Every week, our Facebook feeds explode with new warnings about toxins in our daily lives. But is that couch with flame retardants or your nonstick skillet really going to kill you? We dug deep into the research to find out which chemicals actually pose a risk and what we all can do about them right now.
Scientists issue warning over chemicals in carpets, coats, cookware.” “chemicals in pizza boxes may be health risk.”
Headlines like these make you want to curl up on the sofa and never leave the house—except that couch! Chances are it’s loaded with toxic chemicals, too. As a savvy, health-conscious (and, OK, slightly worry-prone) woman, how are you supposed to function in a world where everything from the dust bunnies in your home to your ATM receipt could be poisoning you?
First, some perspective: Yes, chemicals are everywhere, and some are undoubtedly harmful. But linking a health issue, whether it’s breast cancer or premature births, to specific substances is difficult. “We’re exposed to so many chemicals—some potentially hazardous, some not—and often health problems take months or years to develop. That makes it tricky to identify the culprit,” explains Tracey Woodruff, PhD, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
Moreover, the average person’s exposure to any one toxin is relatively low, as is her individual health risk. The potential peril of, say, eating microwave popcorn pales in comparison to smoking, which is directly responsible for 30 percent of cancer deaths, says Margaret Kripke, PhD, professor emerita at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and co-author of the President’s Cancer Panel report on environmental cancer risk.
That said, developing fetuses, infants and children are more vulnerable to chemicals’ effects. In fact, this fall, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics issued a report sounding an alarm about the serious health effects of exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy and breast-feeding.
Whether you have little ones or not, it’s smart to understand the science behind the most buzzed-about chemicals. We talked to top scientists and analyzed the research to find out what you should really be concerned about and how you can protect yourself and the planet.
What are they?
In the 1970s, California instituted strict flammability standards for upholstered furniture sold in the state, leading manufacturers to add flame-retardant chemicals to the foam used in furniture sold throughout the U.S. Today these chemicals—designed to inhibit the spread of fire—are in chairs, sofas, cars, commercial airplanes and infant car seats. A typical sofa contains three or more pounds of treated foam.
What’s the worry?
Because the flame retardants are sprayed on rather than chemically bonded to the product, the molecules migrate out of the products and collect in household dust, where they get on our hands and, inevitably, into our mouths and bodies, says Philip Landrigan, MD, a pediatrician and dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Studies have linked different formulations to a variety of health problems, but the most worrisome issue is the effects on infants’ brain development. “PBDEs are fat-soluble and can easily enter the brain,” says Dr. Landrigan. “When that happens to babies in the womb and during infancy, it can result in reduced IQ and a shorter attention span.”
Flame-retardant chemicals build up in body fat and, as a result, have been found in breast milk, infant cord blood and children’s blood. Children are also more exposed than adults because they crawl or play on the floor, where they come into contact with chemical-laden dust, says Ted Schettler, MD, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.
Several types of flame retardants have already been phased out due to safety concerns, but other (and possibly dangerous) ones have taken their place—and the old versions will likely remain in the environment for years, since they’re designed to be durable.
Reduce your risk
It’s not realistic to buy all new furniture, but old sofas with crumbling foam should be a priority because they release the most chemicals, says Marya G. Zlatnik, MD, professor of maternal-fetal medicine at UCSF.
The great news: In early 2014, California revised its flammability regulations, enabling furniture makers to meet the standards without flame-retardant chemicals. Many companies, including Ashley Furniture, Crate & Barrel, Ikea, La-Z-Boy and Walmart, now sell upholstered products without the chemicals. (Go to health.com/non-toxic-couch for more details on how to find furniture without flame retardants.)
New couch not in the budget? You may be able to update just the cushions with flame retardant–free foam at a local upholstery shop. In the meantime, dust and vacuum (vacuums with HEPA filters are best at removing small particles) several times a week to rid your home of dust that contains the chemicals, advises Dr. Zlatnik, and wash your hands (and your kids’) before eating.
What is it?
