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Do water filters, air purifiers, and organic food really make a difference?

Jonathan Vellinga, MD

These days, it is hard to not feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information concerning environmental toxins. Air pollution, contaminated water, microplastics, pesticides, GMOs… the list goes on. These things are part of our daily lives, and it seems like so many of our daily purchases come with a long list of considerations. The good news is that with a few changes, you can greatly reduce your exposure to many common toxins, reduce your home’s pollution, and minimize your body’s toxic load.

Do water filters, air purifiers, and organic food really make a difference?

Is our drinking water polluted?

Unfortunately, the answer is unanimously yes. There are a number of common sources of water pollution, with eutrophication (high nutrient loads from agricultural runoff) taking the spot as the most common source (1). Domestic sewage, industrial byproducts, fossil fuels, and wildfires also contribute to pollution in drinking water (1). Toxic elements such as aluminum, ammonia, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chloramine, copper, bacteria and viruses, lead, mercury, radium, uranium, and many more are some of the most common contaminants (2, 3, 4).

Agricultural and household pesticides, household disinfectants, and even firefighting foam and stain- and water-repellents all contribute significantly to our drinking water’s pollution (3, 4, 5). Aside from these pollutants that are carcinogens, heavy metals, and chemicals, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals are another source of contamination. While more study is needed, these types of products are thought to act as xenoestrogens and other hormone-disrupting compounds (1, 4, 6).

How does polluted drinking water affect us?

Any of these toxins may be found in drinking water. While levels vary due to location, type of water source (well vs city water), type and age of pipes, all water across America contains some level of contaminants. While much of the water’s toxicity is within limits deemed safe by the EPA, this does not mean that it is harmless. Because water contaminant levels, just like food products, are all measured independently, many items have low levels of toxins but are still considered safe. However, when low levels of contaminants from water are combined with “safe” levels in many different types of foods (not to mention pollution in the air), the overall toxic load can far exceed safe levels. While there is no way to escape all toxins and pollutants, it is a great idea to limit it wherever possible. This is because the pollutants listed above can lead to (2, 6, 7):

  • Headaches

  • Dizziness

  • Central nervous system damage, including muscle twitches and tingling sensations

  • Weakness

  • Nausea

  • Increased risk of cancer

  • Endocrine disruption

  • Reproductive disorders and problems, including infertility and poor development

  • Impaired eye function

  • Reduced liver and kidney function

  • Neurotoxicity

  • Reduced gut function

  • Lowered immune function

  • Birth defects

  • Delayed or reduced developmental health

  • Death, especially among unborn or young children

Are water filters helpful?

All of these reasons point to the definite benefit of water filters. (While bottled water may be distilled or filtered, chemicals from the plastic can leach into the water, far outweighing the benefit of the distillation (4).) However, not all home filters are created equally, and their effectiveness can vary widely. Whole house system filters may actually increase certain levels of toxins, including toxic perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) (6). Budget-friendly activated carbon filters used in pitchers, countertops, fridges, and faucet-mounted filters have different levels of effectiveness, but continued use and frequent filter changes can bring benefit and filter out some contaminants (6). Under-sink reverse osmosis and two-stage filters bring the most benefit and achieve nearly total removal of contaminants, making it the best choice for filtering water and preventing your risk of developing the conditions listed above from polluted water (6).

What types of pollutants are in the air?

While most people think of smokestacks and car exhaust when they think of air pollution, there are actually many different types of air pollution. Interestingly, indoor air pollution can actually be far more harmful than outdoor air pollution, due to its concentration. And with most people spending up to 90% of their time indoors (especially the most vulnerable populations), indoor air pollution is contributing to grave health outcomes (7). These include many of the symptoms and disorders listed above, as well as coughing, shortness of breath, allergic reactions, asthma, respiratory tract infection, visual disorders, memory impairment, lung cancers, and many, many more (7).

Indoor and outdoor pollution comes from many different sources, including (7):

  • Indoor and outdoor emissions from oil, gas, kerosene, coal, and wood combustion

  • Smoked tobacco products

  • Deteriorated or asbestos-containing insulation

  • Wet, damp, or deteriorated carpet

  • Certain pressed wood products (often found in cabinets or furniture)

  • Radon

  • Pesticides

  • Biological contaminants such as mold, mildew, bacteria, viruses, animal dander and saliva, dust mites, cockroaches, and pollen

  • Household products including chemicals, paints, varnishes, waxes, cleaning products, and cosmetics

  • Formaldehyde (found in building materials, household products, particleboard, etc.)

  • Lead products, including paint

  • Dry cleaned clothing

  • New carpet

How can I decrease indoor air pollution?

Inadequate ventilation, high temperatures, and high humidity can all increase indoor pollution. So, keeping your home at a moderate temperature, using a dehumidifier if necessary, and making sure to open your windows and/or doors at least once a day to air out your home will all go a long way (7, 8). Some heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units can provide great ventilation and maintain optimal airflow in your home. Being choosy with the furniture, household products, pest deterrents, and heat sources that you purchase and use can also contribute to lowering indoor air pollution (7). Additionally, air purifiers and filters can be a great investment. Look for air purifiers with both a high air-circulation rate and a very efficient collector that is made to service the available square footage (7).

What toxins are in food?

There are many toxic substances from environmental pollution and in conventional farming and packaging practices that leach into our food, and eventually, our bodies (4, 9). Heavy metals, mycotoxins, pesticides, traces of pharmaceuticals from water contamination, and known toxic substances like BPA, PCBs, and even radioactive elements are all found in conventionally harvested and processed food around the globe (4). All of the symptoms, diseases, and disorders listed above are linked with the pollutants and toxins found in our food. This is especially concerning, given that some types of produce, such as peppers (both spicy and bell), have tested positive for up to 115 pesticides - all in one pepper (10)! That is a huge amount of potential daily exposure in just one ingredient.