Category: The Essentials

Is Diet Coke Bad For You? Signs Point To….

is diet coke bad for you - picture of diet coke

Elaine was a great teacher and fun to be around. We residents all looked forward to working with her. It was obvious which reading room she had taken in the department each day because her signature can of Diet Coke would be sitting on the countertop underneath the alternator. Back then, radiologists read films that were hung on moveable panels that could hold up to 50 different patient studies.

On Elaine’s 36th birthday, as a token of appreciation, I bought her 36 cans of Diet Coke and stacked them up on her desk in an oversized pyramidal shape as a surprise. We laughed together as she walked into the room with her mouth ajar, and squealed with delight!

Back in the early ’90s, I was “technically” a doctor, meaning I had graduated from medical school and passed my board exams. But at that point, I knew nothing about the health effects of environmental toxins, aside from those that presented with correlative findings on medical imaging studies, such as asbestos exposure. I had no idea that a product like Diet Coke could potentially cause harmful health effects. I look back to that day now and think, Gee, I was trying to be thoughtful and creative, but … I gave my friend and mentor 36 cans of an addictive, chemically laden, potentially harmful drink.

Elaine wasn’t the only person in my life that adored Diet Coke. One of my best buddies from grade school also had an addiction to Diet Coke. He drank daily “Big Gulps” filled to the brim with the synthetically sweet beverage.

I can’t say anything about caffeine, as I typically enjoy two cups of coffee each morning. However, for me, aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke, is a no-no. Aspartame tastes 200 times sweeter than table sugar, but its physiological effects are different from sugar and confuse the body. Monsanto (think Round Up) bought Searle, the company that created aspartame, and marketed it as NutraSweet in 1984. 

The mastermind chemist behind the Diet Coke formula deserves special recognition for creating a beverage as addicting as Diet Coke. In fact, there was an article published recently in the New York Times called “I was Powerless Over Diet Coke”, and it talked about one user’s ordeal as she tried to break the habit. Anecdotally, these side effects might include headaches and fatigue. But it generally doesn’t last long.

Although the negative health effects from synthetic sugars remain somewhat ambiguous, I would strongly suggest you avoid these chemicals. In particular, if you drink a lot of Diet Coke, think about cutting back, and eventually giving it up. Most Diet Coke drinkers I know want to quit, but can’t muster up the drive to actually do it. They love the taste of the drink, but also know they are consuming something unhealthy and truly unnatural. (If you’re Googling, “is diet coke bad for you,” as I know some of you have, you’re concerned.) Knowing puts one on the right track — but quitting will get you there and likely improve your health by reducing  your exposure to the unpredictable and possibly dangerous effects of these chemicals. I’m sure you’ll be better off for it in ways you may not expect.

If you think that by drinking these human made sugars you are losing weight or keeping your weight under control, think again. Research has indicated that the opposite may be true

In research published in April 2021, aspartame has been found to be associated with increased risk of cancer in rodents. And that prenatal exposure to aspartame is associated with increased cancer risk in offspring. Their results suggest that an Advisory Group to the International Agency for Research on Cancer reevaluate aspartame’s carcinogenicity potential in humans.

Removing Diet Coke and aspartame from your diet may be difficult. It will require long-range focus, and dedication, and perhaps some aspirin! But it will be worth it in the long run when you get your body’s systems to function more coherently.

Everything You Need to Know About Pesticide in Your Produce

pesticides in produce - carrots, beans and cucumbers

Pesticides in produce is one of the most important problems faced by consumers today.

Perhaps the section of the supermarket that has gotten the most attention from food activists in recent years is the first section you typically walk into, the produce section. One of the biggest concerns in eating fruits and vegetables from a “conventional” market is the residue of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides applied during the growing process. Stabilizers and other processing techniques designed to improve shelf life and product appeal are also suspect.

Anyone who has tried to grow an organic garden or orchard will agree that fighting off Mother Nature’s creatures is a full-time task that can be daunting. Considering the ubiquitous presence of insects, weeds, and fungal diseases, it is no wonder that commercial growers have relied on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in order to help produce healthy and sizable harvests. Without these chemical products, there would be a lot less fruit and vegetables for us all to eat.

