I know these are tough financial times for many people and you might be looking for areas where you can cut back on costs. There is one item you shouldn’t ignore – water filters. Using a filter past its expiration date can be dangerous for your health. All the toxic gunk that’s been adsorbing to the filter over time will start leaching out once the filter surfaces are saturated, meaning there’s no more room for toxic chemicals to bind. And it’s not just that the contaminated water will pass through without being cleaned, it will start pushing out the accumulated toxic chemicals, resulting in a far more contaminated drink of water.

A similar phenomenon happens when municipalities and farmers construct wetlands to filter out the nutrients flowing from sewage treatment plants or off fertilized fields. The wetlands work well for a while. Nutrients, like phosphate and nitrogen, are trapped by organic-rich soils, some are transformed by microbes, and much cleaner water flows out into receiving waters. A forever solution, right? Not exactly. The wetlands can become supersaturated (overloaded) and become a source of high concentrations of nutrients to the streams and rivers they flow into.

That’s what will happen to your water filter if you keep using it beyond its capacity (see the figure). And the lead, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals that have been accumulating on the filter will start leaching into your drinking water. You may or may not be able to taste these chemicals, since your body didn’t evolve to detect them. So please don’t wait until your water tastes bad to change that filter.

So, what to do if you don’t have the funds to buy new water filters? Unless you live in a city that has poor water treatment (think Flint) or drink from a well containing pathogens, toxic chemicals, or high levels of nutrients like nitrate, don’t switch to buying plastic water bottles, which can leach toxic chemicals and release microplastics into your water. Instead, drink from the tap until your financial situation improves and you can buy water filters again.


(Source, iStock)

The recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexi Navalny1 brings to mind the parallel histories of neurotoxic chemicals used in chemical warfare and as insecticides on crops.

Just before World War II, German scientists tasked with developing insecticides to protect crops wound up creating a chemical so toxic that it was repurposed and weaponized for use in war.2 More recently, Russian spy services have been known to poison dissidents with neurotoxic chemicals,3 including, perhaps, Navalny.

So, what’s the difference between chemical weapons/poisons and insecticides? Certainly, there is a wide range in toxicity, with insecticides being far less toxic than chemical weapons. The poison used against Navalny appears to have been a cholinesterase inhibitor,1 as are some insecticides, which also disrupt neurotransmitter pathways. This is an important pathway in nervous systems for both humans and insects. We’re not so different from bugs after all – we’re  also vulnerable to harm from some chemicals used to control insects.

Crop Duster

A crop duster applies chemicals to a field of vegetation. (Source, Fotolia)

Studies showed particular concern for one of these chemicals that’s been used in agriculture – chlorpyrifos. Due to strong evidence of neurotoxicity to children,4 the EPA was on track to limit its use; however, the current administration’s EPA overruled those concerns to continue allowing farmers to treat crops with chlorpyrifos.5 It’s not only children who are also vulnerable to harm from pesticides, people with greater lifetime exposure have been shown to have a higher risk of getting Parkinson’s,6 including whether they were exposed to farming operations through farming or living nearby.

Rachel Carson said it best in her book, Silent Spring:

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

What can you do to reduce your exposure to neurotoxic pesticides? Buying organic foods, not just produce, can lower your body burden of these toxic chemicals.7,8 I realize that this may not be affordable for everyone. One way to reduce your exposure with minimal cost is to use the Environmental Working Group’s resources to figure out which conventionally-grown produce to avoid (the Dirty Dozen) and which are less contaminated (the Clean Fifteen). And, if you can afford to do so, donate to EWG to thank them for doing this work.

Finally, some consider organic foods an elitist issue. But it’s truly an environmental justice issue. The people most exposed to toxic pesticides are those who work in the fields and live nearby. Buying organic helps reduce their exposure.

I hope that Navalny not only survives but recovers fully. And, that we shift production of our food supply away from use of toxic chemicals that not only contaminate our food but also local communities and the workers that are most exposed.


  1. Navalny Was Poisoned, But His Life Isn’t in Danger, German Hospital Says. NPR, August 24, 2020.
  2. Everts, S. 2016. The Nazi Origins of Deadly Nerve Gases. Chemical and Engineering News, volume 94.
  3. Groll, E. 2018. A Brief History of Attempted Russian Assassinations by Poison. Foreign Policy, March 9 issue.
  4. Rauh, V. et al. 2011. Seven-year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119:1196-1201.
  5. EPA’s Wheeler Keeps Brain Damaging Pesticide Legal for Use on Foods Kids Eat. EWG.org, July 18, 2019.
  6. Gilbert, R. 2018. The Relationship Between Pesticides and Parkinson’s. American Parkinson Disease Association (apdaparkinson.org).
  7. Lu, C. et al. 2006. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114:260-263.
  8. Hyland, C. et al. 2019. Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary pesticide levels in S. children and adults. Environmental Research, 171:568-575.