This pungent, flammable chemical is found in the wood glue used in furniture and flooring (especially laminate) and many manufactured wood products, like particle board, medium-density fiberboard and hardwood plywood. The chemical grabbed national attention after Hurricane Katrina, when people who were put up in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency started suffering from respiratory problems, headaches and nosebleeds linked to high concentrations of formaldehyde in the air. It made headlines again this year when 60 Minutes reported that Chinese-made laminate flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators emitted formaldehyde at levels exceeding California standards. (The company has stopped selling the product, though its own testing program showed that the vast majority of customers’ homes were within safe levels.)
What’s the worry?
Inhaling formaldehyde can cause nose, throat and eye irritation and trigger asthma attacks—probably the biggest risk for most people, says David Krause, PhD, a toxicologist in Tallahassee, Fla. Although the National Toxicology Program said formaldehyde is “known to be a human carcinogen” in 2011, after studies linked it to cancers of the nose and myeloid leukemia, that research looked at manufacturing and funeral industry workers, who are exposed to higher levels of the substance than the general population, explains Laura Beane Freeman, PhD, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute. However, the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned enough about the chemical that it is finalizing new national rules that will set limits on formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.
Other formaldehyde-related concerns, like getting Brazilian blowouts, are likely overhyped, says Krause. “I’d be more worried about hairdressers who are exposed to those chemicals routinely than a woman who gets the treatment a few times a year,” he says.
Reduce your risk
If solid wood isn’t an option, the next best thing is to buy wood products that comply with the formaldehyde regulations set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB)—they’re the most stringent to date. (Look for a label indicating CARB phase 2 compliance, or ask the manufacturer directly if the product meets those standards.) Put products in the garage or a spare bedroom to allow the chemical to off-gas for a few days to a few weeks—or until they don’t smell, which is a good sign that a large portion has off-gassed, says Krause. If you don’t have that kind of time, keep your windows open as much as you can for the first few months after a new wood product is in your home.
What are they?
These compounds make products more resistant to stains, grease and water; they’re found in such items as sofas, carpets, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and waterproof clothing. They’re also in some nonstick cookware.
What’s the worry?
PFASs can accumulate in the body (including the brain, liver, lungs, bones and kidneys) and remain for as long as a decade. Studies have shown links to kidney cancer, high cholesterol, obesity, abnormal thyroid function, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and low-birth-weight infants. Most of the research has been done on folks with very high exposures, including those who lived near chemical plants in West Virginia and Ohio, where drinking water had become contaminated. But even low levels are a concern, says Simona Balan, PhD, senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif.
And almost everyone has traces of PFASs in their blood, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Released from factories and consumer products, they accumulate in the environment (some versions won’t degrade for thousands of years), ending up in water, fish and livestock. In May, a group of more than 200 researchers and scientists from all over the world signed the Madrid Statement, asking for a limit to production and use of these chemicals.
Reduce your risk
You probably can’t completely avoid eating and drinking PFASs, but you can wash your hands often to remove those you pick up around the house (they may collect in household dust), and replace your nonstick cookware with ceramic-coated pans, advises Linda S. Birnbaum, PhD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program. Make popcorn on the stove instead of in the microwave, and don’t get stain-resistant finishes on new cars or furniture.
You can also help reduce the amount of these chemicals that get into the environment by opting for clothing that hasn’t been treated with PFASs. Brands that have committed to phasing out the substances include Adidas, Puma and Zara. (Scientists don’t know enough about whether PFASs are absorbed through the skin, so it’s unclear if clothing treated with them poses a direct health risk, says Birnbaum.)
What is it?
BPA is used to make hard polycarbonate plastics (like those used for water bottles and food-storage containers) and epoxy resins, found in the lining of many food cans. There was a big news splash about the fact that it’s in the thermal receipt paper you might get at the ATM and grocery store—but food and drink are the primary way most of us are exposed, according to the National Institutes of Health.
What’s the worry?
BPA is considered an endocrine-disrupting chemical, which means it may act like a hormone in the body and affect the functioning of natural hormones, like estrogen. “It can potentially have a negative impact on fetal development, including brain development,” says Dr. Schettler. In 2014, researchers from nine institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Michigan, concluded that BPA is a “reproductive toxicant,” based on studies showing that it reduced egg quality in women undergoing in vitro fertilization—and said there’s strong evidence that it’s toxic to the uterus as well. “It could disrupt women’s ability to get pregnant,” says Woodruff.
