Health: Toxins and Pollution

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It is only relatively recently that the broad ecology movement has begun to take seriously the threat to personal health from toxins, and the effects of various forms of non-nuclear radiation and even noise within the home. Since the last century the main domestic concern has been with cleanliness, space, and light. Now, however, an environment that looks bright and clean may have heavily polluted air. The very materials that were designed to improve the quality of our lives now threaten this quality in other, insidious ways. This is most likely to be true of a new house where there has been heavy use of synthetic chemicals in timber treatment, plastics, and petrochemical paints, but it can equally well be true of a newly renovated house. In extreme cases, inhabitants become sick. What is more common, however, is a general increase in the number of complaints people have relating to allergic reactions and problems with their immune system. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the various forms of radiant energy that impinge on our bodies are all affected by the design and materials used in our homes and can have a significant effect on our individual health. In most houses today, contrary to what we may think, the quality of the air inside is considerably worse than that outside.

How can we deal with this complex ecological imbalance in our homes? First, we need to identify the most serious threats and find ways of eliminating them as far as possible. We can then choose to go further if we wish and create an environment for ourselves that is both healing and life- enhancing. Given these aims, we need to inform ourselves of the basics of environmental health; for it is only with understanding that we will be able to diagnose problems correctly and implement the necessary changes.

It is to provide such a basic understanding that these health sections have been written. This is not a definitive tour of the subject, as much is still in the process of being researched. What I have endeavored to do is to summarize some of the more important aspects of present knowledge. The first section deals with toxins and pollutants, their effect on our bodies and how we can avoid absorbing them. Sections on air and water follow, where pollution is also the main issue and has a most direct effect on our health. Next come radiation and sound, both forms of wave energy that have an important bearing on health in the environment. Finally, there is a section on plants, which surprisingly provide solutions to many of these problems.

But why should we be so concerned with our health? Is this not self- indulgent, or of minor relevance compared to the social and ecological problems with which we are faced? The following points make clear just how central our own health really is:

• Our vitality can be one of the best indicators of the health of our immediate environment, our local ecosystem, and our planet. If we can solve the problems relating to our own health, we will almost certainly have begun to address some of the worst ecological problems in our local ecosystem.

• Diseases with a strong environmental element involve enormous cost to ourselves and , ultimately, to the planet. If the money spent on treating these diseases could be diverted to measures promoting positive health, by reducing the sources of toxins, we would achieve something far more positive.

• Finally, it is people healthy in body and spirit who are most likely to have the energy, enthusiasm, and vision to solve the immense problems facing life on this planet. It is empowering to be in control of our own health, and it helps us to take control in other areas of our lives.

It should be noted that this guide does not deal with the dangers of fire, structural collapse, or of accidents such as electric shock due to poor electrical installation. These are largely accounted for in existing building regulations and other traditional safety measures. Housing as built in its existing form in the West is regarded as “safe” in a conventional sense. This part of the guide will give you information to enable you to bring your own home environment up to a standard of positive well-being, for the benefit of your self, your family, and the planet.

Toxins and Pollution

We are hardly aware of the dramatic increase in the number of synthetic chemicals that are continually being invented and introduced into our lives. The chemical revolution, which at first seemed to herald such promising rewards, has been little controlled, and there are now thou sands of unnecessary and damaging synthetic substances loose in the biosphere. Something like 60,000 synthetic chemicals are in use around the world today. The effects of the more pernicious ones are becoming ever clearer in the atmosphere, the seas, the land, and , of course, in plants and animals. Our health is under threat from these chemicals; some of them have infiltrated our homes unknowingly, and others we welcome as solutions to domestic problems. They enter our homes either through the front door in the things we buy or through our water supply or ventilation systems. Sometimes they are in the very construction materials from which our homes are made. Not all these potentially harmful chemicals are synthetic, however; some are natural toxins, such as the radioactive gas radon, which, in some of areas Britain and North America, can infiltrate through the floor of a house from the ground below.

What role can we play in turning this toxic tide around before it triggers even worse effects on our health and the environment? First, we need to become knowledgeable about the sources of these toxins and stop, as far as possible, importing the most harmful offenders into our homes. It is useful if we can also understand the ways in which these toxins affect our bodies and the measures we can take in self-defense. We need to deal with the toxins that are potential threats in our existing homes. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to know enough not to export toxins and pollution indiscriminately, such as throwing heavy metal batteries in the garbage or flushing solvents down the drain out of our homes. It is true that the biosphere can cope with amazing amounts of waste and pollution; but the overall quantities it has been required to digest have been so great in recent years that there is a real danger our habitat is being irreversibly damaged. The more pollutants we export from our homes, the more likely it is that they will eventually return in our food, water, and air.