Inspired by a friend’s question about the damage carbonated waters might do to teeth, which can be demineralized by acidic solutions, I did a Sunday-morning experiment to test the acidity (low pH) of various sources of water, including (from left to right): a mineral water (Perrier), two seltzer waters (LeCroix & Arrowhead), lemon water, and tap water.
Using pH strips, I determined that the Perrier was the only water that wasn’t acidic, having a pH between 7 (neutral) and 8 (slightly basic). Tap water and Arrowhead were slightly acidic having a pH between 6 and 7. The LeCroix was more acidic, having a pH around 4. And the winner for very acidic, with a pH around 3, was the lemon water. I’d hypothesized that the Perrier would be non-acidic because of the buffering of minerals and that was correct.
Bottom line: if you want to protect your teeth, be careful about drinking a lot of acidic drinks like lemon water and beverages like LeCroix. The safest bubbly beverage would be mineral water like Perrier.

Earlier this month, I posted about how processed foods can become contaminated by things like plasticizers from packaging and other sources. Not only are those chemicals bad for your health, a new study (1) shows that participants who ate the heavily processed diet gained weight, whereas those given un- or minimally-processed foods actually lost weight. The two groups were offered unlimited amounts. The researchers noticed that participants in the processed diet group ate more.

NiceCreamThis reminded me of something I noticed a few weeks ago when I made myself a batch of “Nice Cream”, a frozen banana and cocoa concoction that hits the spot when I’m craving ice cream. As someone who’s both lactose-intolerant and dealing with higher cholesterol levels, it’s best for me to avoid indulging in frozen dairy desserts. But after serving myself some of the “Nice Cream”, I noticed that I was satisfied with a small amount (see picture). Quite the opposite happens when I unwisely bring home a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, it’s a struggle to stop before downing the whole pint.

As a continuation of the recipe hacks I posted earlier, here’s a recipe for “Nice Cream”. Feel free to create your own version!

Chocolate “Nice Cream”

  • 2 bananas, frozen in their skins (you may need to soften slightly for 30 minutes in the fridge if your freezer is set low)
  • 1/4 unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

Peel bananas and place pieces in the food processor. Add cocoa and other ingredients. Blend until smooth but not completely thawed. Serve immediately or transfer to glass storage container and place in the freezer. Alternates to cocoa – strawberries or mango with the banana make a great sorbet-type dessert.


  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/05/16/723693839/its-not-just-salt-sugar-fat-study-finds-ultra-processed-foods-drive-weight-gain


With plastics, and the chemicals associated with them, so prevalent in our world, it’s not surprising that much of our food is contaminated by plasticizers (see previous post). So what do you do to reduce these chemicals in your diet?

The best approach is to eliminate all processed food. But that’s not always possible. A better approach is to take a look at your diet to find out where you’re getting the most processed food or ingredients. Focus on those and make are some substitutions to reduce phthalates in your diet without giving up all of the foods you love.

In this post, I’ve come up with several examples of recipe hacks where I’ve replaced the most processed ingredient in the original recipe with a less- or un-processed version. I’ve also flagged other ingredients in the recipes for substitution, because they too may be contaminated by plasticizers or because they contain added ingredients that may also be unhealthy. The three examples are:

  • Cheesy boxes of quick-cook pasta, so popular with kids (and quite a few adults)
  • Pasta salad
  • Smoothies that contain protein powders

Cheese_Powder copy

Cheese powder versus the real deal

The first recipe hack is boxed macaroni and cheese. A recent study (1) showed higher levels of phthalates in the powdered cheese than in real cheese, though they measured some in samples of that as well. It’s not a surprise that food like cheese would have phthalates, since plastic is likely present in milking operations, as well as cheese-making machinery and packaging. But cheese is less processed than the packaged powder in boxed mac and cheese products.

  • Recipe hack for boxed mac and cheese? Make a cheese sauce the old fashioned way by making a roux (oil or butter with flour) then adding cheese that you’ve shredded. Let the sauce cool and pour single servings into a wax-paper-lined cupcake pan (make sure you have enough wax paper to fully wrap the cheese sauce. Freeze. I’ll use a plastic bag or large glass container to store the wax-paper-wrapped sections until you’re ready to make a batch of mac and cheese.
  • Note – this just reduces the phthalates in the cheese product, not the oil, flour, or macaroni.