There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of different types of chemicals on the market to help growers produce bountiful harvests. Some chemicals are considered organic, and others conventional, or nonorganic. Organic sprays are considered more ecologically responsible and safe, but both of these types of sprays need to be removed from the food before it is eaten. If the skin on the fruit’s surface is porous, the chemicals will be absorbed into the cuticle. For this reason, I prefer organic fruits and vegetables. Pesticide residues will adhere the most to fruits and vegetables that contain a soft skin or waxy surface and should be removed with the aid of a fruit and vegetable spray wash, as many pesticides are not water soluble. Peeling the fruit will remove the greatest amount of pesticide residue, and avoid some of the hazards of pesticides in produce.

There is a helpful resource produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization, that categorizes produce into the varieties that contain the most and least pesticide residue during a given year. In 2017, the foods that contained the greatest number of pesticides in the highest concentration, also known as the “dirty dozen,” included:

Apples
Peaches
Nectarines
Strawberries
Grapes
Celery
Spinach
Sweet bell peppers
Cherries
Tomatoes
Pears
Potatoes

The EWG found that nonorganic leafy greens, including kale, lettuce, and collard greens, as well as hot peppers, were frequently contaminated with insecticides toxic to the human nervous system and that only organic versions should be eaten.

In 2017, the foods that contained the least amount of pesticide residue included:

Onions
Avocado
Sweet corn
Grapefruit
Pineapple
Mango
Honeydew
Broccoli
Frozen sweet peas
Kiwi
Eggplant
Sweet potato
Cabbage
Papaya
Cantaloupe
Cauliflower

There have been many scientific studies linking pesticide exposure to all kinds of health problems, including hormonal and reproductive problems as well as many different kinds of cancer, particularly in children. Several long-term observational studies have indicated that organophosphate insecticides may impair children’s brain development. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report specifying that children have a “unique susceptibility to the toxic effects of pesticide residue.” Pesticides in produce — and elsewhere — are damaging to our health and care should be taken to avoid inadvertently ingesting them.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present a unique problem in that the pesticides and herbicides in these vegetables cannot always be washed off. GMOs are typically grown in herbicide-laden soil, and may have their DNA engineered to produce their own pesticides, thereby killing any insects that try and eat them. Unfortunately for us, the same corn kernel or soy bean that we eat contains the pesticide internally, which cannot be washed off. These herbicide-containing and pesticide- producing plants, when eaten, may have negative health effects that we do not completely understand. There is concern that our microbiome can be severely damaged by ingesting pesticides. This may be causing a significant increase in digestive disorders, including obesity and diabetes.

The GMO story began with the creation of a chemical called glyphosate by Stafford Chemical in 1960. This chemical was created to bind with metals and was used as a descaling agent to clean industrial pipes of mineral deposits. The chemical company Monsanto purchased the chemical in 1969 and re-patented it as a nonselective herbicide. Thus, Roundup was born. Any homeowner or lawn maintenance worker will tell you that it is a lot easier to spray a chemical such as Roundup on a plant to kill it than it is to manually remove the plant with its roots.

Monsanto subsequently spent many years in the field of biotechnology, creating seeds that could grow in the presence of glyphosate. The idea was that it would be convenient for growers (and hugely profitable for Monsanto) to kill all the weeds in a field with Roundup and then grow a crop on the treated soil without the need for weeding during the growing season. In 1996, Monsanto created soybean seeds and corn seeds that could do just that, known as Roundup-ready soybeans and Roundup- ready corn. Farmers could spray their fields with Roundup and then plant the Roundup-ready seeds for a productive and reliable harvest. This technology was incredibly successful. By 2014, most soy and corn grown around the country was genetically modified. In 2016, according to the USDA, 92% of corn and 94% of soybean crops planted in the US were genetically modified. Since the advent of Roundup-ready soy and Roundup-ready corn, Monsanto and other companies such as Dow and Dupont have created further GMO varieties, including sugar beets, canola, squash, and Hawaiian papaya. GMO varieties of wheat have also been the subject of experimentation, along with many other types of vegetables.

Unfortunately, as research has slowly accumulated, we are discovering that this biotechnology is not without significant health costs to all who eat these foods, including our cattle, chickens, and pigs, as well as our dogs and cats. Although the USDA declared GMO foods to be substantially equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts, the nutritional value of GMO foods is not equal to non-GMO food. This is at least in part due to the chelating properties of glyphosate. Glyphosate has been found to cause mineral depletion in the GMO soybeans and in other GMO plants.

