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Surprising Environmental Toxins

By Dr. Sharon McQuillan
Posted On Jul 22, 2014

by Dr. Sharon McQuillan
PHOTOGRAPH by Darryl Patterson

More than basic nourishment, food is a symbol of celebration and comfort. Its preparation has evolved into an art form, as celebrity chefs become household names and culinary competitions dominate the airwaves. Just imagine a Thanksgiving feast without a turkey, or a birthday party without a cake. Food is a major component of every part of our lives.

As the most industrialized nation in the world, America’s relationship to its food supply is complicated—and that’s putting it mildly. The demand for fast, cheap food has resulted in frightening environmental issues, not to mention farming and manufacturing practices that contaminate the products we consume. Common chemicals are particularly harmful to children, whose brains are developing, as well as babies in utero. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, found an average of 232 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of ten newborns last year. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that the incidence of autism in children has increased by 289.5-percent over the past decade. There’s also been a 33-percent increase in the incidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Adults are by no means immune to the effects of chemicals. We’re relatively informed when it comes to diet, exercise, and disease prevention, yet the obesity rate in the US is the highest it has ever been. Diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are on the rise, and breast and prostate cancers have spiked. A common thread overlooked by industry, agriculture, and medicine: Chemicals are in our food supply and are negatively affecting our health.Before you start throwing out everything in your pantry and refrigerator, know that there’s a silver lining to this storm cloud.

The majority of toxins in our food can be eliminated or significantly reduced by avoiding big offenders, employing proper cooking and storage methods, and going organic. Get to know the cold, hard facts about the top five toxins in your food, then take a few easy steps to rid them from your family’s dinner table.


A naturally occurring heavy metal, mercury is found in air, water, and soil. It’s the second most toxic agent to humans, next to plutonium.

In small quantities, it causes damage to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. We ingest mercury by eating fish and shellfish that contain it. Mercury in water gets absorbed by algae and passed up the food chain. (Small fish eat algae, big fish eat small fish, and so on.) Larger fish—swordfish, tuna, mackerel, shark, and tilefish—end up with higher mercury levels. Unfortunately, no cooking methods will eliminate this heavy metal. Mercury attacks the nervous system, causing neurological and behavioral disorders. It’s especially damaging to a baby’s brain and nervous system. Fetuses exposed to mercury may experience difficulties with cognitive function, memory, attention, language, motor skills, and vision.

What You Can Do About Mercury

  • Avoid large fish (swordfish, mackerel, shark), especially canned tuna.
  • Consume wild-caught Alaskan salmon and mackerel, considered lowmercury contaminated fish.

Bisphenol-A Bisphenol-A (BPA) is an organic compound used to make clear, hard plastics and line aluminum cans. It is also found in plastic wrap and Styrofoam. Food stored in containers made from BPA absorbs the chemical, which is then ingested. BPA migrates more readily when heated (think: microwave) or when hot foods are placed in BPA containers.

According to a recent CDC study, 90% of respondents had measureable levels of BPA in their blood. Those who consume lots of canned food receive doses of bisphenol- A equal to those known to have harmful effects, based on animal studies. Bisphenol-A mimics the action of hormones in our bodies, and is known as an “environmental endocrine” disruptor. Endocrine disruptors interfere with hormone action, leading to alterations in hormone function and adverse health effects. Endocrine disruptor exposure is associated with an increased incidence of breast and prostate cancer, as well as neurobehavioral disorders such as dyslexia, mental retardation, ADHD, and autism. Endocrine disruptors have also been associated with insulin resistance, a syndrome that leads to diabetes and reproductive issues such as low sperm count, chromosomal damage in eggs, low fertility, and an enlarged prostate. Reports have led to the ban of BPA in baby bottles and drinking cups by the FDA. Similar bans are in place in Canada and Denmark. France has taken a further step, banning BPA from all food packaging.

What You Can Do to Avoid BPA

  • Store food in nonplastic containers—glass, butcher paper—or BPA-free containers.
  • Avoid canned foods. Choose those in glass jars or BPA-free cans.
  • Do not use Styrofoam, especially for hot foods and beverages.
  • Understand plastic labeling. Safer: #1 PET, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, and #5 DP. Riskier: #3 PVC, #6 PS, and #7 polycarbonate
  • Never use plastic in the microwave.
  • The following manufacturers offer BPA-free canned goods: Eden Organic (with the exception of their tomato products), Vital Choice, Wild Planet, Trader Joe’s Brand (corn, beans, fish, poultry, beef ), and Native Forest/Native Factor


We all realize the role of pesticides in our lives. The controlling of insects and vermin infestation is a necessary evil for sanitary and economic reasons. A 2008 US Pesticide Program Report found the pesticide malathion (an organophosphate) in 28-percent of frozen blueberries, 25-percent of strawberries, and 19-percent of celery tested. Babies exposed to pesticides in the womb are at an increased risk of being born with birth defects and developmental delays.

They are also more likely to suffer from ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, decreased fertility and sperm count, and weight gain. Approximately one-third of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the US contain pesticides. Pesticide residue has also been found in beef and poultry, due to the fact that animals eat contaminated grains.