SaladPicsThe second example of a recipe that I’ve altered is the pre-made greek pasta salad that comes with spinach, feta, onions and one of my favorites, orzo pasta. But the presence of a highly processed pasta wasn’t the healthiest and made me wonder about what else was being introduced to my diet.


  • Instead of processed orzo pasta, use unprocessed wheat berries in the recipe (they take longer to cook – I start them while I’m making breakfast).
  • Add in more unprocessed ingredients like spinach and tomatoes.
  • Replace bottle vinaigrette dressing (which may contain unhealthy ingredients) with a home-made oil and vinegar dressing seasoned with garlic and herbs.
  • Note – feta cheese will likely contain phthalates. You can just leave it out or sprinkle in less.

the whey protein in scoop

(Picture from Ref 2)

Finally, the third recipe hack focuses on protein powders used for smoothies, which are intended to be super healthy but can contain ingredients that are anything but (2) and are heavily processed. I started making green smoothies for breakfast several years ago. For the first several months, I used a commercial protein powder that contained sweeteners and many other ‘interesting’ ingredients. Beyond the fact that it didn’t taste very good, I also cringed a bit as I read the list of ingredients. I decided to seek out a ‘cleaner’ product. I found a pea protein powder that had no other listed ingredients and switched to that. But just as higher levels of phthalates are present in powdered cheese than the real deal, I realized that pea protein powder is far removed from just plain peas. I tried putting peas in the smoothie but they tended to wind up at the bottom in a green sludge. Yuck. It occurred to me that the nut butter and milk that I used in the smoothie might provide enough protein without the processed protein powder and they did. I’ve never looked back.

  • My morning smoothie recipe is now much less processed (for a sweeter smoothie, add half a banana):
  • spinach or other greens
  • blueberries
  • ground flax seeds
  • a tablespoon of nut butter
  • spices (turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger)
  • soy or nut milk.

Bottom line to reduce phthalates in your diet: skip heavily processed powders or ingredients and use as much ‘real’ food as possible.


  1. http://kleanupkraft.org/data-summary.pdf
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-hidden-dangers-of-protein-powders


Plastic carrier bags and other garbage pollution in ocean

Plastic Trash (Fotolia)

Oh, that prophetic line from the movie The Graduate. There’ve been a lot of stories lately about plastic in our environment, thanks to the hundreds of millions of tons produced globally each year.1 Because it’s so convenient, plastic is a tough habit to break. So why bother? Plastics and their additives cause problems at all stages in what we call their lifecycle and for our health. And plastics that contain halogens (chlorine, bromine, and fluorine), like vinyl (PVC), nonstick products, and those containing flame retardants, are even more problematic from start to finish.

What is the lifecycle of plastic?

  • First, there’s the production stage. Most plastic is produced from fossil fuels, like petroleum and natural gas. When these are extracted from the earth, they can contaminate air and water resources.
  • Then there’s the consumer stage. Look around your home and in your shopping bags to see just how many products are either made from or are wrapped in plastic. Another source that you can’t see is what leaches into your food during processing.
  • Finally, there’s the disposal stage. Though much plastic is interred in landfills, many tons have escaped and is now circling our oceans or spoiling beaches. Though developed countries like the U.S. successfully capture 99% of plastic waste, countries in East Asia and the Pacific lose around 60% to littering or improper disposal.1 Also, incineration of trash containing halogenated plastics generates very toxic molecules like dioxins.

The lifecycle stage that has the most impact on you and your family’s health is the middle one, i.e. what makes it into your home and your body. You may wonder how something ‘inert’ like plastic, meaning it doesn’t decompose or damage products, can be toxic to you? It’s not like you intentionally chew on the wrapping that your sandwich came in, right? Though most plastics are very large molecules that your body can’t absorb, there are smaller molecules associated with them that are absorbed into your bloodstream from the food you eat or across your skin. These include additives like phthalates that make plastics soft and pliable, components of hard plastics like bisphenols, or grease-proof linings made from perfluorinated chemicals. And recent studies have shown that the fish we eat for dinner may now be contaminated by microplastics, another route of exposure for us.2

These smaller molecules are the chemicals that are problematic for your health, particularly for children and developing fetuses. For example, phthalates have been shown in animal studies to impair male sexual health, with similar problems showing up in humans who were exposed to higher levels of these chemicals during gestation.3 BPA, and it’s substitutes, have been shown to cause genetic damage and interfere with estrogen receptors in animal studies.4

How do these chemicals get into your food? Studies have shown that processed foods contain higher levels of phthalates than whole, unprocessed foods. For example, processed cheese products were recently analyzed for phthalates. Cheese powder contained higher levels than regular cheeses, though they were also contaminated by these chemicals.5 In other words, the more food is handled prior to getting to you, the higher the levels of plastic components it will likely contain. And a recent study showed that people who eat out more often had higher levels of both phthalates and BPA in their bodies.6 Finally, storing your food in plastic creates more opportunities for these chemicals to leach into your food. These molecules are especially prone to breaking off or leaching out of plastic containers when you heat food in them.

