How to minimise toxic exposures

Toxins can come from the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat as well as many of the household items you come into contact with every day. But there are some positive steps you can take to protect you and your family both at home and in the workplace.

With over 20 years of supporting people to stay healthy in Hong Kong we’ve consolidated some key pointers to help increase your awareness of toxicity alongside some practical actions you can take.

1. Air pollutants

In Hong Kong, we are particularly vulnerable to pollution in the air as the pollutants become trapped between the city’s numberous high-rises and infiltrating our homes and offices. By WHO’s standard, we only get about 50 safe air days per year in Hong Kong.

IMI Founding director Graeme Bradshaw provides research based guidance and practical tips on how to best manage air pollution. You can find them in the airticle Surviving Hong Kong air pollution.

Inside our homes and offices, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are synthetic and natural substances that are emitted from everyday products and are the cause of indoor air pollution. Construction material, paints, furniture and even toys and soft furnishings all expel VOCs into the air. Formaldehyde is a particularly harmful VOC causing respiratory and gastrointestinal allergies and irritation to the eyes. It is a listed carcinogen, yet it is found in just about every furnishing in the home.

Furniture and carpets

A simple remedy is to place several green tea bags in drawers and other furnishings that emit formaldehyde. Change the tea bags every two months for optimal effect. Drinking green tea can also reduce the symptoms associated with formaldehyde exposure.

Avoid furniture with a plastic coating or if it emits a strong smell. Look for furniture with low VOC emissions or second-hand furniture that has already off-gassed. Carpets can emit VOCs and also conceal bacteria and mould. If you have access to an outdoor space, even the roof of your building, air the carpets regularly.

HEPA filters and plants

Invest in Highly Efficient Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration systems with carbon filters such as Amaircare and Alen BreathSmart to purify the indoor air. A HEPA system cleans the indoor air we breathe by removing harmful particulates that pose health problems like asthma, allergies and lung disease, and the carbon filter removes airborne VOCs.

Regularly clean and replace filters in all of your air-conditioners, heaters and de-humidifiers.

A natural way to freshen the indoor air is with plants. Research by NASA has found that certain plants produce fresh air, even in closed spaces. These include the mother-in-law tongue, the money plant, and the areca palm.

2. Moulds

In households, fungi or moulds thrive in warm, moist conditions that can exist in musty cupboards, damp floors, basements and ceilings with poor ventilation or in homes where the humidity is over 50% for long periods. In Hong Kong humidity over 80% is normal for much of the year allowing mould build-up in the home. By the time musty smells are noticed or dark spots are seen on the walls, millions of mould spores are being released (causing the odour). These spores are often very toxic and always a strain on immunity. Poor health is regularly associated with living in mouldy, damp environments. Favoured sites for domestic mould growths can include vegetable containers, refrigerator drip-trays, garbage cans and household plants as well as sinks, laundry areas, shower recesses and wet wall areas. Regular cleaning of these areas with bleach will assist to minimize mould growths.

We recommend that you leave windows open during lower humidity periods to allow your home to breath in the damp areas. In areas of high humidity, closing windows and dehumidifying is needed regularly. Leave open cupboard doors and draws open when the dehumidifier is moved into a bedroom. Close the bedroom door and windows, and leave on for several hours, twice weekly.

Bathrooms are popular havens for mould. Wash tiles and grout frequently with bleach. If there is a false ceiling in bathroom, look above the ceiling tiles. Check corners behind toilet, under sink – wherever moisture is apt to collect.

Since dehumidifiers and air conditioners are constantly exposed to dampness, check them frequently for musty smell. Spray with a mould inhibitor or wipe with a bleached cloth regularly.

Burning clove oil, lemon grass, or cinnamon oils in aromatherapy burners is very effective and recommended. We recommend Theives Household Cleaner, which is a combination of clove and cinnamon oil—as well as pleasant aromas of essential oils from lemon peel, eucalyptus and rosemary.

3. Filter your water

Lead exposure usually comes from lead-paint dust, and as we’ve recently found in Hong Kong, from materials used in the installation of water pipes. Lead accumulates in the liver and brain and is very damaging to children. When there is no obvious cause for a child’s poor health or behaviour, or they are showing signs of developmental delays, parents should consider a screening for heavy metal toxicity.

We strongly recommend every family in Hong Kong to invest in a high quality water filtration system such as Doulton and Jupiter Orion Ionizer. They are proven to remove up to 99% of chlorine, fluoride, arsenic and yes, lead.

4. What to eat

Our bodies are designed to digest and process real whole foods like fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meat, fish and chicken, dairy and nuts. Choose foods high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and those that are organic or free-range for higher levels of nutritional content, to avoid pesticides and to support the planet.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental research organisation, there is growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can adversely affect people especially during vulnerable periods of fetal development and childhood when exposure can have long-lasting effects.

