THESE CHEMICALS ARE LEGAL—BUT ARE THEY REALLY SAFE? STUDY UP AND PROTECT YOURSELF WITH THESE SIMPLE STEPS.
When it comes to staying healthy, the focus is often on lifestyle. Eat your fruits and veggies. Get some exercise. Watch your weight. This strategy isn’t wrong—lifestyle does play an integral role in keeping us healthy. But it also doesn’t take into account the air we breathe every day—the environment we live in—an environment that is changing dramatically with the invention of a variety of materials and chemicals that the human body has never had to deal with before.
According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit advocacy organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, more than 70,000 new chemicals have been introduced into our environment in the last 50 years. Nearly all of these have entered the market with no long-term testing for safety. Some of them are harmless. Others aren’t.
Here’s the scoop on six of the biggies that scientists and toxicologists have been talking about recently.
You’ve likely heard that chemicals found in certain plastic products can leech into your food and water and cause ill health effects. BPA is one of those chemicals. What you may have not realized is that that this very same chemical is also present in the plastic lining of many canned foods. “Research indicates that more than 90 percent of Americans have BPA in their body, and it’s been found to be a hormone disruptor,” explains Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at Environmental Working Group. “It makes breast and prostate cancer more difficult to treat.” It may also cause early-onset puberty and behavior problems in growing children.
Buy canned foods carefully—not all manufacturers line their cans. If you aren’t sure, replace canned foods with fresh and frozen foods. Eat and drink from containers made of glass, ceramic and stainless steel.
Antibacterial products are good, right? They make things cleaner and help prevent disease. What could possibly be unhealthy about them? According to research—plenty. Triclosan is listed on the labels of nearly 259 hand soaps, according to Environmental Working Group. It’s also added to other products such as dishwashing deter- gent, mattresses, shower curtains, bathtubs and cutting boards to kill bacteria. “Research on fish and frogs demonstrate that triclosan can affect development,” says Cal Baier-Anderson, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Newer studies on lab rats have shown that it can also interfere with thyroid function.” Even the American Medical Association believes it may contribute to antibiotic resistance.
Skip the antibacterial products and just use plain soap and water. The American Medical Association says it’s just as effective in preventing the spread of germs— and much safer for you and the planet.
Over the years, manufacturers have tried to make our lives easier with a variety of products…nonstick cook-ware, microwavable meals in disposable containers, water- and stain-resistant fabrics. Emerging research suggests that the chemicals that make these technologies possible—perfluorochemicals, or PFCs—may not be good for our health, however. “Data from studies suggests that PFCs raise cancer risk and cause liver problems and high cholesterol,” says Sarah Janssen, M.D., Ph.D., a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Gore-Tex…they all contain PFCs, although Janssen believes the exposure is probably lower with nonstick cookware.
Make meals at home instead of buying microwavable meals or fast food. The waxy substance on the food packaging likely contains PFCs. Avoid fabrics that have been treated with water- or stain-resistant treatments. When looking for new cookware, choose stainless steel or cast iron rather than nonstick.
Brominated flame retardants (PBDEs)
In theory, flame retardants are a good thing. After all, nobody wants their house and all their possessions to go up in flames. The thing is, research has shown that other preventive measures are more effective than PBDEs—and much less harmful to human health. “Fire risk goes down dramatically when people have smoke detectors and sprinkler systems and either don’t smoke or use self-extinguishing cigarettes,” says Janssen. The alternative—or rather, the reality? PBDEs permeate pretty much every thing in our homes…furniture, electronics, carpeting, curtains, etc., giving off fumes that, in animal studies, cause problems with memory, learning, hyperactivity and reproduction.
Fortunately, PBDEs have been banned in some states. Unfortunately, there’s still no federal ban, and in some states where there are bans, PBDEs are being replaced with other chemicals that have iffy safety profiles. Janssen says this particular example points to the larger problem of how chemicals are regulated in the United States. As Baier-Anderson points out, thousands of new chemicals come onto the market every year. “And legally, these chemicals can go into consumer products without any long-term testing,” she says.
This chemical is used as a preservative in a variety of personal care products, although many manufacturers are now opting to make their products paraben-free—a positive step in the right direction. “Parabens mimic the female hormone estrogen,” says Janssen, which causes hormone disruption. “They have been found to be persistent in breast tissue,” adds Lunder.
Look for products that say “paraben-free.”
It makes mascara the optimal consistency for plumping up lashes. It makes nail polish chip resistant. Unfortunately, it also disrupts hormones—a not-so-tantalizing effect. “Research indicates that phthalates interfere with the production of testosterone in particular,” says Janssen. “But they’ve also been found to cause female reproductive harm and have been linked to problems with obesity and asthma. The United States has banned them in children’s toys, but in the European Union, they have also been banned in cosmetics.”
Do a little research before you buy cosmetics. “Look at the ingredients label,” suggests Lunder, “and choose fragrance-free personal care products, as phthalates are often used to extend the life of scents.” You may also want to avoid vinyl products and PVC, both of which contain this chemical.