Science

Ask the Expert: Finding Out What Chemicals Are In Your Body

What the heck is biomonitoring?

Maybe you've heard of different organizations doing something called biomonitoring. Maybe you have been biomonitored but aren't sure what it means. Or, maybe you have been worried about your own amount of contact with certain chemicals and Googled how to get it checked. Well, we talked to Dr. Megan Latshaw, Assistant Scientist in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to figure out what it is, how it works, and what the benefits are.


Dr. Megan Latshaw

First off, what is biomonitoring anyway? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), biomonitoring is "determining which environmental chemicals people have been exposed to and how much of those chemicals actually get into their bodies."

This provides valuable understanding into the effects certain chemicals can have on an individual or even a community.

"For an individual, biomonitoring can provide insight into whether they are being exposed to a chemical at a higher level than the general population. Results can help physicians make decisions about treatments or interventions, but it can also lead individuals to take action to reduce exposure. So, an individual might say 'okay, I am going to get my paint tested at my house' or 'I am going to buy water filter'," Dr. Latshaw explains.

The results of biomonitoring are an effective way to help individuals learn more about their own health and what changes they can make to avoid certain chemicals. Biomonitoring can also help determine if communities as a whole are being exposed to certain chemicals, say from a factory in the area or water that isn't being properly treated.

"At the community level, biomonitoring can indicate a problem that needs to be addressed on a larger scale. So, maybe cleaning up hazardous waste or deciding to put in place a way to monitor the population's health," Dr. Latshaw says.

Not only can it confirm that people are being exposed to a variety of chemicals or sources of pollution, but is also can determine if the community does not need to worry.

"Biomonitoring can also be used to calm community concern, in cases where levels are found to be similar to the general population," Dr. Latshaw explains.

Not all encounters with chemicals, dust, or other substances are something to be concerned about. In this day and age, everyone is exposed to some mixture of chemicals all the time, but this doesn't mean we all need to be constantly worried. For some chemicals, our bodies can handle small amounts and not be hurt. Biomonitoring helps gauge how much of a certain substance we have in our system, and toxicologists can tell us if that amount might cause harm.

Understanding what it can do is great, but it is important to understand how it works. Often, it requires a sample being sent to a lab.

"It is typically blood or urine sent to a lab that is able to measure it for whatever the chemical of concern is," Dr. Latshaw shares.

It is also important to understand that it's not looking for just the chemical of concern. It's a complicated process.

"Some chemicals of concern only stick around in the body for very short periods of time. Or, they might be metabolized by the body, so what you are really looking for is not the chemical itself, you are looking for a product of the chemical's breakdown. [It could be that] once your enzyme attacks it, it might change it into something else. So, you really need to talk to an environmental health physician or toxicologist or laboratorian who understands what you are looking for. They will ask: Is there a marker for it, how long does that marker stick around, and how long ago was your exposure of interest?" Dr. Latshaw says.

So, if you are interested in being biomonitored, how can you make that happen?

The first step would be to talk to your doctor. Don't be alarmed if your doctor doesn't know much about it though. It is not something that that doctors are really trained about in school.

"If someone is interested [in biomonitoring] and their doctor doesn't seem to know a lot [about it], then what they can do is … call an environmental health physician. There is actually a group called the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. You can go to their website and find a physician who understands environmental medicine," Dr. Latshaw shares.

If you have a large group in your community that is worried about eating, breathing, or touching a specific health-harming substance, communities can also reach out.

"If a community wants to be biomonitored, they should contact their health department. Many health departments don't have a biomonitoring program, so a community might want to contact ATSDR (the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) or the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which recently launched the National Biomonitoring Network" Dr. Latshaw suggests.

The last piece is to understand that because this is such a complicated process, and it is not yet widely available, the cost is highly variable.

"Blood lead [testing] is something that is done on a regular basis, so that is much lower cost. But, if you want to look at perfluorinated chemicals, there are very few laboratories that can do that, so that is probably going to be relatively expensive," Dr. Latshaw explains.

Biomonitoring can be a very useful test, but it is not very common as of yet. If you have a true concern about how often you come in contact with a certain chemical or heavy metal, be sure to talk to your doctor and find someone who understands the biomonitoring process who can help figure out the best option for you.

For more information about biomonitoring, visit the CDC page talking about the National Biomonitoring Program.

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A Complete Guide to Non-Toxic Cleaning and Disinfecting During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Protect yourself from the novel coronavirus in the most non-toxic way possible

We don't know about you, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has us doing a lot about cleaning. And it seems like we're going to be doing this for quite a while. Having cleaning on the brain makes us wonder: What's the best "natural" or "green" way to clean that still gets rid of COVID-19? What's the difference between cleaning and disinfecting? What products are safe to use but also effective at preventing a COVID-19 infection? We answer all of your novel coronavirus cleaning related questions below.
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Roundups

Air Purifier Roundup

Keep your air quality healthy while staying indoors!

