Detox Me: How To Reduce Your Exposure To Toxins Found In Everyday Products

Surya Tewari, Bellevue Community College


Our purchasing choices affect our health and environmental health. Toxins in everyday products can have detrimental effects on our bodies. In this activity we look at the hazards of toxins and ways to avoid exposure. We also talk a little about the politics and economics of removing toxins from products. I talk about the precautionary principle, a philosophy that European governments use in their policy on toxins (

Basically, the precautionary principle states that things should be proven safe before their use. In comparison, the United States' system allows use of products unless it is shown to be harmful. We can teach the importance of precaution based on scientific principles using the assignments I developed.

Learning Goals

"Big idea" for biology

Interconnectedness between personal choice, health and an ecosystem.
Systems approach to an ecosystem in which we live.

Sustainability "big ideas"

Ecological citizenship - individual responsibility to the environment.
Healthy social systems - to create healthy economies, public and ecosystems.
Environmental justice - the right of everyone, despite circumstance, to basic needs that are good for their long term health.
Responsibility to all living things to create a much healthier future.

I want the students to actively think about their purchasing choices and how it relates to their knowledge of biology. I would like the students to feel empowered to make better choices in their lives and to talk to others about the subject of toxins, or to try and create a dialogue with others.

The students will also work on improving or fine-tuning their skills for research, analysis and interpretation of information. Written and/or oral presentations will further help them to learn how to present the information collected in a succinct and clear format. This will help them to understand the complexities of analyzing cause and effect variables.

Context for Use

Many people are aware of what to eat to maintain a healthy body; however, many are unaware of their potential exposure to hazardous toxins in everyday products. Toxins in many products can result in subclinical or chronic illness as they may be carcinogenic (cancer causing); endocrine disruptors (affects hormones); neurological disruptors (affects the nervous system); and, can affect reproduction and development of humans including pregnant women and children. When you decide to smoke you are aware that it increases your risk of developing cancer but you may not know that exposure to phthalates, a compound found in many plastic products, can disrupt developing endocrine and reproductive systems (Sathyanarayan et al, 2008). A consumer has the right to be informed about what is going into their body not only by the way of eating and drinking, but also what is absorbed through the air and skin. Environmental health is a condition that ensures that all living things have the best opportunity to reach and maintain their full genetic potential. (Steven G. Gilbert,1999).

For millennia we have been aware that substances in our environment can be harmful to our health. We have been aware of natural toxins from living and nonliving sources; but, we still have limited understanding of the harm that can come from the exposure to synthetic chemicals. Incorporating this topic into our classes can help our students avoid toxins in everyday products. In this way, we as teachers can play a large role in getting information on toxins out to the public one class at a time. This is a lesson not just in science but how to use scientific knowledge to improve ones health and subsequently the health of the planet. This will lead to our students being more cautious in their purchasing choices or having them adopt the "Precautionary Principle."

The European Precautionary Principle basically says that new products should not be used unless studies demonstrate their safety. The person or industry introducing the new product has to prove it is safe. This is a far more cautious approach than we have in America. In the United States we currently wait until some product has been shown to do harm before we remove the product. The problem is that by then the damage has been done to the public. The Precautionary Principle does put a new financial burden on the maker of the product but the hope is to avoid the potential financial burden on maker or user as a result of possible medical problems. The Precautionary Principle is popular in Europe and is beginning to have more influence in America.

Description and Teaching Materials

I have used this activity in Nutrition and the Human Body (Nutr. 130) in the classroom and in an online class, and biology for non-science and science majors; Biology 100, Biology 160 and Biology 211. The assignments have been well received by most students. Assignments can be a single homework assignment or it can be integrated into a talk on cancer or a discussion on toxins. Students in Biology 100 can spend a few weeks preparing a poster on some aspect of toxins, to which you can dedicate two to three days for poster presentations, discussion and lecture.

I use the topic when I am discussing cancer in either nutrition or biology class. I have the students do the homework portion before I discuss cancer. When I discuss cancer I talk about genetic and environmental factors that can increase the incidence of cancer. The homework helps them understand how adjusting their environment can help reduce their risk for developing cancer. After discussing cancer I would discuss the affect of other toxins and how they get into their body. The length of a discussion can be from 15 minutes to a class period depending on time available or the class being taught.

Activity A - Homework

This assignment gives students an introduction to toxicology. I often use these assignments just before I lecture on mitosis and cancer. I integrate the talk on toxins with a discussion on environmental factors that increase the risk of developing cancer. I also explain that increased risk does not mean you will develop cancer but just increases your possibility. This assignment is often given as a bonus assignment in Biology 160.

Version 1 of the assignment is a website review and the second version is a two page essay. The first one asks them to read and write about multiple websites or a portion of a website. It gives the students exposure to multiple toxicology topics. The second version of the homework has the students review a list of toxicology related websites. After reviewing websites they select one topic of most interest to them to write an in-depth report. A list of recommended websites can be found in the resource section.