Furthermore, GMO plants grown in soil treated with glyphosate absorb the chemical, depositing it in the plant’s cells. This means that there are traces of glyphosate in the soybeans and corn kernels used to feed our livestock and to produce processed foods—in other words, in the entire industrial food supply.

Glyphosate is an herbicide and has been found to be an effective antibiotic. In fact, in 2010, Monsanto received a patent for Roundup to be considered an antibiotic at concentrations as low as 1-2 mg per kg of body weight. But scientists have shown that glyphosate disrupts the microbiome. Eating foods laced with Roundup therefore can affect our digestion by killing off intestinal bacteria that produce nutrients and vitamins but also by binding to nutrients, making them unusable.

Damaging the microbiome does more to your health than affect your digestion or cause some diarrhea. A damaged microbiome has been associated with a hypersensitive immune system, resulting in asthma and increased allergies. The conclusion of some researchers is that celiac disease, also known as sprue, has little to do with gluten sensitivity, but more to do with a glyphosate-damaged microbiome. Know anyone with celiac disease? Twenty years ago, it was extremely rare. Today, it is unfortunately very common.

Perhaps one of the most concerning properties of glyphosate is that it does not get expelled with stool. After eating a vegetable or other food that contains glyphosate, some glyphosate will be absorbed by the intestine, where it can damage the intestinal lining. Glyphosate has been found in human urine and has been shown to bioaccumulate in the kidneys, liver, spleen, and muscles in animals. Once absorbed, glyphosate has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system. It has also been shown to induce breast cancer growth. Studies have shown that higher levels of glyphosate residue have been found in the urine of chronically ill people. In fact, the EPA website states that people drinking water containing more than 0.7 ppm of glyphosate may develop kidney problems and infertility.

Although the EPA acknowledges glyphosate as a food contaminant and has established legal residue limits, the FDA has been criticized for failing to disclose that they don’t test food for residues from glyphosate and many other commonly used pesticides. In addition, maximum residue levels (MRLs) have increased considerably over the years in the US and in other countries utilizing GMO technology in order to accommodate the new reality that glyphosate residue is ubiquitous within the food supply.

Some researchers have concluded that the widespread usage of herbicides and pesticides in produce has caused epidemics of inflammatory and degenerative diseases, as well as all kinds of cancer, autism, and obesity, which have developed over the past twenty years. Although many types of environmental toxins have been on the rise, the manipulation of our food supply has most likely had profound effects on society’s overall health.

See all our posts on food safety here

Travel Prep for Now (and the Foreseeable Future)

how to stay healthy while traveling

This summer, we all need to understand how to stay healthy while traveling.

After returning home from her recent trip to Europe, my friend Dee seemed a bit cloudy. I chalked it up to jet lag. But then she told me she had a fever and was worried she’d caught COVID-19 on her trip. I knew she had been vaccinated, and although it was unlikely that she had gotten the disease, her concern was justified: Vaccinations aren’t 100% preventative for catching the disease. I asked her if she had taken any Vitamin C while she was away, but she had not. 

She then said to me, “You should write a blog about travel preparation for those of us who have been vaccinated.” 

So I thought, why not?!

I love to travel — but preparing for it has become more complicated in recent years. This may, in part, be because I’m older, but it also has to do with changes in the quality of hotels, evolving airline services, and the ever increasing cloud of seemingly ubiquitous radio-frequency radiation. 

During the next few weeks, I’ll be taking my two teenagers to East Africa for an extended vacation. We will be out in the bush searching for chimpanzees, gorillas, and the usual safari fare of lions, hippos, giraffes, elephants, and more. This trip required A LOT of preparation. Aside from the COVID-19 vaccinations, we were required to get vaccinated for yellow fever. I thought hepatitis A vaccines were a good idea too. I am not fond of vaccinations, but they are a useful tool and sometimes necessary. Choosing malaria prophylaxis was another important decision. We decided on malarone, a decision based on our specific travel destination and the types of malaria endemic there. 

Wherever you’re headed this summer, you’ll want to do your homework. The rules and regulations — whether those imposed by airlines or your destination — are changing often, even weekly. Flight times unexpectedly change. Some countries require COVID PCR antigen testing right before you leave for your trip and again after you arrive. In some countries, COVID tests are required every couple of days while you’re there! Masks are mandatory on planes and in many other countries, even if you have been vaccinated. It’s important to be flexible and patient. Or as we used to say in high school … be cool.