Being inside our house for days on end has us thinking a lot about indoor air quality. How do I keep myself healthy while sheltering in place? If you're also worried about indoor air pollutants, it might be a good time to consider buying an air purifier! But there are so many choices out there, how do you know which is best for your house? We did some research and picked our top 6 air purifier choices.

Air purifiers are an easy way to help maintain a healthy indoor air quality. If you experience seasonal allergies or asthma, live in the middle of a big city, are exposed to wildfire smoke, or cook at home a lot, an air purifier might be right for you! Air purifiers are a great tool at protecting your indoor air quality against small particles you can't remove with vacuuming and dusting alone like smoke particles, pet dander, dust, and pollen. Purifiers with a HEPA filter provide even more protection- they're "99.97% efficient for removing particles less than 0.3 microns" (1). Some air purifiers even have a substrate that absorbs VOCs (volatile organic compounds) too! VOCs are released when your gas range is turned on and can also be released from consumer products and furniture. Some VOCs are harmful to your health causing irritation, headaches, damage to organs, and some are carcinogenic.

There are a few things to consider before choosing an air filter, including:

- Make sure the air purifier doesn't generate ozone. While these machines were thought to be effective, they actually cause more indoor air pollution.

- Determine the number of air purifiers and size you need. The product description of an air purifier should say the square footage one purifier can cover. Some larger rooms may need more than one purifier or a purifier with a larger capacity. Many of our picks are offered in models that cover a larger or smaller square footage.

- Check how long one filter lasts. Every air purifier is different, and some filters may last longer than others! It's also a good idea to check filter prices before committing to a specific model.

- Follow manufacturer instructions to clean or buy new air filters when necessary to ensure that your air purifier continues to work properly.

Below are our top air purifier picks:



a) Austin Air Healthmate

b) Coway AP 1512 Mighty

c) Blueair Blue Pure 411

d) Alen Breathesmart Classic

e) Honeywell HPA300

f) AirDoctor

*Because Health is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program so that when you click through our Amazon links, a percentage of the proceeds from your purchases will go to Because Health. We encourage you to shop locally, but if you do buy online buying through our links will help us continue the critical environmental health education work we do. Our participation does not influence our product recommendations. To read more about how we recommend products, go to our methodology page.

References:

1. https://ww3.arb.ca.gov/research/indoor/acdsumm.pdf

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Thinking of Buying an Air Purifier?

Take a deep breath because we've got everything you need to know!

If you live in a big city, close to a major highway or just have some unbearable allergies, chances are, you've probably considered buying an indoor air filter at some point. Maybe you were overwhelmed at the amount of choices that the internet offered, or just weren't sure which brands were safe and actually worked. Take a deep breath, we're here to help you pick out an air purifier that works for you and lessens the amount of air pollution in your house!

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Food

Making Your Fruits and Veggies Last

In times of pantry cooking and beyond

In this unprecedented time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, we're all eating a little bit differently. It can be tough to get to the grocery store and favorite items might be sold out. Our usual restaurant stops, home deliveries, and takeout options may not be available. While we're cooking more with less, it's more important than ever to make your fresh fruits and vegetables last. Luckily, the kitchen ideas I've learned over the past few years for fighting food waste are easily transferable to cooking in a time of quarantine. When you're aiming to make your food go far, during a pandemic or just real life, it's good to know how to make your fresh produce last as long as possible.

A good principle is to store your produce in the same areas as they do in the supermarket. It's their literal business to keep food fresh as long as possible! While you obviously won't be using the exact same methods - they're aiming for display as well as storage - you can think of your produce in the same fundamental categories:

  1. Room Temperature Storage: these are the items you'd find displayed out of refrigeration in the produce section and can be divided into:
    1. Pantry storage (cooler and away from the light) for sturdy and long-lasting vegetables
    2. Counter storage for fruits that need to ripen
  2. Refrigeration: These are the fresh fruits and vegetables in the refrigerated cases of the produce department and typically fall into three categories:
    1. Loose: most fruit, like citrus and melons can just be placed into your fridge drawers
    2. Airtight storage: most delicate greens
    3. Breathable storage: berries and most other vegetables, from roots to stalks to hearty greens
  3. Special storage: a few items, like asparagus, mushrooms, corn and fresh herbs require a bit more attention.


Let's dive a bit more deeply into each one:

Room Temperature Storage:

Pantry Storage: some vegetables need a cool, dark place for optimum storage. In the old days that would have been a root cellar, but let's be honest - who has a root cellar these days? For most people this means a cupboard or a drawer away from the light where you'll store the following items:

  • Tubers such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, winter squash, and even eggplant, which browns in the fridge.
  • Onions, shallots, and similar alliums should also be stored somewhere cool and dark, but not with potatoes. If stored together, they'll cause the potatoes to sprout. While we're on the topic - green and sprouted potatoes can be eaten if peeled deeply to remove all green and sprouty bits, but if you're immunocompromised in any way, just compost them.

