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Something in the Air

Maintaining personal health is about more than just diet and exercise

While most of us spend time, money, and energy keeping ourselves healthy, the society we live in doesn’t always aid in that endeavor. Unfortunately, many Americans believe that they are doing a good job of taking care of their bodies and keeping detrimental substances out of their systems when, in reality, factors in our environment at large are negatively impacting our health, sometimes without our even knowing it.

Although the Food and Drug Administration is charged with protecting our health, their failure to ban bisphenol A (BPA), an organic compound used in the manufacture of plastics and found in 90 percent of the population, is endangering Americans, says Sarah Janssen, science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Science has changed and evolved since the FDA approved BPA in the 1950s. In the last 15 years, there’s been an explosion in research demonstrating that it has a number of harmful effects, including reproductive harm, pre-cancerous changes, and interference with mood, memory, and brain development.” So why hasn’t the FDA stepped in? Well, the first two major BPA studies they reviewed were funded by manufacturers of BPA who didn’t seem to find any problems with it. Last September, the National Toxicology Program concluded that concerns remain about BPA. The FDA has promised to revisit the data and release a new statement this month.

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BPA’s presence stretches far beyond the Nalgene bottle (which Janssen recommends replacing with an unlined stainless steel bottle). BPA is used in the lining of canned goods (including baby formula), dental sealants – even in the thermal reaction that occurs when a receipt is printed. Scientists haven’t yet determined if people can absorb BPA through their skin, but Janssen cautions people who are juggling keys and bags not to put a receipt that’s just been printed directly into their mouths. She also recommends using frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned goods, and getting soups and sauces from boxes instead of tins, as well as finding out from your dentist if the sealants he uses contain BPA before agreeing to have them put in your mouth.

Janssen also cautions consumers against phthalates—plasticizers that are often used to make PVC or vinyl more soft and pliable or give personal-care products (like shampoo and deodorant) fragrance. They can be found in everything from the rubber ducky floating in your child’s bathtub to the caulk on your house, and animal studies link phthalates to male birth defects and reproductive health problems.

Although six types of phthalates will be banned from use in toy manufacturing as of this month, there are many more out there to be wary of, and since they’re not always listed as “phthalates” in an ingredient list, it can be hard to know when there’s a risk. Janssen points consumers looking for information on phthalates levels in goods to two websites: and

But if you forgot your online research before going to the pharmacy, Janssen cites this rule of thumb: avoid products with fragrance. NRDC investigations into air fresheners show that “fragrance” is often code for “phthalates”—even in products labeled “natural.” “Rather than spray something to mask a bad smell, get rid of the source of the smell,” Janssen says, citing baking soda and used coffee grounds as excellent ways to absorb odor naturally.
No matter the product, Janssen says, “The really important point is people assume because you can buy it at Safeway or Walgreens or online that somebody is overseeing it and making sure it’s safe, and that’s just not true. There’s very little oversight with cosmetics and very loose requirements on what has to go on the label.”

Even air and water—supposedly protected by government regulation—are laced with harmful chemicals, especially in the Southeast. “There’s a reason Virginia is ranked number one in business-friendly states: We have a loose regulatory process with weak enforcement,” says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. Coal-fired power plants are the main source of carbon dioxide, smog-forming nitrous oxides, and fine particulates, all of which can lead to significant respiratory problems. They also emit mercury, a neurological toxin that ends up in the rivers we swim and play in, as well as the fish we eat. Then there’s mountaintop removal mining, which contributes similarly to air and water pollution, while also increasingly endangering those who live closest to mines.

The Sierra Club is part of Wise Energy for Virginia, a coalition of organizations lobbying for clean and safe energy production in the area, but Besa says it’s not just established groups who need to be involved in the fight. “People need to get involved, express their concerns, and demand action from public officials. Part of the reason we are where we are today is because a lot of people are not fully engaged.” He recommends that people contact the Department of Environmental Quality to find out about the water quality of the streams and rivers nearby and read the newspaper to see if companies are applying for permits that might allow them to produce more pollutants.

Steve Patch, M.D., director of the Environmental Quality Institute in Asheville, N.C., advises those concerned about mercury exposure to eat lower on the food chain. “You can choose smaller fish like sardines or salmon, which are more vegetarian in their eating habits and have a lot of omega 3,” but not as much mercury. But if you really want to know what you’re being exposed to, Patch suggests getting tested. For $25, you can get a mercury testing kit from Sierra Club, which uses a sample of your hair to estimate how much mercury you’ve retained in the last month or so. Kits for water-quality testing are also available through Clean Water for North Carolina ( and can assess the level of lead, arsenic, and copper in your water.

Bottom line: Your personal health is drastically affected by the health of your environment. The good news? “As we begin to deal with issues of climate change, we actually can reduce a lot of the other pollutants at the same time,” says Besa. “If you get serious about reducing your carbon footprint, you’ll be affecting large facilities that are also emitting a lot of other pollutants.” •

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