Thousands of potentially harmful chemicals are in products ranging from electronics to medical equipment and carpets in the US
Synthetic chemicals are in nearly everything we touch and consume. But some chemicals can be potentially harmful and a number of experts are anxious about possible long-term health effects of our everyday exposure. They say US regulations could be stronger.
One of those who is concerned is Leo Trasande of NYU Langone Health, an expert in children’s environmental health and author of Sicker Fatter Poorer, which is about the threat of hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Of the more than 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 1% have been rigorously tested for human safety.
Consumers can’t know about them all, but Trasande says its good to be aware of five groups of synthetic chemicals: pesticides, phthalates, flame retardants, bisphenol (BPA) and PFAS. “You can reduce your levels of exposure to these chemicals,” Trasande said. “You can’t completely eliminate these exposures because some of them are on our subways, our buses, they’re in environments we can’t control.”
What are they? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines pesticides as any chemical substance used to regulate, prevent or destroy plants or pests – usually insects, rodents or micro-organisms such as fungi and bacteria.
- Residues are in up to 70% of produce sold in the US, according to the latest annual analysis of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data by the health advocacy group Environmental Working Group.
Are they safe? The EPA says its regulatory actions and improvements in science over recent years has led to “an increase in the use of safer, less toxic pesticides … [and an] overall trend of reduced risk from pesticides”.
- However, pesticides have been linked to a list of long-term health issues, including: prostate, lung, thyroid and bone marrow cancer; diabetes; Parkinson’s disease; asthma and macular degeneration, according to the Agricultural Health Study, a government-funded research study that has monitored nearly 90,000 farmers and their spouses since the early 1990s.
- Farm workers face significantly higher exposure.
Haven’t there been some recent court cases? Yes. In a landmark ruling last August, Monsanto was found liable for causing a school groundskeeper’s cancer through exposure to Roundup, the company’s leading pesticide. Roundup, a glyphosate-based, organophosphate weedkiller, is one of, if not the most widely used pesticides in the world.
- On 14 May another jury ordered Monsanto to pay more than $2bn to a couple that got cancer after using its weedkiller.
What can consumers do? Peel produce and trim the fat from meat and fish (where pesticides might collect); wash and scrub fruits and vegetables under running water. (Not all pesticides can be washed off, the EPA says. Some analysis suggests peeling won’t remove them all either.)
- Buy organic where you can. But don’t avoid fresh foods if you can’t buy organic. Eat different kinds of produce to avoid potentially high exposure to a single pesticide.
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What are they? Phthalates are a group of chemicals most commonly used to make plastic more flexible and harder to break. They also act as a binding agent or a solvent. They were first introduced in the 1920s as an additive in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and some healthcare products, such as insect repellent.
- Exposure to phthalates is widespread and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies have found phthalates present in the majority of the population, particularly among children and women of child-bearing age.
- They are in cosmetics and personal care products (shampoo, perfume, nail polish, hairspray, sanitary pads and more), vinyl flooring, mini blinds and wallpaper, raincoats, medical equipment and devices (including blood storage bags and IV tubes), plastic pipes, shower curtains, plastic film and food packaging, pharmaceuticals, lubricating oils and detergents.
Are they safe? Phthalates’ effects on humans have not been studied extensively, but they are believed to be an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) that can alter hormonal balance and potentially cause reproductive, developmental and other health issues.
- Links have been found to reproductive and genital defects, lower sperm count, disrupted hormones, and infertility has been found in numerous studies on animals, the National Research Council stated in a 2008 risk assessment report.
- Minimize exposure by avoiding plastic food containers (plastics marked with a 1, 2, 4 or 5 recycling code are probably safest).
- Use glass instead and never reheat food in plastic.
- Check product labels – avoid anything with “fragrance” or phthalates listed.
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What are they? Since the 1970s, hundreds of chemicals have been used to stop the spread of fire in a wide range of common household items and other products. Common types include: brominated flame retardants (the most commonly used), OFRs, TBBPA, HBCD and OPFRs. Brominated flame retardants belong to the same class of chemicals as PCBs, which were banned by the EPA in 1979.
- They can be found in furniture foams, carpets, curtains and other textiles, paints, food packaging, surfboards, home insulation, appliances, toys, electronics (laptops, televisions, phones, cables, wires and circuit boards), car seats and other automotive parts, and many baby products.
