Hidden Toxins in Household Items

Beware: Potentially harmful substances can be hiding in common items you hadn't considered as sources of unwanted chemicals.

By Letitia L. Star


November/December 2016

Costume Jewelry

Children's costume jewelry may contain lead, which is toxic in even small doses.

Photo by iStock

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We all know to avoid flimsy water bottles (as the thin, flexible plastic can leach undesirable chemicals) and shower curtains made with PVC (which can offgas harmful compounds into a poorly ventilated, confined space). But are you aware that some holiday garlands and other décor frequently include chemicals most of us don’t want in our homes? Or that cheap children’s jewelry may contain lead? 

State of Toxic Affairs

One barrier for consumers who want to avoid buying products packed with toxic chemicals is the lack of federal consumer oversight. As of this writing, no federal laws require manufacturers to fully disclose ingredients in consumer products. Terms such as “proprietary ingredients” and “fragrance” can hide toxins, even in products that are marketed as eco-friendly. Progress is being made in some states: Maine, California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have passed chemical-use reporting laws that require manufacturers to disclose certain chemicals harmful to babies and children. Such laws are pending in several other states.

However, there’s more work to do, especially as the unintended effects of programs that are intended as eco-positive are beginning to show up in the market. “A big concern is the recycling of waste electronics scrap back into consumer products,” says Jeffrey Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, a non-profit environmental organization. “We are seeing recycled electronic casing and cable insulation showing up in holiday decorations, vinyl flooring, Mardi Gras beads and vinyl outdoor products like garden hoses. Waste electronics are being sent to China. But in return we are getting hazardous products containing dangerous chemicals like lead, plasticizers and flame retardants.”

Trying to avoid toxic chemicals in mass-produced products can be difficult — and sometimes nearly impossible. However, we’ve started some of the work by identifying five sources of toxic chemicals in commonly available products that you might not have previously considered. Read on to discover unwanted substance sources that you might not already know about — but that may adversely affect your health, your home and the environment. 

Lead in Costume Jewelry

Be wary of inexpensive jewelry marketed for adults, teens and children typically sold in supermarkets, pharmacies, dollar stores and other retailers. A 2012 report by HealthyStuff.org, the research arm of the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center, found lead over the allowable limit in 27 percent of the costume jewelry they tested from major retailers, including Burlington Coat Factory, Walmart, Kohl’s, Big Lots and Target. It’s important to note that scientists do not consider any level of lead safe, and that even small levels of lead can be harmful to a child’s developing brain. California enacted a law restricting the amount of lead in jewelry. However, stores in Los Angeles were cited for selling lead-containing jewelry and hair clips, even some labeled “lead-free” or “in compliance with lead standards,” according to a report filed by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Center for Environmental Health. 
 
Problem: Lead is highly toxic, with serious health effects, and it can be toxic in very low doses. Pregnant women and young children are particularly at risk. Lead can lead to hypertension, kidney and reproductive problems in adults. Even low levels can cause a multitude of harms in children, including behavioral and learning problems and much more. Young children playing with toxin-laden jewelry may put it in their mouths or swallow it. Calcium can help prevent lead poisoning by decreasing gastrointestinal absorption, but lead avoidance should be the first approach. If you suspect lead exposure, see your doctor or contact your public health department.

Natural alternatives: Consider jewelry made from sustainably sourced, untreated wood or well-sourced, high-quality sterling silver. Check out Healthy Happy Tot for more suggestions. 
 
Tip: Look for the warning: “This jewelry may contain lead, which has been banned in California.” (Exact wording may vary.) 

Chlorine in Holiday Garlands 

 In 2013, researchers at HealthyStuff.org tested 19 beaded holiday garlands from six national stores and found 42 percent contained chlorine at levels that suggest the use of chlorine flame retardants or PVC, in turn a source of phthalates, some of which may be carcinogenic. What’s more, in a 2014 HealthyStuff.org study, researchers reported finding one or more chemicals linked to serious health concerns in more than two-thirds of 69 tested seasonal holiday products, including beaded and tinsel garlands, artificial wreaths and greenery, stockings, figurines and other tabletop decorations, and gift bags. 
 
Problem: Chlorine content is a good indication of the presence of other chemicals. “Chlorine found in products can indicate the presence of hazardous flame retardants that are based on chlorine chemistry, as well as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), otherwise known as vinyl,” Gearhart says. 

Natural alternatives: “For eco-friendly garlands, recycled tissue paper and wool felt decorations are beautiful alternatives,” says Monica Garg Singhal, owner of EcoPartyTime.com. “Repurposing evergreen trimmings from local tree farms also makes lovely natural garlands. In general, avoid glittery décor; go for vintage holiday inspirations, and a handmade touch whenever possible.”  

Tips: HealthyStuff.org found low toxicity levels in most wood garlands. You can also create natural garlands by stringing popcorn and cranberries, which can be composted. 

“Hypoallergenic” Laundry Detergent 

When choosing laundry detergent, don’t be misled by greenwashing, a marketing tactic that overstates products’ environmental attributes. The terms “clinically tested,” “hypoallergenic” or “for sensitive skin” — even when accompanied by glossy pictures of lilies, waterfalls or other natural scenes — don’t necessarily mean much at all. 