Counter Storage: your counter is the best place for most fruits (except apples, citrus and berries) to sit until ripe - that's why fruit bowls exist! Once ripe, these fruits should be moved to the refrigerator to preserve them as long as possible. Melons, stone fruit (i.e. peaches, nectarines, cherries, etc), and bananas fit into this category, as do avocados. Tomatoes should ideally always be kept at room temperature, but can be moved to the fridge once cut, or if in desperation to keep them a bit longer. If your tomatoes get wrinkly, roast them up!

Refrigerator Storage:

Produce in the fridge fits into three categories: loose, airtight or breathable. You'll see a lot of storage guides recommend plastic bags for airtight or breathable storage, but there are other options if you're trying to minimize your use of plastic. You can invest in reusable storage bags or save the plastic ones that come into your house as bread storage or cereal bags. Try repurposing old storage boxes or tupperware for fridge storage. A lot of items will do well in their original plastic container, such as berries and grapes, which can then be recycled.

Fruits in the fridge:

  • Apples, citrus and berries don't need time to ripen, and so should be refrigerated right away if you're aiming for lengthy storage. Take them out or let them sit at room temperature if you know you're going to eat them soon.
  • Berries do well staying in their original box or another breathable container. Once you get them home, remove any moldy ones, then don't wash them until you're ready to eat.
  • Citrus can last a long time in the fridge, loose in your crisper drawer.
  • Any other fruit that has been stored on the counter to ripen can be moved to the fridge to hold, or should be stored in the fridge in an airtight container once cut

Vegetables in the fridge: Most vegetables do best in the fridge when uncut, unwashed, and wrapped in a breathable container. This could be a plastic bag with holes in it or a reusable bag left open. The goal is to limit oxygen exposure, but allow a bit of airflow to minimize the moisture and condensation that causes rotting. This method works well for roots such as carrots and parsnips, cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, fruits that are actually vegetables such as summer squash and cucumbers, as well as fresh beans, green onions and more. If your roots have greens on them like beets or turnips, cut the greens off and store them separately as they'll draw moisture from the root. Don't throw them out though - they're delicious cooked like chard or another sturdy leafy green.

Greens, especially delicate salad leaves, are more susceptible to moisture and wilting. You'll want to limit their supply of oxygen by storing in the airtight original container or rolled up in a plastic or reusable bag. Either way, it helps to stick a paper towel or dish towel in with the greens to soak up any moisture that would cause sliminess.

Special Storage:

There are a few fruits and vegetables out there that need some additional TLC to last as long as possible. Asparagus and most leafy fresh herbs are best stored like cut flowers. Place them in a tall upright container in an inch or two of fresh water and refrigerate. The one exception is basil, which should be kept at room temperature or it'll brown. Corn should be kept in the husk if possible; if not, wrap in damp towels to keep them moist, then wrap in a bag.

While we're on special storage - the most highly controversial of vegetable storage topics is... mushrooms! Some people swear by paper bags or damp cloths to retain some moisture; others claim that any moisture will speed up the rotting process and breathable plastic bags should be used instead. Just for you guys, I did an at-home experiment comparing a breathable cloth bag to an open silicone bag to a paper bag. After 5 days, the mushrooms were all still good, if the tiniest bit slimy, but the least slimy ones were the ones stored in the paper bag. However, the original packaging often works well too.

Freezing Fruits and Veggies:

If you're really aiming for long-term storage, most fruits and vegetables can be frozen. Fruits will lose texture (i.e. you wouldn't want to eat them raw once defrosted) so they're perfect for cooked desserts or smoothies. Vegetables can be frozen raw or cooked, depending on the vegetable, but you'll also want to use them in cooked dishes.

Fruits: cut your fruit into pieces, lay on a tray, then transfer to a resealable bag. Defrost, then use for pie or tarts, or leave frozen for smoothies. Frozen peeled bananas make a delicious ice cream substitute when blended!

Vegetables: hearty greens and other tender vegetables like asparagus and broccoli are best blanched before freezing - chop, boil in salted water for a few minutes, then drain and let cool and freeze in bags. Tomatoes and onions can be frozen when raw or cooked (chop them first), then used in cooked dishes once defrosted. Sturdier vegetables like winter squash and sweet potatoes do best when cooked and pureed, then frozen. Herbs freeze best with a bit of oil in an ice cube tray, then you can toss the cubes into stews, soups, and more. The main vegetables that don't freeze well are potatoes and lettuce. If you must freeze potatoes, make them into mashed potatoes first. And if your lettuce is getting old you can cook it (stir-fry or soup!) or perk it up in an ice water bath.

