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Ep. 30 - The Dirty Dozen

The Environmental Working Group has put out their annual list of The Dirty Dozen. But is food the biggest source of our problem when it comes to exposure to hazardous chemicals? We’ll take a look at the science on this edition of Straight Talk on Health with Dr. Chet Zelasko.

Welcome to Straight Talk on Health, I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Together with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI, I examine the world of health and health research. Whether it’s research that makes the news, another miracle diet, or a new food fad, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

A recent podcast focused on nutrients from foods versus nutrients from supplements. Coincidently, a long-time reader sent me a link to an article about the Dirty Dozen, recently published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Paula also sent me articles to read on our exposure to chemicals in cleaning products and our environment. As a result, I’m going to talk about chemicals in our food, our environment, and our water. Then I’ll cap it off with how we can deal with these chronic chemical exposures.

EWG annually publishes two lists of vegetables and fruits: The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen (1). Topping the Dirty Dozen list this year were strawberries followed by two superfoods: spinach and kale. The top of the Clean Fifteen was avocadoes.

There are two things to understand. First, this is the EWG’s assessment of data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture according to standards they’ve set. Second, EWG does no testing of the foods themselves. Our taxes pay for the testing. You can read the rationale used for inclusion in the list in the EWG report (2).vvv

The USDA Summary Report is also available for your viewing (3). Here are a couple of stats I found interesting. In 2021, over 99% of the samples tested had residues below the tolerances established by the EPA: 24.0% have no detectable residue. Residues exceeding the tolerance were detected in 0.53% (54/10,127 samples tested). The complete list of all samples tested along with results is found in the addendum to the USDA Report.vvv

What does this mean? It depends on your point of view. If you have zero tolerance for any pesticide residues, there will be few vegetables and fruit you can eat. The question is this: what do we consider an acceptable risk?

We have always lived in a world of chemicals. Some were always part of the planet, such as water and the minerals in the earth; more and more, they’re made by humans when they convert raw materials into chemicals that we can use. As you can imagine, the problem is that whether raw or processed, chemicals can be hazardous to our health. Who hasn’t heard about parabens in skincare products? Phthalates in plastic containers? Tar and carbon monoxide from cigarettes? Formaldehyde and carbon monoxide in wood smoke? For the benefits all those products may bring, they come at a cost to our health and the health of the planet.

The major concern is that exposure to environmental chemicals can be hazardous to our health. Recently researchers published an article about the potential hazards of a chemical that could increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease by 500%. I decided to find out what I could about trichloroethylene (TCE). It’s pervasive in products we all come into contact with in everyday life. A partial list includes adhesives, cleaners, solvents, lubricants, paint strippers, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and many more. If you’re alive, you’re going to get exposed to it.

In the article, the researchers used seven case studies to make their argument that TCE contributes to Parkinson’s disease. It’s a compelling observational hypothesis. As is typical in these types of papers, there’s no way to determine cause and effect. Part of the problem is that the metabolism of TCE is complex and not completely understood.

How much exposure is too much? Chronic exposure is a problem, but what about painting one room in your house? Given that it’s impossible to have zero exposure, we need that type of research, not just on TCE but on all chemicals in our environment.

Let’s turn to chemicals in Our Water

Here’s one for you to mull over. We’ve been exposed to this chemical group since the 1940s. It’s not just one chemical such as TCE; there are thousands of forms of these chemicals. Based on samples from large groups of people, over 98% of us have them in our bodies; they’re found in rainwater all over the world. At this point, we don’t really know what diseases or conditions can result from this group of chemicals. On top of all that, it’s slow to eliminate from the body and gets worse as we get older.

The chemical group is perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more recognizable by its acronym PFAS. This non-flammable group of chemicals is found in many products including fire retardants, stain repellents—and until recently removed—cookware covered with Teflon. You may have seen the story of how Teflon production affected West Virginians in the movie “Dark Waters.” Here in west Michigan, we’re battling PFAS released into the water supply years ago by a shoe manufacturer.

The major concern is that PFAS are in our water supply everywhere and will be there for a long time, even it were banned today. What surprised me is how little is known about the effects on our health.