Domestic travel is a lot easier. But regardless of where I go, I bring along a a few necessities that make traveling much more pleasant and keep me healthy.

The List

  • A sleep mask

Hotel chains often have shades that “almost fit” the window. When glaring flood lights illuminate the outside of the building at night, they often light up the interior of the room, too. In addition, digital displays from the microwave, smoke detector, light switches, and clock further increase the ambient light in the room. Because melatonin production is dependent on being in darkness at night, the sleep mask is extremely helpful!

  • A pair of high performance ear plugs – NRR of 32 dB or greater.

The ears never turn off, so ear plugs can be extremely useful. This is especially true when you get a room near an elevator, or if hotel guests come in late at night and party in the hallway or in a nearby room. Please opt for the silicone or gel variety of ear plugs and STAY AWAY from noise cancelling ear buds which work via Bluetooth. There’s no reason to expose your brain to radiofrequency radiation when you are trying to sleep.

  • Supplements

I am in the habit of taking vitamin supplementation daily, and I take them with me on vacation — they’re an essential part of knowing how to stay healthy while traveling. At a minimum, I take 1000 mg of Vitamin C and 5000 iu of Vitamin D daily. These vitamins both offer important antioxidant properties that help the immune system stay in shape even if it gets hit hard by jet lag and late nights partying.

  • A portable water purifier

Although you can purchase plastic water bottles pretty much anywhere, I bring a portable water filtration system that allows me to drink the tap water in the airport, in the hotel, or anywhere else without worrying about ingesting contaminants such as lead, organic compounds and chlorine/ chloramine. I prefer the PiMag Sports Bottle offered by Nikken. They have redesigned the cap in the last few years, and now it works great! If I’m heading to the beach, I’ll also pack a silicone-wrapped glass or stainless steel canister to transport my purified water to the beach. It’s not a good idea to bring plastic water bottles to the beach, as sunlight and heat can cause the toxins in the plastic to leach out into the water.

Know that this water purification system and others like it do not sanitize the water, so if you are drinking water from a source that could have bacterial contamination, like a stream or an untreated well, you need to treat the water first, with either iodine tablets or a SteriPen before putting the water through the filtration bottle.

  • Sunscreen

In a recent blog post, I wrote about sunscreens. Sunblock and lip protection should be chosen with care (and in advance!) 

  • EMF shield

Too often, we don’t think about radiation while considering how to stay healthy while traveling. When I check into the hotel room, the first thing I do is unplug the clock radio and the heavy-duty outlets that now come adherent to the night stands on either side of the bed. I’ve taken my EMF detector into too many rooms only to see that the bed is often flanked by powerful electromagnetic fields until these devices are unplugged. During one hotel stay, I took the following videos showing the electric field strength and magnetic field strength emitted by a clock radio (electric fields)(magnetic fields).

Unfortunately, hotels have become anything but relaxing for many people due to the increasing demand for radiofrequency radiation from wireless devices. Hotel rooms are filled with radiofrequency radiation as you can see from this demonstration. If you are sensitive to EMF, there are several options for you to choose from, depending on your degree of sensitivity. A portable bed canopy is available and although it is an expensive item, I highly recommend it for someone with moderate to severe EMF sensitivity. 

Another product to consider is the Blushield. I use their portable travel device. Although I don’t think a device like this can prevent all of the potentially harmful effects of EMF, it does create an energetic calmness in a room, making it more conducive to sleep. 

I hope you find this guide helpful and that it helps you understand how to stay healthy while traveling this summer. We are all ready to go on vacation after being cooped up for more than a year. Have fun this summer and stay healthy!

Indoor Air Toxins 101: What Are VOCs?

what are vocs

There are many other sources of VOCs in your home. The more you are aware of, the more you may be able to remove. These may be in your closets, laundry rooms, or bathrooms. Go around your home and sniff. If your sense of smell is functioning, you will find many of these items on your own.

Do you have a mothball closet or use mothballs to protect your clothes? We had one in our house when I was a kid and it was down in the basement, away from the commonly used living areas. Clothing moths can be very destructive. There are many ways to prevent and rid your home of clothing moths, but using moth balls is one of the least desirable. The chemical paradichlorobenzene is a common active ingredient in moth repellents and is known to cause cancer in animals, but human effects are unclear. It has been suggested that this chemical may even be associated with the development and progression of multiple sclerosis. Instead of creating a mothball closet, use a cedar chest or build a cedar closet. Alternatively, clothing bags and air-tight containers will seal your clothing and protect it from moths. Pheromone traps are also available for the closet. These are different than the ones used for pantry moths – make sure you use the correct trap.

