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Understanding Environmental Toxins and Their Impact on Health

Medically reviewed by 
Understanding Environmental Toxins and Their Impact on Health

Toxins can exist in your outdoor and indoor environment. These environmental toxins are everywhere, resulting in 7 million premature deaths annually from pollution. Reducing your exposure to these toxic elements is essential in decreasing the toxin-related health issues that may occur, such as asthma, cognitive decline, and hormone imbalances. This article will provide insights into the sources of environmental toxins to help you avoid them and some functional medicine approaches to support your body if exposed to them.


Common Types of Environmental Toxins

Understanding where environmental toxins stem from is important in assessing for exposure. Here are some common types of environmental toxins to be aware of: 

Air Pollutants

Air pollutants are the chemicals, biological or physical agents that modify the atmosphere of the indoor or outdoor environment. Such pollutants include industrial emissions, vehicle exhaust, and indoor pollutants. Industrial emissions from power plants and vehicle exhaust can cause particulate matter to form in the atmosphere. These pollutants are a significant public health concern and can lead to serious health problems. Indoor pollutants such as radon, naturally occurring radioactive gas, and tobacco smoke are also cause for concern, as these indoor pollutants can lead to lung cancer.

Water Contaminants

The Safe Drinking Water Act describes water contaminants as anything other than a water molecule. Some contaminants can be harmful if consumed at specific levels, and others are considered harmless. There are four categories of contaminants that may pose potential health risks if they are found in drinking water. The categories are physical, chemical, biological, and radiological. Physical contaminants are sediment from lakes, rivers, and streams and can impact water's physical appearance. Chemicals can be natural or man-made, including metals, toxins, nitrogen, bleach, pesticides, and drugs. Biological contaminants are microbes in the water, and radiological contaminants are chemical elements in the water that are unstable and emit radiation.

Soil Pollutant

The presence of toxic chemicals in high enough concentrations to pose a risk to humans or the ecosystem in the soil is considered soil pollution. Agricultural practices and industrial waste are two categories of man-made soil pollutants that can pose a risk to humans and the ecosystem if they exceed certain levels in the soil. Agricultural practices can cause soil pollution through pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and manure. In comparison, industrial waste is from factories, mills, and refineries that produce steel, textiles, drugs, glass, cement, and petroleum that can leach metals such as lead, arsenic, nickel, copper, and mercury into the soil.

Health Effects of Environmental Toxins

Environmental toxins from air and soil pollutants and water contaminants can cause various diseases that affect the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, and reproductive systems, even cancer. These pollutants are an important source of morbidity and mortality of diseases. Here are some details on the health effects caused by environmental toxins:

Respiratory System

Pollutants from household combustion devices, motor vehicles, and industrial facilities can cause acute and chronic respiratory issues such as asthma, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These particles can induce inflammation in the respiratory tract, increase the responsiveness to irritants, and may reduce lung function, causing bronchoconstriction. Common respiratory symptoms from pollutants can include coughing, phlegm, and wheezing. The constant exposure to this pollution can contribute to reducing the resilience of the respiratory system leading to these various diseases even in healthy people.

Cardiovascular System

Environmental toxins such as particulate matter can affect the cardiovascular system and cause an increased risk of heart disease and hypertension. These toxins can create systemic inflammation and oxidative stress impacting endothelial function, cardiac electrophysiology, and lipid metabolism. The increased incidence of cardiovascular issues from pollutants is higher for people with existing cardiovascular risk.

Nervous System

The nervous system is another body system that is affected by exposure to environmental toxins. Studies show an association between environmental toxins in utero and delays in developmental milestones, cognitive impairment, ADHD, and autistic disorders. The brain is the most affected target end-organ from environmental toxins leading to these various neurodevelopmental disorders. These toxins inhibit mitochondrial activity and cause excess levels of oxidative stress, leading to neuroinflammation and neuronal cell death.

Reproductive System

Toxins from heavy metals and chemicals are implicated in disrupting the reproductive system. Exposure to metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic can cause infertility. At the same time, exogenous chemicals that affect the reproductive system are called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Some of these EDCs include pesticides, BPA, and phthalates. These toxins can disrupt the endocrine system by causing imbalances of hormones such as estrogens, androgens, and thyroid.


Carcinogenic substances are chemicals and environmental radiation that can damage the DNA increasing the risk of cancer. Some of these substances include BPA, which can increase prostate and breast cancer. Other substances that increase cancer risk include formaldehyde from home and beauty products, PFCs from cookware, and fire retardants. Constant exposure to other pollutants, such as radon cigarette smoke, is also linked with lung cancer.

