient list for a cleaning product, and you’ll quickly be overwhelmed. I totally understand. It’s hard!


It does take a certain amount of work upfront to find not just products without toxins but also products that aren’t irritating to you. I find especially with my MCAS patients that even some “natural” products can be problematic due to fragrances and VOCs that may not bother someone else who doesn’t share that sensitivity.


So, to a certain extent, there is the effort of removing toxins from the home. Then secondly, the work needed to determine if specific chemicals, natural or not, are problematic for you.


Thankfully there are many great resources to guide your search for safe and natural home products. In addition, many companies are committing to producing natural, non-toxic products that are safe for people and the environment. I see more and more options out there every day, which gives me hope.


Here are some websites that provide comprehensive information on toxins in consumer products and how to avoid them:


Tips to Reduce Toxins in the Home


Clothing

  • Avoid “dry-clean” only clothes and opt for natural fabrics such as cotton, wool, and hemp.

  • Find a non-toxic, biodegradable laundry detergent or make your own (without borax).

  • Go “free-and-clear” to avoid any fragrance that is a source of VOCs.


Bedding

  • When it’s time to replace your mattress, choose a company that produces mattresses using natural fibers and free of flame retardants.

  • Find a pillow that is free of synthetic materials.


Furniture

  • Consider buying used furniture as it is likely past the “off-gassing” phase of its life (although you do have to be aware that there is the possibility that the used items were in a home potentially contaminated with mold).

  • Choose furniture made by companies that use natural fibers and are free of flame retardants.


Cookware

  • Throw out your non-stick cookware! The chemicals used to make the non-stick coating is toxic and can leach into your food during cooking.

  • Choose stainless steel or cast-iron cookware.


Plastics

  • Get rid of as much plastic in your kitchen as possible.

  • Use glassware for drinks, food storage, and water bottles.

  • If you have plastic kitchenware, do not heat it by putting it in the microwave or dishwasher. Doing so increases the chance it will leach into your food.


Cleaning products

  • Make your own using natural ingredients that don’t cause any reaction.

  • Purchase from brands that are committed to non-toxic, biodegradable ingredients.

  • Read the label! If it’s 20 ingredients long, that’s a red flag that it might not be as non-toxic as it claims.

  • Go fragrance-free.


Personal care products

  • Your skin is not only sensitive but also absorbs whatever chemical you put on it. Choose wisely.

  • Refer to one of the above consumer guides when looking for a safe product.

  • Always try a new product on a small patch of skin for a few days to make sure it is a fit for you.


Protect Yourself from Home Toxins


It is not uncommon for me to meet with patients experiencing symptoms of toxicity despite doing everything else right with their diet and medical care. When we trace things back, we often find the culprit is a new beauty product or laundry detergent or some other household item that contains a toxin they weren’t aware of.


Removing toxins from your home is how you safeguard your health and the health of your family (including your pets) both in the present and future. While much more research is needed on the health effects of all the toxins in our environment, we know enough to take steps to keep them out of our air, water, soil, and, most importantly, ourselves.


Your home should be your sanctuary. A safe place where you can relax and feel your best. I encourage everyone to educate themselves on toxins in the home so they will know how best to protect themselves and their family.


You can go here for more information on how your lifestyle is impacting your health and to learn about becoming a patient.



References:

1. Thoene M, Dzika E, Gonkowski S, Wojtkiewicz J. Bisphenol S in Food Causes Hormonal and Obesogenic Effects Comparable to or Worse than Bisphenol A: A Literature Review. Nutrients. 2020;12(2):532. Published 2020 Feb 19. doi:10.3390/nu12020532

2. Dutta S, Haggerty DK, Rappolee DA, Ruden DM. Phthalate Exposure and Long-Term Epigenomic Consequences: A Review. Front Genet. 2020;11:405. Published 2020 May 6. doi:10.3389/fgene.2020.00405

3. Linares V, Bellés M, Domingo JL. Human exposure to PBDE and critical evaluation of health hazards. Arch Toxicol. 2015;89(3):335-356. doi:10.1007/s00204-015-1457-1

4. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/formaldehyde.pdf

5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/formaldehyde/formaldehyde-fact-sheet