Toxins that Affect the Immune System and How to Limit Your Exposure to Them
A key part of maintaining optimal health is limiting exposure to environmental toxins. Many chemicals suppress or alter immune function. When the immune system is depressed, it increases susceptibility to infection and other conditions. The body may mistake healthy tissue for foreign bodies, causing systemic inflammation and dysfunction. Therefore, avoidance of these substances is important for staying healthy.
Below, you'll find a list of commonly encountered chemicals that have the potential for immune system disruption. In some cases, safer alternatives exist; in others, abstention from use or limitation of exposure is the best available option.
Aflatoxins – Aflatoxins are produced by a species of mold and are harmful to the immune system. They can be found in improperly stored food and animal feeds, or where “black mold” is present.
>Take measures to manage humidity in your home to avoid mold growth.
There is some evidence that diet including extra “apiaceous vegetables,” such as carrots, parsnips, celery, and parsley may somewhat reduce the carcinogenic effects of aflatoxin 1.
Benzene Compounds – The most commonly encountered source is in charred foods, but these may be found in industrial chemicals as well.
>Avoid cooking your meat until blackened, since charred meat contains benzene.
BPA (Bisphenol A) – Common in plastics, including those marked with symbols 3 and 7. BPA has been shown to have numerous negative health effects, especially in children.
> Any disposable or reusable drinking bottle with BPA (those not labeled BPA free) should be avoided. Do not use plastic-wear for heated food applications--use glass or uncoated metal cookware. Never microwave plastic. Heat encourages BPA to leach into liquid, so especially avoid plastics left out in the sun or warm car. Dishwashers typically get hot enough to degrade plastic also.
Also be aware of the packaging your food comes in: BPA lining in cans is still common, as is outright packaging in BPA-containing plastic. Avoid hidden BPA plastics by avoiding processed packaged food!
Formaldehyde – Found in wood furnishes, plywood, space heaters and the seats of your car. Air concentrations can be extra elevated in the summer, as heat encourages formaldehyde to leech into the air.
>Air out newer houses and cars whenever possible. Formaldehyde is found in adhesives— wear gloves to minimize exposure. The glue that is used to hold plywood together is a common source, so wear a mask if you work with it to prevent dust inhalation. Formaldehyde free plywoods are becoming increasingly available for use, as the hazards of formaldehyde off-gassing becomes better known.
Heavy Metals--including Lead and Mercury Compounds- Sources include some dental fillings, and polluted air/water, certain batteries, welding and solders.
>Limit consumption of certain fish species. Safer fish choices can be found at the following link: http://epi.publichealth.nc.gov/oee/mercury/safefish.html
Be aware that lead paint may be present in any building or object older than 40 years old. Take proper precautions when renovating, and repair any chipped paint promptly.
Isocyanates – Plastics, paints, varnishes and protective coatings contain this compound. It is commonly found in truck beds, decks, and boats. Polyurethane foams and coatings contain it. These are dangerous primarily to the the skin and airways. Repeated exposure may result in a severe form of asthma.
>Always ensure proper ventilation when applying paints and resins. Always wear a respirator when sanding old finishes. Avoid contact with skin. If you are uncertain which PPE to use, it is best to leave application to properly trained professionals.
Parabens – Check for parabens in toothpaste, lotions, sunscreens, shampoos, conditioners, shaving gel, makeup, drugs and food additives. Deodorants and antiperspirants often contain parabens. Avoid parabens as they are a contributor to breast cancer development and may aggravate autoimmune disorders.
>Use natural paraben-free care products. Paraben-free products are becoming more mainstream and many products will be labeled as such.
Tetrabromobisphenol A – Is one of the most common flame retardants. It may cause uterine tumors and thyroid dysfunction.
>Check mattresses, pillows, and bedding for this chemical and avoid. Look for products labeled GOTS or GOLS for items that meet the highest safety profile for this and a variety of other toxic chemicals. Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label also prohibits this particular chemical.
Tetrachloroethylene also known as PERC – Is used in the dry cleaning process. The fumes are carcinogenic.
>Ask your dry cleaner about usage. If an alternate option is not available and you must use, be sure to air out clothes well before wearing. Natural- or eco- dry cleaners avoid this chemical, but no regulations exist so it is best to ask about your cleaner’s practices.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Keep exposures to the above to a minimum, and use personal protective equipment when handling any household or industrial chemicals. Good practices such as drinking plenty of water and proper ventilation in work and living spaces reduce risk associated with accidental exposures.
1.Peterson S, Lampe JW, Bammler TK, Gross-Steinmeyer K, Eaton DL (September 2006). "Apiaceous vegetable constituents inhibit human cytochrome P-450 1A2 (hCYP1A2) activity and hCYP1A2-mediated mutagenicity of aflatoxin B1". Food and Chemical Toxicology. 44 (9): 1474–84. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2006.04.010. PMID 16762476.
By Beth Bloomfield, L.AC., MS