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The Connection between Chemicals and Inflammation

Oct 27, 2021 | Inflammation & Autoimmune Disease

Environmental chemicals can have an impact on our health and inflammation. They are tied to increases in asthma and allergies, and have been shown to affect both inflammatory and immune related conditions. I am breaking down several common chemicals found in our everyday environment, and how they affect the inflammatory process.

Benzenes And Inflammation

Benzenes are a very common air pollutant and used in industrial chemicals. They are also a known carcinogen.  Benzenes are well studied on its effect in cancer, but they also do have an inflammatory effect.

 This happens when benzene is broken down or metabolized in your body, and the byproducts, or the metabolites, that they break down into can actually be inflammatory.

Research On Benzenes

There was a really interesting study back in 2007, where researchers found that benzene metabolites including
catachol, hydroquinone, 1,2,4-benzenetriol and 1,4-benzoquinone triggered cytokine release from red blood cells.  Cytokines are chemical messengers that can either be inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. The ones that benzene or its metabolites triggered, speciflcally IL-6 and IL-8, were inflammatory.

Benzene also has an immunosuppressive effect on the adaptive immune system. Your immune system has two different kind of components to it.  You have your adaptive immune system, which is your long lasting immune system, that recognizes viruses, bacteria ,and other harmful things that may enter your body.  This part of the immune system can mount a more successful attack on invaders, after you’ve been exposed over and over.   Benzene can suppress the adaptive immune system. Additionally, it can activate your innate immune system.  Your innate immune system is your nonspecific immune system.  It’s really your first line of defense in terms of battling viruses and diseases, and it mounts that immediate, chronic, inflammatory response. Because it can activate that innate immune system, it can activate an inflammatory response in your body (1).

Bisphenol A

Bisphenol A,  more commonly as BPA, is found in many products we use on a daily basis. BPA is found in food packaging, electronics, paper, and toys. However, we mostly know BPA in terms being a main ingredient in water bottles and cans.  In canned foods you’ll notice things now are advertised as BPA free, because BPA can be pretty harmful.

Let’s Break It Down

  • In terms of inflammation, BPA can actually affect your helper T cells.  Your helper T cells are your white blood cells, also called T lymphocytes. These cells can be further broken down or specified into CD4+ helper cells. Your CD4+ cells are like an orchestra conductor. They coordinate your immune response and gather other white blood cells like your macrophages and your B cells to come in and get rid of the invader.
  •  Your CD4 can be further broken down into four different types of helper cells, two of which are inflammatory. The inflammatory ones are your Th1 and your Th17.  The other two are Th2 and T regulatory helper cells, which are anti inflammatory.  BPA has been shown to actually influence whether or not CD4  differentiates into the pro-inflammatory or the anti-inflammatory.

The research really is unclear about which helper T cells BPA differentiates to.  It can influence both pro inflammatory or anti inflammatory, and it really depends on how much exposure there is to BPA, how long you’re exposed to it, and what the timing is. The other thing that is important to remember about BPA is it is a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it can affect your hormones. When it does that it can actually bind to receptors in your body and suppress
the endocrine function, which can also lead to more inflammation.

  • The last thing that BPA does is it can antagonize something called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors or PPAR.  These are proteins that help regulate gene expression, and PPARs play a pretty significant role in the development of inflammatory diseases (2).


4-nonylphenol is a chemical found in liquid detergents, cosmetics, paints, and also in pesticides that they use for agriculture.  4-Nonylphenol is also a known endocrine disruptor.  This chemical’s connection to inflammation is It can actually trigger your COX-2 and your prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) production.

COX2 is an enzyme I’ve talked about before, and is responsible for causing inflammation. PGE2 also triggers inflammation by activating your mast cells.  It’s also responsible for inducing chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. So, 4-nonylphenol can actually contribute to chronic disease, chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.

They’ve actually observed this mechanism in lung inflammation and an asthma in mice.  Researchers exposed mice to 4-nonylphenol and they saw an increase in lung inflammation. Another study that suggested that 4-nonylphenol increases pro-inflammatory cytokines in inflammatory bowel disease. So not a very pretty chemical (2).


Atrazine is a commonly used pesticide  found in our environment and in contaminated drinking water.  It’s also an endocrine disruptor.  One study found that Atrazine and its metabolites altered the antioxidant ability of the liver. Remember, the liver is where everything is metabolized and broken down, and a lot of your main antioxidants, such as glutathione, are in the liver.  If your liver has a reduced antioxidant capacity, that means that there’s going to be more free radicals floating around in your body and just leads to more inflammation. They also found that Atrazine affected testosterone production which is again, another hormone that can play a role in inflammation. Atrazine can also regulate nitric oxide production.  Nitric oxide is an important molecule in cancer development and may actually suppress the immune response during tumor development (2)


The last one is a chemical that we hear a lot about these days.  It’s called phthalates.   Phthalates are a very common chemical that practically lives in everything.  They are found in cosmetics, cleaning supplies, toys, plastics, and basically anything that is long lasting.