Although organic produce grown in Hong Kong is becoming more available and affordable there are times when a cheaper alternative is needed. EWG’s annual Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce and Clean Fifteen list non-organic produce with the lowest pesticide levels. You can download the guide here:

Fighting off free radical damage with antioxidants in the form of vitamins C and E, polyphenols and anthocyanins; fruits and vegetables are a major source of essential vitamins and minerals and foods particularly rich in antioxidants include: broccoli, garlic, green tea, berries, kiwifruit, sweet potatoes and papaya. We recommend that you eat more organic produce. On average, organic produce gives you 80% more antioxidants than conventionally grown foods.

5. What not to eat

EWG’s Dirty Dozen is at the other end of the Shoppers Guide and lists the foods with the highest pesticide levels. According to the EWG, “you can reduce pesticide exposure by almost 90 per cent by avoiding these most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” They include: apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, potatoes, kale and collards and hot peppers.

The biggest risk from seafood consumption globally is the presence of mercury, which is a neuro-toxin. Tuna, shark, and swordfish are the most contaminated. Smaller fish are safer. Pregnant women are especially advised to avoid this toxic trio of mercury-contaminated fish. Other foods to avoid are animal processed foods such as sausages, bologna, salami and other preserved meat products, fast-food hamburgers, beef, pork, and liver products.

6. Food preparation

When organic options are not available wash all produce with a fruit and vegetable wash. Washing and rinsing produce with only water may reduce levels of some pesticides but it does not eliminate them. Peeling may also reduces exposure but valuable nutrients often go down the drain wit the peel. The “veggie wash” contains mild detergents that lift off much of the oil-based pesticides that are sprayed on plants.

Soft plastics contain hormone-disrupting toxins such as phthalates that can leach into foods. Phthalates have been linked to hormonal imbalances in children and breast cancer in women. Hard plastics with a higher recycling code are a safer choice. For food storage use glass, ceramic, or stainless steel.

7. Read the label and choose natural

Commercial soaps, laundry detergents and household cleaning products contain synthetics, fragrances and chemicals that cause skin irritations. Parabens are chemical preservatives found in many cosmetics and pharmaceutical products, as well as some processed foods, and have been linked to breast cancer.

Look for paraben-free products and those with natural ingredients you can recognise. Opt for the highest-quality natural products and brands that you can find and afford.

At home try cleaning with hot water, bicarb soda and vinegar or other natural cleaning products or the above mentioned, Thieves Household Cleaner and microfiber cloths.

Most dry-cleaners use perchloroethylene (also called perc), a chemical that has been found to cause cancer in animals. Inhaling this chemical is potentially harmful, and can cause skin irritations. Opt for hand washing delicate garments rather than dry cleaning.

8. Build up your immunity

A weak immune system is more vulnerable to surrounding pollutants; having a diet with plenty of essential vitamins and minerals such as A, C, E, zinc and iron is a good start to boosting immunity. Often, even a healthy diet may not offer enough of these key vitamins and minerals. IMI stocks high quality supplements that can be absorbed easily by the body to boost these essential nutrients.

A common, but often neglected cause of a weakened immune system in children is vitamin D deficiency. Although sun exposure is the major source of vitamin D, we are unlikely to see enough sun in the winter months and from February to October in Hong Kong, as it is often too hot to go outdoors for long periods without sunscreen. When sunscreen is applied, this inhibits the production of vitamin D from sun exposure. To boost vitamin D levels, Vitamin D3 Forte Drops are ideal for children as they taste good and are easily added to food and drinks.

9. De-stress

Temperate weather with high pollution levels makes this the best and worst time to experience the beauty of Hong Kong’s country parks. Nevertheless, surrounding ourselves with green spaces is beneficial to our physical and mental health, and research is now providing real evidence of the benefits of spending time in nature.

Although exercise is not recommended on high pollution days, we do recommend getting out into a green space, a park or the country parks as a means to de-stress.

Whilst sitting in meditation or walking in nature, bringing a mindful awareness to your surroundings – the sounds – the smells – and the sights can relax and re-energise your mind and body.

10. Find the right detox program

Our body is masterfully designed to self-regulate and heal. It is eliminating and detoxifying every day. However, prolonged exposure to toxic pollutants can place a heavy burden on our body, compromising its normal function.

Typical fasts or juice cleansing no longer work effectively to remove these modern day toxins from our body. Your liver needs certain nutrients and support to properly detoxify the poisons released from the body fat, tissues and organs. Certain fasting programs deplete your body of these important nutrients and may do more bad than good.

Finding the right detox program is important. IMI’s detox program, designed and run by experienced naturopaths who truly understand how the liver and metabolism need to be cared for, provides several advantages over typical cleansing and fasts. High-quality nutrients, medical-food, herbal medicines, and homeopathic remedies are provided to support the detoxification process.