Dry cleaning will rid clothing of moth larvae and eggs and is a preferable method for cleaning many delicate fabrics. But among the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process is perchloroethylene, a potent VOC that has also been shown to cause tissue damage and cancer in animals. Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been associated with occupational exposure to trichloroethylene, a related compound. If your clothing is damp or has a chemical smell when you pick it up from the dry cleaner, you should leave the clothing at the store and tell them that they need to completely dry the clothing before you will take it home. Damp clothes from the dry cleaner will off-gas and fill your bedroom closets with toxic gas.

Dryer sheets and scented detergents contain VOCs that temporarily adhere to your clothing. There are less toxic alternatives to these fragrant products. If you want to make your clothes static-free, place a pair of clean old sneakers or some other type of unscented “laundry ball” into the dryer to reduce static cling. You can also create lavender packs or other dryer bags filled with herbs and essential oils that can make your clothing smell fragrant without using synthetic VOCs.

The same chemical used in moth repellents, paradichlorobenzene, is also used in many air fresheners and deodorizers. If you use these products in your home, it would be a terrific goal if you could slowly wean yourself from them. Proper ventilation and household cleanliness will prevent most unpleasant odors in the home without the need for chemical air fresheners. As you take steps to reduce the particulates in your air and reduce your home’s VOC concentration, you will find that most odors will dissipate. If you do still have an odor problem, you should go on a search for mold.

Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health
Indoor Air Toxins 101: What Are VOCs?

Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos, and Lead

what are vocs - empty room

The most common airborne pollutants associated with building material include asbestos, lead, and VOCs. Many people don’t realize that asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fiber that exists in rock and soil. Because of its strength and its high resistance to heat, it has been used in a variety of building materials for insulation and as a fire retardant. When it is disturbed by cutting, sanding, or drilling, the fibers can become transiently airborne and inhaled. These tiny needle-like fibrils get trapped in the lungs, where they cause inflammation. The cilia and mucous in the lung are unable to clear away the fibrils. Chronic exposure can lead to asbestosis, a disease characterized by lung scarring. The lining of the lung (the pleura) develops sheet-like regions of calcification, called pleural plaques, characteristic of asbestos-related disease. The lung and pleura both become at risk for cancer in the forms of lung carcinoma and mesothelioma. If you suspect there are products containing asbestos in your home, have them inspected and removed by a trained contractor. Under no circumstance should you attempt to remove asbestos yourself, unless you are certified to do so.

Lead was used for many years in the production of paint. When lead paint deteriorates or is removed improperly, the lead dust created can then be inhaled or ingested. Lead toxicity can damage the brain, spinal cord, kidneys, and blood cells. If children are exposed to lead, they can suffer physical and mental delays as well as behavioral problems. As mentioned earlier, lead can also be emitted by some candles. If your home was built before 1978 and there is original paint on the walls, even if the paint is beneath wallpaper, don’t remove the paint until you have it tested for lead. If the paint does contain lead, hire a trained professional to remove the paint. If the paint is in good condition, don’t worry about the lead until it begins to deteriorate or until you want to remove it. If you or your partner work in an industry with lead products, make sure dusty clothes are changed before entering the home. Wash lead-tainted clothes separately from all other laundry. If your occupation exposes you to lead, eating a diet rich in calcium, phosphorus, and iron will help reduce lead absorption.

Most of us are continually exposed to VOCs that emanate from building materials in the home. Any carbon-containing compound that exists as a gas at room temperature is a VOC. There are thousands of VOCs used in the production of building materials and pretty much any other fabricated item you might buy, some of which are listed in Table 2. Many VOCs are innocuous, but others are known carcinogens.

Household consumer products containing VOCs:
– Paints and lacquers
– Paint strippers
– Paper towels
– Carbonless copy paper
– Grocery bags
– Pesticides
– Copier and printer inks
– Permanent markers
– Correction fluids
– Cleaning supplies, including dish detergents and fabric softeners
– Building furnishings, including carpets and vinyl flooring
– Craft materials, including glues and adhesive
– Clothing and dry-cleaning materials

Formaldehyde, one of the most common VOCs, is colorless, with a strong odor. It is used in the resins that make up composite wood products, including hardwood plywood, particleboard, and medium- density fiberboard. Although the emission of formaldehyde from building materials has been decreasing, formaldehyde concentrations in ambient indoor air have been continuously increasing. This is likely due to its ubiquitous presence in household products.

