When you hear the word “healthy” what’s the first word that comes to mind?
For most people it’s likely “diet.”
So much of our conversation about being healthy and living a healthy lifestyle has focused exclusively on food, and shifting our choices towards healthier, more nutrient dense options.
Beyond that, we’ll consider things like exercise, managing our stress, getting enough sleep each night, and avoiding obviously unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking.
For most people that is the full scope of what we consider to be “healthy”.
As an environmental toxins expert and educator, I want to help you expand your definition of “healthy” to include consideration of the products that we buy, use, and consume every day, whether they are food related or not, and how they might be impacting our health.
Right now, most people’s kitchens – the room we most closely associate with being healthy – are full of chemicals that are linked to a long list of health conditions from weight gain and diabetes, to infertility, thyroid disorders, and cancers.
These are some of the same conditions that inspire people to take their health more seriously in the first place, so making sure we address these chemicals, along with proper diet, exercise and stress management is super important.
Harmful Chemicals In Consumer Products
There are currently about 84,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, with about 1,000 more added each year. The vast majority of these have never been tested for safety and are freely permitted to be used in the products you and I buy, and bring into our homes every single day.
Not all of these chemicals are bad or harmful. Many of them have indeed made our lives better and longer, but research is mounting that shows that a large number of these chemicals, even in tiny amounts, have the ability to negatively impact health.
Chemicals used in everything from household cleaners and personal care products to food packaging and furniture are being linked to hormonal disruption, behavioral disorders like ADHD and autism, weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, thyroid disorders, autoimmune conditions, and various cancers.
While it’s definitely easy to become overwhelmed when thinking about how to address these chemicals, it doesn’t have to be!
Making small, but meaningful changes to the products we buy and use and our habits around the house can have a measurable impact on the amount of these chemicals we’re exposed to daily. This, in turn, can ease the burden these chemicals place on our bodies, allowing us to better safeguard our health.
Starting in The Kitchen
The best place to start addressing the chemicals in your home that may be impacting your health is in the kitchen!
Why here? Because this is the room where you’re likely already flexing your “healthy muscle” by turning towards healthier, more nutritious and healing foods for you and your family.
Making small changes in the kitchen is simply an extension of the work you’re already doing.
While there are all kinds of chemicals lurking in this room (think: cleaners under the sink, contaminants in drinking water, etc…), after switching to an all or mostly organic diet lower in pesticides, the next easiest step is to address plastics.
Plastic Food Storage Containers
Nearly everyone at some point has encountered the forever orange stained plastic container that once housed leftover pasta sauce. No matter how many times you washed it, or ran it through the dishwasher, it always stayed a little bit orange.
Go check your kitchen cabinets and see if you have any lurking there.
This happens because the molecules of the polymers and other chemicals that make up that plastic are not tightly bound and can easily shed or “migrate”. Some of these chemicals are in a near constant state of shedding, perpetually being released into or onto the materials they are in contact with.
There are a few things that can exacerbate the shedding of those chemical molecules; heat, oil, acidity, and abrasion. That leftover pasta sauce, which is hot, acidic, and oily is a perfect recipe for speeding up the shedding of those molecules. So much so that the surface of the plastic becomes compromised, resulting in openings that allow molecules of that sauce to embed themselves into the physical structure of the plastic!
This also means that those plastic chemicals are ending up inside your sauce – that you’re going to eat.
This shedding of molecules is why researchers consistently find traces of some of the chemicals made to manufacture plastics and other materials in the foods we buy and eat every single day.
So why is this bad?
While not all chemicals that make up plastic are necessarily harmful, there are a few that are very concerning. Depending on the type of plastic container (clear, shatterproof ones, or more resilient flexible ones) different types of “plasticizers” are used.
Bisphenol-A, or BPA is often found in clear, hard, shatterproof types plastics and is responsible for its strength and durability. Softer plastics often contain phthalates, a class of chemicals that can make plastics flexible and bendy (like garden hoses, or shower curtains).
Both BPA and phthalates (pronounced thall-ates) easily migrate from plastic materials they are used in to the foods and liquids they are in contact with, and both of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors.
Our endocrine system (aka our hormonal system) is responsible for regulating just about every bodily function we have, from metabolism and mood, to stress, sleep, brain health, development, fertility, and even the immune system. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can pose as natural hormones in the body, either blocking or mimicking their behavior and as a result wreak all kinds of havoc.
Because our bodies were designed to respond to extremely tiny doses of natural hormones, these “synthetic hormones”, often blocking or mimic the role of estrogen in the body can have a dramatic impact on our health.
Not in ways that will send you to the emergency room, but is more subtle ways that build over time:
- Weight that creeps up and won’t go away no matter how well you eat or how much you work out…
- Early onset puberty in children (mostly girls) that can increase their risks for things like breast cancer in adulthood…
- Chronic thyroid disorders or autoimmune conditions…
- Contributing to sub, or infertility…
While it’s likely impossible to phase out all plastics in the kitchen, it’s important to start moving away from it as much as possible when used for food storage.
Thankfully safer, non–chemical-leaching alternatives are both readily available, and generally inexpensive!
I encourage all my clients to opt for glass storage instead of plastic, especially when it comes to hot foods (like tomato sauce!). Stores like Target, Walmart, Ikea, Bed Bath and Beyond, etc. have dozens of options for glass containers.
Yes, they are heavier, and yes, they can break, but their inert surfaces mean no chemical, no leaching, and no unintended exposures!
For children, who are often not allowed to bring breakable glass containers into school, stainless steel containers are the way to go. Look for ones with a silicone seal to keep them air-tight!
Inexpensive mason jars or even re-used glass nut butter or sauce jars are easy to clean (toss in the dishwasher), and small enough to pop in a purse.
There are literally hundreds of places in our homes where chemicals can be found. Rather than become overwhelmed by how much there is to do, often resulting in doing nothing, just pick one simple step: swap out your plastic food storage containers (this includes those old yogurt tubs you’ve been reusing!) for glass or stainless steel, and feel great about it!