Phthalates have been shown to trigger inflammation and increase your risk of asthma.  They also, along with being an endocrine disruptor, can also be an immune disruptor.  Chronic exposure to phthalates have shown to increase white blood cells in lungs which brings on a more inflammatory effect in your lungs. It can also affect the Th2 helper T cells that are more pro-inflammatory. It can also have immunosuppressive effects depending on exposure. It can also disrupt the gene expression similar to what we found in in BPA (2).

Reducing Toxic Load

Clearly chemicals can be really harmful and they are hidden in so many places, some of which may not be very obvious. Here are my top tips for reducing your chemical exposure and where they are commonly found.

Buy Organic

  • My first tip is to buy organic produce.  Many of the harmful chemicals that can cause inflammation are found in pesticides. In conventional farming, pesticides are sprayed on crops to keep pests away. On the other hand, organic farming is not allowed to use any synthetic pesticides. So, everything that organic farmers use on crops have to be natural. And in order to be certified organic, you are not allowed to use any synthetic or manmade chemicals.
  • While there are technically no reports of anyone getting sick from eating conventional foods, what is not known is the effect of repeated exposure to these pesticide residues on food. If you think about it, most of the fruits and vegetables that you eat are eaten raw or partially cooked. Cooking does  burn some chemicals off and makes it a little bit safer.  But, most of the fruit that we eat, especially things where you don’t have a peel, you are eating them straight from the ground. It’s really important to kind of keep that in mind.
Common Pesticides

One study looked at organophosphorus and glyphosate metabolite levels.  These are two very common pesticides that are used in conventional farming. They looked at the metabolites of these chemicals in urine samples from people who ate either organic or non organic diets.  Researchers found that the people who ate organic diets, or organic food, had significantly lower levels of these pesticide metabolites than non organic eating people.  This is really important because the World Health Organization (WHO) now recognizes both of these chemicals, organophosphorus and glyphosate, as “probably carcinogenic”.

I always say at a minimum, choose organic foods that are listed on the Environmental Working Groups Dirty Dozen list. These fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide residue. Just note that the EWG updates this list every year.

What Is In Your Cleaning Products?

  •  My second tip is to pay attention to your cleaning products. Household cleaners and detergents contain a number of chemicals.  Studies have shown that fumes released from cleaners increase the risk of asthma or other respiratory illnesses. Additionally, women employed in the cleaning business while pregnant had an increased risk of birth defects. Cleaners also contain a lot of fragrance. Fragrance can be a whole host of toxic compounds that are not disclosed on the label.  About 75% of the chemicals used in fragrance have been shown to be harmful to our health.
  • Read the labels on your products. I would also check the EWG Healthy Living app for your cleaning products safety rating. They rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, one being totally safe and 10 being pretty harmful. Ideally your products should be in the green range (0-3).

Filter Your Water

  • My third tip is to filter your water.  Water may be contaminated, even the water that comes to your home.  Common  contaminants of water include lead, mercury, aluminum, perchlorate, and arsenic, all of which have been shown to cause serious harm to our health. There are several ways to filter your water to remove contaminants.
  1. One is a reverse osmosis.  Reverse osmosis is really effective. It uses a multistage process that pushes the water through 3-4 cleaning stages to remove contaminants.
  2. There’s also a newer kind of method out there that uses UV light.  UV light kills germs, which the remote reverse osmosis system doesn’t have. However, it doesn’t remove other water contaminants. So. you really don’t want to use it alone.
  3. The last one is activated charcoal, which is pretty common. It’s found in the lower end type of filters, which uses a carbon based filter. However, it’s not as effective as reverse osmosis.
  • I would also check your tap water in your city or your town where you live.   You can go to to find out how clean your tap water is. If you live in a place that has amazingly clean tap water, you probably are okay not filtering it. But, if you live in an area where there’s a lot of contaminants, I would definitely filter the water you drink and you could even consider doing your entire home.

Check Your Beauty Products

Check your beauty products.  Beauty products are full of unregulated chemicals.  There are thousands of harmful chemicals.  The US only bans, partially bans or restricts 30, as compared to the European Union who bands 1400 and Canada bands around 600. There is essentially no regulation on beauty products.

  •  Many of the chemicals and ingredients used in beauty products are endocrine disruptors, and they can really have a negative impact on your health, hormones, fertility, and even inflammation.  I would use again, the EWG Healthy Living app to check the safety of your beauty products. I personally love Beautycounter. I have used their products for many years even before I became a consultant. I would definitely check out their products and if you have any questions you can reach out to me.
  • Here’s why it’s important to use clean products. We use so many products on a daily basis, between shampoo, shower soap, deodorant, makeup and you’re like layering it on multiple times a day. One product may not be so bad, but the repeated exposure can really hurt your health, so you just want to be really careful about that.


There are many common chemicals that are found in our everyday life that may trigger inflammation.  It’s important to be aware of these chemicals, know where they are found and how to avoid them. I also challenge you to try to implement at least one of my top tips for reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals that may affect your health and or trigger inflammation. If you need help reducing your toxin exposure or reducing inflammation, please contact me to learn more about my services and approach.

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