Three Dangerous Toxic Pollutants You Should Stay Away From

This article was written in collaboration with the Environmental Litigation Group, a law firm heavily involved in toxic exposure cases in the military and industrial settings. I thought it was important information to share with my readers.

After centuries of industrial activity, our environment is far from pristine. We have more nice things to buy now than probably ever before in history, but this came at the cost of dirtier air, soil, and water. Sadder still is that in many cases, there is precious little we can do to avoid getting harmful stuff inside our bodies, short of constantly wearing a gas mask or retreating to the wilderness. 

For example, Chicago has recently been found to have a serious ozone problem — “ozone” is a catch all term for gas air pollution — scoring as the 18th most affected city in the US. This is very bad news especially if you or a loved one suffers from asthma. Staying inside in certain days, or choosing an air condition unit with a top-rated air filter are ways to mitigate the threat, but moving somewhere in the countryside is the only way to stay ahead of the problem. 

On the plus side, the same study showed the windy city to have fewer harmful air particles than ever in its history. Pollutants classified as such include everything from dust causing allergies to heavy metals. Speaking of which…

Heavy Metals and How to Avoid Them

It is common knowledge that metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury are bad for us, but even too much of the “good stuff” like iron, zinc, and copper in your blood can cause adverse effects. Everything in moderation, as they say. 

Heavy metals are pretty much everywhere, but usually not in concentrations that may have a discernible effect on our health. Our bodies are pretty good at eliminating toxins, but lead, mercury, and cadmium have a nasty habit of slowly building up in our blood to dangerous level. When this happens, our kidneys and liver will be the first to take the brunt. 

Abdominal pain, infrequent urination, jaundice, club nails, an enlarged liver – sometimes visible on a simple mirror inspection — are all signs of poor organ function. If you’re not particularly friendly to the bottle and experience the symptoms above, maybe it’s time to have your blood checked; as well as your home for possible sources of contamination.

Old paint is the number one culprit around the house for giving you a bad dose of lead. Always use a respirator or mask when scrubbing it off the walls, as well as gloves and a work overall that you will wash immediately after. If a family member works in a factory where he is exposed to heavy metals, wearing his work clothes at home is a big no-no. 

Modern paint and cookware don’t contain lead anymore, or at least they shouldn’t. Time and time again cheap stuff made in China or other developing countries are found to be coated in lead paint, or are manufactured from it and inappropriately coated. 

I believe that when it comes to the toys your children play with, the pots and pans you use to cook for your family, or the paint covering your walls, no precaution is taking it too far. 

Mercury most frequently gets in your body from water or food. If your local water supply is contaminated there’s little you can do, but you can avoid ingesting too much of the quicksilver by reducing your consumption of sea food, which is by far the most common source of the stuff in the present-day US. Interrogate where the fish has been harvested and verify that the area isn’t listed as having large concentrations of mercury. The USGS offers this handy-dandy guide of coastal waters and waterways contaminated with mercury. 

Many of us may already know that lead is dangerous, but PFAS is sure to raise some eyebrows. What is PFAS? Per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) chemicals have been used for decades to make stuff waterproof and greaseproof. The coating on your non-stick pan probably contains it, as well as the packaging of your take-out. Your rain-coat or that spray you use to make clothes water repellent? — You guessed it!

Forever Chemicals and Where You Can Encounter Them

PFAS compounds have been around for over 50 years and can be found almost anywhere in the environment – the water, the soil, air, and food. These are called “forever chemicals” and that’s because they never degrade. Depending on where you live in Chicago, you may be ingesting it every day with your tap water. The background concentrations aren’t considered dangerous to human health, but those living in certain areas have good reasons to be worried. 

Downstream from a plant manufacturing these chemicals is a dangerous place to be. So are airports and military bases. PFAS are ingredients of firefighting foam used to extinguish oil fires and hundreds of gallons of it are released into the environment every time the local first responders train. This has made the water around many military bases highly toxic, and you can find those that we know of listed on this map here. But there’s a catch: we don’t know how many areas are contaminated yet. 

Hundreds of thousands of our veterans and their families might have been exposed and not even be aware of it. Reports about new hazardous water sources are coming in every day and the government is already considering covering the healthcare costs for those who might have absorbed large quantities of these toxins as part of their job. 

PFAS has been associated with hormonal imbalances, lymphoma, leukemia, kidney, pancreatic, breast, ovarian and testicular cancers. It is considered particularly dangerous for fetuses and suckling babies. 

The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for the cleaning and filtration of PFAS, and outside of avoiding the use of contaminated water sources, there is very little you can do to mitigate this threat. I’d love to tell you that whole house or over the sink activated charcoal filters are good at removing these nasties, but none of them are an entirely safe bet. If anything, these may reduce PFAS concentrations to more “manageable” levels, and this new potential threat is just another argument for using a top-of-the-line multi-stage filter for your home. 

Another way to get a lot of PFAS in you is through consuming contaminated food, particularly fish. I’m not saying you should eliminate this necessary part of your diet, just try to take the same precautions as you would for mercury. 

Asbestos can still harm you and your family 

We’d like to think that the days when workers (and sometimes their families) were coming out with nasty lung conditions from inhaling asbestos fiber are far behind us, but sadly, we’d be wrong. The use of this toxic mineral was so widespread in the past that millions upon millions of tones are still with us today. 

You can find it in many structures built before the 1980s, including family homes. When remodeling, pay special attention to your home’s insulation, as this is the most likely part to contain asbestos. The mineral is considered acceptably safe if undisturbed, but when removing or braking through old building material, toxic dust is released. 

Some bricks or plaques may also have asbestos baked into them, and various paints were also known to contain it — so be careful when you scrub! Precautions for asbestos are similar to what you would take for lead: wear a respirator, a dust mask might not be enough; always use gloves and overalls or a robe that adequately covers your body. The work clothes should be professionally cleaned afterwards. 

Many of us don’t know where and if asbestos can be found in our homes, so it is a good idea to protect ourselves whenever doing any serious redecorating. Better safe than sorry!

If your hubby is into classic cars, remind him to use the same protective measures when working on the brakes and hood lining since these might contain copious quantities of friable asbestos as well. 

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