Health consequences of formaldehyde depend on the duration of exposure and the concentration of the gas. Acute exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, coughing, and nausea, while chronic exposure has been associated with cancer, particularly nasopharyngeal carcinoma (throat cancer). As with all VOCs, formaldehyde is a gas at room temperature, and slowly emanates from the products it is mixed into over time, a process referred to as off-gassing. As the air temperature or humidity in the house increases, the rate of off-gassing accelerates.

Although the EPA has set regulations to limit the concentration of formaldehyde in each product, there is no way to control the total amount of formaldehyde a homeowner may be exposed to. Indoor concentrations can rise to unhealthy levels when windows are closed and the heat is turned on. Mobile homes have been shown to off-gas particularly high levels of formaldehyde, especially in the wintertime.

Other common VOCs found in building materials and household goods include methylene chloride, xylene, toluene, and benzene. Like formaldehyde, benzene is a known carcinogen which can damage the bone marrow and cause leukemia.

All materials containing VOCs off-gas continuously. That luxurious new carpet you may have recently purchased is off-gassing, as is the new cabinetry in your kitchen and the fresh new paint applied to your walls. To drive home this point, I’d like to share a quick personal story.

A year ago, I decided to paint my living room with a faux plastering technique I had seen advertised at a local paint store. I purchased the needed supplies and went to work. The base coat went on smoothly, but the plastering layer required a more laborious technique of smearing arcs of dyed plaster material to the freshly painted wall. The instructions said to use the product in a well- ventilated area, so I left the overhead fan on continuously and the windows wide open. The process took me three days to complete, and at the end of the third day, I developed a nosebleed. This was unusual for me, as it was the middle of spring and I had only experienced nosebleeds in the winter when the air is dry for prolonged periods of time. The bleeding stopped without too much effort, but that night, I was awakened by another nosebleed. I applied pressure and it eventually stopped. Over the next two days, I experienced nosebleeds that became progressively more severe, coming out of not only one, but both nostrils simultaneously. I ended up at the emergency room of a local hospital where the staff packed my nose to stop the bleeding. Following this, the physician looked up both nostrils with a scope. He didn’t see much but irritation. He blindly cauterized several areas in the back of my nose and sent me home, prescribing a follow-up appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I told him that I had just painted a room in my house, but he looked at me skeptically, as if I had given him a piece of history with no relevance. This ER physician, like most doctors, had no idea about the damaging effect that VOCs can have on nasal mucosa. The nosebleeds subsided after a few days and I have not had another one since.

A nosebleed is one physiological effect you can experience from the inhalation of VOCs. Many others are less obvious but can be much more dangerous.

If you are going to use a product such as a paint, plaster, adhesive, or solvent in your home, make sure to use the product in a well-ventilated area. This means to preferably use these products outdoors or in areas with an exhaust fan to the outdoors. If the product needs to be used indoors, as was the case with my paint, open up as many windows as possible and place a large fan in the room to provide as much outdoor air infiltration as possible. Off-gassing will continue for some time after a product has been applied and continued air ventilation is needed for at least a couple of weeks until the VOC levels have dropped sufficiently. Given the different chemicals in each brand of paint and the differing ambient conditions in each individual room, it is impossible to recommend a specific time frame for this. I would recommend ventilating a newly painted room for two or three weeks after painting. In addition, try to purchase paint that is designed to emit a lower concentration of VOCs. Your paint supplier should be able to help guide you to the best brands.

Once you are finished using a product that contains VOCs, move the container outside or into the garage, as these containers continue to leak gases. Please do not put empty containers into a garbage pail in your home to sit until garbage day. Toxic and hazardous household wastes need to be discarded responsibly. Ask your local government for proper disposal procedures.

What are VOCs? Digging Deeper

There are many other sources of VOCs in your home. The more you are aware of, the more you may be able to remove. These may be in your closets, laundry rooms, or bathrooms. Go around your home and sniff. If your sense of smell is functioning, you will find many of these items on your own.