There are some great resources about breaking the plastic habit – I’ve added links to a couple at the end of this blog if you want to dive into a plastic-free (or at least, less plastic-filled) life. I recommend that you try going plastic-free for a month. You’ll discover how many ways you use plastic in the kitchen and shift your practices to reduce your exposure for the long term.

Finally, though it may seem overwhelming to try to reduce plastic in the world, particularly when its use is so prevalent by manufacturers, stores, and restaurants, there are some things you can do to have an impact. First is not buying products that are processed or heavily packaged. Second, let companies know you want them to reduce their use of plastic. Trader Joe’s, which is a heavy user of plastic, finally listen to consumers and has promised to reduce packaging.

FoodJarsHere are a few easy ways to break the plastic habit in your kitchen:

  • Eat more whole, unprocessed food.
  • Replace plastic storage containers with glass and stainless steel and bags with mesh or fabric. On a budget? Reuse glass jars from sauces/condiments or invest in some canning jars, though these don’t work for reheating your food. I reheat and store leftovers in a dish covered by a plate.
  • Never cook in plastic. Use heat-resistant glass, stainless steel, or cast iron. Be careful about using non-stick pans, even when they claim to be “green”.

For more info, check out these resources for great suggestions on reducing plastic from your life, especially in your kitchen:

  • zerowastechef.com has great resources for eliminating plastic and other waste in your life.
  • https://myplasticfreelife.com/, Plastic-Free, Beth Terry


Selected references

  1. OurWorldInData.org/plastic-pollution.
  2. Occurrence of Microplastics in Commercial Fish from a Natural Estuarine Environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, volume 128 (575-584), 2018.
  3. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/ohat/phthalates/dehp/dehp-monograph.pdf
  4. BPA Substitutes May Be Just as Bad as the Popular Consumer Plastic. Science, September 13, 2018.
  5. http://kleanupkraft.org/data-summary.pdf
  6. Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 124 (1521-8), 2016.

Got Organic: Cereal & Beer?

January 29, 2019

breadgrainscereal2When you’re looking to avoid pesticides in your diet, it’s important to go beyond organic produce. A good place to start is grains, such as cereal, bread, pasta, etc. These crops are also treated with pesticides, especially grains engineered (GMOs) to be resistant to herbicides like glyphosate, which is now considered a probable carcinogen to humans by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer).

Pesticides in grains aren’t cleared from the food by the time crops are harvested, which means some of the residues make it into your cereal box or loaf of bread and ultimately into your body. Studies, including those by the FDA, EWG, and others, have detected many pesticides in grain-based foods, some at levels exceeding what is considered safe, though there are disagreements on what safe levels are. Because use of pesticides is so widespread, even organic crops can become contaminated, though at much lower levels than those grown ‘conventionally’, e.g. with pesticides.

So buying products made with organic grains can help reduce your exposure to these toxic chemicals. Also, as more of us switch to organic foods, we can reduce the presence of pesticides in our environment, as we support farmers who crop without them. And don’t forget products made with grains. A recent study on German beers, which are made with grains, showed residues of glyphosate.

A Toxic-free New Year

January 1, 2019

14502768_539160869614590_3277597365892536645_nJoin me in 2019 for tips on creating a cleaner diet, free of many of the toxic chemicals that come from the use of pesticides, processing, packaging, and environmental contamination.

There are numerous sources of problematic chemicals in our diets and many ways that they find their way into our food and water. It can be overwhelming to deal with all the possibilities at once. To help with this, I’ll tackle one key issue each month in 2019. I’ll also be providing advice for small steps you can take to clear toxic chemicals from your diet and reduce your body’s toxic burden.

