1 year ago
26 May, 2022
We’re all familiar with the headlines about breast cancer: there are drugs available to treat it; mammograms can detect it; a healthy diet can go some way to prevent it. Indeed, breakthrough advances in detection, surgery and drugs are adding years to women’s lives, but in the UK, the reality is also as follows…
But here’s the really crushing fact…
We know that many factors can affect breast cancer risk, such as alcohol intake, excess weight and lack of physical activity. But we don’t know all the triggers. Nonetheless, scientific research is increasingly linking environmental toxins to breast cancer and other diseases.
To put it more bluntly, and to bring it into a sphere over which we have agency, considering that many of us spend up to 90% of our time indoors, there is a direct link between the quality of our home (and work) environments and our health. Quality, in this instance, means the materials used to build, decorate, deodorise and clean them; the products we spritz, soap and splash on ourselves; and the subsequent cleanliness of our indoor air.
This is important because my position is simple. Alongside a nutritious diet, regular exercise and good sleep, your home — the space in which this all comes together — is the fourth pillar of well-being. What surrounds you affects you. And in so many more ways than you might at first imagine.
Yet, it’s understandable to believe that if any consumer-focused product is freely available, someone has first ensured it’s safe. It wouldn’t be possible to purchase something off the shelf that might be toxic or potentially carcinogenic. Sadly, this is not true. As a result, many homes are more polluted inside than a busy street corner outside because of the build-up of toxins. And while the toxic load of a home is admittedly difficult to monitor, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
And I don’t mean the easily visible pollutants like dust, cigarette smoke, mould spores, pollen or even pet dander, but the irritants hidden inside common household and personal care products — think air fresheners, cleaning sprays, shampoo, perfume or scented candles made from paraffin wax and synthetic fragrance. Also, the fire retardants commonly applied to upholstery, mattresses, and electronics; the carbon-based solvents released by most paints and anything else off-gassing — giving off low levels of hazardous chemicals over time — from carpet glue to old furniture.
Over the past decades, we have seen an extraordinary proliferation of the chemicals used in products produced and consumed. And one batch of chemicals, called endocrine disruptors (EDCs), is particularly prevalent. And it is worrying.
These are a group of chemicals proven to disrupt our hormones. This is bad news as our hormones regulate everything from hunger to reproduction and influence nearly every cell, organ and metabolic function. To stay healthy, our hormones need to be released in just the right amounts.
But EDCs catastrophically interfere with these delicate processes. As such, there are strong links between them and a host of chronic hormone-related conditions, from infertility to breast cancer. Despite this, they’re everywhere in plastics, fragrances, products, our soil and our water. This means we can’t completely remove or avoid them, but we can make informed choices to limit exposure and thus reduce their effects on our health.
Thankfully, EDCs got something of a more public platform when the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) officially listed bisphenol A (BPA) as “a substance of high concern”. BPA makes plastic bendy, and it’s also an EDC. It was commonly used in products like water bottles and even baby toys! But did you know that your shop till receipts were once coated in BPA? Although banned for this use in the UK and EU in 2020, other types of bisphenols which may be equally harmful are still present. Also, these bisphenols are found inside some tin and metal cans!
Incredibly, despite evidence proving the hazardous nature of BPA, Plastics Europe, the plastics lobby, still challenged the ECHA listing in the EU Court. They ultimately lost as most plastic goods now produced in Europe are labelled BPA-free. But you get the point — had its common usage not been legally challenged, we’d still be marinating in it. However, it also highlights that the solution is not as simple as deciding acceptable thresholds of certain chemicals or replacing ingredients. The issue is how these chemicals were permitted in the first place.
Knowledge is power, though; once you know, you know what you can avoid. And regardless of past habits, there’s no better time to start than immediately because toxic chemicals are often cumulative. In other words, they build up over time. So, making different choices today makes a difference for tomorrow, regardless of what happened yesterday.
Not to forget, though, good health is a two-way street. While reducing your toxic burden, on the one hand, is key, so is doing everything possible to support your immune system naturally. One without the other is only half the picture.
The big three…
If it doesn’t explicitly state that a fragrance is plant-based, then it’s likely to be a by-product of the petroleum industry. Air fumigators would be a more accurate description.
For example, if you look up the data safety sheets for popular cleaning brands and products like concentrated disinfectants, they claim to “eliminate foul odours with a freshening power that will last all day”, yet the scent is often described as “may produce an allergic reaction”. The liquid and vapour may be highly flammable and a class 2 skin and eye irritant, deemed chronically toxic to aquatic life.
And yet, it’s become fashionable to pour this stuff neat down every sink possible in pursuit of unnaturally pristine and ‘perfumed’ homes. Sadly, the above may also cover your favourite bottle of scent. Again, unless it specifically states that the fragrance is 100% plant-derived, then it’s likely to be a chemical cocktail that belongs in the bin. No matter how fancy the bottle or high the price tag.
Most commercial detergents are chemically based cocktails designed to keep dirt suspended in water. In truth, your washing machine does most of the work. The detergent just helps it to be more efficient. But that sweet-smelling liquid may also contain bleaching agents, enzymes, artificial fragrance, dye and other chemicals to make it all stick together, inhibit corrosion and create bubbles.
All of which (plus the lint and microplastics shed from non-natural fibre clothing) flow into our sewers, ultimately contributing to the persistent bio-accumulative chemical waste destroying our aquatic ecosystem.
A side note on the added fragrance that many cite as the reason they love such products… pause for a moment to consider what it contains to persist through an entire wash cycle specifically designed to rid your clothes of dirt and odour.
As mentioned above, many mainstream cleaning products are full of stuff that you don’t need when there are plenty of good old-fashioned products that do the job far better, often cheaper, just as conveniently, and without the need for PPE (see my list below).
My personal conclusion then on this journey to a toxin-free home has been twofold. Firstly, reducing my toxic load might well go a long way towards keeping me and my family healthy. And secondly, my pleasure in maintaining my home is heightened considerably by knowing that nothing I use contributes to pollution, inside or out. And the bottom line is that prevention is always better than cure.
You can order Michelle Ogundehin’s book Happy Inside from HIVE.
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