The Long-Term Health Consequences of Chronic Consumption of Toxic Chemicals

Although it is unlikely that a person poisoned with decades of micro-chemical exposure will present to an Emergency Room with identifiable signs and symptoms associated with chronic chemical exposures, it behooves the Emergency Physician to assist in the education of their patients, particularly when the patient is a child or gravid woman.  The reason for this is that few in our society are aware of the long-term adverse health effects of chronic exposures to industrial chemicals.

If the pandemic served as a window into our health, what it revealed was a US population that is not only sick but also seemingly only getting sicker. Life expectancy is falling precipitously. Three fourths of Americans are overweight or obese, half have diabetes or prediabetes, and a majority are metabolically unhealthy. Furthermore, the rates of allergic, inflammatory, autoimmune diseases, and stress-related disease such as thyroid disease are rising at rates of 3%-9% per year in the West, far faster than the speed of genetic change in this population.

Diet and lifestyle are major factors behind such trends, but a grossly underappreciated driver of these trends is the role of environmental toxins and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Increasing evidence now supports their contribution to infertility, chronic disease, and cancer.

Although scientists have identified many industrial chemicals and toxins as carcinogens and those chemicals have subsequently been regulated, many more remain persistent in the environment and continue to be freely used. In this general review, some of the most common exposures and the substantial health risks associated with them, along with some guidance about best practices for how to minimize exposure will be discussed. Click on the blue links to view studies, data, and other references.


"Microplastics" is a term used to describe small fragments or particles of plastic breakdown or microbeads from household or personal care products, measuring less than 5 mm in length.

Plastic waste is accumulating at an enormous rate.  By 2050, it is estimated that by weight, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. That translates into hundreds of thousands of tons of microplastics and trillions of these particles in the seas. A recent study demonstrated that microplastics were present in the bloodstreamin the majority of 22 otherwise healthy participants.

 Since the 1950s, plastic exposure has been shown to promote malignant tumors in animal studies, and in vitro studies have demonstrated the toxicity of microplastics at the cellular level. However, it is not well known whether the plastic itself is toxic or if it simply serves as a carrier for other environmental toxins to bioaccumulate.

Microplastics have been widely detected in fish and seafood, as well as other products like bottled water, beer, honey, and tap water. Presently, there are no formal advisories on fish consumption to avoid exposure to microplastics, nor is there a ban on microbeads in personal care products.

Until such bans are put in place, it is advisable to avoid single-use plastics like water bottles and to use reusable tote bags for grocery shopping rather than plastic bags that end up in the sea.


Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics soft and durable, as well as to bind fragrances. They are commonly found in household items such as vinyl (eg, flooring, shower curtains) and fragrances, air fresheners, and perfumes.

Phthalates are known hormone-disrupting chemicals, exposure to which has been associated with abnormal sexual and brain development in children, as well as lower levels of testosterone in men. Exposures are thought to occur via inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact.  The majority of exposure is food related (fasting studies).

To avoid phthalate exposures, recommendations include avoiding polyvinyl chloride (PVCs) plastics (particularly food containers, plastic wrap, and children's toys), which is identifiable by the recycle code number 3, as well as air fresheners and fragranced products.

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database provides a resource on phthalate-free personal care products.

The US Food and Drug Administration has not yet banned phthalates in food packaging.

Bisphenol A (BPA):

BPA is a chemical additive used to make clear and hard polycarbonate plastics, as well as epoxy and thermal papers. BPA is one of the highest-volume chemicals, with roughly 6 billion pounds produced each year. BPA is traditionally found in many clear plastic bottles and sippy cups, as well as in the lining of canned foods.

Structurally, BPA acts as an estrogen mimetic and has been associated with cardiovascular diseaseobesity, and male sexual dysfunction. Since 2012, BPA has been banned in sippy cups and baby bottles, but there is some debate as to whether its replacements (bisphenol S and bisphenol F) are any safer; they appear to have similar hormonal effects as BPA.

As with phthalates, the majority of ingestion is food related. BPA has been found in more than 90% of a representative study population in the United States.

Guidance advises avoiding polycarbonate plastics (identifiable with the recycling code number 7), as well as avoiding handling thermal papers such as tickets and receipts, if possible. Food and beverages should be stored in glass or stainless steel. If plastic must be used, opt for polycarbonate- and polyvinyl chloride–free plastics, and food and beverage should never be reheated in plastic containers or wrapping. Canned foods should ideally be avoided, particularly canned tunas, salmon, and sardines. If canned products are bought, they should be BPA-free.