Sources of toxins: Foam-filled furnishings; Synthetic carpets; Combustion fumes from gas stove; Polyurethane varnish.


Toxins in our homes originate from many sources and enter our bodies as gases, vapors, solid particles, liquids, or radiation. They may be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. The following is a list of sources:

• Products of combustion: tobacco smoke; products of burning gas, coal, wood, paraffin, candles, and incense

• Vapors from household chemicals, solvents, and paints

• Out-gassing from plastics, resins, and rubbers; petrochemical paints and varnishes, insulation foams (polyurethane and poly styrene); plastic flooring; synthetic textiles in carpets; curtains and furniture

• Formaldehyde vapor from urea formaldehyde in glues, plywood, particleboard (for example, chipboard), and insulation

• Timber treatments against rot and infestations, which can result in toxic dust and vapors

• Airborne fiber particles from asbestos and manufactured mineral fiber insulation

• Pesticides used to spray indoor plants and insects

• Airborne particles of house dust, pollen from certain plants, fungal spores, and droppings from dust mites

• Airborne pollutants from outside the home, such as car exhaust or local industrial emissions

• Water-borne pollutants in tap water, such as lead, nitrates, and chlorine (see WATER section)

• Radioactive radon gas from the ground and building materials (see RADIATION section)

• Heavy metals in paints released through paint stripping

• Food, which contains a large range of chemicals, including preservatives, pesticides, and aluminum from cookware

There will be large variations in the extent of contamination present in existing housing, depending on geographical location, how new a house is, the type of construction, and what finishes have been used. It will also depend on how often you redecorate and clean your home and the types of paints and chemicals used.


Once a toxin is imported into the house, it can be difficult to stop it from entering our bodies. If airborne, it can be inhaled and enter the bloodstream through the lungs. If it comes in contact with the skin, it can be absorbed and pass into blood vessels directly below the surface. This can happen with solid materials such as lead (whose salts are dissolved and absorbed by moisture and oils in our skin), with liquid toxins, or with toxins dissolved in liquids, which pass through our skin with even greater ease. In the case of many volatile solvents, such as gasoline or paint solvents, there is danger from both absorption through the lungs (from the fumes) and direct absorption through the skin (from spills). Solvents, by their very nature, are absorbed very easily. Of course, any toxins in food or drink that are ingested have an even more direct route to the bloodstream. These might include chemicals such as chlorine compounds in water or pesticide residues in food.

Once in the bloodstream these chemicals can be carried to every part of our bodies and can affect every organ. The nervous system is particularly vulnerable, since nerve messages are transmitted by electrochemical reactions, and certain chemicals can have an effect out of all proportion to their concentration. Pesticides, for instance, are often specially designed to attack the nervous systems of target species; in humans, these toxins can accumulate in fatty tissue associated with nerve cells. The more serious effects of chemical poisoning in humans include headaches, weakness, or trembling. The kidneys and liver, as the organs responsible for processing and cleaning toxins out of the body, are vulnerable to abnormal quantities of almost any toxin, especially heavy metals, and the chromosomes in cells are damaged by certain chemicals, which have the potential to set off cancer or cause genetic damage. What can make things more complicated and difficult to predict is that some apparently harmless chemicals can enter our bodies and react with other chemicals in the gut or bloodstream, creating unforeseen hazards.

We don’t know yet how these chemicals will affect our long-term health. However, an increasing number of people are experiencing allergic reactions, such as asthma and diseases such as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), and many more of us may feel “under the weather” quite inexplicably more often than we feel we should. It is difficult to establish which are the most serious factors in our environment, since many of the medicinal drugs we take, and stress-induced toxins from our own bodies, contribute in ways that make it difficult to separate one cause from another. What is clear, however, is that for many people the o loads that their immune systems are expected to deal with are becoming too great for them to handle.


