Environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan and journalist Stacey Colino have co-authored a book about the impact of chemicals on the human reproductive system. “Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race” was published last month. The book lays out research indicating that chemicals are impairing the fertility and altering the sexual development of humans and other species. In this excerpt, the authors offer tips about how to protect yourself and your family from toxic chemicals found in the kitchen.
The kitchen is often the hub of the home — and one of the biggest sources of exposure to phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), agents that essentially hijack hormones in the body’s endocrine system. After all, these sneaky chemicals can infiltrate foods and beverages at any point in their journey from farm to fork or from manufacturing plant to cup or bottle.
To avoid numerous EDCs and other toxic chemicals in the kitchen, take the following steps:
Buy organic produce, whenever possible. Sometimes it’s more expensive, sometimes it’s not — but if it is, it may be worth the extra investment in your health so that you can avoid ingesting trace amounts of pesticides and the inert ingredients in pesticides, which include some phthalates. If you’re not inclined to buy all organic fruits and vegetables, it’s smart to eliminate those that typically contain the highest pesticide residues from conventional growing methods. Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, releases a list of the fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide residues, called the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” respectively. In 2020, strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, and grapes topped the most contaminated list, while avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, onions, papayas, and sweet peas (frozen) were among the least contaminated.
If and when you can’t purchase organic fruits and vegetables, rinse your produce thoroughly with tap water, then dry it with a clean towel; this will remove most of the residual chemicals. (You do not need a special produce wash.) A study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that eating organically grown food for just one week significantly reduces the levels of 13 pesticide metabolites in the body.
Choose fresh, unprocessed foods. Sticking with fresh foods — particularly fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fish — will, besides being more nutritious than packaged foods, help you reduce your exposure to chemicals. During processing, foods come in contact with phthalates, such as DEHP and DBP — or BPA in the plastic or lining of cans — and because these chemicals aren’t bound to these materials, they can leach into the food. Even if the label says BPA-free or phthalate-free, it may contain substitutes such as BPS and BPF (which have not yet been determined to be safe) for BPA, or phthalate substitutes that may be as toxic as the chemicals they’re replacing. It’s best to try to use fewer canned and packaged foods, in general.
Avoid contaminants in animal products. It’s no secret that some commercially raised animals, particularly cattle and sheep, are fed hormones such as testosterone or estrogen to promote their growth or antibiotics to prevent diseases. The extent to which these hormones and drugs may affect human health when animal-based foods, including dairy products, are consumed is still hotly debated. But if you want to be on the safe side, you can look for those labeled with the USDA organic seal, which signifies that these animals have eaten only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and weren’t treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics. Similarly, the phrases “raised without antibiotics,” “raised without added hormones,” or “no synthetic hormones” mean the animal received no antibiotics or hormones during its lifetime.
Reconsider your food-storage containers. Phthalates and BPA are used in the manufacture of many food and beverage containers and plastic wraps; you’re exposed to these endocrine-disrupting chemicals when they leach out of the containers and wraps into your foods or drinks or when they are released as the containers are heated in the microwave.
Plastic containers that contain phthalates have the number 3 and V or PVC in the recycling symbol. BPA is still used in many water bottles and plastic containers and in the epoxy resins that protect canned foods from contamination.
For food storage, your best bet is to use glass, metal, or ceramic containers. If you do opt for plastic containers, use this rhyme to help you remember which recycling codes are safer and which aren’t: “4, 5, 1, and 2, all the rest are bad for you.”
Ban plastic from the microwave. If you want to cook or reheat food, don’t do it in a plastic container in the microwave. Transfer it to a plate or bowl, and if you need to cover it, use parchment paper, wax paper, a white paper towel, or a domed (glass or ceramic) container that fits over the plate or bowl. Don’t microwave plastic food-storage bags or plastic bags from the grocery store, even if the package is marked as safe for microwaving.
Prepare meals at home as often as possible. Believe it or not, frequently dining out or getting takeout is associated with higher levels of phthalates in the body, thanks to food-packaging materials. One study found that teenagers who ate out a lot had 55 percent higher levels of androgen-disrupting chemicals than their peers who only consumed food at home. Opt for home-cooked or home-assembled meals when you can.
Upgrade your cookware. If you’ve been using nonstick pots and pans, it’s time for a change: Nonstick cookware is made with PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) compounds or Teflon (a brand name for the chemical polytetrafluoroethylene). Sure, using nonstick cookware makes cleanup easier, but cooking on a heated nonstick surface gives the coating a chance to break down and release endocrine-disrupting chemicals with ample opportunity to seep into your food. If you do continue using your nonstick cookware, only use it for short periods of time at medium-low heat and discard the pot or pan if the surface becomes scratched or starts to give off flakes. In my home, we have switched to cast-iron pots and pans, which we love. Stainless steel is another good alternative.
Filter your drinking water. Even if you like the taste of your tap water and trust your water supplier, it’s a good idea to buy a water filter for your home (or fridge) to change it regularly. Numerous industrial and agricultural chemicals can seep into the water supply, and so can pharmaceuticals, which aren’t even monitored by your water supplier. So you really don’t know the full extent of what you’re drinking. And drinking bottled water isn’t the solution because it comes in plastic!
Invest in a water treatment system for your household, whether it’s an inexpensive glass (not plastic) pitcher that you fill manually, an under-the-sink activated-charcoal or reverse-osmosis filtration system, or a whole-house carbon filter that will remove contaminants from all the water that comes into your home. (Consult NSF International, www.nsf.org, for more water-filtration-system information.) If you want a portable water bottle, get a glass or stainless steel one.
Clean up your cleaning products. Carpet shampoo, all-purpose household cleaners, window- and wood-cleaning products, disinfectants, stain removers, and most other cleaning products contain potent toxins and EDCs. Go through your arsenal of household cleaning products and get rid of those that feature such words as danger, warning, poison or fatal on the label. Replace them with products that have ingredients you can identify; here, again, the Environmental Working Group is a helpful resource. Or, you can make your own cleaning products, using water, vinegar, baking soda, or essential oils; you can find DIY cleaner recipes online.
Excerpted from: “Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race,” by Shanna H. Swan with Stacey Colino. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Shanna H. Swan is an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist based at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Stacey Colino is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md., specializing in health and psychology.