These posts come from a book I’m writing on this subject. Over the last several years, I’ve given presentations on where toxins come from in our diets and what we can do to reduce them. In addition to this blog, join me on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DocLaurel) and Twitter (@Laurel_Standley) for more information.

fresh fruits and vegetables

Let’s start the year right by transitioning to or increasing your consumption of organic foods, meaning those grown without pesticides that are used to control weeds and insects. So why eat organic foods rather than conventional? Studies on animals and in people who’ve had higher exposures to some pesticides show links to health issues such as cancer, brain damage, and reproductive impairment. When you decide to ‘go organic’, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing effort – you can do as much or as little in a way that works for you. The best way to get the biggest bang for your buck is to switch to organic for the foods most likely to contain the highest levels of problematic pesticides. Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the dirtiest dozen foods, as well as a list of the cleanest fifteen (www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php). So if you can’t afford to go all in for organic foods, use their resource to help you choose which conventional foods to stay away from. And, if you can afford to do so, I highly recommend donating to EWG to help support their work in this important area.

fresh fruits and vegetablesThere are many reasons to follow a vegan, or the newest trend, “seagan” diet, which includes fish. Many studies have shown significantly lower rates of cancer and heart disease in vegans and pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish) than in people eating a meat-based diet. And for vegans, it is a choice to avoid harm to animals by eating only plant-based foods.

There’s another benefit to eating a plant-based diet. Because our environment has become contaminated by decades of industrial production, there are no truly pollutant-free places left on the planet, with some places more contaminated than others. Although both plants and animals are exposed to pollutants such as PCBs, mercury, and dioxins, animals like cattle and chickens accumulate these chemicals at up to a million times higher levels than plants and store them in their fatty tissues. Fish also accumulate pollutants at high levels when they’re reared in contaminated environments.

Consequently in addition to what we’re exposed to in our environments, eating animal products that are high in fats like meat, cheese, and butter greatly increase the transfer of these pollutants into our bodies. This is of concern because these toxins are harmful to our neurological and reproductive health.

tunaSo why would vegans eat fish? Adding seafood to a plant-based diet can help you overcome nutritional deficits like inadequate levels of the brain-healthy omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although plants like walnuts and flax have omega-3 fats, it is primarily alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) instead of EPA and DHA and studies have not shown links between consuming ALA to improved brain health.

If your concern as a vegan is to avoid animal-based products or you want to reduce your exposure to fat-based contaminants, then you can choose to include algal sources of fats in your diet, either through supplements, or eating sea-based veggies like kelp. Because algae are plants, they are often much less contaminated than fish. Just make sure you’re choosing products that have been grown in clean waters.

However, if you want to include fish in your diet, these are the best steps to take to avoid getting a hefty dose of toxic chemicals along with your meal:

  1. Eat lower on the food chain. Small fish like sardines and herring tend to have lower levels of toxins than predator fish and, if you like tuna, go for “canned light” over albacore or ahi, which have higher levels of the neurotoxin mercury.
  2. Choose wild-caught fish from cleaner waters (I recommend checking one of the great fish consumption guides from the Environmental Defense Fund or the Natural Resources Defense Council).

Bottom line: the more organic, unprocessed, and plant-based foods you include in your diet, the lower your risk of disease and exposure to toxic chemicals so prevalent in our environment. And if you add fish to your vegan diet, make sure you use a guide to choose cleaner options to reduce your exposure to pollutants.

What’s that in my food?

October 2, 2016

inglabelParticipating in #OctoberUnprocessed this year gives me another opportunity to take a closer look at what’s really in the food I eat. Thousands of ingredients are added to foods for sale in the U.S. and can include chemicals that act as preservatives, change texture or appearance, or add flavor. These must be listed on ingredient labels unless they are present at “trace” levels and have no functional purpose in the food.

Later this month I’ll post on health effects associated with some of these ingredients. But today I want to talk about how to choose foods that are free of potentially toxic ingredients. One approach I’ve heard is to choose foods with no more than five ingredients listed on the label. Another is to avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or identify. The second approach is probably the safest bet, since many foods made from whole foods can contain more than five ingredients and still be healthy – like ten bean soup, for example. The only limit to this approach is that some botanicals (e.g. plants) have Latin names that even a chemist like me struggles with identifying.

It’s also a good idea to skip ingredients with generic names like “flavors”, which can consist of a mixture of human-made chemicals, or “natural”, which is no guarantee that the ingredient has not been altered from its natural state. Keep in mind, avoiding unrecognizable ingredients in your food does not protect you from exposure to other chemicals that leach from packaging or are formed as byproducts of processing.

Bottom line: Just as it is possible to avoid many pesticides in food by choosing organic products, you can avoid artificial ingredients by reading food labels and skipping anything other than those you recognize as a whole food, like apples, beans, or oregano.

Share your strategies for avoiding potentially toxic ingredients in the foods you love (of course there will be a post on chocolate later this month).