A bleak picture has been painted in the above section. Why haven’t we all succumbed to the effects of accumulated poisoning? Because we have in our bodies a most elaborate and sophisticated defense system against most toxins. Our environment has always had toxic compounds as part of its make-up, and life in all its forms has always needed to evolve ways of overcoming the poisonous effects of these naturally occurring toxins. Human beings are no exception. Poisons can be seen as chemicals to which our bodies have not yet found an immune response. For example, plants produce prodigious numbers of chemicals, some beneficial, some neutral, and some harmful to humans. Our bodies deal with these compounds as a matter of course through our immune system, which is constantly working to keep our bodies healthy and in balance. In the past few decades the avalanche of chemicals and the general stress of modern Western lifestyles, including the use of medicinal drugs, have put our immune system under immense strain. Changes in our environment that previously would have taken generations now can be measured in years or even months.

Apart from reducing the toxic stress on our bodies, there is much we can do to support our immune system:

• We can eat a healthy diet and ensure we obtain the particular vitamins and minerals that support the immune system. We can also choose to undergo a process of detoxification.

• We can learn to reduce stress levels as far as possible. For some people this means learning how to relax; for others the key is reducing complexity and uncertainty in their lives; and , for nearly all of us, it involves learning how to deal creatively with whatever life brings.

• We can exercise, which stimulates blood flow, which in turn helps to flush out toxins. If exercise is difficult for some reason, then massage can fulfill some of the same functions.

• We can also take enough fresh air and sunshine.

Although the above has nothing to do with renovating your home, it has been included to show that our personal health and that of our environment are complementary.


Learning to identify the most dangerous toxins is a difficult task, as there are many areas of uncertainty. We have a choice as to whether we do this in the more general context of knowing the likely sources of toxins in our homes (see the list) or whether we take a more specific approach by learning the categories of dangerous chemicals. A chemical classification of toxins is given at the end of the guide, and there are references for those who wish to investigate the subject further. The approach you choose depends on the degree to which you wish to pursue the matter.

How can you deal with this problem in a practical way? You could list the chemicals and materials in your home that could pose a health hazard and estimate roughly how serious the hazard of each is likely to be. You then have a list that you can plan around. The level of health that you or others in your household have is a critical factor in deciding how urgently you need to take action. If your general level of health is definitely below par, it is worth acting quickly to reduce your toxic load. It is also possible to have tests done to see whether there are materials to which you are particularly allergic. If, however, your health is reasonable, you might want simply to change your habits for the future, and accept that the existing toxic products you use will gradually be replaced with more benign alternatives. It is up to you to set your own priorities.

Storing Safely

There may be certain DIY and cleaning chemicals you wish to keep at home, but you will want to avoid any danger of their fumes polluting the inside of your house. There are two ways you can do this: you can store them in a well-ventilated outside storage area such as a garage, or you can create an inside storage space that has sealed cupboard doors and is ventilated from the outside via air bricks or a special vent.


If you want to dispose of toxic chemicals, you find yourself in the same situation as many industries that have the same problem (though on a much larger scale). Pouring them down the drain or into the nearest river is not a responsible solution. Nor can you simply throw them into your garbage. It is necessary to find out who in your local area is responsible for toxic wasted some chemicals can be neutralized, some need to be incinerated in a furnace, and others are biodegradable enough to be buried. There may even be ways of recycling some of them. If you are not satisfied with the advice of your local authorities, try contacting your local section of Friends of the Earth.


+ Identify likely sources of toxins in your home. Making a list can be helpful, including an action column (see also CLASSIFICATION OF TOXINS in Part 5).

+ Toxins can be absorbed through the lungs (air), stomach (food and water),and skin (mainly through water, clothes, and hand contact). Air and water are dealt with in the following sections.

+ Toxins from food and clothes are beyond the scope of this guide. However, in general, the less processed and more organically grown food is, the healthier and more toxic- free it is likely to be. Almost the same can be said for clothing, where natural fibers without toxic chemical treatments are the healthiest choice.

+ Skin absorption occurs with low-toxic synthetics to which you are exposed for long periods of time (such as clothes) or highly toxic products that you handle for short periods of time, such as newly treated timber or lead. With the latter, wear protective gloves and mask that are impervious to the toxic material you are handling.

+ If you are prone to symptoms that are likely produced by toxins, then in addition to reducing the number of sources of toxins in your home, you should make sure you get enough of the necessary vitamins and minerals that support your immune system.

+ Dispose of toxic materials responsibly. Find out from local authorities how they suggest dealing with any particular chemical or material. If you are not satisfied, get advice from your local environmental group.

+ When buying chemicals such as household cleaners and solvents, look for biodegradability and natural rather than synthetic sources.

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