Food: A major source of chemical exposure is the pesticides that have invaded our food chain. Soils become tainted through acid rain, thus exposing plants and animals. Even “certified organic” foods may contain some levels of chemicals. Despite this, they are still strongly preferred to the chemically treated foods that are not certified organic. The risk of eating or drinking contaminated products is largely tied into the origin of the food. Some areas of the country are notoriously high in contaminated water and soils, while others are relatively free of pollutants.
Since few of us enjoy the rare freedom to grow and raise our own foods in a pristine environment, the general rule of thumb is to raise your consciousness and practice some common sense when choosing what to put into your mouth.
For example, don’t eat fast food. Besides the fact that it lacks the nutrient levels of healthfully prepared foods, the meats in fast foods are laden with growth hormones, the vegetables are laced with pesticides, the soft drinks are loaded with refined sugar and artificial flavors, and fast foods too numerous to mention have had their color and taste modified by manufactured chemicals. And yes, these points are also true about foods that you can’t “drive through” to acquire.
Read the ingredients on labels and use common sense! In many situations, thanks to the required ingredient lists on foods and drinks, you have the power to decide whether you will be exposed to chemicals in food and drinks. However, this is not always the case when eating out or visiting the bar for a cocktail. Ask your server or bartender about the specific contents of the meal or drink. They are obligated to provide you with the facts. Avoid artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame and saccharin) and coloring agents, as well as high fructose corn syrup; these are not foods, they are poisons.
Water: The EPA estimates that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are present in one-fifth of the nation’s water supplies. VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. They can enter groundwater from a variety of sources. Benzene, for example, may enter groundwater from gasoline or oil spills on the ground surface or from leaking underground fuel tanks. Other examples of commonly detected VOCs are dichloromethane (methylene chloride), an industrial solvent; trichloroethylene, used in septic system cleaners; and tetrachloroethylene, used in the dry-cleaning industry.
VOCs vary considerably in their harmful effects. Researchers have collected an extensive amount of information about the health effects of VOCs, from animal studies and from studies of human exposure to large quantities of chemicals in the workplace. Safe drinking water levels called health risk limits (HRLs) have been established for many VOCs. HRLs are levels of chemicals in drinking water considered safe for people to drink, including sensitive people such as the very young or the elderly.
VOCs at levels higher than the HRLs are harmful to the central nervous system, the kidneys, and the liver. VOCs may also cause irritation when they contact the skin, or may irritate mucous membranes if inhaled. Some VOCs are known or suspected carcinogens. For VOCs that do not cause cancer, conservative methods are used to establish HRLs at levels considered safe, even if the water is used every day for drinking, cooking, bathing, and laundry.
For carcinogens, HRLs are established so that drinking water with levels above the HRL will cause no more than one additional person to get cancer for every 100,000 persons exposed over a lifetime of use, a relatively small risk according to the state and federal agencies that write the rules. Water containing chemicals at levels lower than the HRLs is considered safe to drink. However, individuals who find that their water contains chemical contaminants at low levels should choose to stop drinking their water and investigate treatment options.
Your exposure to these chemicals depends entirely on where you are and how much local water you drink. Many of us would like to think that the bottled water we drink is safer, even healthier, than the water that runs from our taps. Yet bottled water—even purified water—is not necessarily completely free of contaminants; it simply has to test below FDA and state-allowed levels of certain contaminants.
In 2005, the ABC news program 20/20 sent five different national brands of bottled water and one sample of tap water taken from a New York City drinking fountain to a lab for testing. The results showed no difference, in terms of unhealthful contaminants, between the bottled waters and the tap water. Filtering your own tap water is the most healthful and economical option. It also spares the environment from pollution caused by the manufacturing and disposal of the plastic bottles that carry the water.
Filtration is the key to minimizing exposure. Since contamination in drinking water is invisible to the naked eye and varies from bottle to bottle and spout to spout, the more treatments you apply, the better.
Water is an amazing substance. No living thing can survive without it. Although we drink it, wash and swim in it, and cook with it, we tend to overlook the special relationship it has with our lives. Droughts cause famines and floods, bring death and disease. Water makes up over half of our body mass and without it, we die within a few days. Water is the second most common molecule in the universe (behind hydrogen) and fundamental to star formation. Life cannot evolve or continue without liquid water, which is why there is so much interest in finding it on Mars and other planets and moons.
That water plays a central role in many of the world’s religions is unsurprising. Appreciate this amazing substance, be vigilant, and make your food and drink choices based on intelligent awareness. Take nothing for granted.