How to Survive Living in a Toxic Environment

Mitch Gaynor, MD, is founder and president of Gaynor Integrative Oncology, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Weill College, affiliated with Cornell University and New York Hospital.

Dr. Gaynor has been listed consecutively in The Best Doctors in New York since 1997 and is a frequent speaker and lecturer at hospitals, conferences, and universities throughout America and abroad. He has appeared widely on television including CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, ABC Good Morning America, Discovery Health, Fox News Channel and CBS 48 Hours among many other appearances.

In his latest book Nurture Nature, Nurture Health (Nurture Nature Press, New York, 2005), Dr. Gaynor outlines the scientific evidence and research on the escalating health crisis facing this country and what every individual can do about it.

“People are shocked to learn that your internal and your external environments are one,” says Dr. Gaynor. “We are now living in a country where one in three Americans will hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’”

Although the specter of disease and doom may seem inescapable as the evidence of poisons lurking in our environment, our homes and our bodies mounts, Nurture Nature, Nature Health provides empowering, informative solutions to help preserve our world, our health and the health of our families and loved ones. We can reduce and curtail toxic exposure and we can strengthen our body’s natural defenses to exposures we can’t control. The book includes over 40 pages of tips to protect and boost your health, 30 pages of contacts and resources for how you can learn more and get involved to protect our society and world, and over 70 pages of scientific notes and references.

Spirit of Change publisher and editor Carol Bedrosian recently conducted this phone interview with Dr. Gaynor from his New York office after reading a copy of this groundbreaking new book.

Carol Bedrosian: Your new book is fascinating and a startling wake up call. Near the end, you quote Abraham Lincoln who says, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” What are the most critical facts that we need to know at this time about our health and the environment?

Dr. Mitchell Gaynor: That is a good question. I’d say that the most critical fact is that nothing occurs in a vacuum. This is very important. I am a cancer specialist and very often — especially with new patients — the first question that they want to know is, “Doctor Gaynor, why did I get cancer?” They want to know one reason. And I tell them that it is never just one reason. It is not just environmental toxins, it’s not just your diet, it’s not just your genetics. It has a lot to do with all of those and other things like how well you detoxify carcinogens and how strong your immune system is.

We are living in a country now, according to the National Cancer Institute, where one in three Americans are going to hear the words “you have cancer” at some point in their lifetime. We have had about a 132% increase in melanoma in the last 35 years. One in seven American women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Brain cancer in children has increased 40% in the last 30 years. One fourth of our rivers and a third of our lakes are so polluted that there are advisories against eating the fish in them. In 1979 they took satellite photos and showed that there was a complete covering of the Arctic ocean with ice. Since that time there has been a 9% decrease in arctic ice per decade.

So what I contend in the book is that all those seemingly unrelated frightening facts and more are weighed into the equation. Is cancer solely caused by those things? No. Are these things major contributing factors that are correctable? Absolutely. You don’t have to look very far to see that we wasted 50 years debating whether cigarette smoking caused lung cancer. The tobacco industry successfully argued in court and with regulators for 50 years that smoking did not cause lung cancer, even though we know from Pulitzer prize winning journalism, from The Wall Street Journal and other publications that they knew decades before that it caused lung cancer.

Now we are still basing a lot of our public health history on an equally fallacious assumption — as fallacious as smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer — and that assumption is that “dilution is the solution to pollution.” What they are saying is — and this is what all of the EPA’s laws are pretty much based on now — if you put arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, zinc, dioxins, furans, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide high enough up in the smoke stack, that the ambient levels in the air spread out so much that they will be too low to hurt anybody. This is completely fallacious, as I outline in detail in the book, because of a process called bio-accumulation. Bio-accumulation means that as these toxins work up from the food chain they become more and more toxic. The earthworm may have a certain amount of toxicity, and when the robin eats the earthworm that level goes up exponentially.

All these pollutants that go up also come back down. They come down into the water, they come down into the soil, they’re breathed in through the air in the form of particulates. Many of these carcinogens, like dioxin, will bio-accumulate so that when the calves eat the grass and drink the water, pollutants get into their fatty tissue, the cow’s milk, and ultimately the beef we eat. That is why 70% of the dioxin that humans ingest (dioxin, by the way, is one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man) comes from beef and dairy that humans are ingesting. So this “dilution is the solution to pollution” is dreadful.