Dioxins and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs):

Dioxins are mainly the byproducts of industrial practices; they are released after incineration, trash burning, and fires. PCBs, which are somewhat structurally related to dioxins, were previously found in products such as flame retardants and coolants. Dioxins and PCBs are often grouped in the same category under the umbrella term "persistent organic pollutants" because they break down slowly and remain in the environment even after emissions have been curbed.

Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, perhaps the best-known dioxin, is a known carcinogen. Dioxins also have been associated with a host of other health implications in development, immunity, reproductive, and endocrine systems. Higher levels of PCB exposure have also been associated with an increased risk for mortality from cardiovascular disease.

Dioxin emissions have been reduced by 90% since the 1980s, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned the use of PCBs in industrial manufacturing since 1979. However, environmental dioxins and PCBs still enter the food chain and accumulate in fat, and are found ubiquitously in human tissue.

The best ways to avoid exposures are through eating less meat, fish, and dairy and trimming the skin and fat off of meats and fish. The level of dioxins and PCBs found in meat, eggs, fish, and dairy are approximately 5-10 times higher than they are in plant-based foods. Research has shown that farmed salmon is likely to be the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the US diet; however, newer forms of land-based and sustainable aquaculture probably avoid this exposure.


The growth of modern monoculture agriculture in the United States over the past century is closely connect to the liberal use of industrial pesticides. In fact, over 90% of the US population have pesticides in their urine and blood, regardless of where they live. Exposures are food-related.

Approximately 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States, including nearly 300 million pounds of glyphosate, which has been identified as a probable carcinogen by European regulatory agencies. The EPA has not yet reached this conclusion, although the matter is currently in litigation.

A large European prospective cohort trial demonstrated a lower risk for cancer in those with a greater frequency of self-reported organic food consumption. In addition to cancer risk, relatively elevated blood levels of a pesticide known as beta-hexachlorocyclohexane (B-HCH) are associated with higher all-cause mortality. Also, exposure to DDE — a metabolite of DDT, a chlorinated pesticide heavily used in between 1940-1960 that still persists in the environment today — has been shown to increase the risk for Alzheimer's-type dementia as well as overall cognitive decline.

Because these chlorinated pesticides are usually fat soluble, they accumulate in animal products. Therefore, people consuming a vegetarian diet have been found to have lower levels of B-HCH. This has led to the recommendation that consumers of produce should favor organic over conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The EWG provides a resource:  shopper guides regarding pesticides in produce.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS):

PFAS are a group of fluorinated compounds discovered in the 1930s. Their chemical composition includes a durable carbon-fluoride bond, giving them a persistence within the environment that has led to their being referred to as "forever chemicals."

PFAS have been detected in the blood of 98% of Americans, and in the rainwater everywhere on earth, suchas Tibet and Antarctica. Even low levels of exposure have been associated with an increased risk for cancer, liver disease, low birthweight, and hormonal disruption.

The properties of PFAS also make them both durable at very high heat and water repellent. The chemical was used by 3M to make Scotchgard for carpets and fabrics and by Dupont to make Teflon for nonstick coating of pots and pans. Although perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was removed from nonstick cookware in 2013, PFAS — a family of thousands of synthetic compounds — remain common in fast-food packaging, water- and stain-repellent clothing, firefighting foam, and personal care products. PFAS are released into the environment during the breakdown of these consumer and industrial products, as well as from dumping from waste facilities.

EWG notes that up to 200 million Americans may be exposed to PFAS in their drinking water. In March 2021, the EPA announced that they will be regulating PFAS in drinking water; however, the regulations have not been finalized. Currently, it is up to individual states to test for its presence in the water. EWG has compiled a map of all known PFAS contamination sites.

To avoid or prevent exposures from PFAS, recommendations include filtering tap water with either reverse osmosis or activated carbon filters, as well as avoiding fast food and carry-out food, if possible, and consumer products labeled as "water resistant," "stain-resistant," and "nonstick."

In a testament to how harmful these chemicals are, the EPA recently revised their lifetime health advisories for PFAS, such as PFOA, to 0.004 parts per trillion, which is more than 10,000 times smaller than the previous limit of 70 parts per trillion. The EPA also has proposed formally designating certain PFAS chemicals as "hazardous substances."

Where this leaves us has been the subject of much discussion and debate. The best advice given by the public health community is to follow the above referenced recommendations that would minimize exposure to these toxic chemicals, and to then hope for the best, health wise.

Adapted from Medscape, February, 2024.

Copyright © 2020 - & Dr. Barry Gustin