Everyone knows the importance of eating a whole foods diet, and eating food grown and raised in a quality environment. Reducing pesticide exposure reduces your chances of developing diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, numerous Cancers, allergies, asthma and many more illnesses. Eating animals that have been ethically raised and slaughtered and fed an appropriate diet reduces your ingestion of exogenous hormones, antibiotics, and improves ingestion of essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
What is often overlooked is how our food is prepared, packaged and stored. Plastic wrap to nonstick cookware can all have detrimental influence on our health. While this may seem overwhelming and one more thing to worry about, it certainly should not be overlooked. There are numerous solutions and alternatives that make it an easy obstacle to overcome.
So what are we are we exposed to? Let’s begin by looking at what our food comes in from the butcher, supermarket, or farm. Meat typically is wrapped in plastic wrap on a bed of Styrofoam. Some butchers wrap in a paper/plastic wrap combination. Plastic wrap, which is also seen sealing meat on a Styrofoam tray, is a petroleum-based product made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC). While it no longer contains the ominous phthalates, LDPE still poses a health risk, particularly when heated. It is linked to endocrine disruption in men and women, an increase risk of breast cancer and low sperm count.
Styrofoam, seen in meat trays, takeout containers, plastic dishware, egg cartons and food packaging containers is another petroleum product. It is made from many molecules of styrene. Some manufacturers use benzene to make their Styrofoam. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease registry lists both styrene and benzene as probable human carcinogens with exposure affecting the hematological, immune, and nervous systems. Clearly the amount of toxins exposed to on a meat tray is not the same as an occupational exposure, but low levels over a long period of time do add up.
Teflon remains a popular material for nonstick cookware. How many people jump up and down at the idea of less cleaning, less scrubbing the pots after dinner? Well Teflon is another petroleum derived product, made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It is found in nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, clothing, and more. According to the EPA it is likely a carcinogen but instead of banning it, they have encouraged companies to make the product better. The problem with Teflon is that it starts to break down after even five minutes on the stove, thus releasing the toxic chemicals into the food it is cooking. Other nonstick materials and packaging contain PFOA’s (perfluorooctanoic acid) and other perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). According to the ATSDR, these chemicals are very easily absorbed orally but they are poorly eliminated and are not metabolized. What this means is that if you are exposed once, it can take years before your body is able to eliminate it, if at all. The danger in these chemicals is that we are continuously exposed through not just nonstick cookware and food packaging, but also water, household products, personal care products and clothing. These chemicals are possibly linked to thyroid disorders, cancers, immune system dysfunction, hormone disruption and birth defects.
Aluminum foil is a commonly used item in the kitchen. How many people eagerly await summertime so they can grill outside – often using aluminum foil to grill their vegetables or salmon for instance. While the science remains scarce, there is some evidence that suggests grilling and cooking with aluminum foil at high temperatures in an acidic environment will lead to an increase in aluminum leaching into the cooking food. Aluminum has not been linked with cancers but its effects are highly suggested, though sometimes controversial, in neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s. It has been linked with occupational exposures, to memory and balance disorders.
BPA oh BPA. By now we have all heard of BPA, or bisphenol-A. This is a chemical that is used in a variety of plastic containers, particularly those used in food storage and personal care products. BPA is an estrogen mimicker, meaning it can cause changes and disease processes associated with such hormonal influence. BPA has been found in the majority of the population, including newborns. BPA has been linked to behavioral disorders, hormonal disorders, obesity, impaired immune function and some cancers. While it is encouraging that companies and governments are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of BPA, the chemical still remains ubiquitous in the environment. Products that are now BPA-free are often still full of other phenols that may be just as harmful. In addition to plastic containers, bpa can be found in the lining of canned foods.
Summary of plastics according to recycle numbers:
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET / PETE).
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE) This plastic is used in milk jugs, as well as other soft beverage containers.
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): found in some plastic wraps, numerous household products and construction products.
- Low Density polyethylene (LDPE): plastic bags, plastic wraps, soft-squeezable containers.
- Polypropylene (PP): squeezable condiment containers, yogurt, baby bottles, Rubbermaid, straws.
- Polystyrene (PS): Styrofoam
- Other: any other plastic that does not contain 1-6. This does not mean it is not harmful. Polycarbonates fall into this category and BPA is a polycarbonate. It is also found in the large water containers for coolers.
In regards to plastic, the research continues to evolve. What we know now to be harmful or what we suspect to be harmful are plastics containing polycarbonates and recycle numbers 3 and 6.
Some people may wonder what the big deal is. They use plastics, Teflon and aluminum on a daily basis and are healthy. The big deal lies in the total body burden. It is known that many of these chemicals are readily absorbed yet poorly metabolized. This means that with each exposure our toxic profile expands. Our body does not know what to do with it and so we store it in our bones, brain, adipose tissue, and liver. Many of these chemicals pass through the placenta and can have a negative effect on the developing fetus. What may be silently and effortlessly accumulating may in fact be a silent killer sneaking up on you waiting for the opportunity to show itself.
What can one do to reduce their exposures?
- First and foremost make better decisions with what you have available. When preparing food at home, use cookware that is ceramic, stainless steel, cast iron or glass. Be sure that it does not have a lining containing aluminum or plastic. Never use plastic for cooking or heating. If you have Rubbermaid type containers, watch for scratches, cuts, or a discoloration of the plastic, as this can be a sign of leaching. There are numerous alternatives on the market today with glass or stainless steel storage and lunch boxes available too. If you are a straw fan, choose stainless steel or glass. While it is popular to grab a bottle of water to go, use a refillable water bottle and take it with you. Again, be sure to choose glass, stainless steel or ceramic bottles with no lining. Not only will you be helping your health, but you will also be saving money and reducing your consumption of a petroleum product and helping the environment.
- When you are eating out, take containers with you for leftovers. Hot food in Styrofoam increases the leaching of the chemicals into your food. Similarly if you get takeout, ask if you can drop off your own containers first – or choose restaurants that use a safer alternative.
- Never heat in plastic or heat with plastic wrap. It is the high temperatures that destroy the integrity of the plastic and cause the chemicals to leach into the food.
- If you are using Teflon, stop! Definitely do not use if there are scratches in the coating, and only use at low temperatures. But really there is no reason to use Teflon
- If you stop at Starbucks or your favorite coffee shop each day – take your own mug! Hot liquid in a paper cup increases the leaching of chemicals that line those paper cups!
- Sweat everyday. Believe it or not, a large amount of detoxification occurs through sweat. Infrared sauna is an excellent way to increase your body’s ability to get rid of these chemicals.
- Stay regular! Another means of detoxifying is through digestion. Daily (once minimum) bowel movements allow the body to remove excess waste before we have a chance to reabsorb or redistribute it.
If you are interested in finding out your own toxic burden, there are ways to do this. Studies have shown the majority of North Americans are carrying around plastics, metals and other chemicals. Knowing what your burden is can direct your own healthcare in a way to help reduce the burden and prevent any negative health consequences. Look for a professional that is trained or specialized in environmental medicine and can help determine what your current exposures are and how to go about staying healthy or returning to health. These tests are typically covered by insurance.
Each day in my practice, I see the profound effect small lifestyle changes can have on our health. Eliminating the obvious obstacles to health reduces the burden on our body caused by what we have no control over – such as the air we breath. Every small change helps. If our ancestors survived without plastic and Teflon, we certainly can!