When President Clinton left office, it was mandated by EPA regulation that coal burning power plants in the United States would have to reduce mercury emissions by 90% by 2008. I find now that about 50% of patients that I test in my own practice are walking around with toxic levels of mercury. The CDC [Center for Disease Control] estimates that 1 in 12 American women are walking around with enough mercury in their blood to cause real harm to a developing fetus should they become pregnant, because mercury is a potent neurotoxin, especially in children. The technology has existed for over 10 years to reduce mercury emissions. In the last year, the regulation was rolled back to give the power plants an extra 10 years. It just takes microgram amounts of mercury to cause poisoning, and power plants are the largest producer of mercury in the environment, which filters down to the water, and then contaminates our fish. There are a lot of things like this that make absolutely no sense. More mercury is going to mean more suffering for more children. There is no question about that and yet these things happen.

One of the reasons I wrote Nurture Nature, Nurture Health is because these issues have to become part of the general awareness of people. This has to become a dinner table topic for people to be talking about. People are going to look at the fact that maybe they have a kid at home with ADD or ADHD — which 3-5% of children in this country have now — and they are going to say, “You know what? We don’t need more neurotoxins and we’re not going to allow that.” The CDC has estimated 6.5% of children under the age of 18 in America have one or more learning disabilities. 6.5% of children in this country have emotional or behavioral problems. 4% of children in this country have developmental delays. All of these things are not happening in a vacuum and we are going to see more and more of them. It is affecting people, but people have not really put it together which is why I felt this book needed to be written.

Carol Bedrosian: You mention a concept in the book called “body burden” of synthetic chemicals. What is this about?

Dr. Gaynor: The body burden is the same as the toxic load. It is the amount of chemicals that we have in our body. It is the herbicide and pesticide residues. It is the phthalates that are found in many shampoos and cosmetics. It is the PBDE’s, which are flame retardants, found in everything from children’s pajamas to foam mattresses. It is the volatile organic compounds [VOC] which in the home can come from synthetic carpeting to particle board which can emit formaldehyde to many of the hazardous waste burning plants and cement kilns that burn tires and those types of things. It is the arsenic that can come off many of the children’s play sets that have pressed wood products in them as opposed to natural whole wood products. All of these things bio-accumulate in the body for decades.

Back in 1976, the EPA started doing a study where they looked at fatty tissue samples from both elective surgery specimens and autopsies in the United States. Back in 1976 they found 20 toxic compounds, many of them known probable human carcinogens in the body. The most recent number is between 80 and 120 of these compounds. They have recently looked at blood samples in infants and found about 100 toxic compounds. Infants are more sensitive to these than adults. If you look at human breast milk studies you find that PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls, highly toxic chemicals officially banned in the US in 1976] are in 99% of samples today. PCBs are known to cause developmental defects in children. You still find them today because they stay in the body for decades.

So people are walking around with this huge toxic load. You need to put things in your body to help detox. You need to minimize the toxic load that you are getting into your body today and you need to do things to help mitigate the effects like inflammation and immune suppression of many of these toxic compounds which are already present in your body.

Carol Bedrosian: I recently came across information suggesting that because of this toxic load in our bodies, breast cancer could be triggered by wearing a bra — especially underwires — because of the continuous pressure around the lymphatic area holding these toxins in the breast tissue and lymph nodes.

Dr. Gaynor: Right now that is speculation, however it is something that we should look at. The bigger problem than wearing a bra is the fact that these chemicals should not be going into our bodies in the first place. It is absolutely outrageous, especially when you look at the fact that the way these things are tested are not at all the way they are found in nature.

Consider the analogy of the canary and the coal mine. Miners used to bring a canary into the mine because when the carbon dioxide and monoxide levels got too high in the mine, the canary would die first and the miners knew they better get out of the mine. All the cancer statistics, all the developmental disability in children, the arctic ice melting, the emerging pandemics…all these things are the canaries in the coal mine. In answer to the question about the bras and all the accumulated toxins in breast tissue, in light of what we know today, the fact that more studies have not been done on this connection is absolutely outrageous! With 1 and 7 women in this country developing breast cancer, that you should even have to ask that question is outrageous. That question should have been looked at and answered decades ago.

We know that many of the pesticides, herbicides and dioxins that are found in breast milk and in breast tissue can mimic estrogen in the breasts, and that estrogen stimulates breast cell proliferation and is a contributor to breast cancer. DDT was first found in human breast milk in 1951, but it wasn’t banned until 1972 despite all this data that was accumulating on its ability to induce miscarriages and to act as an estrogen. Eventually DDT was replaced with a variety of different pesticides, with each one subsequently being banned just a few years later because it was found to do many of the same things that DDT did. Although they were removed from the shelves and replaced with other things, the fact is that they weren’t tested appropriately before millions of people were exposed to them and they are still present in the human body today.