Do you have a mothball closet or use mothballs to protect your clothes? We had one in our house when I was a kid and it was down in the basement, away from the commonly used living areas. Clothing moths can be very destructive. There are many ways to prevent and rid your home of clothing moths, but using moth balls is one of the least desirable. The chemical paradichlorobenzene is a common active ingredient in moth repellents and is known to cause cancer in animals, but human effects are unclear. It has been suggested that this chemical may even be associated with the development and progression of multiple sclerosis. Instead of creating a mothball closet, use a cedar chest or build a cedar closet. Alternatively, clothing bags and air-tight containers will seal your clothing and protect it from moths. Pheromone traps are also available for the closet. These are different than the ones used for pantry moths – make sure you use the correct trap.

Dry cleaning will rid clothing of moth larvae and eggs and is a preferable method for cleaning many delicate fabrics. But among the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process is perchloroethylene, a potent VOC that has also been shown to cause tissue damage and cancer in animals. Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been associated with occupational exposure to trichloroethylene, a related compound. If your clothing is damp or has a chemical smell when you pick it up from the dry cleaner, you should leave the clothing at the store and tell them that they need to completely dry the clothing before you will take it home. Damp clothes from the dry cleaner will off-gas and fill your bedroom closets with toxic gas.

Dryer sheets and scented detergents contain VOCs that temporarily adhere to your clothing. There are less toxic alternatives to these fragrant products. If you want to make your clothes static-free, place a pair of clean old sneakers or some other type of unscented “laundry ball” into the dryer to reduce static cling. You can also create lavender packs or other dryer bags filled with herbs and essential oils that can make your clothing smell fragrant without using synthetic VOCs.

The same chemical used in moth repellents, paradichlorobenzene, is also used in many air fresheners and deodorizers. If you use these products in your home, it would be a terrific goal if you could slowly wean yourself from them. Proper ventilation and household cleanliness will prevent most unpleasant odors in the home without the need for chemical air fresheners. As you take steps to reduce the particulates in your air and reduce your home’s VOC concentration, you will find that most odors will dissipate. If you do still have an odor problem, you should go on a search for mold.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe

indoor air toxins with curtain

The quality of our indoor air is of paramount importance to our health.

We need to breathe air that has an adequate percentage of oxygen. In the atmosphere, air is composed of approximately 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other miscellaneous gases make up the remainder.

Indoor air is quite different, and the percentages of oxygen and other gases can vary dramatically, as many products in the home can emit gases and particulates that “pollute” the air. When we breath polluted air, some health effects can be felt immediately (acute) while others occur over the long term (chronic). The physical effects of air pollution may depend on the specific type of pollutant, its concentration, and an individual’s propensity for disease or underlying immune status. For instance, a similar dose of pollen or cat dander may not have any effect on one person, while for another, it may cause a hypersensitivity immune response.

Acute health effects from indoor air pollution can include irritation of the mucous membranes, particularly in the eyes, nose, and throat. Indoor air pollution can carry allergens, thereby increasing the occurrence of allergic reactions and asthmatic exacerbations. Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and fever are some additional generalized symptoms that may develop following exposure to some indoor air pollutants.

Chronic exposure to indoor air pollutants is more insidious and includes various lung diseases, heart disease, and cancer.5 The exact concentration of a pollutant, such as benzene, and the duration of exposure needed to cause chronic disease are not clearly defined. A healthy immune system can help prevent the development of chronic disease, but a weak immune system may be ineffective at preventing the chronic adverse health effects from ongoing exposure to air pollution. With this in mind, for your own health and the health of others living in or visiting your home, it is best to reduce the concentration of your indoor air pollutants as much as possible.

Asthma is a chronic health condition in which the lungs’ airways become hypersensitive to chronic, repeated exposure of pollutants and other “triggers” that cause an allergic response. Triggers cause a transient narrowing or tightening down of the airways, reducing the flow of air into the lungs. If the airways are given a chance to relax for a prolonged period of time without irritation, the hypersensitivity response can lessen and even go away on its own.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health

How I Choose the Safest Sunscreen for My Family

I waited.

“Dad, it’s a process,” my daughter said. She took the caps off each appealingly labelled product and sniffed. “This one smells like the beach!”

I took a whiff and smiled. “Yes. It does.”

Then I muttered something about chemicals as we made our way to the register.

Every spring, I review the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen review and order a product I consider safer and more effective than the commercial brands available in most retail stores. This year, though, I forgot the sunscreen. Which meant my daughter and I headed into the shops.