The average ear of US corn has three different insecticides circulating within the plant, as a result of genetic engineering that makes the plant grow larger and survive. Corn pervades our diet indirectly through cattle feed, high fructose corn syrup, and processed foods.

What You Can Do to Avoid Pesticides

  • Buy organic produce, meat, and dairy. Switching to an organic diet can reduce pesticide urine levels by 85-90%.
  • If using nonorganic produce, remove the skin or peel.
  • Thoroughly cook all nonorganic produce that does not have skin (such as broccoli).
  • Eat low-fat animal products, as pesticides are stored in fat.
  • Eat produce that is locally grown and in-season. When produce has to travel far, more pesticides are needed to maintain freshness and longevity.
  • Use the website whatsonmyfood.org to determine what pesticides may be part of the food you eat.


Acrylamide is an industrial chemical and common component of dyes and caulk. It’s also a by-product found in a number of processed foods A 2/03/13that undergo high-temperature cooking, such as frying or boiling. When food is deep fried, acrylamide forms from a reaction of the amino acid asparagine and sugars that naturally occur in food. Acrylamide is found in potato products (such as chips and French fries), grain products, coffee, and processed snacks. Like bisphenol-A, acrylamide is an endocrine disruptor that is linked to hormone-related cancers including breast, endometrial, ovarian, and prostate cancer. Industrial exposure of acrylamide in the workplace has been associated with neurological damage.

What You Can Do to Avoid Acrylamide

  • Avoid fried, processed snack foods.
  • Blanch potatoes in water before any frying, which will reduce acrylamide production.
  • When frying or toasting foods, cook to a golden or light brown rather than brown or dark brown. Crispy equals more acrylamide production.


Arsenic is a natural compound commonly found in fertilizer, insecticide, and a number of livestock feed mixtures. It has been found in the earth’s soil and, over time, proceeded to spread to water and air. This comes as a result of controversial farming and industrial practices. The United States is currently the world’s leading user of arsenic. A 2010 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study estimates that 59-percent of American exposure to arsenic comes from our diet: 24-percent from vegetables, 18-percent from fruit juices (grape and apple, in particular), and 17-percent from rice. According to the EPA, there is no “safe” level of exposure to arsenic. A November 2012 Consumer Reports investigation discovered “worrisome” levels in a variety of rice products. Their investigation showed that people who eat one rice item per day had urinary arsenic levels 44-percent higher than those who did not. Those who consumed two or more rice products had levels that were 70-percent higher. Rice absorbs arsenic from their soil or water supply more readily than most plants, due to the way it’s cultivated. Rice is grown in water-saturated conditions, meaning the plant’s roots will easily take up arsenic that is subsequently stored in the grains. Brown rice contains higher levels of arsenic than white rice, because the white grains are polished. That process of polishing removes the outer husks of the grain, which in turn limits the final product’s arsenic level. Arsenic is a known carcinogen and has been linked to bladder, lung, and skin cancer. It also has an impact on the nervous system, immune function, and cognitive function in fetuses.

What You Can do About Arsenic

  • Test water levels for arsenic.
  • Limit consumption of rice, rice milk, and brown rice syrup.
  • Use organic rice, which has a lower arsenic content.
  • Use the Asian method for cooking rice, which lowers arsenic content by 30-percent. (This involves rinsing rice before cooking and using 6 cups of water per 1 cup of rice.)
  • Limit consumption of apple and grape juice.

Detoxifying Dinner

While there are a lot of chemical sources in our diets, do your best not to despair. “Some doctors say our bodies naturally detoxify, and they are correct to a degree,” says Dr. Elson Haas, a detoxification specialist in Northern California and author of The Detox Diet: Third Edition. “The issue is ‘overload.’ Picture a bucket with a spigot that lets water out at the bottom—toxins going out—and then a hose that fills the bucket with water at the top—toxins going in.

We’re exposed to too many toxins too often, so more is going in our bucket than is going out. That is going to make the bucket overflow.” Experts agree that avoidance of these chemicals is best, along with some form of detoxification therapy. Some strategies are as simple as drinking plenty of filtered water to flush out toxins.

Others include diets formulated for a specific chemical concern, or oral detox supplements. Metal toxicity (lead, mercury) requires intravenous therapy to extract metals from the body. “Heavy metals are very slow in leaving,” says Dr. Terry Grossman, an integrative medicine physician and IV therapy expert in Golden, Colorado. “Chelation therapy is a treatment performed in a doctor’s office that helps remove toxic heavy metals.” Most detoxification treatments are not yet mainstreaming in the medical community. Look for someone who specializes in detoxification and IV therapies.

Our experts agree that women who are trying to get pregnant should have their toxin levels checked prior to conception, due to the easy transmission of chemicals from mother to baby. It’s also key that we demand safer foods and stricter regulations from manufacturers and government. Above all, it’s up to all of us to shift the priority from the pursuit of convenience to the pursuit of what’s best for our health.