In addition, they were tested only minimally, one at a time, which is not they way they are found in our bodies and in nature which is in groups, called synergy. Synergy has to do with chemicals that cause cancer. The best example of that is with asbestos and smoking. We know that a smoker has an eleven times greater risk of developing lung cancer than a non-smoker. We know that somebody that has been exposed to asbestos has a five times greater risk of developing lung cancer than someone who hasn’t been exposed. If someone smokes and they have been exposed to asbestos, they don’t have a 16 times greater risk; it is a 55 times greater risk of developing lung cancer than someone who hasn’t been exposed to either. We are finding that many of these chemicals found in breast tissue also act synergistically to induce breast cell proliferation. That is quite frightening because none of these chemicals are tested the way that they end up in the human body, which is in multiples.

The fact of the matter is we have not asked the really difficult questions. We have all these negative things happening as a society and everybody is so shocked all of the sudden. We have had three hurricanes in the last year that are amongst the strongest since they have been measuring hurricanes. We have the avian flu spreading around the world, which has already developed 5 of the necessary 10 genetic changes that you need for human to human transmission. Those 10 changes are what resulted in the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide and 500,000 in the United States. When you look at all these things again, they are not happening in a vacuum and people really have to wake up and see what is happening here. We must demand of our elected officials that we be protected from this and that we be told the truth about the causes of this.

Carol Bedrosian: So now that we have this toxic load in our bodies, what are some of the things we can do to increase our health and immunity?

Dr. Gaynor: Fortunately, there are a lot of things individuals can do, starting with diet. We know that there are many nutrients that increase detoxified enzymes. The most important of these come from cruciferous vegetables — broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage — which have an added benefit for women and men because they contain another substance called indole-3-carbinol [I3C]. I3C can literally shift the type of estrogen in a women’s body from the type that predisposes breast cancer to the type that actually protects against it. Soy also has this same property. Green tea can detoxify, as well as garlic and rosemary too. Omega-3 fatty acids found in ground flax seeds and cold deep water fish like salmon, haddock and cod can also induce detoxifying enzymes. A whole host of COX-2 inhibitors are foods the body needs for producing chemical signals crucial for immune response, clotting and inflammation, which is sometimes necessary for overcoming infection. Some of these have already been mentioned: rosemary, cold water fish, turmeric or curry, green tea, red grapes, omega-3 fatty acids. Those are some of the best foods that you can put in your body.

It is important to keep your immune system healthy. Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E are important for protecting from everything like flu or even cancer and also have been found to increase the levels of detoxifying enzymes. You want to minimize your toxic load so I advise people to eat as much organic as possible and to use green products, including organic lawn and garden care. It is a myth that pesticides and herbicides stay where they are applied. They don’t. Remember, children live closer to the ground, so they are far more likely to ingest toxins, whether from cleaning residues on floors, toxic ingredients in carpets, pesticides from lawn care, or arsenic that has been used to treat wood in play sets or decks. Use bio-degradable laundry, dishwashing and cleaning products that are not going to break down into volatile, organic compounds which are toxic to the body and environment.

Carol Bedrosian: Is any difference between taking pill supplements versus teas?

Dr. Gaynor: I think that it really depends on your life style. I recommend 6-8 servings daily of the various fruits and vegetables. I have some patients that say, “Dr. Gaynor I have so many after school activities with the kids I can’t cook all these things.” Somebody will tell me that they have to travel with their job for 2 weeks a month and they are in airports most of the time can’t do it. So for them I recommend supplements. I recommend to everybody if you can do it to buy a juicer. There are a lot of mixed vegetable juices people can make and that is an easy way to get a lot of the servings of fruits and vegetables, especially ones that they wouldn’t normally have, just by juicing. So that is a critical thing.

Carol Bedrosian: There are so many recommended things to do and foods to eat that are out of our normal lifestyle routines. If you had to select three of the most critical changes that we can make to protect our health and boost our immunity, what would those be?

Dr. Gaynor: The first thing is to educate yourself. Read my book, for starters. And get involved. One thing that I have been involved in recently is a proposal from a foreign cement plant to burn 5 million tires in their cement kiln 2 hours north of New York. Now it just so happens that many of the reservoirs that supply drinking water to New York City already have mercury advisories on them and yet they are proposing to burn tires which can result in increased heavy metal concentrations like zinc, mercury, cadmium, chromium and volatile organic compounds just a few miles from all the reservoirs where a lot of people are getting their drinking water.

