I suffered with allergy and asthma for most of my life, went through hours of painful allergy tests and lived on decongestants, antihistamines and bronchial inhalers—until I moved to a new city about 300 miles away. Later, my doctor discovered that I was allergic to the allergens released into the air by my hometown’s paper mill. All those years and polluted air was really the problem.

According to environmental medicine, illness can be caused by a wide range of toxic or harmful substances, including foods and chemicals found in the air, water and food. Treatment focuses on eliminating the hazardous environmental sources we can control. You may be told to modify your diet and avoid harmful substances such as strong shampoos, aerosol deodorants, cigarette smoke, pesticides and perfumes.  For me, moving far away from that hometown paper mill gave me my life back.

The roots of environmental medicine are traced to the practice of allergy treatment. In the 1940s, Theron Randolph, MD identified a variety of common foods and chemicals that can trigger the onset of acute and chronic illnesses, even when exposure is relatively low levels. With increasing environmental and pollution awareness in the past few decades, research in this field has skyrocketed. But what does this mean to you and your loved ones?

Michele Louiselle, Doctor of Oriental Medicine at the Center of Integrated Medicine in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, explains how environmental toxins make us sick and why: “We are bombarded by different toxins every day,” she says. “Look at your kitchen—cooking with aluminum pans could lead to aluminum toxicity, cast iron can lead to iron toxicity,” she adds. “Cosmetics, cleaning supplies and topical body creams or lotions are other potential sources of toxins in our bodies. We need to watch what we put in our bodies and on our bodies.” Louiselle recommends reading labels and knowing what’s in the products, saying, “Products may be helping your wrinkles but wreaking havoc internally. Plastics are another source of toxins in our lives. Get rid of plastics and opt for glass containers instead.”

Toxins hinder healthy body function, but it’s almost impossible for us to detox completely on our own, says Louiselle. To help your body’s detox process, she recommends eating as many vegetables as you can and drinking more water. “Hydration is very important for cleansing. Chlorella, spirulina and other natural supplements can help deliver toxins out of the body. Also, eliminate sugars and eat a moderate amount of fruits—cut out dairy.”

Research studies support the use of environmental medicine for allergy, arthritis, asthma, chemical sensitivity, colitis, depression, panic attacks, reduced attention spans, eczema, fatigue and hyperactivity. And leaded paint in residential housing continues to be the overwhelming source of lead poisoning in children, which could lead to brain damage. Newly published findings suggest that lead damage in children’s developing brains could mean the difference between being on the low end of normal intelligence and dropping below normal. The result, according to a report published in the journal Epidemiology, could be a tripling of the number of kids who need special education.  

That said, practically everything encountered by modern humans can be a potential trigger for health issues, including urban air, diesel exhaust, tobacco smoke, fresh paint or tar, household cleaners, rubbing alcohol, felt-tip pens, cedar closets, tap water and electromagnetic fields. It makes sense that what we eat, breathe, wear or sleep on can ultimately affect how we think, feel, act and react. Environmental toxins, including food additives, smoke and fumes and common chemicals, can tear down the body, resulting in poor emotional and psychological health. What about the air you breathe? Check out the following:

  • Ozone is the major destructive ingredient in smog. It causes coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain. It also boosts susceptibility to infection. People who exercise outdoors are particularly vulnerable to the effects of ozone.
  • Sulfur dioxide, another component of smog, is created when sulfur-containing fuel is burned. It irritates the airways and constricts the air passages, causing asthma attacks. It also can set the stage for permanent lung damage.
  • Nitrogen dioxide contributes to ozone formation and is produced when fuel is burned, especially in motor vehicles and power plants. It causes bronchitis and like ozone, increases susceptibility to infection.
  • Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that comes mainly from automobiles and other combustion exhaust. It reduces oxygen levels in the blood, starving the body’s cells. It is especially dangerous for people with heart disease or unborn or newborn children.

Scientific research does not conclusively support the idea of toxic fumes and environmental incidents causing all illnesses. But with such perplexing problems as Legionnaire’s disease, sick building syndrome and work-related asthma, environmental medicine offers a substantial theoretical basis for relieving or curing these problems altogether.

That's why the best thing you can do is to be a smart consumer, says Carmelo Sgarlata, MD, Reproductive Endocrinologist and Infertility Specialist at the Reproductive Science Center of the Bay Area. She recommends the Environmental Working Group as a resource for consumer health information, including useful consumer guides that provide information to help you make healthier choices. Sgarlata warns consumers to be careful with seafood, saying, “Women trying to get pregnant and women who are either pregnant or nursing should avoid fish that may contain high levels of mercury. The fish at greatest risk of containing methyl mercury are shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. Seafood products that are commonly low in mercury content include canned light tuna, catfish, Pollock, salmon, and shrimp.”   

In addition, she reminds everyone to avoid the environmental toxins they can, including plastics, cleaning agents, pesticides, secondary smoke and pollution. Sgarlata explains, “Thus far, 15 studies have showed significant associations between pesticide exposure and sperm quality, including low sperm count. BPA is also shown to lower sperm count in men.”

To clean up your home or workplace, try to discover problem areas. Environmental toxins vary, but common triggers include: Aerosols, chemical fumes, cigarette smoke, cockroaches, cold air, detergents, dust, fresh paint, humid air, mold and mildew, perfume and scented products, pet dander, pollen and wood smoke

I know it seems overwhelming. But removing the toxins you can control and focusing on natural foods and household cleaning products may help you to think clearer, to stay healthy and even to regulate your moods.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Childhood Lead Poisoning Publications
  2. Tobacco Use and Pregnancy
  3. Environmental Working Group
  4. EWG's Top Green Cleaning Products