Activity B - Poster Assignment

A poster assignment can be assigned at the start of the quarter. I give the students a handout on how to do the poster, a copy of the handout with a description of the assignment is given under the resources heading.

Students can select a topic under toxins that is of interest to them and I also give many suggestions such as but not limited to the following-
  • pesticides in foods/parks/schools
  • phthalates in plastic water bottles
  • phthalates in toys for babies and kids
  • metals in toys e.g. lead
  • phthalates in plastic bag/ tubes/ bottles / hospital equipment
  • toxins in cosmetics
  • flame retardants
  • aerosols

Activity C - Class Discussion

Class discussion is based on toxins covered in the homework or poster. I often ask one or two students to introduce the topic and one or two students to do a wrap up based on the comments they heard. This allows for an exchange of ideas including solutions.

Homework Assignment Version 1 (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov8 11)
Homework Assignment Version 2 (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov8 11)
Biology 100 Poster Project: Toxins in our Environment (Microsoft Word 34kB Nov8 11)
Websites (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov8 11)
Solutions Discussion Handout (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov8 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Some students find the information on toxins depressing. I tell them that biology helps them to live their life with knowledge and not with fear. I also say that when they go to the supermarket or drug store the money they pay for an item is equivalent to voting. The more products they pick that are safe for them and the environment the more likely that retail outlets and manufacturers will notice and stock or make the more "responsible" items. Also some students are very aware of toxins in our products and often talk about chemicals and items that I have not studied.

Other students often have little money or are unwilling to spend money on "green" products. I emphasize that small changes will make a difference. I explain no point source theory and how a reduction in their use also represents reduction in pollution in out environment.

Websites, while they are great resources, are not always up and running and sometimes the URL changes. I recommend checking that all the websites of section within a websites are accessible before giving the assignments.

At the end of all of my classes I have the students present something in the news related to what we are studying. Some students select the topic of toxins as they have developed an interest in the subject. I also find that discussion times or lecture times are a good time to discuss ways to avoid exposure to toxins.

I have noticed a lot more media coverage on toxins in water bottles, toys, food etc... Growing student awareness on this topic will hopefully be a great way, in the long run, to have more environmentally friendly products in the market. I also tell the students that in the end what is good for the earth is good for us.


Written and oral analyses, synthesis and interpretation of reading, conclusions, and hypotheses.

References and Resources

  1. Sheela Sathyanaryan, Catherine J. Karr, Paula Lozano, Elizabeth Brown, Antonia M. Calfat, Fan Liu, Shanna H. Swan. "Baby Care products: Possible sources of infant Phthalate Exposure." Pediatrics - Feb, 2008
  2. Steve Gilbert -


You may use on of the websites listed below or come up with your own list. Many of the websites were recommended by Philip Dickey who was the lead Scientist at the Washington Toxics coalition. You need to check that the websites are still up and running.

NCAP pesticide fact sheets
Articles on articles various pesticides. The male students are very interested in the section 'masculinity at risk.'
Human and environment toxin information on a many chemicals and is searchable by chemical name. There are multiple databases.
Pesticides Action Network (PAN) Pesticides Database
You can search for pesticides by active ingredient or by product name and see how it may or may not cause harm to humans.
EPA Fact Sheets on Specific Chemicals
Some fact sheet explains EPA's science on the chemicals.
California Proposition 65 website
Download the list of chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive / developmental effects etc. The section on green chemistry is particularly interesting to students.
Pesticide Information Center OnLine (PICOL)
Search for registration information for pesticides currently registered in Washington or Oregon.
Search for abstracts of scientific papers. The abstracts are free, but the papers themselves may not be, depending on the journal. UW Libraries have most of the journals in their collections. and
Both sites are managed by Steve Gilbert a local toxicologist. The sites have information for teachers and PowerPoints lectures to download. There are also interactive posters that students enjoy using.
This is the website for the Washington Toxic Coalition. It has a lot of useful information on different efforts around the state to reduce pesticides.
Washington Toxics has a link to this site. Many of my female students are moved by this site and often relate their lives to one of the people in the study.
This site reviews the impact of gold mining on the environment. Students normally find this site very interesting and can often remember quotes from the site. This site does discuss other metals and mining practices. It also lists some alternatives under their student heading.
The buying guide section is very helpful as a place to start finding out about alternatives that students can purchase. This site is run by National Geographic and often raises the issue as to whether the National Geographic and other organizations are biased in the information they provide.
This site has a lot of information on cosmetics and personal care products. Female students really appreciate this site.
Consumer Product Safety Commission

Book / Printed Material Resources - very incomplete list

The Better World Shopping Guide by Ellis Jones
Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
A Small Dose of Toxicology by Steve Gilbert
I use articles from many different magazines - Time, Science, National Geographic and the newspaper.


I work with Washington Toxics coalition but there are many other local organizations that could be a great resource such as;
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition

The Environmental Coalition of South Seattle

Community Coalition for Environmental Justice