There is some association with several forms of cancer such as testicular and kidney cancer. These epidemiologic studies of PFAS and cancers have been informative, but not entirely conclusive. Along with other chemicals known as hormone-disrupting chemicals, PFAS may affect fertility, contribute to miscarriages, and be a factor in early-onset puberty. It may increase non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in women. There are some associations but no overwhelming smoking gun at this point. Even with no definitive link to diseases, we don’t want them in our body. The problem is that there’s no known way of speeding up their elimination from our body. It can take years.

You may be thinking that this was less than satisfying. Yes, it was, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do; that’s how I’m going to finish up this look at chemicals

We began this journey with the EWG Dirty Dozen, examined common chemicals we come in contact with in TCE, and looked at the latest challenge of PFAS. In that chemicals are ubiquitous, we’re left with the challenge of how to protect ourselves.

In reality, this is nothing new. Before companies dumped chemicals into oceans and rivers, oil deposits seeped into rivers before we discovered the use of oil. During the 1800s in England, coal was used for heating and the resultant smoke obscured the sky. During the 1970s, emissions from cars caused a similar haze over Los Angeles. The difference today is that we have the means to test for chemicals in our air, our water, and our food.

Most people survived then and most people will survive today. The question is at what cost to our health? In that complete avoidance of chemicals isn’t going to be possible for most, what should we do?

Avoid Exposure

There are several ways that we can limit our exposure to chemicals. The form that we are exposed to chemicals are as a gas we may breathe, in the water we drink and bathe in, and in our food and drink. If you have to work in an environment that requires exposure to chemicals, take whatever precautions are recommended. For those of us who do not, we should still follow any directions on such products.

If you use solvent cleaners, glues, or paints, wear the correct mask and gloves that is recommended. Make sure the area is well-ventilated and stays that way for as long as recommended. Even if you’re using a paint brush and roller with latex paint, wear a mask. A little gross example? Use a roller for any color paint, then when you’re done, blow your nose. Aerosolized droplets get airborne and travel to your sinuses and lungs.

When it comes to your home water supply, use a home filtration system that is reverse osmosis or carbon filter based. To be sure it traps PFAS, look for certification that rate NSF/ANSI 53 for carbon filters or NSF/ANSI 58 for reverse osmosis.

Avoiding hazardous chemicals in foods can be tricky. That’s why the EWG puts out the Dirty Dozen every year. You can always use the organic route and only purchase fruits and vegetables that were grown organically. You can also find free range meat and poultry and dairy that is derived from cows that are raised vaccine free.

But if you like processed foods, the more processed will contain more chemicals that, while they have GRAS approval from the FDA, may be a cause for concern by some people with food sensitivities. You’ll have to find out by trial and error.

Let Food Be Your Medicine

There is one way to be proactive in dealing with chemicals in our environment, no matter what the form: eat a diet high in plant-based foods. The reason is simple: vegetables, fruits, herbs, whole grains, and nuts contain phytonutrients. Many different types of phytonutrients are involved in the detoxification processes of the body so the more variety, the better. They will not make you immune to any damage but they can help remove the toxic chemicals from your body. It is beyond the scope of this podcast to cover every phytonutrient and what they might do. I say might because there are thousands of them. The simplest thing to do is to eat as wide a variety as you can and let your body figure it out.

If you remember the podcast earlier this season, the research I talked about strongly suggested that whether in fresh food or supplemental form such as powders or drinks, plant extracts are beneficial. Finding a good blend of foods and supplements should help your body deal with the chemicals in our world.

The Bottom Line - I hope this podcst has made you aware of the chemicals we face every day and what we can do about it. Let me leave you with two thoughts. First, not everyone will be impacted by chemicals in the same way. There are genetic factors in play together with the immune system that provides an immediate response from the microbiome forward.

Second, the thought might have crossed your mind about the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. You may be wondering whether you should only eat organic sources. I don’t think it matters. This is the quote from the FAQs on the EWG website when asked that question:

Everyone should eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventionally grown. The health benefits of such a diet outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.

Just like your mother always told you: Eat your vegetables! Until next time, remember that health is choice. Choice choose wisely today and every day. I'm Dr. Chet Zelasko.

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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