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Protecting Your Family From Our Toxic World

One could make a very convincing argument America's first "exposure" to the threat of real environmental toxins may have come about a generation ago, with the arrival of unleaded gasoline in the 70s replacing leaded gasoline and cars being equipped with catalytic converters mass-produced to reduce our exposure to harmful pollutants back in the day.

Hard to imagine, back in the era of Star Wars and Rocky, that car emissions would be the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it came to protecting our collective health and reducing our exposure to the environmental toxins that seemingly surround us.

Did you ever think mercury, an element used in thermometers, light bulbs and tooth fillings, would be found one day in all fish? Could you conceive of a time in which exposure to toxic chemicals would be blamed for chronic childhood diseases in America to the tune of $55 billion annually?

For whatever reasons -- be they be lax oversight or long out-of-date environmental regulations -- unseen and health-harming toxins are frighteningly pervasive in our homes and our world, which begs the question: What can you do to protect your family from harm?

Doing Your Homework

You've taken the first step toward living more safely around all these toxins present in our environment just by reading this article. This next phase of due diligence -- doing your homework -- will require a good deal more effort.

That said, you're already a step ahead of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency that just announced a long needed overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Over the 33-year existence of the act, the EPA has issued regulations on five existing chemicals out of a mere 80,000.

Here's a slightly longer list of harmful substances hiding in plain sight that have found their way into news headlines and our environment in recent months.

  • Purses and pet products (toys and collars) laced with lead. (Two-thirds of handbags tested by the Ecology Center exceeded 300 parts per million, the new safety standard for children's products.)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls -- better known as PCBs -- in caulk used to seal windows and doors in U.S. schools.
  • Thirteen coal ash ponds next to the coal-fired power plants located in North Carolina leaking chemicals -- think cadmium, boron, chromium, iron and sulfate -- into nearby groundwater.
  • The presence of the common herbicide atrazine (a substance linked to low birth weights and birth defects) in water prompting an EPA probe.
  • The potentially very poisonous insecticide methomyl found in salsa that sickened restaurant patrons in Kansas.
  • The half-dozen largest manufacturers of hard baby bottles have announced they will stop selling bottles made with bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in producing plastic bottles that acts as an endocrine disruptor. (A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimated almost 93 percent of all Americans have at least some traces of BPA in their bodies.)
  • A recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that theorizes a cause-and-effect relationship between air pollution and the rising incidence of appendicitis.

Protecting Your Family

Fortunately, there are some pretty simple, common-sense things you can do to protect your home and health from environmental toxins.

1. Avoid the toxic load of pesticides that travel to your dinner table from your neighborhood grocery store by buying as many of your foods as you can from local -- preferably organic -- sources like the farmers' market in your town.

2. Download the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides, listing the dirtiest dozen and cleanest 15 fruits and vegetables you'll find in your grocery store.

3. An exercise program boosts your body's immune system, better protecting it from harm.

4. Drink clean water, ideally filtered from the tap and streams.

5. Also on the subject of water, wash your fruits and produce thoroughly before eating or cooking them. A recent EPA ruling that permits a greater amount of specific pesticide residue on citrus fruits and oils should make you wary.

6. Because the products you use to clean your home may also be contributing to your exposure to toxins, consider taking this free online Body Burden test, crafted with the help with Sloan Barnett, author of the book Green Goes With Everything, and a Today Show contributor.

7. Although fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, the amount of mercury it contains, depending on the species, can be problematic, especially for young children and women in their child-bearing years. If you're unsure about the mercury levels in your favorite fish, review the Natural Resources Defense Council's Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish.

8. For more guidance on avoiding toxic chemicals, check out, a Web site created by the Michigan-based nonprofit Ecology Center that publicizes and conducts research on toxic chemicals found in everyday products, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Green Living pages and the Health/Toxics section of the EWG Web site.


  • Mother Nuture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen and Ricki Pollycove
  • Newsweek October 1, 2008
  • New Life Journal October 1, 2006
  • Environmental Working Group: Everyday Pollution Solutions