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You don't give much thought to toxins when you sip a glass of water, grab a receipt at your local grocery store or enjoy a barbecue on your backyard deck. And yet, in each of these instances, you and your family may be exposed to dangerous chemicals that could threaten your health.
Discover five common toxins that may be lurking in your bedroom, bathroom or backyard-and what you can do to protect yourself and loved ones.
1. Toxins: Air pollutants, including benzene and diesel
Why they're bad for you: "There is absolute proof that air pollution kills people-and it's ubiquitous," says Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., an ecologist and author of "Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis." "Not only is air pollution linked to asthma and lung cancer, but it may also increase the risk for stroke, heart attack and diabetes." Plus, some new evidence shows that small transient exposure is associated with a greater risk than previously thought, she adds. Two air pollutants that are particularly dangerous: Benzene (found in gasoline, automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke), which may cause leukemia and other blood cancers, and diesel exhaust, which may increase the risk for lung cancer and is thought to cause other problems, such as headaches, heart disease, asthma and other lung diseases, according to the American Cancer Society.
Protect yourself: Limit your exposure by trading in your gas-fueled equipment for greener options. In the yard, opt for push mowers, rakes and other manually-powered tools. If you're in the market for a new car, look for a cleaner-running, more environmentally-friendly vehicle. (Click here to learn about your options.) As for diesel exhaust, do your best to limit your exposure by avoiding areas with heavy truck or bus traffic, whenever possible. And of course, keep air pollutants out of your home with an air purifying system, such as the aer1 system, which has HEPA filters that remove up to 99 percent of airborne pollutants.
2. Toxin: Arsenic
Why it's bad for you: The cancer-causing chemical has been found in a variety of food products in recent years, including apple and grape juices. A recent study from Dartmouth University indicates that it's also present in some organic foods and even infant baby formula. Your food supply isn't the only place you'll find the chemical-it may also be in your backyard. "Prior to 2004, arsenic was used to turn cheap yellow pine into rot-resistant wood," Steingraber says. The chemical was deemed such a serious threat that it was banned for residential use by the EPA in December 2003. Still, there was no recall, so if your deck was built before that time, you could be at risk. "It's a hazard that has been forgotten," adds Steingraber.
Protect yourself: The Dartmouth researchers found arsenic in several ingredients made from rice, including organic brown rice syrup, rice flour, rice grain and rice flakes. If your infant formula contains any of these ingredients, talk to your pediatrician about switching formulas. And you may also want to limit or avoid foods that contain these ingredients for yourself as well.
If you have a deck made from wood treated with arsenic, there's not a whole lot you can do short of replacing it with a safer, greener alternative. However, there is one stay-safe tip you can use after hanging out on your deck: "Wash your hands and your children's hands and also wipe down shoes to limit your exposure to the chemical," says Steingraber.
3. Toxins: Pesticides
Why they're bad for you: "Pesticides used on your lawn and even in your home can cause a wide range of health problems, including birth defects, nerve damage and cancer," says Myron Wentz, Ph.D., co-author of "The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family from Hidden Household Dangers." The research isn't absolute at this point, but it's troubling enough that other nations have taken proactive steps, adds Steingraber. "In most provinces in Canada, it's illegal to use pesticides for cosmetic purposes, such as keeping weeds out of the yard."
Protect yourself: "Look into integrated pest management for ways to take a comprehensive, environmental stance toward invasive plants and insects," Wentz suggests. "You could also explore biological pesticides, which are often safer than synthetic alternatives. Substances such as garlic, mint and baking soda have been used for generations as safe biopesticides."
4. Toxin: Fluoride
Why it's bad for you: Although fluoride added to public drinking water systems has been shown to help prevent cavities, there's evidence that suggests we may be getting too much. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to lower the agency's maximum recommended fluoride level from the standard 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter to 0.7 milligrams per liter. The EPA has set a legal limit of 4 milligrams per liter) to prevent potential health problems and a secondary limit of 2 milligrams per liter to regulate contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects like skin or tooth discoloration, as well as aesthetic affects such as changes in taste, odor and color in drinking water. This recommendation came about after a study from the National Academies of Sciences found that excess fluoride can lead to health problems, including dental fluorosis (mottling and pitting of tooth enamel) and bone fractures.
Protect yourself: Check your water company's annual water quality report. If the fluoride level is high, you can purchase a reverse osmosis water filtration system for your home. Also, when it comes to teeth brushing, consult your dentist if you're considering using fluoride-containing toothpaste on children under two. The American Dental Association doesn't recommend fluoride mouthwashes for children under six years old since they might swallow it.
5. Toxin: Bisphenol-A (BPA)
Why it's bad for you: The synthetic hormone BPA, a common ingredient in plastics and the linings of canned food, made headlines in recent years because of its use in baby bottles. Exposure to the chemical has been linked to a number of problems, including chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, early puberty, diabetes and obesity. Although BPA has been removed from most baby bottles and a number of other products, you can still find it in some food packaging, dental sealants and even receipts. In fact, one study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that we're exposed to eight times what's considered a safe level of BPA everyday.
Protect yourself: Opt for fresh or frozen produce over canned, and if you do use canned foods, rinsing them off before eating may help reduce the amount of BPA you consume. As for plastic food containers, flip them over and check out the bottoms-if you find recycling code number 7 or the letters "PC," you'll want to steer clear. Safer options include plastics with the recycling labels 1, 2 and 4, according to Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit watchdog group based in Washington D.C.
Also, avoid exposing plastic containers to heat-never put them in the microwave and hand-wash them instead of putting them in the dishwasher (if you do put them in the dishwasher, keep them on the top shelf). Finally, don't ask for a receipt after a purchase or bank transaction. If you need a receipt, store it in a separate envelope in your purse and be sure to wash your hands after touching it.
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