People will go to all sorts of lengths to move towards a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Changing where and how they buy their clothes, cutting down on meat and dairy, and replacing trips in the car with journeys by foot. I’ve done all of those – but I’ve taken it further.
Six months ago, I had my blood tested for 100 different persistent organic pollutants or POPs – chemicals such as pesticides and flame retardants that accumulate inside us and stick around for longer than we’d like. Scientists at a specialist lab in Norway found traces of chemicals that were taken off the market decades ago, such as low levels of a metabolite of the infamous pesticide DDT, alongside concerning levels of some of the less well-known “forever chemicals” known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – a class of chemicals that includes the likes of Teflon). Most surprisingly, my blood contained relatively high levels of a chemical called oxychlordane that comes from a pesticide known as chlordane that was banned by the EU in 1981, just a year after I was born, so exposure was probably via the womb. What struck me most is that some of these highly hazardous chemicals last more than a lifetime.
And so began my mission to find out how we can better protect ourselves – and the next generation – from these legacy pollutants.
Perhaps because toxic chemical pollution isn’t that obvious, it is often overlooked. So while public awareness of single-use plastic waste has soared in recent years – all of those bottles, straws and carrier bags are tangible symptoms of our disposable mindset and overconsumption – there’s much more to the story.
So, in a bid to reduce my chemical footprint, and that of my family, I’ve scrubbed up on the science and distilled the latest research into practical and simple tips. Ultimately, it’s time that we joined the dots and made this invisible world much more visible.
Don’t be duped by clever marketing campaigns that aim to convince us we need the latest eco thingamajig. No product might be better than a less toxic one. If a label makes sustainability claims, look for proof – download a shopping app such as Giki, which allows you to scan supermarket products to see how sustainable they are.
Beware of unregulated language such as “natural”, “eco-friendly”, “nature-inspired” and be suspicious of products that say they are “chemical free” (there is no such thing – everything is a chemical and not all chemicals are bad) or “free from”. Look for brands that are fully transparent about their supply chains and the ingredients they do use rather than distracting with mentions of things they don’t include.
Think before you flush anything down the toilet or the plughole – most bottles of cleaning products that contain chlorine bleach have a picture of a dead fish on the back and for good reason. They poison aquatic wildlife but also act as irritants to us. Overuse of bleach leads to antimicrobial resistance and, in most cases, gentle cleaning products, such as bicarbonate of soda or vinegar mixed with lemon juice, plus a little elbow grease, do the job just fine. Our homes aren’t sterile places – save disinfectants for medical settings and look out for an emerging trend for probiotic cleaning products that fight germs by encouraging healthy bacteria.
Advice to do more dusting may not be a tip you’re keen to follow, but actually it’s about more targeted dusting. Adults unwittingly ingest about 20mg of dust every day. Children and pets even more so. But many toxic chemicals released from products in our home accumulate in dust, from fragrances to PFASs, so it’s important to wipe it away regularly with a damp cloth – no polish required.
Rather than concentrating your efforts on windowsills and shelves, make sure to clean electronics such as the wifi router, DVD player and game consoles, as flame retardants can transfer into dust settling on these items.
Our homes shouldn’t smell of overpowering scents such as pine cones or sea spray. Air fresheners are a concentrated source of indoor air contaminants that can exacerbate conditions such as asthma. Residues of fragranced detergents stay on clothes and linen, too. While not all synthetic fragrances are harmful, their many ingredients are not usually listed in full and we might not be told enough about what’s in them.
From school trousers lined with strengthening Teflon knee patches to non-stick cookware, food packaging and smudgeproof mascara, PFAS chemicals are added to so many everyday products. These super stable chemicals last for ever, in our bodies and in the environment. Many of them are endocrine-disrupting – which means they disrupt our hormone system – and some may be carcinogens.
Things that claim they are waterproof, stain-resistant, wrinkle-free or grease-repellent probably contain PFASs. If you are unsure, there is a clever test you can do called the bead test. For this, you drop a tiny amount of olive oil on to a surface. If the oil repels into a bead shape, it is highly likely to contain PFAS chemicals.
Then you can decide: do the alleged benefits of the product outweigh the potentially toxic cost? If you’re not happy, make a conscious effort to seek out PFAS-free alternatives.
Pesticide residues remain on our fruit and veg, inside loaves of bread, on non-organic cotton bedding and even non-organic tampons. These agricultural chemicals, sprayed on crops to kill insects, weeds and fungi, are in every room of the home. Try streamlining your exposure by switching to organic for the foods you eat most of. There is a really helpful guide to how UK supermarkets are doing on this by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). It ranks British supermarkets according to pesticide use. Perhaps underlining the adage you get what you pay for, M&S and Waitrose come out top, but even these two have a way to go.
The accumulation of indoor air pollutants and volatile organic compounds or VOCs (things such as formaldehyde and benzene) can be avoided by simply opening a window. Ventilate well if you are lighting an open fire (electric heating from renewable sources is cleaner all round) and use an extractor while cooking if you have one. The back hob rings are preferable if you have a cooker hood to capture more pollutants. At night, body heat increases the temperature in our beds so more VOCs can “off-gas” or be released from conventional polyurethane mattresses, so ventilate your bedroom or, better still, invest in a mattress topper made from natural materials.
That off-gassing of VOCs happens from a lot of furniture and medium-density fibreboard (MDF), more so when new, so search out vintage bargains, especially if you’re decorating a room for children. If you do buy new, unwrap it and let it air for a few days before you install. If you’re putting up shelves or other fixtures, use screws rather than glues and adhesives. And if you’re upcycling, use low-VOC paints and varnishes. Buy secondhand clothes and textiles – they will contain drastically reduced pesticide residues, if any, and you’ll be saving the need to make more new items.
A high toxic load puts more strain on our body’s own natural detox mechanisms, mainly the liver and kidneys, just as smoking or drinking do. So eat plenty of antioxidants, which help to neutralise the free radicals that are produced after exposure to toxins and can damage DNA and lead to degenerative diseases. So plenty of leafy, green veg, nuts and berries – organic if possible!
Anna Turns is the author of Go Toxic Free: Easy and Sustainable Ways to Reduce Chemical Pollution (published by Michael O’Mara on 20 January)