Easing Our Toxic Load
by Stef Frenzl
Last November, I went to my doctor after noticing a lump that had been growing at the base of my neck. Two days later, I went in for emergency surgery to remove a tumor the size of a grape. Fortunately, it was benign. That same month, I also learned that I had developed an autoimmune disorder related to my thyroid - all of this at the youthful age of 29.
Nobody in my family has ever developed random tumors like this one - or an autoimmune disorder, for that matter. I do my best to avoid "nasty" chemicals, and I've been eating mostly organic foods for the last decade. As I think about my recent health concerns, I can't help but wonder: What could have caused this? Could toxic chemicals in the general environment be to blame?
Environmental Health Affects Human Health
Across the country, toxic chemicals continue to be identified as one of the greatest threats to our environment. As a Marine Resource Steward for Snohomish County, located north of Seattle, one of my main concerns is the effect of chemicals on marine life. For example, toxic chemicals have caused 38 percent of the male Chinook salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to develop hormones that are normally only found in females, resulting in male sterility. Toxins have also caused a variety of other ecological problems throughout our industrialized world.
Where do these chemicals come from? Unfortunately, they are found virtually everywhere - in lotions, shampoos, makeup, pharmaceuticals, detergents, plastics, stain-resistant furniture, flame retardants, pesticides and more. Many of these toxins inevitably end up in groundwater, streams and marine waters and can potentially cause reproductive and developmental problems for almost everything that lives in the water. However, these chemicals not only affect life in the water, they affect us as well. Human health problems - breast cancer, autoimmune disorders, children reaching early puberty, learning disabilities, depression, etc. - are becoming more prevalent. Many of these unhealthy changes have already been linked to exposure to toxic substances.
In 2005, the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition wanted to learn more about this issue and tested a small group of Washington residents for the presence of toxic chemicals in their bodies (see www.pollutioninpeople.org). The study revealed that toxic chemicals have traveled to the worst possible destination: our bodies.
Every person tested had at least 26 and as many as 39 toxic chemicals in their body. Some chemicals were found at levels at or near those believed to be capable of causing serious health problems. Because the people in this study came from diverse backgrounds, and because other studies have found comparable results, experts believe it's likely that other people leading similar modern lives have equivalent levels of toxins in their bodies. Many of the chemicals do not break down, but build up in human bodies and breast milk. Some of the effects are irreversible; others can be cleansed or healed.
Although this information may seem grim, there's plenty we can do to protect ourselves, our families and our environment. Here are two examples of how I've taken action.
Starting Skin Deep
My wife and I have been using "environmental friendly" cleaning supplies for years (see Naturally Clean, (Issue #3), but I decided to go even further by researching the products we use on our bodies to further minimize our exposure to unsafe chemicals. Skin Deep (www.cosmeticdatabase.com) is a guide developed by researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to the safety of cosmetics and personal-care products. Since Skin Deep launched in 2004, EWG has gathered information on ingredients in thousands of products — everything from makeup and fragrances to items for the care of skin, hair and nails. The website has matched ingredients with hazard data contained in more than 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory databases. The website is a phenomenal resource that gives safety information on thousands of cosmetics in an amazingly informative, interactive, visually appealing and user-friendly format.
The creators of Skin Deep have developed a new dual rating system that includes both a handy product-hazard rating and a data-gap rating. The hazard rating scores products on a 0 - 10 scale, with 0 - 2 being low, 3 - 6 being moderate and 7 - 10 being high. The data-gap rating is a measure of how much is unknown about ingredients in a product. This score helps differentiate between ingredients and products that have been studied closely and those which have been studied very little or not at all.
My research led to a few surprises. Only 10 - 30 percent of products within a given type scored a low hazard rating. Many of the cosmetics labeled as "natural" have moderate hazard ratings, meaning that labels may be misleading and are not necessarily an accurate depiction of a product's safety. Additionally, many widely used products have disturbingly high hazard ratings.
