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Have you heard of "toxin free living" or "chemical free living"? Maybe you've seen "toxin free" lotions or shampoos or baby toys? These days, when everything is "google-able" there's so much information available, but how do you know who to trust? Honestly, this has been something I've been interested in for years, but it's hard to find reliable information through all the noise.
And that's why when I met Samantha Radford (who has her PhD in this EXACT thing) I was so excited to get all the information I could from her (and share it with you). She's got incredibly valuable information on this topic.
I asked if she'd be willing to share some information with you guys in an interview-style post and she agreed! As you'll see, she generously answered ALL my burning questions to give you an overview on toxins, food, and your kids.
She's also created an online course to give you reliable, trusted information your toxin-free journey. I highly recommend it if you're wanting more information on how to live a less-toxic life.
Here's the interview!
Samantha, tell us about your background
Hi Megan! My name is Dr. Samantha Radford, and I got my PhD in Exposure Science back in 2012. Basically, my expertise combines chemistry and public health. I studied how people (especially moms and babies) are exposed to dangerous chemicals and what kinds of effects those chemicals can have.
From 2012-2019, I worked as a professor, teaching environmental chemistry and toxicology. Once I started having kids of my own (I have four children, ranging in age from 7 years to 6 months), the research I was doing in the lab started becoming real for me. I was able to apply all I learned in my years of lab work to keeping my family safe.
At the beginning of 2020, I chose to stay at home full-time with my family while sharing these important topics at my site, Evidence-based Mommy (which I started back in 2018). While it’s definitely a change of pace, I wouldn’t trade it
That's great! So what is your blog (Evidence Based Mommy) about?
Evidence-based Mommy is about empowering parents to thrive while raising kind, resilient kids. While that goal is often accomplished by sharing about chemicals found in the home, I also enjoy talking about parenting research. I discuss topics related to pregnancy and birth, as well as gentle discipline and responsive parenting.
What does toxin-free living mean to you, and why is it important to live toxin / chemical-free?
That’s kind of a loaded question. Try as we might, it’s impossible to live “chemical-free.” After all, water is a chemical! And if I’m being honest, it’s impossible to avoid all toxins, no matter how you try.
So to me, it’s more about being conscious of our choices and doing the best we can with what we have.
Okay, So...we’ve heard about pesticide exposure from food. Are there other toxic chemicals on food we need to know about?
Unfortunately, yes. There’s so much to think about with food. For example, some produce will take toxic metals (like lead or arsenic) up from the soil. So we can be exposed to these chemicals when we eat the food.
Food packaging is another biggie. Certain plastics (not all of them!) can contain hazardous chemicals as well.
And not only that, but certain methods of food prep, cooking, and storage can add more toxins to food. I address all these concerns in my course, The Chemical Safety Handbook for Families.
Is buying organic the best way to limit toxin exposure from food? What about the Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen?
For certain foods, it’s best to buy organic whenever possible. The Dirty Dozen (a list put together by the Environmental Working Group of produce containing the most pesticide residues) is a good place to start - buy the organic versions of things like strawberries and spinach, for example.
For other foods, it matters much less whether you buy organic. The Environmental Working Group also put together a list called the Clean Fifteen - produce that contains very little pesticide. You don’t really have to spring for organic on these.
The important thing to remember is that, regardless of whether you can afford organic, you and your kids need to be eating fruits and vegetables. If your choice is to either feed your kid a conventional (non-organic) apple or no apple at all, just get the apple and don’t stress.
How would you recommend cleaning food to get the pesticide off? Does a simple rinse work?
Washing your fruits and vegetables with water and a gentle scrub is a great way to remove pesticide residue. You don’t need any soap or fancy wash products.
Are kids more susceptible to negative effects of pesticide exposure?
There are several reasons that kids (and babies in utero) are more at risk from pesticide exposure than adults are. First of all, kids gravitate towards foods that have higher concentrations of pesticide - fruit juice, for example. In addition, their tendency to stick their hands (or anything else they find on the floor) in their mouths make them more likely to get pesticide exposures, especially if pest control sprays are used in the home.
But the main reason children are at more risk from pesticide exposures (or really, any toxic chemical) is that they are still undergoing so much development. Babies in the womb, especially, have rapidly-developing bodies, brains, and nervous systems. They’re laying the groundwork for their whole body. If something goes wrong, it is likely to have life-long effects that can’t really be reversed.
