Updated August 23, 2018
It’s called Body Burden—the alphabet soup of pollutants that accumulate in and contaminate our bodies. And though we’ve touched on it before, I think it’s worth a closer look at this pervasive problem that’s really one of the main reasons for this blog—to help us all live a little freer from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals.
So What Is Body Burden?
Body Burden, or toxic load, is the buildup of harmful chemicals in our bodies. These are the chemicals we ingest from our food or breathe in from the air or consume in our water. They come into contact with our skin through typical laundry products, soaps and other personal care products. Toddlers and pets can acquire chemicals through the dust that settles onto flooring. Even babies have chemicals that have been passed along from their mothers in utero as well as breast milk.
Body Burden is pervasive. Chemicals are literally everywhere, and everyone has a Body Burden to some degree. In fact, scientists estimate that at any given moment there could be hundreds of individual toxins in the average adult body. Some of them quickly come and go, while others can hang out in our cells, tissues, blood, bones and organs for decades.
Body Burden has also been linked with a variety of illnesses and conditions.
What Are Some of the Worst Offenders?
Determining exactly which chemicals may be lurking within any given person is both difficult and expensive. And trying to predict what the combined effects of all of those chemicals will be on that person’s health is nearly impossible. However, general predictions can be made about the harmful effects of certain classes of chemicals. For example:
- VOCs—Volatile Organic Compounds are found in everything from fragrances to paint. Certain flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been shown to cause neurological and reproductive problems in rats and mice. Other VOCs, like benzene and formaldehyde, are listed as human carcinogens—or cancer-causing chemicals—by the National Toxicology Program. To help reduce VOCs in the air in your home, check out these houseplants.
- Phthalates—This class of endocrine-disrupting VOCs off-gases from a variety of household products and can be inhaled as well as accumulate in household dust. And while they don’t linger long in the body, they have been shown to decrease hormone levels in men and have been linked to brain development problems, diabetes, obesity and asthma. Phthalates may also accelerate the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells. To reduce phthalates, dust often and check labels to avoid anything listed as “synthetic fragrance.”
- Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)—Found in nonstick coatings and stain repellants, PFCs have been shown to damage the liver, affect thyroid hormones and cause birth defects and possibly cancer in animals. They’ve also been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and increased cholesterol levels, as well as reduced fertility among women and lower sperm count among men. Avoid PFCs by refusing food packaged in grease- or water-repellent coatings, and check the labels of carpet-cleaning fluids as well as tile, stone and wood sealants.
- Heavy metals—Especially harmful to children, the neurotoxin mercury can permanently impair memory, learning centers and behavior; and lead can affect brain development, reduce IQ and attention span, and increase antisocial behavior. Lead exposure is also linked to anemia, hypertension and impaired kidney function, and it’s toxic to the reproductive organs and the immune system. Avoid using lead-based paints, limit consumption of fish and other seafood, and use a lead-reducing water filter (especially if your home has lead water pipes).
- Persistent Organic Pollutants (or POPs)—These include dioxins, PCBs (poly chlorinated biphenyls) and many kinds of pesticides, which accumulate in the bodies of organisms that inhale or ingest them. They travel through air, water and soil, making their way up the food chain, and can remain in the body for a long time. Even limited exposure to them can cause serious problems like sterility and birth defects. Avoid chemical pesticides as well as products made from PVC plastic (with the “3” chasing-arrows symbol). Never burn any kind of plastic, and avoid using plastic bags and bleached and/or coated paper plates.
Even though the combined effect of these classes of chemicals on individuals hasn’t been widely studied, based on what is known about their individual effects it probably isn’t good.
What Can I Do?
Body Burden testing could provide an idea of which chemicals may be lurking inside your body, but it can’t predict with 100% accuracy how your Body Burden will affect you. The good news is there are lots of things you can do to help reduce your Body Burden. For example:
- Read labels of products you buy. Be alert to any known carcinogens or dangerous ingredients.
- Eat less processed food and more foods high in antioxidants.
- Select organic varieties of foods normally linked with high pesticide residues.
- Choose only low-PCB and low-mercury seafood.
- Consider taking an antioxidant multivitamin-mineral every day.
- Drink only filtered water—and lots of it.
- Never microwave anything in plastic.
- Avoid artificial fragrances.
- Dust often.
- Avoid harmful chemicals in cleaning products.
- Take a steam or sauna bath occasionally to sweat out toxins.
- Get rid of non-stick cookware that’s scratched or damaged.
- Open your windows to let fresh air in.
- On hot days, let your car air out before getting in.
- Avoid breathing gasoline fumes.