5 Environmental Toxins and How to Reduce Your Exposure

Toxins exist everywhere—from air to food to furniture. While it’s impossible to eliminate all exposure to toxins, you can increase your awareness of what you’re potentially being exposed to, and how you can limit your exposure. The following five toxins are commonly found in homes and communities. Note that this is not a comprehensive list of toxins, nor a comprehensive overview of their sources and associated symptoms.

1. Radon

Radon is an odorless and tasteless radioactive gas that is produced from the decay of uranium, which exists in rocks and soil. It exists in high levels in mines, caves, and water treatment facilities, and can also be found in homes, particularly in basements and other areas in contact with the ground. You won’t know whether it is in your home unless you test for it, and it’s worth testing for: Next to smoking, radon is the second most-frequent cause of lung cancer. You can check to see if you live in a radon-heavy zone in the United States through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Radon sources:

  • Ground-level rooms and water

Tips for reducing radon exposure:

  • Seal floors and walls.
  • Increase under-floor ventilation and overall ventilation.
  • Close the basement off from the rest of the house, if possible.
  • If you are concerned about radon in your drinking water, have it tested through a drinking water testing laboratory. It can be removed through treatment technologies, such as aeration or granular activated carbon.

2. Formaldehyde

Interesting fact: Despite formaldehyde’s notoriety for its toxicity, it played a fundamental role in developing the organic carbon solids in our primitive solar system. Formaldehyde exists in nature and also various home products and materials; because it dissipates over time, newer homes tend to have higher levels of formaldehyde. You can test the level of formaldehyde in your home with do-it-yourself kits; however, these are frequently inaccurate—it is best to have a trained professional test your air.

Your reaction to formaldehyde can depend on your sensitivity and the duration your of exposure—symptoms can include sore throat, cough, itchy eyes, and nosebleeds. Formaldehyde can also cause cancer.   

Formaldehyde sources:

  • Insulation materials, tobacco smoke, grocery bags (and other paper materials), pressed-wood products, cosmetics, deodorant, and shampoo

Tips for reducing formaldehyde exposure:

  • Buy solid hardwood flooring and furniture, rather than particleboard, which can come with a glue that contains formaldehyde.
  • Do not smoke—especially indoors.
  • Keep the temperature and humidity in your home as low as comfortably possible, because increases in heat and moisture can increase levels of formaldehyde.
  • Circulate fresh air through your home with open windows whenever you can. 

3. Brominated Flame Retardants

There are more than 75 types of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) available commercially, and they are used to inhibit the flammability of different materials, from natural fiber to household furniture to plastics. Unfortunately, they do not stick to the materials, but filter into your environment. Not all countries deliver equal exposure—women’s breast milk in the United States contains a higher level of BFRs than women’s breast milk in any other country. Your body accumulates BFRs in fat tissue, and long-term accumulation can cause disruption of the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems; neurobehavioral toxicity; and cancer. 

BFR sources:  

  • Paint, textiles, paper, furniture, mattresses, electronics, office equipment, carpet padding, and smoke detectors

Tips for reducing BFR exposure:

  • When possible, buy furniture and mattresses that do not contain flame retardants.
  • Get rid of products that include foam made before 2005—this foam is likely to contain more dangerous BRFs that have since been taken off the market.
  • Invest in a HEPA-sealed vacuum cleaner, which traps toxins when you use it. Avoid using a broom if possible—it just stirs dust and accumulated toxins into your air.
  • Watch the amount of meat you consume; poultry and red meat can contain high levels of BFRs. 

4. Heavy Metals: Lead and Mercury

Many heavy metals exist in trace amounts in your body but can pose significant health threats with relatively low-level exposure. Lead and mercury are the most-frequent causes of heavy metal poisoning. Lead can cause neurological, gastrointestinal, kidney, and bone marrow toxicity and neurodevelopmental defects. Mercury poisoning can be marked by headaches, low back pain, weakness, fatigue, tremors, and hallucinations. Efforts are being made to reduce the use of lead and mercury in the sources listed below.

Lead and mercury sources:

  • Lead: paint and gasoline
  • Mercury: dental and medical equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, amalgam fillings, and seafood

Tips for reducing lead and mercury:

  • If your house was built before 1978, woodwork or other surfaces could be covered with lead paint. Call an expert if you wish to remove lead paint; don’t try to do it yourself.
  • Beware of tuna, which can contain high levels of mercury. A 140-pound woman eating 4.5 ounces of albacore tuna each week would exceed the safe limit of mercury exposure established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Eat seafood lower on the food chain, and if you take a fish oil supplement, be sure to purchase a brand with a reputation for purity.
  • If you have amalgam fillings, discuss with your dentist whether it would benefit you to remove them. Make sure your dentist is committed to following safe protocols for amalgam filling removal.

5. Particle Pollution

The particles that compose particle pollution can range from dust, mold, and fungus particles to chemical compounds from fuel emissions. It may come as no surprise that the number one source of air pollution in many cities is automobile emissions. Other sources of emissions can contribute as well: According to Dr. Bonnie Sager, the cofounder of Citizen’s Appeal for Leaf Blower Moderation, the landscaping industry accounts for up to 10 percent of air pollution in the United States—and the gas leaf blower is “one of the worst offenders,” depositing 30 percent of its raw gasoline back into the air.

Particle pollution can contribute to the development of heart and lung disease, asthma attacks, and lung cancer.

Particle pollution sources:

  • Diesel- and gasoline-powered vehicles, lawn equipment, factories, wood-burning and gas stoves, wind-blown dust, damp areas (causing mold growth), and forest fires

Tips for reducing particle pollution:

  • Instead of gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and weed whackers, use electrical machines.
  • Don’t idle your car, and take public transportation or carpool whenever possible to lessen your contribution to environmental pollution.
  • Check fuel-burning furnaces, hot water heaters, and gas ranges in your home annually to make sure exhaust systems are adequate.
  • Prevent mold from growing in your home by monitoring humidity levels (especially in your basements and bathrooms) and addressing water-stained areas.

There are many environmental toxins in addition to those mentioned in this article, but don’t feel discouraged. Every bit of reduction in exposure can help. Also, healthy life choices—such as stress management, exercise, adequate sleep, and good nutrition—can go a long way in building your body’s ability to detox.

For a comprehensive list of toxins and their related diseases, visit the Toxic Substances Portal available through the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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About the Author

Valerie Sjoberg, L.Ac.

Acupuncturist, Holistic Health Coach, Writer, and Editor
Valerie’s interest in healing began in her early twenties when doctors told her she would need to give up running and other physical activities forever due to debilitating back injuries. This spurred an exploration into mind-body and alternative medicine, which ultimately healed her back and allowed her to resume the activities she loved. Today, she works as an acupuncturist and health coach to help activate others’ self-healing abilities, and is inching toward a master's degree in nutrition and functional medicine. She is also a professional writer and aims to accumulate enough words and inspiration to write a novel someday.Read more