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.
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):
Central nervous system damage, including muscle twitches and tingling sensations
Increased risk of cancer
Reproductive disorders and problems, including infertility and poor development
Impaired eye function
Reduced liver and kidney function
Reduced gut function
Lowered immune function
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)
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
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.
Is organic food worth it?
Organic food was born out of the need for high-quality, sustainable, and toxin-free food. Organic livestock and produce farms seek to limit exposure to these overly common toxic substances. Not only does organic farming promote sustainable processes, but it also reduces pollution and enhances water and soil quality (9). To be certified USDA Organic, organic farms must not use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, nearly all synthetic pesticides, irradiation methods, GMOs, or antibiotics or growth hormones. While organic food has the amazing benefit of being less toxic, it also may be more nutritional! Organic food may have higher levels of Omega-3s, flavonoids (antioxidants), and other nutrients (9). Switching to organic food is also linked to drastically reduced urinary pesticide concentration, improved fertility, better birth outcomes, lower BMI, and a lowered risk of both Type 2 diabetes and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (11, 12, 13).
Do I have to eat all organic foods? Are there any non-organic foods that are okay?
Many people are reluctant to switch to organic foods because they can be quite a bit more expensive than non-organic food since organic practices simply cost more. However, there are quite a few ways to approach switching to organic that can make it more approachable and sustainable for your budget. Each year, you can find updated lists of produce’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15. The 12 most toxic items on the “dirty dozen” list are definitely worth buying organic, but if you’re looking to save some money, going with conventional items listed on the “clean 15” would be fine, since they have very low levels of pesticides. Unfortunately, many oat and wheat products are exceedingly high in toxins, so those are also worth buying organic (4, 13). Meat, fish, dairy, and eggs are all also worth buying organic - although there are more options here than there are with produce. Going for a “natural” or “free-range” option is better than conventional, but to get the freshest, most nutrient-dense, and toxin-free animal products, buying local organic animal products is always the way to go.
Making lifestyle changes, determining what toxins you may be exposed to, and the journey of healing from toxic exposure can be a huge undertaking. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms or disorders mentioned in the article, suspect you may have a buildup of toxins, or simply want a partner to help you transition to a healthier lifestyle, please contact us! It is our joy to see our patients healthy and thriving.
Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
1. United Nations. (n.d.). Decade, water for Life, 2015, UN-Water, United Nations, MDG, water, Sanitation, Financing, Gender, IWRM, human RIGHT, Transboundary, cities, quality, food security. United Nations. https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/quality.shtml.
2. Learn about water. Water Quality Association. (n.d.). https://www.wqa.org/Learn-About-Water/Common-Contaminants.
3. Sharma, S., & Bhattacharya, A. (2016, August 16). Drinking water contamination and treatment techniques. Applied Water Science. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13201-016-0455-7.
4. Thompson, L. A., & Darwish, W. S. (2019). Environmental Chemical Contaminants in Food: Review of a Global Problem. Journal of toxicology, 2019, 2345283. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/2345283
5. Syafrudin, M., Kristanti, R. A., Yuniarto, A., Hadibarata, T., Rhee, J., Al-Onazi, W. A., Algarni, T. S., Almarri, A. H., & Al-Mohaimeed, A. M. (2021). Pesticides in Drinking Water-A Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(2), 468. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020468
6. Not all in-home drinking water filters completely remove toxic pfas. Nicholas School of the Environment. (n.d.). https://nicholas.duke.edu/news/not-all-home-drinking-water-filters-completely-remove-toxic-pfas.
7. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). EPA. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality.
8. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Improving Indoor Air Quality. EPA. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/improving-indoor-air-quality.
9. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, April 8). Are organic foods worth the price? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880.
10. Group, E. W. (n.d.). Dirty DOZEN™ fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides. EWG's 2021 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Dirty Dozen. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php.
11. Vigar, V., et al., A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? Nutrients, 2020; 12(1), 7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010007. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/1/7/htm.
12. Papadopoulou, E., et al., Diet as a Source of Exposure to Environmental Contaminants for Pregnant Women and Children from Six European Countries. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2019; 127(10). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP5324. Available at: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/EHP5324.
13. Chiu, Y.H., et al., Association Between Pesticide Residue Intake from Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Infertility Treatment With Assistance Reproductive Technology. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2018. DOI: 10.1001/amainternmed.2017.5038. Available at: http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2659557
14. New round OF EWG testing Finds glyphosate in Kids' breakfast foods from Quaker OATS, General Mills. Environmental Working Group. (2021, August 13). https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news/new-round-ewg-testing-finds-glyphosate-kids-breakfast-foods-quaker-oats-general.