- Even as some flame retardants have been phased out of the market, they remain in the environment, people and animals.
Are they safe? Scientists have found exposure to flame retardants can affect the nervous and reproductive systems and more.
- An EPA report related to the risk evaluation process for HBCD, a type of flame retardant, references multiple studies finding potential effects on liver and thyroid function and the endocrine system. Some chemicals have also been linked to cancer.
- Children are most vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing, and they are often more exposed to flame retardant-laden products, such as carpets, toys and other items.
What can consumers do? Inhalation of household dust is believed to be the main way people are exposed to flame retardants. They can also be ingested through food or absorbed through the skin.
- Limit your exposure in the house by keeping dust levels down by wet-mopping, vacuuming with a HEPA filter and keeping HVAC systems clean.
- Wash your hands before eating since hand-to-mouth contact can lead to flame retardant exposure – an especially important tip for children.
- Avoid buying furniture and baby products filled with polyurethane foam.
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What are they? Bisphenols are a group of chemicals used to manufacture plastics, epoxy resins and other products since the 1960s. Bisphenol-A (BPA), the most infamous of a group of 40 or so chemicals, was initially investigated for pharmaceutical use as synthetic estrogen in the 1930s. Many plastic products marketed as BPA-free contain similar replacement chemicals.
- They are in receipt paper, food and beverage can liners, food packaging, DVDs and CDs, medical equipment, toys and automotive parts, water bottles and some dental sealants.
- BPA is considered a building block of plastic and is one of the most used industrial chemicals today.
- The EPA says it is concerned about BPA because “it is a reproductive, developmental and systemic toxicant in animal studies and is weakly estrogenic”, adding there are “questions about its potential impact, particularly on children’s health and the environment”.
- Studies, the agency says, “indicate that the levels of BPA in humans and the environment are below levels of potential concern for adverse effects”. But the EPA says “results of some recent studies” using low doses describe “subtle effects in laboratory animals at very low concentrations”, and notes some authorities, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are taking steps to “protect sensitive populations, particularly infants and young children”.
What can consumers do? BPA is absorbed into the body mainly through food and drink, though contaminated air and dust might also be a factor.
- Cut down on canned food or, if you can’t, rinse the food in water. Don’t microwave food in plastic containers or cans.
- Avoid plastics with a 3 or 7 recycle code on the bottom, and use non-plastic containers when possible for food and drinks.
- Choose BPA-free water and baby bottles (though these probably contain BPS or other alternatives).
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What are they? PFAS, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of at least 4,700 synthetic chemicals that have been in commercial production since the 1940s to make surfaces resist stains, water and grease.
- The most widely studied are PFOA (also known as C8) – used for decades to make Teflon non-stick – and PFOS, used to make Scotchgard water repellent.
- PFAS chemicals can be in non-stick cookware, fire retardants, stain and water repellents, furniture, waterproof clothes, pizza boxes and take-out containers, food packaging, carpets and textiles, rubbers and plastics, electronics and some dental floss.
- They can also be dispersed through air and water and have been found in the environment of the Arctic (and its polar bears) and open ocean waters.
- They have been found in the drinking water of about 16 million Americans, including 126 military bases, where PFAS-rich firefighting foam is used for training exercises.
- The CDC found PFOA in the blood of 98% of Americans, as well as in breast milk and umbilical cord blood.
Are they safe? Health effects of the various kinds of PFAS are debated, but a growing body of evidence has linked exposure to some of them to:
- Developmental issues, cancer, liver damage, immune system disruption, resistance to vaccines, thyroid disease, impaired fertility and high cholesterol. PFAS have been dubbed “possibly carcinogenic” to humans by the EPA and the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC).
- Numerous studies on PFOS and PFOA on both humans and animals have shown a wide range of possible health effects, including decreased fertility among women, decreased sperm count and penis size, lowered birth weight, cancer and – among animals studied – death.
What can consumers do? Exposure to PFAS comes mainly from drinking contaminated water, eating food packaged in certain materials, or using products embedded with PFAS.
- Avoid non-stick cookware, Gore-Tex fabric and clothing made with pre-2000 Scotchguard, and personal care products containing PTFE or flouro ingredients. When in doubt, ask manufacturers if their products contain PFAS since they may not be labeled.
- Ask your local health department if your water is contaminated above EPA-specified levels, and stop using it if so.
- Watch out for local fish advisories and don’t eat contaminated catches.
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