Constant warnings about potentially dangerous chemicals in consumer products can leave you feeling powerless. Here's what you actually can do about it.
Asthma-inducing solvents in cleaners, potential carcinogens in canned food -- reports about harmful chemicals in consumer products never seem to stop, these days. And while we assume the FDA and EPA are looking out for us, the reality, according to Ted Schettler, M.D., science director for the Science and Environmental Health Network, is that many compounds on the market today haven't undergone safety analyses. "Laws regulating industrial chemicals haven't been updated since 1976, due to recent industry resistance and political infighting," he says. Unless you plan on living in an organic bubble, avoiding such chemicals entirely isn't realistic, but because exposure can have long-term health effects -- "Some chemicals can remain active in our bodies for decades, causing biological impact on our tissues and organs," says Schettler -- it's essential to understand the true risks. Turn the page for a real-world guide to lightening your chemical load.
By the Numbers
The Environmental Protection Agency has been able to require testing on only about 200 of the 80,000 chemicals made and used in this country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 93 percent of Americans have a detectable amount of BPA in their bodies.
Be in the Know
Research on chemicals is ongoing. Get the latest news at environmental working group's website, ewg.org.
The Truth About Toxins
Eliminating every product containing potentially dangerous chemicals from your life isn't practical -- or even possible. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, use the hassle-free cheat sheet below to sort out what to stay away from entirely and when to proceed with caution.
Vinyl Shower Curtains
Contain: Phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Cause for concern: Vinyl shower curtains are made from a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It contains high levels of phthalates -- a group of chemicals linked to reproductive problems and birth defects in animal studies -- as well as 108 VOCs. Both become more active during a hot shower.
What you can do:
Look for PVC-free vinyl or use nylon, polyester, or other fabric curtains.
Products with "Fragrance"
Contain: A variety of VOCs and phthalates
Cause for concern:
"The word 'fragrance' on a list of ingredients can represent hundreds of chemicals, many of which can cause allergies, asthma attacks, headaches, skin rashes, and nausea," says Anne Steinemann, professor of engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
What you can do: Forgo products that list fragrance as an ingredient, especially air fresheners, and use unscented products when possible.
Contain: VOCs Cause for concern: "VOCs in oil-based paints have been linked to headaches, nausea, respiratory irritation, decreased fertility, and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system," says Ted Schettler, M.D.
What you can do: Use low-VOC or VOC-free paint, and open windows when painting.
Cause for concern: "Animal studies show the chemical can disrupt sex and thyroid hormones essential for normal development and reproduction," says Sarah Janssen, M.D., senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. They may also cause resistance to antibiotics.
What you can do: Stick with plain soap and water to clean hands. It kills just as many germs and is more eco-friendly.
Cut Back On
Harsh Household Cleaners
Contain: Phosphate, chlorine, and petroleum-based chemicals
Cause for concern: "The chemicals in cleaning products can cause skin rashes, eye irritation, coughing, wheezing, and more," says Janssen.
What you can do: Use planet-friendly cleaners or mix your own from baking soda and vinegar.
Contain: Bisphenol A (BPA)
Cause for concern: "Found in the lining of most food and beverage cans, BPA is linked to reproductive harm, cancer, and abnormalities in brain function and fat metabolism in animal studies," says Janssen.
What you can do: Stick to fresh or frozen foods when possible.
Contains: Perchloroethylene (PERC)
Cause for concern: The most common dry cleaning fluid, PERC has been linked to headaches and damage to the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.
What you can do: Seek out greener cleaners at nodryclean.com. "If these options aren't available, remove clothing from bags and air it out before bringing it home," says Janssen.
Certain Nonorganic Produce
Cause for concern: Some pesticides may contribute to cancer, birth defects, nerve damage, and other ills.
What you can do: Eat organic varieties of the 12 most tainted items: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, nectarines, grapes, bell peppers, lettuce, spinach, kale, blueberries, and potatoes. Wash all produce thoroughly, especially nonorganic.
Contains: Perfluorochemicals (PFCs)
Cause for concern: "Chemicals used in grease-resistant food packaging, such as popcorn bags, are associated with reduced fertility, thyroid problems, and a suppressed immune system in animal studies," says Janssen.
What you can do: Pop on the stove or in an air popper.
Worry Less About
Contain: Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
Cause for concern: This family of substances has been linked to reduced fertility, thyroid problems, and a suppressed immune system.
The real story: While nonstick cookware does contain PFOA, a recent study found that the chemicals are released only in very small amounts during the first two or three uses, and then not at all.
Contain: Some makeup and skin care products have parabens.
Cause for concern: Because parabens mimic estrogen, there has been fear that they may increase breast cancer risk.
The real story: "No large medical studies have provided evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between the two," says Francesca Fusco, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City.
Contain: Aspartame and saccharine
Cause for concern: In the 1970s, studies showed a link between sugar substitutes and cancer in rats.
The real story: Subsequent studies on humans have shown no such association.