People need to understand and become activists for their own health. This isn’t about being an environmental activist. This is about being your own health advocate and your children’s health advocate. The first thing that you need to do is become environmentally aware, and then become aware of the fact that your internal environment inside your body and your external environment around you are one in the same. That is why I say that it needs to become dinner table conversation so when these things are happening in your community, you can be out there speaking up and protecting your health. That is really why I put 73 pages of references in the book. This really levels the playing field so people don’t have to feel intimidated by what their concerns are when they are poo-pooed by the industrial polluters. People can show them the book and say, “Here is all the literature and research on this.” These concerns are valid. These health effects do happen and unfortunately most of the time they are considered victimless crimes because people may not become ill for decades after it happens. So the number one important change you can make in your life is becoming aware and getting the right information.

Number two is minimizing the toxic load in your body. With your health products and cosmetics, with cleaning solutions in your home, with home herbicides and pesticides in your food, you want to minimize those as much as possible. Three, you want to put as many nutrients into your body to bolster your immune system and detoxification system as possible.

Carol Bedrosian: Is there anything in particular that we should do to prepare and boost our immune systems for the much talked about avian flu?

Dr. Gaynor: It is pretty much the same things that we had talked about for upkeeping your immune system. One, you want to make sure that you have good hand hygiene if there is an avian flu epidemic, which means frequent hand washing. You want to make sure you cook anything from poultry well done, to a minimum of 180 degrees throughout the meat, because it is very sensitive to heat. I would make sure that you get the seasonal flu shot. Even though that won’t protect you from pandemic avian flu, it does offer protection against the seasonal flu and that will probably be somewhat protective in general for your immune system. You want to make sure that you are getting enough things in your diet. For detox you want to be sure you are getting enough selenium and zinc in your diet, and also enough glutamine which is an amino acid. You want to make sure that you are getting enough vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E and folic acid.

On a larger scale, we really need an international program to start looking at how all these things are happening. We can’t just be chasing things as they happen, like trying to rebuild New Orleans after the hurricane destroyed large parts of the city, or trying to have a crash program for anti-virals to treat an avian flu epidemic. Basically when you look at the melting of the glaciers and the arctic ice; when you look at global warming which is definitely happening and definitely caused by increased green house gases and deforestation; when you look at one and three people developing cancer, which is supposed to go up to one and two people over the next 25-30 years, those things are the wake up calls. They are the canary in the coal mine. It is only going to happen if individuals start to become aware of things. That is the only way these things are going to happen, because the industrial polluters that are creating this are telling everybody not to worry and to be happy. Only individual awareness is going to make a change in that. Nothing else will.

Tips to Nurture Health

  1. Eliminate or decrease microwave cooking. Never microwave with plastic. Use paper towel or waxed paper instead of plastic wrap.
  2. Always look for the less toxic option when purchasing anything for your home.
  3. Use non-bleached paper products whenever possible. Bleach contains highly toxic chlorinated chemicals.
  4. Use to better inform yourself about environmental issues and safe products for your home.
  5. Skip air fresheners. Use natural scented oils and candles. Indoor plants are natural air purifiers.
  6. Choose natural fabrics for clothing when possible. Wash permanent press clothing before wearing.
  7. Limit your use of electric blankets and hair dryers.
  8. Purchase organic food whenever possible, including meat and dairy.
  9. The twelve fruits and vegetables most likely to have pesticide residues are: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, pears, potatoes, strawberries, nectarines, peaches, red raspberries and spinach. Buy organic for these foods whenever possible.
  10. Drink at least two cups of green tea daily. Avoid milk in tea. Milk decreases the antioxidant activity of tea.

Learn more about Dr. Mitchell Gaynor and his book Nurture Nature, Nurture Health at

Find local Green Living resources here.

Find Integrated Medicine MDs here.

The Facts

  • Rates of asthma among preschool children increased 160% between 1980 and 1994.1
  • Brain cancer in children increased 40% from 1973 to 1994, according to the National Cancer Institute.2
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS) affects up to 350,000 Americans, of whom only 3-5% have a sibling or parent with MS.3

1. National Institutes of Health, World Asthma Meeting, 1998

2. CDC, “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” CDC and National Cancer Institute, June 24, 2004

3. Multiple Sclerosis fact sheet,