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Recent tests of Americans’ “body burden” — the amount of man-made chemicals and heavy metals in someone’s body that compromise their ability to function well — show that nearly everyone has some poisonous buildup in their system. Even newborn babies have hundreds of synthetic chemicals detectable in their cord blood.

There are more than 80,000 of these industrial chemicals currently in use in the United States. That staggering number is all the more worrisome when you realize that only a few hundred of these chemicals have been studied for safety.

Even if you eat a whole-foods organic diet, avoiding these chemicals is pretty close to impossible. They’re in the water you drink, the air you breathe — they even get in your organic food through plastic and paper packaging.

Mounting research suggests that all these chemicals in our bodies may be contributing to our widespread metabolic problems, from obesity to diabetes. Many environmental pollutants are endocrine disruptors, meaning they affect hormone function in the body, particularly hormones related to metabolism. By “disrupting” the normal working of these hormones, these compounds can interfere with the way your body responds to sugar and stores fat.

Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH), reports there is a growing body of research suggesting that an array of “environmental chemicals lead to increased weight.” Birnbaum notes that in utero exposure appears to predispose people to obesity later in life. Research into compounds commonly referred to as obesogens, because of their long-term effect on weight, shows that prenatal exposure may affect the hormone function not only of the exposed individual, but of generations of progeny to come.

Birnbaum cautions that such exposure does not mean you are doomed to be fat. While early exposure to these pollutants may make obesity more likely, diet and exercise can help to control weight. Birnbaum also points out that many obesogenic chemicals, like BPA, remain in our bodies only a short time. When you halt exposure, your levels drop and their effects on bodily systems cease. More persistent compounds, however, are much harder to get rid of, she says.

What does this mean for you? It means everything from your diet soda, to conventionally-grown apples, to your furniture, could be contributing to weight gain by disrupting your hormone function. Though you can’t escape the chemicals in your environment completely — they’re everywhere! — you can take steps to lessen your body burden by reducing your exposure and supporting your body’s ability to excrete them.

10 Steps to Lessen Your Chemical Body Burden

  1. Avoid plastics. Plastics are a major exposure route for many obesogenic chemicals. Choose non-plastic packaging wherever possible, from beverages to produce. And watch out for cans, most of which are lined with BPA or what are referred to as “regrettable substitutes,” like vinyl chloride. If you have a soda habit — diet or otherwise — you’re adding to your body burden every time you take a drink.
  1. Say no to vinyl. Stephen Lester, Science Director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) cautions that vinyl contains “phthalates, as well as other additives like lead, cadmium, chlorinated paraffins … that can leach out over time, making their way to the surface of the product where they can off-gas, mix with dust and/or get ingested.” Top sources of vinyl are kids’ toys, shower curtains, and flooring. Choose non-vinyl substitutes whenever possible.
  1. Filter your water. Our water supplies are contaminated with pharmaceuticals, agricultural and industrial chemicals, and heavy metals. The Environmental Working Group’s searchable Tap Water Database includes results from five years of testing, including many substances not reported by your water supplier. A good third-party tested water filter is a great investment in your health. Most common pitcher filters remove few contaminants (plus your water sits in plastic!).
  1. Choose personal care wisely. Our personal care products often go directly on our skin, which readily absorbs some of the thousands of unregulated chemicals allowed in our makeup and lotions. Here are the top 17 most dangerous chemicals that make their way into many personal care products. You can find safer products using the Environmental Working Group’s searchable Skin Deep Cosmetic database.
  1. Clean green. Chemical cleaners are another potent source of unnecessary chemical exposure. Natural products have become widely available (check them in the EWG cleaners database), and making your own simple cleaners from household staples like vinegar and baking soda is easy.
  1. Nix the artificial colors and flavors. A 2010 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest points to the health risks in a number of common food dyes, many of which are derived from petroleum. The data on artificial flavors is scant and the FDA does little to regulate them. Best to use common sense and avoid them as much as possible. Following a whole foods diet will go a long way to keeping these chemical additives out of your system.
  1. Eat organic whenever you can, especially for foods with the most pesticide residue.
  1. Vacuum and dust with a wet cloth frequently. Household dust is full of tiny particles of fire retardants, heavy metals, and other chemical compounds from your furniture, electronics, and tracked in on the soles of your shoes.
  1. Skip fabric treatments and non-stick cookware. Stain and water repellents contain perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. Last year hundreds of scientists concerned about the dangers of perfluorinated chemicals signed the Madrid Statement, urging “the international community to cooperate in limiting the production and use of PFASs and in developing safer nonfluorinated alternatives.”
  1. Avoid fragrances. Manufacturers are not required to disclose what’s in their fragrance, and your air fresheners, perfumes, laundry detergents, and dryer sheets may contain phthalates.

A lengthy but interesting body burden quiz can point you to some additional sources of environmental pollutants in your life. Armed with more knowledge of where they lurk, you can be better prepared to avoid them.

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Body Burden

5 Steps For Getting Pollutants Out of Your System

If you live in the industrialized world, you can pretty much take for granted that you have a number of these compounds in your body. Your first line of defense is reducing your body burden by taking the steps above to reduce exposure. Then tap into the body’s self-cleaning systems to get rid of the industrial chemicals that are already there. You can help excrete many of these pollutants from your body in five primary ways:

  1. Drink plenty of (filtered) water to help your kidneys do their job of flushing things out of your system.
  2. Keep things moving. Regular bowel elimination will also help move some of these compounds out of your body. Consider coffee enemas!
  3. Work up a sweat. Exercising regularly helps you excrete pollutants through perspiration.
  4. Breathe. Deep breathing helps you move some of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) out of your system faster.
  5. Eat foods that break down or remove pollutants. Leafy green vegetables, fermented foods, and fiber-rich foods that bind to chemical compounds and move them out of your body.

If you need more impetus to reduce your body burden, there are plenty more reasons than fitting into your skinny jeans. Many common pollutants in our environment and bodies have been linked to cancer, respiratory problems, and autoimmune disorders. Getting some of these compounds out of your body may improve not only your weight, but also your overall health for decades to come.

Susannah ShmurakSusannah Shmurak shares uber-practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at, where you can pick up one of her free guides to healthier living. Follow her on Pinterest or Facebook

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