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Cynthia Li's picture

As an internist, I thought I knew a lot about what makes people sick. Until I became a mother. And then got sick myself. 

First, I developed an autoimmune thyroid condition. Over the next few years, this escalated into complex, debilitating conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia (a dysregulation of the automatic nervous system that controls functions like blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and digestion). With no easy cures, I was forced to learn more about the root causes, and how to eliminate or reduce them. 

Hidden in Plain Sight

A friend tipped me off to “indoor air pollution.” I’d never heard of such a thing, assuming if it were a valid concern, I’d surely have learned about it in my training. One of the first articles I came across was from The New York Times Magazine, on everyday chemicals lurking in our homes. Two words in particular caught my eye: breast milk. According to the article, harmful indoor chemicals had been measured in the urine, fat, blood, and breast milk of the majority of Americans tested. In my breast milk? I wondered, thinking about my young daughters. 

I kept reading: flame retardants on couches, additives in skin lotions, nonstick coating on pans, plastics in baby bottles. These chemicals were associated with infertility, diabetes, obesity, cancer...and thyroid disorders. Called “endocrine disruptors,” these kinds of chemicals interfere with the intricate web of hormones and its functioning. 

Unsure what to make of this, I went to my go-to science database, PubMed, and searched for “endocrine disruptors.” More than a thousand articles came up. Sifting through the abstracts, I learned just how many everyday, legal chemicals made people sick, often by disrupting their hormones. Had these chemicals caused some of my health problems? 

The thyroid gland is one of the most sensitive tissues with regard to pollutants. Pesticides, herbicides, nonstick cookware, and plastics in canned foods and water bottles can disrupt the signals to and from the thyroid gland. Other pollutants, like a contaminant from rocket fuel that leaches into the water supply and gets absorbed by leafy vegetables, can inhibit the thyroid’s production of hormones. Flame retardants, certain byproducts of coal, and additives in lubricants can trigger autoimmune reactions against the thyroid. Thyroid medications have long been among the most commonly prescribed drugs in America—can this be explained, in part, by the explosion of these chemicals? 

12 Steps to Detoxify Your Home

Here are some ways to clean up your personal environment. Consider making these changes slowly rather than all at once, so as not to overwhelm yourself or your family. 

  1. Choose organic produce and meats whenever possible. (See the resources below for prioritizing produce.) 
  2. Use stainless steel and/or ceramic cookware. Avoid non-stick pots and pans. For food storage, use recycled jars or Pyrex glass containers. Avoid storing or heating food in any type of plastic container. Also, choose beverages in glass bottles over aluminum cans when available. 
  3. When cooking with a gas stove, turn on the ventilation, or open a nearby window, or both. 
  4. Filter chlorine from your drinking water, as well as other chemicals and pollutants. Brita water pitchers are a good start. For good-quality sink water filters, go to 
  5. Use an air purifier with a HEPA filter in your home and office to reduce allergens. 
  6. Remove dust by using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, and vacuum often. Avoid sweeping as a regular way to remove dust, as this can aerosolize mold and other dust, which may carry pollutants. 
  7. Wash hands with warm water and castile soap. Avoid artificial fragrances, antibacterial soaps, and harsh astringents. 
  8. Use biodegradable cleaning products or diluted vinegar or hydrogen peroxide for cleaning and disinfecting. Avoid chlorine bleach. 
  9. Reduce/eliminate plastics that off-gas. Anything that smells “chemical,” like vinyl shower curtains and synthetic carpets and padding. Be practical here, too—whatever is easily doable. 
  10. When you have a choice, use paints and other solvents that are low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound). 
  11. Choose personal care products with essential oils over synthetic fragrances. 
  12. Choose couches that aren’t sprayed with flame retardants. 

My favorite resources 

Our health—individual and collective—depends on a healthier home and a healthier planet. So go beyond your own home: support policies that promote cleaner alternatives on the city, state, and federal level. 

  • Wondering which foods to buy organic? Which personal health-care products are healthier? Which safer insect repellants actually work? Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit advocacy group with practical guidelines for everyday living. 
  • An at-a-glance compilation of science-based tips, guides, and expert advice to create a healthier future for you and your communities. 
  • Wondering how to get involved at the community level and beyond? Shifting the responsibility onto governmental agencies and industries reduces the responsibility from the individual or family. Collaborative on Health and the Environment is an international association of scientists, health professionals, activists, policy-makers, and community folks working together to review the latest science. 
  • National Resources Defense Council is an environmental action group focused on a variety of environmental policies. 
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency has a comprehensive pollutants database. 
  • For more resources, see: /environmental-health-resources.


Cynthia Li, MD, is a doctor of internal medicine in Berkeley, CA, and serves as faculty on the Healer’s Art Program at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. She is the author of Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness.

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