How cautious should we be about pesticide exposure for us and our kids? If it’s just a little residue, does it really matter?
A little residue absolutely matters. Some of the dangerous effects of pesticides in kids - lowered IQ, shorter memory, attention deficit issues, were initially just found in kids who lived near farms and were exposed to tons of pesticides through their family’s jobs as migrant workers. But the more we dig, the more we discover that these effects happen even from low-level exposure from food and just day-to-day life.
Are there foods or supplements that naturally help detox our bodies?
Not really. The liver is designed to detoxify all sorts of stuff that gets into our body, and generally speaking, it does a pretty good job on its own. But the idea of “detoxing” really doesn’t hold much weight. If a toxic chemical is water soluble, the liver will process it and it’ll leave your body in a few days through urine. Otherwise, it may get stored in your fat (we all have fat) or bones.
So actually, I take it back. Drinking plenty of water is the best way to flush your system and help your liver and kidneys do their job. But there’s no magical detox ingredient or cleanse out there. Just stay hydrated.
Is there a way to tell the toxicity or safety of foods from the label alone?
Sometimes? If something is labeled “organic,” that is an FDA regulated-term that means a food was grown under certain conditions. While the amount of pesticides in organic food is generally much less than in conventional food, organic is by no means a guarantee that a food is pesticide-free.
I try to avoid artificial dyes in food for our family. You can read the ingredients to see what’s used for coloring. Food dyes will usually be near the end of the ingredient list.
Um, how do I keep up with all this information? I’m not a scientist like you.
It is a lot to keep up with! And we haven’t even talked about all the other products in your home that can harbor toxic chemicals, like cleaners, shampoo, or paints.
One option is to do a lot of research. The problem is, you have to be careful, because there are a lot of people out there on the internet who are really just repeating what they’ve heard, but don’t have a good grasp of the science.
You could go straight to the source - the CDC, the FDA, the EPA, for some information. But the problem there is that, whether we like it or not, there absolutely are politics behind some of the recommendations. Whether certain pesticides or other chemicals have continued use is totally affected by lobbying of companies with billions of dollars behind them (and I’m not just saying this as some sort of conspiracy theorist - I have seen this in action during my time in the field). In addition, the United States has a policy to approve a chemical before testing. If, after approval, dangerous consequences are found from the chemical, it takes a big process to get it removed (and you have to fight those lobbyists to get it done). So unfortunately, there are sometimes problems with trusting these government authority sources.
What resources do you recommend to teach me how to minimize toxins?
I’ve created a course on exactly this. The Chemical Safety Handbook for Families is designed for savvy moms who want to protect their kids (and themselves) from dangerous chemicals but don’t have all the answers on how to do so. Basically, I’ve boiled down my years of experience in chemistry and public health into exactly what you need to know to avoid toxins in all areas of your home.
That’s awesome! So with that said, what’s your opinion on perfectionism and toxin-free living. Is it worth the anxiety it may cause?
That’s a great question! As I mentioned before, living “all-natural” or “toxin-free,” is really impossible in this day.
It’s about finding balance. If you can afford organic kale, buy the organic kale. But there are times that we need to use the “dangerous” chemical every once in a while (bleach for disinfecting comes to mind).
We need to do the best we can with the information and resources we have, and not stress about the rest. Because, let’s be real, stress is toxic too and has a real effect on us and our kids.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Samantha.
This is incredibly important information and I'm so grateful to Samantha for taking the time to provide some answers to my questions. If you're anything like me, you're aware of the toxins all around us (in shampoo, in lotions, on food) and you do your best to avoid them, but, like Samantha said, it's impossible to live completely toxin free.
Instead of getting discouraged, I recommend educating yourself (her course is a great place to start) and be aware of what chemicals you're bringing into your home.
One of the best ways to steer clear of chemicals and toxins in your food is to eat a real food diet, free of processed foods. Here are some related articles from the blog:
- How to read ingredient labels so that they actually make sense
- 10 highly processed foods to avoid
- How to avoid processed food, even if it feels impossible
- Why you should avoid processed food
- Get 20% off clean beauty products here
- Learn more about clean beauty at Beautycounter here