“Not Enough to be Harmful” and Other Misconceptions About Environmental Toxins

myths about environmental toxins emma reading on couch

Doubt is the killer of dreams. And because of this, doubt has been the playbook go-to for industry to stall progress on public health decisions for decades.

From cigarettes to flame retardants to climate change, the facts have been obscured by seeding doubt in the public. Eventually, the facts prevail, but not without collateral damage to our health and the planet’s. 

Some of the biggest doubt campaigns: Cigarettes are now known to cause cancer. Many flame retardant chemicals are banned due to the environmental and health hazards they pose. Climate change is still a work in progress… These should have been no-brainers, but industry seeded doubt and lengthened the legal, social and political processes because of it. (Check out the book Merchant’s of Doubt for more on this.)

When it comes to the ingredients in the products you use every day, doubt is playing the same role to discredit the notion that environmental toxins are a serious concern.

Sometimes the doubt is internal – you may not be totally clear how harmful your skincare products really are. Often, it’s affected by external doubt – manufactured by industry as in the examples listed above, or because your friends and family don’t understand your concerns.

I’m here to help you overcome doubt. To share the facts, credible science, and enable you to make informed decisions. I’ve already written about ways you can get your skeptical partner on board, so in this article I want to address some of the most common misconceptions that lead to doubt and ultimately sabotage your success.

Let’s go…

 

Misconception #1: “I grew up using those products and I’m healthy.”

There are a few problems with this belief. 

First, a single product is not typically responsible for poor health. Our cumulative exposures, genetics, and lifestyle are all factors. The truth is, we are exposed to more toxins and stressors than before. Add that to poor sleep, less movement, and a higher body burden to start with and our health picture isn’t the same as previous generations.

Second, as a society our definition of “healthy” is basically “not very sick.” As I wrote about in this blog post about my personal reasons for starting down a non-toxic lifestyle, things we consider normal (like PMS, period cramps, asthma and allergies, eczema, etc.) shouldn’t be. They’re common now, but they certainly don’t mean we’re healthy. 

Also, as an individual you might be generally healthy. But as a society, rates of obesity, cancer, reproductive issues, childhood development concerns, and more are on the rise. And since these rates are rising faster than genetics can explain, experts agree that environmental exposures are playing a role.

So the fact that someone grew up using Johnson & Johnson’s baby wash and didn’t develop obvious health issues, doesn’t mean it’s safe to use for your family. 

 

Misconception #2: “Mainstream doctors and nurses don’t seem concerned, so why should I be?”

This has less to do about their level of concern and everything to do about their level of education. Environmental health is a specialty, just like cardiology or pediatrics. You wouldn’t expect your family doctor to be able to do open heart surgery, would you? Of course not. 

Environmental medicine is a relatively new field of study, considering physicians have been formally trained for about 800 years. And medical schools offer very little in the form of environmental health training – I’ve seen anywhere from 6 – 9 hours reported over 4 years of med school.

Just because the medical system is slow to evolve and doctors aren’t aware of the risk toxins pose, doesn’t mean they aren’t impacting your health. The physicians, naturopathic doctors, and researchers who focus on environmental medicine and toxins agree that we should be deeply concerned about, and lowering, our daily exposures.

 

Misconception #3: “It wouldn’t be allowed to be sold if it weren’t tested and safe.”

North America operates under a system of post-market regulation for general household products. New ingredients and products are typically put on store shelves, and deemed safe based on studies conducted by the companies wanting to sell them. 

Another issue here is that a chemical is typically considered safe until proven otherwise, but this level of proof is very difficult to obtain. Because it takes a long time for the effects to be seen from things like hormone disruptors and carcinogens, we’re literally the guinea pigs. And often for years if not decades.

Lead paint. PBDE flame retardants in pyjamas and couches. PFOA in Teflon, stain repellents and waterproofing products. DDT. These are just a few examples of chemicals that were permitted for widespread use, only to be banned years later because of overwhelming evidence that they were causing health and/or environmental harm. 

In addition, “safe” levels for certain chemicals determined by regulators – especially hormone disruptors – typically don’t adequately factor in cumulative exposures to all chemicals, increased risk of children, and low-dose exposure risks. 

Regulators can’t keep up with increasing new products. Testing of some products – like cheap make-up or costume jewelry – have repeatedly been found to contain heavy metals like lead and cadmium that exceed the regulatory limits. It is up to consumers to know who we’re buying from, unfortunately.

What’s more, if a product is found to contain a harmful ingredient, regulators cannot legally enforce a recall. Some companies will voluntarily recall a product from public pressure, but this is typically only after people have been harmed.

So yes, products can be (and are) on store shelves that shouldn’t be. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t every develop or use new chemicals. Chemicals aren’t the inherent bad guys here. But we do need to do a better job at understanding the long-term and cumulative risks before bringing them to market.

 

Misconception #4: “It seems like everything’s toxic these days. You can’t avoid it all, so why bother?”

One part of this statement is true: you can’t avoid all toxins. They are literally everywhere – in the food we eat, water we drink, and air we breathe. We can’t control it all. But that’s precisely why we have to avoid what we can control.

The goal of reducing your exposure to toxins isn’t total avoidance. The ultimate goal is to lower your overall body burden (total accumulation of toxins in your body) so your natural detoxification systems are able to better handle what you can’t control.

This also brings in another layer that people often lean on, and that’s total reliance on our immune system. And while it’s true our immune systems can do a wonderful job at eliminating things that don’t belong, most of our immune systems are so over-worked and often under-supported that they can’t cope with the onslaught of things we’re throwing at them. 

So I rephrase this misconception to: We are exposed to so many different toxins, which is why we must reduce our exposure to the things we can control so our bodies can cope with what we can’t control.

 

Misconception #5: It’s only a little bit, and well within the safe limits allowed.

Or in other words, the dose makes the poison. Maybe you’ve heard it as “everything’s poisonous if you take enough of it, even water.” The problem here is that certain chemicals, in particular hormone disrupting chemicals, have been shown to cause harm at very low doses.

Our hormones are incredibly small molecules in our body, and control much of what we take for granted – our mood, metabolism, reproductive system, sleep, etc. They do all this at concentrations equivalent to a teardrop in a swimming pool. 

Hormone disrupting chemicals can do a very good job at mimicking our natural hormones, so it makes sense that the research is showing it doesn’t require high concentrations of hormone disruptors to interrupt these processes.

Studies have shown that we all carry a toxic load – even from birth. So while a small amount of parabens in your shampoo or pesticides in one glass of water won’t cause much harm, the chemicals in all our products, food, and water that we’re exposed to day in and day out certainly are

On this note, if you’re thinking of getting pregnant or already are, starting before baby is born is an important first step. You can check out my free guide 4 Hormone Disruptors to Avoid Before Having a Baby here.

 

I hope this helps you clarify some of the misinformation and misconceptions out there when it comes to toxins in your daily life. Toxins absolutely can and are contributing to lasting and detrimental health effects. Understanding that, and how to overcome objections like these from your family but also yourself are key to being able to mitigate the risks toxins pose. 

If you haven’t already, be sure to join the free Green Product Forum Facebook Group – an incredibly supportive community here to help you on your healthy home journey >> Click here to join now.

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