There’s also preliminary evidence that it may be linked to obesity. Several years ago, Harvard researchers reported that people who had higher BPA concentrations in their urine were more likely to be obese; in May, Canadian researchers reported that the body seems to break down BPA into a compound that might spur the growth of fat cells.
Reduce your risk Eat fresh or frozen food instead of canned, or choose brands sold in BPA-free cans. Researchers from Harvard and the CDC found that people who consumed a 12-ounce serving of canned soup every day for five days had a twelvefold increase in BPA levels in their urine compared with those who ate fresh soup—a temporary blip, since the body gets rid of BPA quickly, but potentially worrisome if you eat canned food regularly or have other exposures. Store food in glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers. And avoid microwaving in plastic, because heating the containers allows the chemicals they contain (whether BPA or other compounds) to leach into food, says Birnbaum.
Pesticides (including organophosphates)
What are they?
Poisons formulated to kill, harm or repel pests. Farmers may apply them on fields, and they’re in many lawn, garden and home products.
What’s the worry?
They can damage your nervous system, irritate your skin or eyes, affect your hormones or even cause cancer. The biggest risk by far is to farm workers and those who live near farms, who are exposed to higher levels than the rest of us, says Irva Hertz-Picciotto, PhD, a pesticide researcher at the UC Davis MIND Institute.
For starters, farmers and other agricultural workers appear to have higher rates of certain cancers. In March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, raised new concerns about a link between glyphosate, the active ingredient in weed killers such as Roundup, and cancer risk. (Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, disputes the IARC’s findings.) But pesticides in the home also pose a potential danger. A new review published in Pediatrics connected indoor pesticide exposure to a significantly higher risk of childhood leukemia and lymphoma.
Researchers are also studying the relationship between pesticides and neurodevelopmental disorders. A study of an agricultural region of California found that evidence of pesticide exposure in pregnant women was linked to a higher risk of attention problems in their young children. And last year, researchers at the MIND Institute reported that pregnant women who lived near fields where chemical pesticides were used had a roughly two-thirds higher risk of having a child with autism spectrum disorder, and an even higher risk of having one with other developmental delays.
What about pesticide residues in nonorganic food? The American Cancer Society says there’s no evidence at present that they increase the risk of cancer. However, research by Hertz-Picciotto and her colleagues has shown that there may be a risk to kids’ neurological health.
Reduce your risk
Go organic. “That alone can reduce exposure to pesticides by 90 percent,” says Dr. Landrigan. When researchers at Emory University and the University of Washington substituted organic food for children’s conventional diets for five days, the metabolites for two types of organophosphate pesticides all but disappeared from the kids’ urine. Can’t afford all-organic? Choose fruits and veggies with lower pesticide residues (see the Environmental Working Group’s guide at ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php) and scrub them with water to reduce surface chemicals further.
And, of course, minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides in and around your home—and remove shoes at the door to prevent tracking in chemicals, says Dr. Zlatnik.
What are they?
These chemicals make plastic flexible (think vinyl shower curtains, food packaging and soft plastic food containers, garden hoses, medical tubing, kids’ toys). They’re also in products like shampoo, hairspray and nail polish; if you see “parfum” or “fragrance” on a label, it could contain phthalates.
What’s the worry?
Phthalates, which decrease testosterone and may also mimic estrogen, have been linked to increased breast cancer risk. “I’m particularly concerned about the effects during pregnancy,” says Shanna Swan, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She and her colleagues have found that exposure to phthalates in the womb might affect baby boys’ sexual development. “Fetal development is to a large extent determined by hormones, so phthalates may be having other subtle effects as well,” she says.
Those at elevated risk include women exposed to high levels through jobs in the automotive industry, rubber hose manufacturing facilities and nail salons, but as with other endocrine-disrupting chemicals, scientists are concerned that low doses might be harmful, too.
Reduce your risk
The main source of exposure to one of the most concerning phthalates, DEHP, is food, says Swan, so avoid microwaving in plastic, and if you eat, drink or store food in plastic, steer clear of those labeled #3. Also, buy low-fat dairy products and eat leaner cuts of meat, says Sheela Sathyanarayana, MD, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Washington. In 2014, she and colleagues reported that dairy (particularly cream) and meat can contain high levels of a certain type of phthalate, possibly from animal feed or because the chemicals leach into the food from plastics used in processing and packaging.