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Grow Fresh Produce in Your Kitchen Using Food Scraps!

All you need is some water and a sunny window…

Fresh fruits and veggies are tasty, add flavor to any meal, and are an important part of a balanced diet. They can also help boost your immune system, which we're all about right now. But these days we're trying to limit trips to the grocery store as much as possible. So how do you keep a stash of produce available without having to leave your house? By planting food scraps! Yes, you read that correctly.



Growing produce from food scraps has a lot of benefits. It diverts food waste from your trash or compost, it can teach young children about gardening, and it provides a relaxing project during these uncertain times. Plus, as long as you don't use any pesticides, everything you grow in your kitchen will be organic! Below are some types of food scraps that will grow into new produce with minimal effort on your part.

Lemongrass- this citrusy herb is easy to grow and will up the flavor profile of any dish! Put the bottom 2-3 inches of lemongrass in a half inch of water and keep in a sunny window. Change the water every few days. New growth will sprout from the center.

Celery- Put the bottom 2 inches of a celery stalk in a shallow bowl of water and place in a sunny window. Replace the water daily. New growth will appear within a few days. It might take a while for a full stalk to grow, but you can use the small growth to flavor dishes or to make your own celery powder!

Green onion- This is one of the easiest things to grow in your kitchen! Keep the white part of the onion in a small glass of water. Green onions will grow really fast in a sunny spot- you could have fresh onions in about one week!

Lettuce- place the bottom portion of a head of lettuce in a shallow bowl of water in a sunny window (you know the drill by now). New lettuce will start sprouting in a few days and you'll have about ½ of a head of lettuce in two weeks. That's the perfect amount for a sandwich or a burger!

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9 Veggies You Can Grow Indoors

Gourmet dinners with fresh veggies and no more plastic herb packets are in your future

What's better than having an indoor plant baby? How about one that gives you food? Since we are all spending more time at home these days and making less trips to the grocery store, it's a perfect time to try your hand at some indoor veggies that you can grow in your windowsill. Plus this is a great project to do with kids if you are homeschooling them due to COVID-19 school closures. Some ideas include helping plant and water the seeds, writing down weekly observations, measuring and drawing the vegetables as they grow, and finally learning to cook with them. Here are our suggestions for 9 veggies and herbs that are easy to grow inside and are useful to have on hand.

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It seems like everyone is staying home these days. Whether it's because of a mandatory order or out of an abundance of precaution, people are staying close to home and limiting travel. Social distancing is incredibly important to stop the spread of COVID-19, but staying at home means we suddenly have a lot more time on our hands. But that doesn't mean we have to be bored! There's still plenty to keep us busy as we shelter in place or practice social distancing. We've thought of some easy, outdoor-oriented activities you can do while on a walk or while getting some fresh air with your kids.

Activities for Adults

  • Do an outdoor guided meditation. These are difficult times and anxiety might be higher than normal. Meditation is proven to help lower stress and anxiety, as is going outdoors. Why not combine the two? There are a lot of free guided meditation online or on Youtube. We recommend going on a short walk, then finding somewhere to sit and meditate. Walking meditations are also a great way to stretch your legs while practicing mindfulness.
  • This is a great time to try a new hobby! Why not take up gardening? Gardening can help lower stress and anxiety, burn calories, and help you get outside more. Plus, you can also grow your own food! A meal just tastes better when the produce comes from your own backyard, right? Before you pick up your trowel, check out our guides on soil, composting, and growing veggies indoors (in case you're an apartment dweller).
  • Take a sketchbook with you on your next walk and sketch five things that make you happy. This could be a beautiful flower, a cute dog, or even just the sunny sky! This is a great way to keep you present during your walk and a way to focus on the positive.

Activities for Kids

  • Take a walk around your neighborhood or visit an open space or park for a hike and bring a pouch to collect natural objects such as flowers, rocks, leaves, sticks, and pinecones. It's a great way to have kids notice what's around them and to appreciate the beauty in what may seem like everyday objects. Then when you get home, have the kids organize the objects into alphabet letters or numbers and glue them to form nature collages. If you have older kids, use these objects to illustrate a scene from a favorite book or to make nature art.
  • We're definitely on board with getting outside for a bit of exercise, but kids sometimes it takes a bit of work to keep kids interested. Another idea for a hike or walk outside is to give your kids a camera (or your phone) and have them take pictures of things that they think are interesting or beautiful. Could be a flower, unusual shaped tree, colorful mailbox, or anything else they see. When you get home, print the pictures and have the kids make a collage. If you have older kids, have them write a story with the collage as an inspiration.
  • Another way to keep an outdoor walk interesting for kids is to bring a notebook and have them draw a map of your walk as you go. Make sure to note landmarks, unique natural features, or streets in your neighborhood. For older kids, this activity can become more challenging by having them note distance, elevation, and cardinal directions.
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