People will do anything to move towards a more environmentally friendly way of life. Changing where and how they buy their clothes, reducing their consumption of meat and dairy products and replacing car journeys with walking journeys. I did all that, but I went further.
Six months ago I had my blood tested for 100 different persistent organic pollutants or POPs – chemicals such as pesticides and flame retardants that build up in us and stay around longer than we would like. Scientists at a specialist lab in Norway have found traces of chemicals that were taken off the market decades ago, such as low levels of a metabolite of the infamous pesticide DDT, as well as worrying levels of some lesser known “eternal chemicals” known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – a class of chemicals that includes things like Teflon). Even more surprisingly, my blood contained relatively high levels of a chemical called oxychlordane which comes from a pesticide called chlordane which was banned by the EU in 1981, just a year after I was born, so the exposure was is probably made via the uterus. What struck me most was that some of these highly dangerous chemicals last more than one lifetime.
So began my mission to find out how we can better protect ourselves – and the next generation – from these legacy pollutants.
Perhaps because toxic chemical pollution is not so obvious, it is often overlooked. So while public awareness of single-use plastic waste has skyrocketed in recent years – all those bottles, straws and carrier bags are tangible symptoms of our disposable mindset and overconsumption – there is much more to say.
So, in an effort to reduce my chemical footprint and that of my family, I explored the science and distilled the latest research into practical, simple advice. In the end, it’s time we joined the dots and made this invisible world much more visible.
Don’t be fooled by clever marketing campaigns that aim to convince us that we need the latest eco-friendly stuff. No product can be better than a less toxic product. If a label makes sustainability claims, look for evidence – download a shopping app like Giki, which lets you scan supermarket products to see how sustainable they are.
Beware of unregulated terms such as “natural”, “eco-friendly”, “inspired by nature” and be wary of products that say they are “chemical-free” (this does not does not exist: everything is a chemical and not all chemicals are). bad) or “free from”. Look for brands that are completely transparent about their supply chains and the ingredients they use rather than distracting with mentions of things they don’t include.
Ditch the sanitizer
Think before you flush anything down the toilet or down the drain – most bottles of cleaners containing bleach have a picture of a dead fish on the back and for good reason. They poison aquatic fauna but also act as irritants for us. Excessive use of bleach leads to resistance to antimicrobials, and in most cases, mild cleaning products, such as baking soda or vinegar mixed with lemon juice, plus a little oil elbow, do the job very well. Our homes aren’t sterile places – save sanitizers for medical settings and watch for the emerging trend of probiotic cleaning products that fight germs by encouraging healthy bacteria.
Break the dust
The advice to do more dusting may not be advice you want to follow, but in fact it is more focused dusting. Adults involuntarily ingest about 20 mg of dust each day. Children and even more pets. But many toxic chemicals released by products in our home accumulate in dust, from perfumes to PFAS, so it’s important to wipe them down regularly with a damp cloth – no polishing required.
Rather than concentrating your efforts on windowsills and shelves, make sure to clean electronics such as Wi-Fi router, DVD player and game consoles as flame retardants can turn to dust settling on these articles.
Forget the perfume
Our homes should not smell overpowering odors such as pine cones or sea spray. Air fresheners are a concentrated source of indoor air contaminants that can exacerbate conditions such as asthma. Residues of perfumed detergents also remain on clothes and linens. While not all synthetic fragrances are harmful, their many ingredients are generally not listed in full, and we may not know enough about what they contain.
P is for persistent
From school pants lined with Teflon knee patches to non-stick cookware, food wraps and stain-resistant mascara, PFAS chemicals are added to many everyday products. These super stable chemicals last forever, in our bodies and in the environment. Many of them are endocrine disruptors – that is, they disrupt our hormonal system – and some can be carcinogenic.
Things that claim to be waterproof, stain resistant, wrinkle resistant, or water repellent likely contain PFAS. If you’re not sure, there’s a nifty test you can do called the marble test. For this, you drop a small amount of olive oil on a surface. If the oil is repelling in a bead shape, it most likely contains PFAS chemicals.
Then you can decide: do the claimed benefits of the product outweigh the potentially toxic cost? If you’re not satisfied, make a conscious effort to research PFAS-free alternatives.
Toxic by design
Pesticide residues remain on our fruits and vegetables, inside loaves of bread, on non-organic cotton bedding, and even on non-organic tampons. These agricultural chemicals, sprayed on crops to kill insects, weeds and fungi, are found in every room of the house. Try to streamline your exposure by going organic for the foods you eat the most. There is a very useful guide to how UK supermarkets are doing by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). It ranks UK supermarkets according to pesticide use. Perhaps underlining the adage that you get what you pay for, M&S and Waitrose come out on top, but even those two have some way to go.
The buildup of indoor air pollutants and volatile organic compounds or VOCs (such as formaldehyde and benzene) can be prevented by simply opening a window. Ventilate well if you light an open fire (electric heating from renewable sources is cleaner) and use a range hood while cooking if you have one. The rear cooking plates are preferred if you have an extractor hood to capture more pollutants. At night, body heat raises the temperature in our beds, so more VOCs can “off-gas” or be released from conventional polyurethane mattresses, so air out your bedroom or, better yet, invest in a mattress topper made from of natural materials.
Buy a second hand
This VOC off-gassing occurs from many pieces of furniture and medium-density fiberboard (MDF), more so when new, so look for vintage bargains, especially if you’re decorating a room for the kids. If you buy a new one, unpack it and let it air out for a few days before installing it. If you are installing shelves or other accessories, use screws rather than glues and adhesives. And if you recycle, use low-VOC paints and varnishes. Buy second-hand clothes and textiles – they will contain significantly reduced pesticide residues, if any, and you will avoid having to make more new items.
Detox your diet
A high toxic load puts a strain on our body’s natural detoxification mechanisms, primarily the liver and kidneys, just like smoking or drinking. So eat plenty of antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals produced after exposure to toxins and which can damage DNA and lead to degenerative diseases. So lots of leafy greens, nuts and berries – organic if possible!
Anna spins is the author of Go Toxic Free: simple and sustainable ways to reduce chemical pollution (published by Michael O’Mara to January 20)