The modern world couldn’t exist without the thousands of chemicals that go into the products we use each day.
Yet at what cost? The National Toxicology Program lists 56 carcinogens (cancer-causing substances and exposures) and another 187 likely carcinogens. Many are chemicals we encounter at home, at work, or through pollution.
Besides cancer, chemicals in our day-to-day lives have been blamed for
other health problems with our respiratory, immune, nervous, and reproductive systems.
Chemicals in Our Blood
In 2009, the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals checked for 75 chemicals in Americans’ blood and urine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found especially “widespread exposure” to these chemicals:
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), common fire retardants
- Bisphenol A (BPA), used in many plastic food and drink containers
- Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), found in nonstick cookware coatings and other products
“The fact that a chemical turns up in blood or urine samples doesn’t mean it will cause health problems,” says Pallav Mehta, M.D., oncologist at Holy Redeemer. “Many factors, including the amount of the substance and your own susceptibility, come into play.”
Some substances may cause cancer after a very small exposure, says the American Cancer Society. Others might require intense exposure for years. Some can cause cancer only if swallowed. The CDC says more research is needed to learn whether the levels of most chemicals found in our blood and urine should worry us.
Some Possible Culprits
A look at recent research and regulations shows some potential threats that may lurk around us:
- BPA: In July 2012, the Food and Drug Administration banned BPA in the manufacture of baby bottles and spillproof cups—but not other food containers. Some, but not all, plastics marked with the recycling codes 3 and 7 may be made of BPA.
- Formaldehyde: The National Toxicology Program (NTP) added this chemical to its list of known carcinogens in 2011. It’s widely used in adhesives for building materials, including particleboard, paneling, and furniture. You can also find it in products that smooth or straighten hair, cleaning agents, medical labs, and mortuaries. Auto exhaust and tobacco smoke contain formaldehyde.
- Styrene: The NTP lists styrene as a likely human carcinogen. You can inhale styrene vapors from building materials, plastic and rubber products, and photocopiers. “Because it’s also found in tobacco smoke, quitting smoking is one of the best ways to avoid styrene,” says Dr. Mehta. It can leach from polystyrene food containers, but such levels are very low.
- Flame retardants: PBDEs used in furniture, infant products, and electronics can linger for years in home dust. “PBDEs appear to harm children’s attention span, thinking, and fine motor skills, according to a study in California,” says Dr. Mehta. A suspected carcinogen sometimes used to replace PBDEs turned up in the foam of 52 percent of a sample of couches sold after 2005, another study found.
- PFCs: Food packaging, clothing, and nonstick cookware are just a few of PFCs thousands of uses. A 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association study found that children with high PFC levels had a heightened risk for tetanus and diphtheria despite immunization. National Institutes of Health researchers say getting pregnant may take longer for couples whose bodies contain high levels of PFCs and PCBs (used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment).
- Pesticides: The risk for Parkinson’s disease nearly triples among people with a traumatic brain injury who are exposed to the pesticide paraquat, according to a study by the University of California at Los Angeles.
- Products that can trigger asthma: Researchers tested 213 commercial products for a 2012 study in Environmental Health Perspectives. In almost all the products, they found complex mixtures of chemicals—many not labeled—that can alter hormone signals and trigger asthma. Products ranged from vinyl shower curtains to cleaners, soap, deodorant, shaving cream, lipstick, toothpaste, shampoo, hair spray, fragrances, and sunscreen.
Going Green May Not Help
Perhaps you think “going green” is the answer. But a 2010 study of 25 fragranced laundry, personal care, cleaning, and air-freshener products found no difference in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) between the 11 products that made some claim of being green, organic, nontoxic, or natural and those that didn’t. “VOCs, emitted as gases from some solids or liquids, can cause a range of health effects,” says Dr. Mehta.
Given the range of chemicals in use today, you can’t avoid all of them. But you can take some precautions to protect yourself.
Tips on Reducing Your Risk
If you’re concerned about the role chemicals may play in disease, the President’s Cancer Panel suggests the following:
- Filter home tap or well water to lower exposure to known or suspected carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals.
- Store and carry water in stainless steel, glass, or other containers free of BPA and phthalates.
- Microwave food and beverages in ceramic or glass instead of plastic containers.
- Choose food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Wash conventionally grown produce to remove residues.
- Eat free-range meat to avoid exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots.
- Properly dispose of pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, paints, and other materials to limit water and soil contamination.
- Many municipalities have sites where you can drop off unneeded or expired medications securely; check your town’s website.
- Reduce or end use of gardening pesticides and fertilizers.
- Check the National Institutes of Health Household Products Database at http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov to help you make informed decisions about products you use.
- Try using household ingredients, such as vinegar, for cleaning.