Vulnerable Populations

Children, pregnant women, and elderly individuals are at a greater risk of toxin-related health effects than generally healthy adults. Children are especially vulnerable as they have higher levels of exposure and are more sensitive. Children exposed to chemicals can experience disruptions in organ development that may be irreversible. For instance, exposure to lead, mercury, or solvents can cause brain cells to be destroyed in a child’s developing brain resulting in dysfunction that may be permanent. Another route children or infants may get exposed to is through the placenta. Pregnant women can inadvertently expose their children to these chemicals even before they are born through transplacental transfer, impacting fetal development. Many harmful effects may not be detected for years. Elderly individuals are another susceptible population at greater risk of toxin-related health effects. This population has a reduced ability to metabolize toxins. As we age, our kidneys and liver start to function less effectively, resulting in longer storage of toxins like pesticides in the body. The storage of these toxins can cause health problems in the elderly population that wouldn't usually occur in younger adults.

How to Test for Environmental Toxin Exposure

Functional medicine practitioners will often use specialty labs to evaluate toxin exposure. Here are some labs to consider in assessing the toxin exposure mentioned in this article:

Heavy Metal Test

Heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury can cause systemic inflammation leading to tissue damage and resulting in chronic health issues such as nervous system disorders. This Hair Elements Test from Doctor's Data can help identify increased levels of heavy metal exposure through a hair sample for evaluation, making this test clinically essential for toxin exposure.

Environmental Toxins Test

This Environmental Pollutants Profile (EPP) by US BioTek can assess various environmental toxins building up in your body, such as pesticides and other Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals leading to health issues such as hormonal imbalances. Evaluating these toxins allows for targeted treatments toward the detoxification of these chemicals.

Chemical Immune Reactivity Screen

The Array 11 – Chemical Immune Reactivity Screen by Cyrex Laboratories measures your immune response to chemicals which is also helpful in considering the health effects of various chemical exposures.

Additional Labs to Check 

Some additional labs to consider are the Hepatic Function Panel by Access Med Labs and a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP), as these can assess liver and kidney function. The liver and kidneys are essential organs for the detoxification of toxin exposure.


Mitigating Exposure and Protecting Health

Here are some integrative approaches to mitigating your exposure and protecting your health from environmental toxins:  

Nutrition That Helps With Detox

Avoidance is usually the first line of defense when considering nutritional plans to protect your health from toxin exposure. Toxins, such as heavy metals, can be consumed in seafood, drinking water, and even some supplements. Therefore it is essential to limit the amount of seafood intake, drink clean water sources, and ensure your supplements are properly sourced if you are at risk for health-related toxin exposure. 

Functional medicine practitioners often recommend a whole food, high fiber, plant-rich diet high in micronutrients to help protect the body from toxin exposure. Some of these foods include leafy greens and fruits such as berries that are high in nutrients such as folate and antioxidants. High-fiber foods include chia and flax seeds that can help with elimination.

Supplements and Herbs That Help With Detox

Here are some evidence-based nutrients and herbs that can help support your body's ability to detox.


Glutathione is considered the master antioxidant and can be a helpful player in assisting your liver in improving its detoxification function. This supplement can help improve oxidative stress that is associated with toxin exposure.

‍N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

‍NAC is known for being the precursor to the master antioxidant, glutathione, and is often recommended as an alternative to glutathione. It can scavenge free radicals to promote detoxification.

‍Vitamin C

‍Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is considered among the most active nutrients in reducing substances in living tissues. It's a powerful antioxidant to help eliminate heavy metals and is tolerable in the GI tract at up to 1 gram daily.

‍Milk Thistle

Silymarin is commonly known as Milk thistle. This herb has been shown to protect the liver and help inhibit free radicals from toxic substances.

‍Dietary Fiber

Fiber can bind to toxins to be eliminated through the gastrointestinal tract. The daily recommended dietary fiber intake for males ages 14 and up is 38 grams, and for females ages 14 and up is 26 grams.

At-Home Options for Removing Toxins

There are multiple options for you to remove toxins from your home. They include improving indoor air quality, filtering your drinking water, getting your home tested, and utilizing resources such as the EWG dirty dozen list. Improving indoor air quality involves using a portable air cleaner or upgrading your air filter in your HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system to reduce air pollution. Filtering your tap water can help reduce the contaminants in your drinking water. Small filtering systems can do the trick and also save on plastic bottle usage. Another way to remove toxins from your home is to get your home tested for lead and radon to ensure that you are exposed to those chemicals. Contacting your local health safety department can help with testing your home for lead, and there are home testing kits for radon. The EWG dirty dozen list provides a guide to help you shop for foods that contain the most pesticides. This list is updated annually and provides an option if you aren't able to purchase all foods organic.



Increased exposure to environmental toxins from air and soil pollution and water contaminants can wreak havoc on your health. These toxins can impact your respiratory, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems and can also lead to cancer. Populations such as children and older adults are especially vulnerable to environmental toxins. Fortunately, functional labs and home tests can assess exposure levels to help manage any toxin-related symptoms. Functional approaches such as nutritional plans and evidence-based supplements can also reduce the effects of these toxins. There are also at-home options to improve the quality of the indoor environment, such as filters for your air and drinking water. By using these various approaches, you can help minimize your exposure to pollutants and reduce your risk of the associated health issues.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
Learn More

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