The moisturizer I've been using for years is just one example. The company claims that all of their products reflect ongoing efforts to preserve the earth's natural resources by being environmentally friendly and cruelty-free. This lotion scored a 3 out of 10 on Skin Deep's hazard rating with an 84 percent data gap, meaning that many of the ingredients have a high level of uncertainty regarding their safety. Again, the creators of the website consider a score of 3 a moderate toxicity rating.
So why does my lotion score a moderate toxicity rating? The good news is that it doesn't have any ingredients known to cause cancer or developmental or reproductive problems. However, some ingredients have been shown to cause non-reproductive-organ-system toxicity; irritation of the skin, eyes or lungs; biochemical or cellular-level changes; allergies and immunotoxicity concerns. Additionally, ingredients in this lotion have associated violations, restrictions and warnings. Wow! I certainly couldn't get that information from the product label.
Skin Deep also tells me that 494 lotions, or 26 percent of the 1,934 tested, have a lower toxicity rating than my moisturizer, and the site links me directly to a comparative list of those products. Skin Deep is an easy, one-stop website that gives us all the power to make better choices. It helps us minimize exposure to hazardous compounds in cosmetic products, which is good for us and our families, not to mention the salmon.
Medications: Reducing Secondary Exposure
Pharmaceuticals are another source of toxins in our natural environment and belong to a family of chemicals called endocrine disruptors. Actually, many medications work by interrupting the normal functioning of the endocrine system. However, these drugs don't stop working when they end up in the natural environment. Even in low concentrations, they can wreak havoc on other life forms and interfere with the normal balance of their hormones. Virtually all of us have seen the results — remember those freaky-looking pictures of frogs with additional legs? Also, unwanted medications left in the home increase opportunities for accidental drug use, misuse and outright abuse.
Safer Disposal: Although we've been told for years to flush unwanted medications down the toilet, most sewage-treatment plants are not designed to filter pharmaceuticals. These drugs simply pass through and enter the natural environment. Throwing medications in the trash is a better approach, but if not properly contained over time, they can still end up in groundwater and freshwater streams.
For now, experts recommend throwing medications away. Here's what to do:
- Keep all medication in their original containers with childproof lids attached.
- Mark out any names printed on a prescription container.
- Place liquids in a sealable plastic bag in case of leaking or breakage.
- Put everything inside a sturdy container (like a plain brown box).
- Add enough of a nontoxic but strong-tasting product, such as cayenne pepper, to the inside of the container to discourage people or animals from ingesting the medication if the box is opened.
- Make this container the last thing you put in the garbage can before pickup.
A Better Solution on the Horizon: To promote a better solution to the pharmaceutical issue, I recently joined efforts with the Northwest Product Stewardship Council, a dedicated coalition piloting a pharmaceutical take-back program in Washington. PH:ARM (Pharmaceuticals from Households: A Return Mechanism) is modeled after an established program in British Columbia and enables citizens to return unused medicines to pharmacies. Medicines are then impounded and incinerated off site. Over 25 pharmacies are participating in the pilot program.
California recently passed a statewide pharmaceutical take-back program. It requires pharmacies to pay for collection and disposal costs. The Washington State legislature is considering a similar bill to implement the PH:ARM program statewide, which would make it the first in the nation to require pharmaceutical manufacturers to cover costs. If successful, over 700,000 pounds of medicines could be removed from the waste stream annually, and that's the low figure, which assumes limited outreach to communities. If signed into law, the program will likely serve as the model for national policy. This could result in the collection and destruction of millions of pounds of medicines each year, which will help keep our water and natural environment clean.
Healthier Communities are in our Hands
Learn more about PH:ARM at the Northwest Product Stewardship Council website: www.productstewardship.net/productsPharmaceuticals.html. You can also talk to the pharmacists in your area and encourage them to support a take-back program in your state. Share what you've learned with your local legislators and find out about any upcoming legislation. Step by step, we can take measures to help heal our environment and ourselves.
Stef Frenzl works as a Marine Resources Steward and lives with his beloved wife, Corinna, in Snohomish, Washington. He enjoys volunteering for organizations such as the Foundation for Sustainable Community and the Polishing Stone Foundation, to help build a better world by thinking globally and acting locally.
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