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What Are Toxins and How Do They Impact Your Health?

December 14, 2022
6 minutes
Healthy Eating
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Toxins are everywhere—from the air we breathe and the food we eat, to the water we drink and the products we use.

But what are toxins exactly? A toxin is a naturally occurring substance that can act as a poison to living things. While small doses may not trigger a reaction, large amounts or exposure over an extended period of time can be detrimental to your health.

  • But what are toxins?
  • How do they impact your health?
  • Can you be exposed at home?
  • Can you be exposed at work?

Read on to learn more about these common toxins, as well as how you can limit exposures at home and at work.

What are common toxins?

Mercury

Mercury is a naturally occurring element in the Earth's crust. In the past, mercury was mostly used in thermometers and electrical devices, but now it can be found elsewhere. Mercury is commonly found in seafood, especially swordfish, shark, and marlin among other species of fish. Why seafood? Past and current industrialization has increased the amount of naturally occurring mercury in the environment. It makes its way into soil and water sources, eventually ending up in the bodies of fish and widely eaten marine life. 

Asbestos

Asbestos is a natural silicate mineral that forms tiny, long-lasting, and heat-resistant fibers. Asbestos has been used in a multitude of building materials—including ceiling and flooring tiles, roofing shingles, and insulation. 

What are the main concerns with asbestos?

  1. Small amounts of asbestos are still used in thousands of everyday products. If a product contains less than 1% of asbestos, manufacturers do not have to disclose it on the packaging. 
  2. Buildings and structures constructed before the 1980s are likely to still contain higher amounts of asbestos in the building materials. If the asbestos is disturbed, the fibers can become airborne and expose those in near proximity. 

Lead

Lead is a soft and malleable metal also found in the Earth’s crust. It was often used in pipes, as well as paint, but most commonly used in car batteries. While banned for commercial use in 1979, industrial use of lead can still be found throughout the automotive and construction industries.

How do they impact your health?

Mercury

Toxic to humans, mercury poisoning often occurs with blood mercury levels above 100 ng/mL. Mercury is known to specifically attack the brain, kidneys, and lungs. Symptoms of this poisoning can include tremors, memory loss, body numbness, and the loss of motor functions. Another common early warning sign is a metallic taste in the mouth.

Is it curable?

Mercury can stay in your body for years, and mercury poisoning is not technically curable. There are ways to treat it, however, like chelation therapy. When the drug is injected into the body, it binds the metal in the blood and allows it to pass through the kidneys and leave the body through urine. 

Asbestos

Leading up to the 1980s, asbestos’ strength and heat-resistant characteristics made it a popular additive in many household products. Although it’s known to contribute to serious and terminal health conditions like asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer, it’s still not fully banned in the United States. Signs and symptoms of these illnesses are shortness of breath, chest pains, constant cough, and fatigue. 

Is it curable?

Unfortunately, the damage asbestos does to the lungs cannot be reversed or cured. The strong fibers that made asbestos so desirable are now known to cause irreparable damage when inside the lungs. The foreign fibers irritate the lung tissue causing scarring; as the scarring progresses and fibers stiffen, the lungs cannot expand and contract at a livable rate. Common treatments to combat mesothelioma and lung cancers are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Lead 

High exposure to or ingestion of lead can cause a multitude of health problems, including kidney damage, brain damage, and anemia. Young children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. In fact, 1 in 40 children under the age of 5 has unsafe blood lead levels. Signs of this can include constant irritability, developmental delays, and loss of appetite. 

Is it curable?

Similar to mercury poisoning, the effects of lead poisoning are irreversible. However, there are treatments that can get the level of lead in the blood back to normal, including chelation therapy. Also, determining the source of lead and removing it from your space or routine can help limit further exposure.

Where can you be exposed at home?

Some exposures are easier to avoid than others, however, educating yourself is the first step in possible prevention. 

First off, be conscious of your food choices. As we previously mentioned, certain kinds of seafood like swordfish carry high levels of mercury. Avoid eating these foods or only eat them on rare occasions to reduce the amount of mercury you're knowingly consuming. 

Aside from asbestos in the materials of the home itself, you may also be bringing it home in the products you buy. For example, talc and asbestos have been known to form together while mined, and consumers claim to be unknowingly exposing themselves and their families to these toxins. 

On a similar note, paint on both walls and on items can pose a threat if it contains lead. Lead paint was often used before the 1980s, and peeling or cracking of lead paint can release the toxins into the air. Although lead paint has been banned in the U.S., it’s still widely used in other countries. Both antique U.S.-made toys and toys from other countries pose the risk of lead-containing paint.

Where can you be exposed at work?

In the same way you can be exposed at home, there are certain professions that pose a higher risk of toxin exposure at work. 

School

For those who work in education, it’s important to note that a stunning one-third of U.S. schools contain asbestos. Especially for schools built before 1980, there is a high chance it’s somewhere on the property. If no renovations or remodels have taken place, asbestos was likely not removed and replaced. When disturbed, exposure can come from loose tiles, disturbed drywall or insulation, or roofing shingles. Over the past few years, multiple schools have also discovered that old synthetic flooring gives off mercury vapors as it breaks down, which can contaminate an entire building. 

Trades

Trade professionals in welding, auto mechanics, or construction are actually among those with the highest risk of toxic exposure. Lead pipes are still widely found across the U.S., and welders have a high risk of lead poisoning if proper protection isn’t used. Auto mechanics can be exposed to asbestos on car parts like brake pads, and construction workers likely come into contact with asbestos and lead anytime they do work on a house built before 1980. 

Military

In recent years, it's been found that many military bases had toxic exposures which ultimately caused veterans to become terminally ill. From Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base in North Carolina, and hundreds in between, groundwater contamination has exposed millions of military personnel to a multitude of toxins. Many of these chemicals made their way into the groundwater through the use of toxic firefighting foams, which have now been banned in certain states. Outside of bases, concentrated amounts of lead were used in indoor firing ranges, and mercury was used in batteries and other tactical gear.

Conclusion

While toxins may not be completely avoidable, the more you know about them the better. 

Be sure to educate yourself on your home, environment, and workplace. And make smart purchasing decisions to avoid any unnecessary exposures to you and your family.

Early detection is key, so if you feel you’ve been exposed to toxins or are experiencing some of the mentioned side effects, contact a medical professional right away. Building experts are also available to test for toxins around the home— to give you peace of mind and reduce future exposures.

If you found this helpful, please share it with others to help keep your neighbors and your friends safe!

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