“What can I do to minimize the toxic effects of environmental pollutants?”
I often get this question. I think the answer has at least two parts:
- what can we do to protect ourselves and our families and friends; and
- what can we do to protect others—our communities, others in our country, other species, even others in other countries.
I believe that both are important. The first is easiest, at least for those who have the resources, because it involves lifestyle choices such as what kind of food we buy. However, lifestyle choices do little to help others, and I think that we should also make choices that protect others. These choices involve trying to influence policy and politics, and can therefore also help others. I have separated these below (also note that more information on some of these is provided by our colleagues in the Duke Superfund Research Center).
What can I do to protect other people and other species?
Many people, and all other species, lack the resources to make lifestyle choices such as those listed below. Often, minorities and individuals with fewer resources have higher levels of exposures to toxic compounds, and lack the means and access to health care to protect and treat themselves. This is often due to things that people cannot control, like where they can afford to live and what they can afford to eat. Issues such as these fall into the category of environmental justice, and the only way to provide protection for them is by advocating for policies that protect broadly. So please, work with your political representatives as well as advocacy groups to:
Uphold environmental protection laws, such as the Clean Air and Water Acts, Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), etc. Although imperfect, these laws have led to huge improvements in air and water quality in the USA. It is sometimes easy to forget that these laws are important, precisely *because* they have been fairly successful: the reductions in visible air and water pollution (rivers no longer catch fire in the United States!) makes it easy to forget that those laws are still important so that we can continue to enjoy clean air and water. For example, TSCA was recently reformed, as described here by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Advocate for improved policies and laws where needed. While our environment is much cleaner than it used to be, it is still far less clean than it could be. This results in health and economic costs for people, as well as loss of populations and even entire species for other wildlife. For example, as recently reported in the Lancet, 16% of global deaths are the result of pollution. While there are many things that harm wildlife and cause species to go extinct (just as many factors affect human health), pollution is an important factor in some cases. For example, recovery of the nearly-extinct California condor has been made much more difficult by lead poisoning.
Promote good reporting and public engagement on environmental science and policy. Some organizations that do good work in this area are Science Debate, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Environmental Health News. Duke SciPol compiles opportunities to participate in upcoming public comment periods on environmental issues. (Note: there are surely many others; if you know of a great group in this or other categories, please let me know!)
Support ongoing research! Good policy is based on good science, and there is a *lot* still to be learned. Keep advocating for funding for such research from the National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, and others. There are also excellent private organizations such as the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, the American Association for Cancer Research, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and many others (a bonus opportunity is to urge these organizations to consider funding research into prevention; many, for very understandable reasons, are very focused on funding research into therapies or cures).
What can I do to protect myself and my family?
The answer depends somewhat on where you live. For example, people living in large cities in China often purchase indoor air purifiers because of the very high levels of air pollution; this is less important in the United States, because the Clean Air Act provides effective protection to most of us. Here, because I know more about the United States, I am providing advice for people living in the United States. In general, most of our exposures result from polluted air that we breathe, water that we drink, or food that we eat. Here are some suggestions to minimize exposures via those and other routes:
Reduce exposure to outdoor air pollution. Most air in the US is reasonably clean, but some larger cities and specific regions suffer from lower quality air. Air quality typically varies by season and time of day; groups including the EPA and sometimes local government and organizations monitor and report on air quality, for example: https://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi. This website has more information about how to interpret air quality information, and what you can do when the air quality is poor. On the iPhone Weather app, the Air Quality Index and Air Quality Level are reported at the bottom of the display.
Reduce exposure to indoor pollutants. We all spend a lot of time in our homes. My colleagues at Duke’s Environmental Exposomics Center have created a website providing information on materials and products that may impact your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in your home, and what you can do.
Reduce exposure to waterborne pollutants. Most municipal drinking water is regulated and fairly clean, with some very unfortunate exceptions (as made famous by the recent case of Flint, Michigan). Sometimes, however, new contaminants appear that had not previously been tested for or regulated, as when chemicals called “PFAS” were discovered in drinking water in North Carolina (and elsewhere). Local water agencies will often test water samples from your tap for a limited number of pollutants, such as lead, for free. For more extensive testing, or if you use well water (testing of which is not required by any law), you will need to pay an analytical laboratory. If your water is not as clean as you would like, you can use a variety of water purification devices such as pitchers with filters (for example, Brita pitcher filters are fairly inexpensive and fairly effective with many pollutants), under-sink filters, reverse osmosis (generally the best), etc. (the most effective ones are the most expensive, of course, and upkeep is required—another reason that it makes sense to ensure good water quality for everyone at the municipal source level!).