What I saw there confirmed my suspicions: products focused on hyped-up marketing claims, with dubious ingredients. It used to be that you could walk into any beach store and buy sunscreen products from a variety of vendors, with an SPF of 2 through 15. Then, 30 came out … then 45, then 50, 60. Now, there are sunblocks claiming an SPF of 100!

Sunscreen is convenient, smells good, and looks clean, especially when it blends in, allowing your natural skin to show through. In today’s culture, an uncovered body at the beach, glistening in the sun, is much more alluring than one cloaked in a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and a hat. Even though the latter is much more effective at blocking the sun’s potentially damaging rays, sunscreen is clearly most people’s choice.

It is important, though, to understand how sunscreen can potentially damage your body while it protects your skin. The skin is alive. It is our body’s largest organ — and we need to protect it. Sunscreens can help do that, by blocking a small bandwidth of electromagnetic radiation from reaching and harming your skin. That bandwidth — and the effectiveness with which they can achieve this protection — are specific to each product. But sunscreens touting an SPF are designed to block the ultraviolet blue-B (UV-B) frequencies. Broad-spectrum products block a wider swath of UV radiation, including both the UV-B and UV-A bandwidths.

Without that protection, with increasing sun exposure, your risk for sunburn increases. Unfortunately, unpredictable effects, referred to as stochastic effects, also occur with increasing exposure, which can include the development of cancer.

It can be a balancing act, though, because while sunscreen can help protect your skin, many sunscreens do so through the use of chemicals. Skin absorbs many materials applied to its surface, which can enter the bloodstream and affect the body’s function. Chemicals used in personal care products, including sunscreen, can affect the endocrine system and throw your hormones off kilter. We slather this liquid all over our bodies, and if following directions, repeat application several times a day. By the end of a beach vacation week, you have undoubtedly absorbed a heck of a lot of toxins through your skin, depending on the product(s) you used each day.

That’s why I consult the EWG every spring and choose one of their recommended sunscreens.The EWG considers zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the safest sunscreen ingredients to effectively block UV-B radiation. The EWG even considers nanoparticles of these compounds as safe for skin application, since the nanoparticles aren’t apparently absorbed into the skin, at least according to blood tests. From my experience though, blood tests don’t usually tell the whole story. Toxins can bioaccumulate in the body’s tissues without continuously circulating in the blood, where it can be extracted during a blood test. The detrimental environmental impact of nanoparticles is another matter you may wish to consider before choosing a product utilizing this technology.

Which SPF to Choose?

We’ve been trained to look for the highest possible SPF. I think the general, nonscientific consensus is that if you want to protect yourself from sunburn, you want the higher number — because in Western culture, more is better. But a super-high SPF is no guarantee of protection. You have no doubt witnessed people at the beach or the pool spraying on a product touting an SPF 50, missing large swaths of their skin surface, only to have angry red splotches and bands of sunburn at the end of the day.

When some people apply a sunscreen of 50 or 60, they think they can spend the whole day out in the sun, completely protected from damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun. But they aren’t. Although most of the discussion re: skin cancer is centered over our exposure to ultraviolet light, some believe that all frequencies of electromagnetic radiation can have biological effects and in excess can cause skin damage, including cancer formation. And, by the way, I’m one of them. You have no doubt heard that melanoma can occur between your toes and in other parts of your body where the sun don’t shine!

What I Recommend

Taking antioxidants such as 1000 mg Vitamin C twice a day is a great supplement that can help rid your body of unwanted potentially damaging compounds brought from excessive sun exposure. In addition to taking antioxidants, I do recommend you wear sunscreen if you plan to spend an extended amount of time in the summer sun. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen list. See how your usual product rates and then choose from among the many brands they deem safe. I personally like thinksport for lip protection and sunumbra for body and face. But, there are many excellent brands to choose from.

I believe SPF choice is personal and dependent on skin type. I personally wear a sunscreen with a lower SPF because I like to feel the sun’s intensity so I can better judge when I’ve had enough and need to either head inside, or go under cover. Regardless of the SPF you choose, if you are going to be spending the whole day out in the sun at the beach or elsewhere, bring an umbrella, a hat, sunglasses, and perhaps long-sleeve clothing to cover up in when you’ve had enough sun exposure. Plan to spend at least part of the day under cover. Giraffes do it, so can we!