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Natural Awakenings Ann Arbor Michigan

Assessing the Body’s Environmental Chemical Burden

Apr 03, 2019 08:50AM
by Cindy Klement

We all swim in a slurry of chemicals during our day-to-day life on this planet. Some of these chemicals become stored in our tissue, where they can remain for a lifetime, while other chemicals are eliminated within hours after exposure. There is a large compilation of research studying how these chemicals can affect our health and well-being, and concerns are mounting that exposure to different classes of chemicals may actually enhance toxicity and intensify their effects.

Key challenges in research include determining widespread exposure to multiple sources, multiple chemical classes, varying concentrations and the overall health of the individual in the study. Why one person might react to a specific contaminant and another does not has a great deal to do with multiple factors, including how well the individual’s detoxification system functions; the chemical’s target organ; the age of the individual, their nutritional status, dietary and exercise habits; genetic makeup; the level, frequency and duration of the exposure; and the developmental stages at the time of exposure.

Many of the chemicals we are exposed to resist elimination, so they persist in our tissues and bio-accumulate. They also persist in our environment. A number of toxic compounds can take long periods of time to produce ill effects, so the impact is not realized for many years.

In Spain, the Human Early Life Exposome (HELIX) project is researching exposure that begins prenatally and continues through the developing years. The goal of the project is to better understand how chemical exposure can influence risk of disease later in life. HELIX researchers suggest that all of these things add to a child’s body burden postnatally:

  • Contact with flame retardants on bedding and sleepwear
  • Bathing in or drinking chlorinated water
  • Personal care products
  • Breathing vehicle exhaust or chemical air fresheners
  • Plastic bottles, utensils and dishware
  • Pesticides
  • Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives in foods
  • Housecleaning products and disinfectants
  • Exposure to off-gassing in building materials inside the home or child care center
The World Health Organization’s International Programme on Chemical Safety listed 800 chemicals capable of interfering with hormone receptors, while acknowledging that the vast majority of chemicals have yet to be tested. Of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals manufactured over the past four decades, little toxicity information exists. In defense, it is ethically not possible to expose subjects to environmental chemicals, creating another complication in research.

In 2013, the U.S. National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program found that persistent pollutants, BPA, phthalates and other chemicals were associated with obesity and diabetes. Endocrine disruptors are small molecules that mimic natural hormones with the potential to affect the functioning of the thyroid gland, fertility, metabolic syndrome and obesity. Obesogens are chemical compounds that can disrupt normal metabolic processes that develop early in life and increase susceptibility to weight gain across the lifespan.

In 1976, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Toxic Substances Control Act grandfathered in 60,000 chemicals. By 2010, 17,000 of those chemicals were still in use, some with questionable safety ratings. Meanwhile, the goal of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is to restrict and/or eliminate the use of 23 chemical classes, while this use-reduction policy in the U.S. is being met with political resistant due to the concerns over the impact on farmers, food processing and the price of food.

We certainly can’t avoid every chemical, but we can use the tools and resources at our disposal to reduce exposure. We can also detoxify the body as best we can with what we know now because chemicals are here to stay, and we have to learn to co-exist with them. The field of environmental medicine is still in its infancy, and many clinicians are not aware of the science behind toxicant bioaccumulation and the related health consequences, nor are they aware of how their patients are exposed.

The best course of action is to avoid chemical exposure as much as possible, eat rainbow-colored organic produce, exercise, sweat, drink lots of water and become active in helping to spread the word about what we can do to change the health of future generations.

Klement will deliver a lecture, Limiting Exposure to Environmental Toxins, on Earth Day, April 22, at 7 p.m., at the Towsley Auditorium in the Morris Lawrence Building on the campus of Washtenaw Community College, 4800 East Huron River Dr., in Ann Arbor. No registration is required.


Cindy Klement, MS, CNS, MCHES, is a board-certified nutritionist and a certified master health educator by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing. She is also an adjunct professor at Eastern Michigan University. For more info, visit



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