5 Common Household Toxins to Avoid

Chemicals in our environment are linked to myriad illnesses.

Mainstream medical literature generally agrees that many of the chemicals we have put into our environment are linked to myriad illnesses. These toxic effects occur at very low exposure levels, so it’s important to learn how to reduce our exposure to the chemicals that already are part of our daily lives.

John Hibbs, ND, teaches the environmental medicine and toxicology curriculum at Bastyr University and is a senior faculty supervisor at the University's teaching clinic, Bastyr Center for Natural Health. “The most important thing you can do to prevent illness from chronic exposure to chemicals is to stop the exposure,” says Dr. Hibbs.

He points out that reducing exposure to household toxins need not be expensive or time-consuming, especially considering that household dust is a major culprit in spreading many chemicals. “Take your shoes off at the door when you come in from outside and vacuum more often,” says Dr. Hibbs. “You’ll see real gain in removing toxic exposure from the home.”

As you go about your spring cleaning this year, consider these five sources of toxicity. While not a comprehensive list of common household toxins, these are some of the most dangerous and surprising offenders:

  1. Mercury: Chronic exposure to mercury can lead to brain problems such as Parkinson’s disease, lowered immunity and hormonal disruptions. Common sources of mercury exposure include fish and florescent light bulbs. Dr. Hibbs advises following the EPA fish advisory, and also explains that eating fiber with fish can reduce exposure. “If you eat fiber with your fish – eat an apple or some whole grain, or beans – it binds with the mercury that was in the fish in the intestines and takes it on out with the stool, keeping most of the mercury from being absorbed in the first place,” he says. Dr. Hibbs acknowledges the energy-saving benefit of newer florescent bulbs, but cautions that they still contain mercury and must be handled with care. “When a florescent bulb breaks, that actually represents a very significant toxic hazard,” he says. “Ventilate like crazy and then stay out of there for a few hours before cleaning up.”
  2. Aluminum: Aluminum is a neurotoxin that has been proved to contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease as well as other issues with cognition and memory. Aluminum is extremely common and is frequently found in beverage containers and cooking pots and pans. “My advice is to stop using aluminum cookware – pots, pans, baking dishes and so forth – especially at high heat and especially when cooking acidic materials,” Dr. Hibbs says. He also recommends against using aluminum foil in high-heat cooking, as the aluminum can vaporize into the air and into the food.
  3. Benzene, Toluene and Xylene: These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are associated with many health issues including nervous system problems and especially with bone marrow toxicity, leading to injury and leukemia. “When I have a patient with chronic leukemia in my practice, one of the first things I do is check their body load of benzene, toluene, etc., and talk to them about an effective cleansing regimen – and it usually helps,” Dr. Hibbs says. These compounds are commonly found in outside dirt, so the best way to reduce exposure is to remove shoes when entering the home and vacuum carpets often.
  4. Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), Alklyphenol ethoxylates (APEs) and Propylene Glycol: These chemicals, found in many household cleaners, are also VOCs associated with many of the same health issues listed above, including reduced function in the nervous system, immune system, and the liver and kidneys. In addition to household cleaners, these chemicals may be found in degreasers, mothballs, cosmetics and at commercial dry cleaners. To reduce exposure, Dr. Hibbs recommends cleaning with simple ingredients like soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and elbow grease. “I’m not a fan of dry-cleaning,” says Dr. Hibbs, “but if I need to dry-clean a blanket or a jacket, what I’ll do is hang it in the garage for a few days and let it off-gas before I bring it into the house.”
  5. Phalates (plastic) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride): “These chemicals are measurable in all of our bodies, all over the world,” says Dr. Hibbs. Phalates and PVC are toxic to the liver, kidney and lungs and may cause birth defects and fertility issues. They are extremely common in household items including food containers, flooring, vinyl and adhesives. “That stuff you smell when you open up a new vinyl shower curtain – that’s PVC and phalate,” Dr. Hibbs says. “There’s so much of it and it’s so volatile, you might smell it off-gassing for weeks or months, and it stays in your body a long time.” One method to reduce exposure to plastic toxicity is to cook and store foods and beverages in glass containers as much as possible. “Less toxic plastic containers, if you do use them, are the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5,” says Dr. Hibbs. “They’re not perfect but they’re a whole lot better. I still wouldn’t heat them, as it will increase their volatilization.”

For an extensive breakdown of common household toxins and steps to reduce your exposure to them, watch Dr. Hibbs’s Living Naturally lecture “Avoiding Toxins in the Home”:

Bastyr Center naturopathic physicians can run tests to measure the levels of toxins in your body and recommend avenues to remove them from your system to reduce your risk of chronic illness. To make an appointment, call (206) 834-4100.