Simple Lifestyle May Limit Exposure to Chemicals

Mennonite Community Study Suggests Link Between Simple Life, Lower BPA Levels

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 25, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

June 26, 2012 -- Concerned about exposure to the controversial chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and other potentially harmful chemicals in the environment?

You may be able to reduce your risks by leading a simpler life in the fashion of the Old Order Mennonite (OOM) community.

The Old Order Mennonites are a Christian group who eat mostly fresh, unprocessed foods; farm without pesticides; and rarely use personal care products. The OOM community is known to have low rates of obesity, diabetes, and infertility.

In a small study, 10 pregnant women from the OOM community had significantly lower levels of BPA and phthalate (pronounced thal-ate) metabolites in their urine than pregnant women in the general U.S. population.

Researchers analyzed urine samples from the 10 pregnant OOM women for the presence and levels of BPA and nine phthalate metabolites. These results were compared to those of pregnant women who participated in the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Although the researchers also gathered information on OOM participants' product use, lifestyle, and household environment within a 48-hour period prior to collection, they did not have similar data to compare for the NHANES.

BPA is a chemical used in the manufacturing of many metal food and beverage cans. It is also in napkins, toilet paper, tickets, food wrappers, newspapers, and receipts. Phthalates are found in cosmetics, scented candles, and plastics. These chemicals are considered endocrine disruptors, which means they affect hormones in the body.

But at least one expert tells WebMD that although this study showed higher levels of chemicals in some pregnant women, it doesn't prove that these chemicals have done any harm.

The new findings appear Neurotoxicology.

Follow in the OOM Community's Footsteps

"If you are concerned or afraid, you really can control your risk by limiting exposure to BPA and phthalates," says researcher Shanna H. Swan, PhD. She is a professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Swan suggests that you can reduce your exposure to these chemicals by:

  • Eating unprocessed foods
  • Choosing organic foods wherever possible
  • Avoiding canned foods (unless they are packaged in BPA-free cans)
  • Minimizing your use of personal care products and cosmetics that contain these chemicals
  • Choosing chemical-free cleaning products and personal care products

"You can eat like a Mennonite even if you don't grow your own food," she says.

According to Swan, pregnant women should be most concerned about their level of exposure to these chemicals. "This is the period of the most rapid development and when sensitivity is the greatest."

Members of the Mennonite community do not typically travel by cars or trucks. Instead, they get from place to place by horse and buggy, walking, or by bicycle. Half of the pregnant OOM participants had been in a car or truck within the two days before urine collection. These individuals had higher levels of the chemicals than their counterparts who did not travel by car or truck before collection, the study shows.

"These people are back to nature and that is why their health is so good," says Joyce L. Wade, a certified nurse midwife in the OOM community. She is based in Middlesex, N.Y. "The more we can get back to nature, the healthier we can be."

Debate About Chemicals Continues

Yes, members of the OOM community may well lead healthier lifestyles, but the new findings add nothing to the debate about health risks associated with any chemicals, says Gilbert Ross, MD. He is the executive director and medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, a New York City-based consumer education-public health organization.

"The OOM community has population-wide behavioral and lifestyle parameters that result in a lower exposure to certain ubiquitous environmental chemicals and substances. These include fragrances and certain food preparation items, and compounds from motor vehicle emissions," he says in an email.

But "these well-known facts add nothing whatsoever to the controversy fomented by anti-chemical activists and advocates."

The new study does not document any risks associated with exposure, he says. "The insinuation that somehow the lower exposures of this group due to their simple and vigorous lifestyle are somehow responsible for the allegedly lower rates of certain illnesses and conditions, such as diabetes, is not science. It is speculation."

Show Sources


Shanna H, Swan, PhD, professor, preventive medicine, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City.

Gibert Ross, MD, executive director and medical director, American Council on Science and Health, New York City.

Joyce L. Wade, certified nurse midwife, Middlesex, N.Y.

Martina, C. Neurotoxicology, 2012, study received ahead of print.

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