We are surrounded by human-made chemicals—more than 80,000 are in use in the United States today. Of those, only a few hundred have been tested for safety. Chemicals are so ubiquitous, they reach us before we’re even born: Researchers have found up to 300 contaminants in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.
Experts suspect this cocktail of chemicals in our water, food, air and homes may be part of the cause of the rising rates of some cancers, autism, diabetes and obesity. Young children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk. While it may seem overwhelming to get control of our world’s rampant, potentially harmful chemicals, cleaning up the chemicals in your life is easier if you take it step by step. You can get started by reducing the quantity of these 10 chemicals in your house and yard.
Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals used to make #3 plastic (PVC or vinyl) flexible. PVC leaches phthalates when it’s heated or worn down. Phthalates are found in personal-care products and detergents, often labeled as “fragrance.” Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later breast cancer.
To minimize: Never microwave plastic containers. Store food in glass or metal containers. Avoid vinyl flooring, shower curtains, PVC pipes, and products with “fragrance.”
Bisphenol A (BPA) is an endocrine disrupter found in reusable polycarbonate (#7 plastic) food and beverage containers (including baby bottles); the lining of food and beverage cans; in PVC (#3 plastic); and on receipts and money. Research links BPA to breast cancer, miscarriage, erectile dysfunction and heart disease.
To minimize: Never microwave or heat plastic containers, and store food in glass or metal containers. Avoid canned foods—choose bulk, frozen or fresh instead. Some companies such as Eden Organic offer BPA-free canned food. Buy “BPA-free” reusable water bottles. Wash your hands after handling receipts or money.
Used as a disinfectant in municipal water systems, chlorine is toxic, even at low concentrations. Studies link chlorine exposure through ingestion and showering with an increased risk of heart disease, allergic reactions and miscarriages, as well as increased rates of bladder, colon and rectal cancers. Chlorine irritates the eyes, nose and throat.
To minimize: You can filter chlorine with a whole-house filter or with a chlorine-filtering showerhead and a granular-activated charcoal drinking water filter. Avoid swimming in chlorinated water.
Radon is a natural, odorless radioactive gas that can seep into homes from the ground. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer (and the leading cause for nonsmokers) and can be detected with a test kit.
To minimize: Test for radon with a simple test kit, then call in a radon remediation contractor if the levels are too high—4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher. Levels between 2 pCi/L and 4 pCi/L can still pose a risk and in many cases can be reduced; consult a specialist.
PFCs (perfluorochemicals) are persistent organic pollutants used on stain-resistant clothing and upholstery, cooking pans, fast-food wrappers, and inside pet food and microwave popcorn bags. Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex are all PFCs. They have been associated with low-weight babies, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver inflammation and reduced immune function.
To minimize: Forego stain treatments on furniture or carpet; don’t wear clothing labeled stain- or water-resistant; avoid nonstick pans; pop popcorn on the stove; and choose personal-care items without “PTFE” and “perfluoro” in the ingredients.
Found in paint manufactured before 1978 and old plumbing, lead is a neurotoxin that can cause headaches, joint pain, high blood pressure, and reproductive and memory problems, as well as impair children’s brain and nervous system development.
To minimize: If you have peeling paint, (and your house was painted before 1978), clean up chips immediately and hire a certified lead abatement contractor. Do not remove lead paint yourself. Prevent chipping by sealing old paint with a clear, nontoxic sealant. If you suspect high lead levels, contact your doctor about lead testing for any children in the household.
7. Pesticides & Fertilizers
If it kills insects or weeds, it likely isn’t good for human health, either. Many common pesticides are known carcinogens. One chemical in many pesticides, dichlorvos, is associated with mammary tumors in rats or mice. Another, glyphosate, has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
To minimize: Don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers on your lawn. Buy organic fruits and vegetables, or grow your own without artificial pesticides or fertilizers.
Formaldehyde is a flammable, pungent compound found in building materials, pressed-wood products, melamine (hard plastic) dishes and cigarette smoke. It can irritate the eyes, throat and mucus membranes, and cause headaches and nausea. Exposure may increase the risk of brain cancer and leukemia.
To minimize: Use “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products to limit formaldehyde exposure in the home. Before purchasing pressed-wood products such as plywood, paneling, particleboard, fiberboard, and furniture and cabinets, ask retailers or manufacturers about formaldehyde content.
Parabens are used as preservatives in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. While no causal link with cancer has been established, parabens are controversial because they weakly mimic estrogen, and researchers have found measurable concentrations in breast tumors. Studies show that methylparaben (in some sunscreens) may react with sunlight to damage skin.
To minimize: Avoid cosmetics that list parabens or words ending in “-paraben” among the ingredients.
10. PBDEs & PBBs
Used as flame retardants in building materials, electronics, foam cushions and textiles, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and PBBs (polybrominated biphenyls) accumulate in blood and fat tissues. Endocrine-disrupting PBDEs and PBBs may alter children’s brain development and cause learning and behavior problems. Exposure can decrease thyroid hormone levels and negatively affect reproduction.
To minimize: Cover or replace cushions or car seats where foam pads are exposed. Avoid rigid polystyrene (Styrofoam) insulation.
American Lung Association
healthy indoor air information
Breast Cancer Fund
information on chemicals to avoid to reduce breast cancer risk
Environmental Protection Agency
radon testing and abatement
Environmental Working Group
guides to healthy products and chemical avoidance
nontoxic children’s toys and consumer products
Pure Bond Fabricator Network
searchable list of formaldehyde-free cabinetry and furniture
Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics safety database
Alli Kingfisher, a state of Washington green building and sustainability specialist, is plotting to green her 1906 home in Spokane. Kelly Lerner, a Spokane-based architect specializing in healthy, energy-efficient homes, is co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green Home.