Congress has already banned several phthalates in toys and in teething and feeding products, but since plastics contain a concoction of chemicals, it’s best to avoid plastic toys until your child outgrows the tendency to mouth them, advises Woodruff.
Phthalates can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin as well, which means personal-care products may pose a slight risk. “Choose products that contain few ingredients and are unscented—which means they probably don’t contain phthalates,” says Woodruff.
As scientists continue to sift through the concerns over chemicals, new scares are likely to keep making headlines. But instead of fretting, let Congress know where you stand. And try to put the risks in perspective, suggests Woodruff: “The sanest approach is to make a few changes to the food and products you buy and adopt some simple habits that reduce your exposure—then enjoy your life.
What about parabens?
These preservatives (found in products like makeup, moisturizers and hair care) have been in use since the 1930s and have long been deemed safe. Parabens are considered to be weak estrogen mimics—10,000 to 100,000 times less active than the estrogen in your body, according to one 1998 study. While they could theoretically increase breast cancer risk, at this point the risk is just that—theoretical—”and based on animal and other lab studies,” says Janet Gray, PhD, director of science, technology and society at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who researches environmental impacts on breast cancer. Bottom line: There’s no need to panic about parabens, but it’s always wise to limit your exposure to any chemicals that may act like hormones—in this case, by opting for paraben-free personal-care products.
Just because these ingredients have hard-to-pronounce names doesn’t make them evil. Don’t freak if you see them on the side of a package; they’re safe.
Azodicarbonamide is added to flour as a whitening agent and to help bread dough rise. It caused an uproar when it was revealed that it’s also used to make yoga mats and a variety of other products you wouldn’t want to eat. The World Health Organization has said it can be potentially dangerous when inhaled, possibly triggering asthma in workers who are heavily exposed during the manufacturing process. But as a food additive, it is used in tiny amounts—a maximum of 0.0045 percent of the treated flour, points out Alissa Rumsey, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Xanthan gum is a sugarlike substance made from fermentation, feeding cornstarch to bacteria. It’s used as a thickener and emulsifier—it helps keep oil and water from separating in products—and increases shelf life. It’s in salad dressings and sauces and is what gives most gluten-free breads and baked goods a texture similar to that of wheat-based breads. Some people are allergic to xanthan gum, but if you don’t have an allergy, it’s harmless, says Rumsey.
Ascorbyl palmitate is a fat-soluble form of vitamin C. It helps increase the shelf life of foods and makes food color last longer. When you consume it, it breaks down into vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and palmitate, a kind of fat, explains Rumsey. “Vitamins often have worrisome-sounding names, but this one is actually an antioxidant, so it’s good for you,” says Robert Gravani, PhD, professor of food science at Cornell University.
Lecithin is a type of fat usually derived from egg yolks or soybeans. It’s used as an emulsifier in salad dressing and as a stabilizer in bread. “It’s a fat that’s essential to most cells in our bodies,” notes Gravani. Unless you have a soy or egg allergy, lecithin is safe to consume, says Rumsey.
Calcium propionate is added to breads and bakery products to prevent mold and bacteria growth. It has been studied extensively for toxicity, and findings were negative, says Rumsey. “Some people may get migraines triggered by foods with this preservative,” she notes, “but there hasn’t been much research to back this up.”
3 things you don’t have to worry about
Dyeing your hair
Though ingredients in older (pre-1980) hair- dye formulas were shown to cause cancer in lab animals, those ingredients are no longer in use; newer studies haven’t found a cancer link. Hairdressers exposed to dyes at work may have a slightly higher risk of bladder cancer, but the IARC says there’s not enough evidence to link personal hair-dye use and cancer.
Keeping your mercury fillings
“I have no qualms about using them to treat my patients,” says Hadie Rifai, DDS, a dentist with the Cleveland Clinic, and everyone from the Mayo Clinic to the FDA and American Dental Association agrees they’re safe.
Eating sushi once a week
“It’s safe to eat two servings of fish a week. Just go for a variety of types,” says Emily Oken, MD, associate professor in the department of population medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health. “That way, you get the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and, as long as you’re not pregnant, you don’t need to worry about mercury exposure.”