Reduce exposure to food-borne pollutants. There is a large debate about the importance of eating organically, low on the food chain (for example, fish high up on the food chain often contain high levels toxic chemicals such as methyl mercury, so it’s best to consume more fish that are low on the food chain like shrimp and salmon, and avoid species that are high up like tuna; here is a good guide), etc. There are many considerations: what is healthiest for you; what is healthiest for the environment with respect to reducing pesticide, fertilizer, water or fossil fuel use; what is healthiest with respect to farm worker exposure; what is most ethical in terms of animal husbandry and biodiversity protection; etc. Focusing here on your individual pollutant exposure, the question is how much to emphasize organic produce. First, don’t let this concern reduce how many fruits and especially vegetables you eat—most of us don’t eat nearly enough vegetables, and the health benefits of a plant-rich diet are in most cases probably greater than the risk of pesticide exposure. However, if you can afford to eat organic produce, it makes sense to do so, both because there is a lot of uncertainty about the health effects of low levels of pesticide exposure (especially for fetuses, infants, and small children), and because testing of pesticide residues on food is very limited. Furthermore, you can choose to buy organic especially the types of produce that typically have higher levels of pesticides; a list of these (as well as typically low-pesticide produce) can be found here. If you can’t afford to eat all organic produce, washing fruits and vegetables with water will help reduce exposure to pesticides. You can also use a sponge or scrubber to wash the produce, which helps get more of the pesticides off.
Reduce exposure to other pollutants. There are a variety of other potential sources of exposure to important toxicants. For example, older homes typically have lead-containing paint, a particular risk for small children; there are a variety of ways to address this. Home cleaning products can be used more safely or replaced with less toxic products. Indoor and outdoor pesticides should be used carefully. As for many other products, the Environmental Working Group has extensive information on personal care products.
Baby Products. Young children are particularly vulnerable to exposure to chemicals. Consider minimizing use of plastic items, be sure to wash clothing prior to use, and be careful that any painted items are painted with non-toxic paint. There is information on reducing exposure to children here and here.
Reduce occupational exposures. Occupational exposures occur when people work with or near the use of toxic chemicals. Well-known examples are farmers and people who work with produce, because of the heavy use of pesticides. An important way to protect against occupational exposures is to wear personal protective equipment. Other examples of occupational exposures occur at manufacturing plants, where lots of chemicals go into the making of many products, and places like nail salons, where many chemicals and paints are used. Construction and painting jobs also increase exposure to such products. It is important to be able to recognize what you are exposed to daily so that you can be aware of any medical conditions that could come up. The US government offers resources and information about occupational exposures here. Individuals who do not experience occupational exposures can still help with these issues by educating people they know on how to protect themselves and voting for regulations that will help to keep workers safe.
Be careful with botanicals, herbal supplements,”Nutraceuticals,” and “health supplements.” Many chemicals produced by plants and other species are quite toxic, even though they are “natural” (not made by humans). As described in detail in the book A Natural Mistake (by toxicologist James MacGregor), these are generally very poorly tested for toxicity and almost unregulated. This doesn’t mean that all such products are bad–it just means that it is hard to tell.
lRead the news critically and thoughtfully. There is a large amount of misinformation in the media. It can make us dismiss important environmental risks, but it can also promote hysteria about risks that are small. Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they are sending. It is also the ability to think critically about different types of media and recognize media that contains misinformation. ‘Good Reporting’ includes reports that have been validated for accuracy. Spreading articles/memes that do not contain credible information can be pretty dangerous if other people start to believe their content. Often times, these ‘bad reporting’ examples sway people to believe things that are not true. Snopes.com is one place to check the veracity of claims. Here is an interesting analysis of the degree to which various news sources are news vs analysis vs opinion and spin. Here is a story about social media being used to lead us to be our worse selves with clever misinformation.
- The American Public Health Association’s Environmental Health page has a section on preventing chemical exposure.
- If you are interested in ways to build understanding about potential sources of contamination and health impacts, try the EPA’s “Cleanups in My Community” map, the EPA EJ Screen Tool, or our Duke Superfund Center’s map.
- The Silent Spring Institute has a Detox Me app (informed by Superfund Research Program grantees) that you may find useful: https://wwww.silentspring.org/detoxmeactionkit/
- Good additional, non-jargony sources of environmental science reporting include Scientific American, The Economist, Mother Jones, and The Story of Stuff: https://storyofstuff.org/campaigns/
- Additional environmental advocacy groups with a focus on pollutant exposure:
- Earthjustice: https://earthjustice.org/healthy-communities/toxic-chemicals
- Toxics Action Center: https://toxicsaction.org/
- Environmental Defense Fund: https://www.edf.org/health
- Greenpeace: https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-eu-unit/en/campaigns/chemicals/
Caveat: I am not, of course, endorsing everything done or published by every group to which I have linked on this page.
And, suggestions welcome!