Problem: In one example, in a 2011 report, the chemical 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen, was found in higher levels in Tide’s Free and Gentle hypo-allergenic product than in regular Tide. (Since then, in 2013, as a result of the efforts of Women’s Voices for the Earth, Procter & Gamble, maker of Tide, agreed to greatly reduce this chemical in its laundry products.)
 
Natural alternatives: Purchase detergents, bleaches and stain fighters that are free of chlorine, phosphates, phthalates and parabens. 
 
Tips: Search for the most up-to-date EPA Safer Choice label on 2,000 products. If you shop at Whole Foods Market, look for the on-shelf Eco-Scale Rating System of laundry detergent and other cleaning products. 

Mercury in Mascara 

The 2013 global Minamata Convention agreement limiting mercury use includes a mercury ban (anything containing more than 1 part per million of mercury) in cosmetics and soaps, but not in mascara and other eye make-up. (Some light bulbs, batteries, thermometers and medical devices also were given banned-by dates.) The reason for this exemption? Mercury, which is highly toxic, is used in mascara and eye make-up as a preservative. The United Nations agreement, signed by about 140 countries, states that it can continue to be used in eye-area cosmetics where it functions as a preservative and “no effective and safe substitute preservatives are available.” 

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) information on thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some cosmetics and vaccines, notes that mercury compounds are easily absorbed by skin. The EWG lists organ system toxicity and neurotoxicity as high concerns with thimerosal. 

Problem: Mercury may be lurking in mascara as an ingredient in a preservative called thimerosal. 

Natural alternatives: Choose mascaras from vegan or organic make-up lines. The EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is a superb resource to research brands: .
 
Tips: Also watch out for mercury in certain antiques, appliances, automotive parts, barometers, batteries, dental amalgams, electronics, jewelry, light bulbs, medical pharmaceuticals, skin cream, sporting equipment, thermometers and thermostats. Follow proper disposal procedures regarding household hazardous waste.

Galaxolide in Perfume

Galaxolide, a synthetic musk, can be found in many perfumes. It is also used to scent myriad other products, such as household cleaners, laundry products, air fresheners and cosmetics.

However, tests reveal that galaxolide can be ingested by aquatic life and bioaccumulate in fish. It biodegrades slowly, thus building up over time in the environment. Numerous studies show that the Great Lakes’ water, air and sediment have been contaminated by galaxolide. It’s also a suspected endocrine disuptor that may interfere with hormones, according to the EWG. 

Problem: Women’s Voices for the Earth says galaxolide, a long-lasting fragrance chemical, is a threat to human health and the environment. It further says these synthetic fragrances may interfere with hormones and other chemical signals, and reduce the body’s defense against other toxic exposure.
 
Natural alternatives: Look for personal-care and household cleaning products that fully disclose ingredients, including specifically identifying fragrance sources. Essential oils provide scent without harmful chemicals. Pour le Monde, Rich Hippie and Providence Perfume Company are a few companies that sell fragrances made with alcohol and essential oils — sans parabens, synthetic fragrance and phthalates. 
 
Tip: Look for the EPA’s Safer Choice fragrance-free logo.


More Hidden Toxins

BPA-laden receipts: You’re likely familiar with bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic estrogen that can act as an endocrine disrupter and is found in canned food, beverages, infant formula containers and some plastic containers. The EWG says our fingers may absorb some of this synthetic estrogen from receipts. In a 2010 study, the EWG found BPA in 40 percent of paper receipts tested. 

Solution: Suggestions from the EWG include: Keep receipts in an envelope or avoid taking them. Don’t recycle receipts, which may contaminate recycled paper, and don’t give them to kids. After handling receipts, wash hands before touching food. 

Tip:The resin code 7 on plastic containers indicates BPA.

“Natural” mattresses: The natural label is fairly meaningless and doesn’t guarantee that the mattress is free of toxic chemicals or from offgassing, says Consumer Reports. “Organic” labeling may only refer to some of the materials. 

Solution: Consumer Reports considers Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) the labels with the most stringent standards. The GOTS requires a minimum of 70 percent certified organic materials, and any dyes and added chemicals must meet certain criteria. The GOLS requires 95 percent organic materials, plus its requirements encourage environmentally sound manufacturing and socially responsible labor. 

Phthalates in vinyl flooring: A 2015 HealthyStuff.org study of 65 flooring samples from five national retailers found that 58 percent of tested samples contained phthalates, a probable human carcinogen, some of which have been linked to reproductive harm, learning disabilities, asthma and allergies — even at low exposure levels. A 2016 report by the Environmental Health Strategy Center documents that phthalates are in many more products that previously suspected, including paints, cleaners, vinyl clothing, shoes, personal-care products, disinfectants and deodorizers. By December 2015, for the first time and under Maine law, some manufacturers have been required to disclose use of phthalates. 

Solution: Consider hardwood (not laminate), bio-based linoleum, natural rubber, concrete, or ceramic or stone tile.