There are chemical ingredients in virtually every commercial product available today. Some of these may be benign, but many others are not so benign. From the flame retardants used in furniture and clothing to the bisphenol-A and phthalates that can be found in scores of plastic items, many consumer products are awash in chemicals.
Some of these chemicals are built into the products themselves but will slowly release toxins as they age and degrade. Others are directly accessible: We lather them onto our skin or use them to wash the dishes we eat off of, providing direct exposure.
The chemicals in everyday household items
To assess the scope of the problem, journalist Ed Baig wore around a wrist band developed by My Exposome, an Oregon-based startup that is able to detect 1,418 different chemicals. Within the course of a week, the band found that his body had absorbed 16 different chemicals. (According to the company, the weekly average is 15.) Twenty-percent of these exposures were from personal care products, 17% were plasticizers, 12% pesticides, 12% combustion byproducts, 12% fragrances and 12% flame retardants. (Baig, 2015) It’s an example of all the invisible exposures that are taking place in our everyday life.
Even the ‘safer’ products can contain toxins. One examination found chemicals that disrupt hormones or affect asthma in all of the 42 conventional products sampled, as well as most (32 of 43) of the alternative products sampled, each of which were promoted as safer. Sunscreens and fragranced products tended to have the most targeted chemicals at some of the highest concentrations.
Toxins can even be found in dietary supplements and alternative medicines. Nearly 21% of Ayurvedic medicines (plant based products used in India for thousands of years to promote health) actually contain lead, mercury or arsenic, according to a study in the August 2008 Journal of the American Medical Association. Lead, mercury and arsenic was found in 20% of Ayurvedic supplements sold in Boston area stores; most exceeded California’s toxin standards, and 2 violated the much less stringent WHO standards. (Szabo, 8-27-2008)
Different products that contain toxic chemicals
To give you an idea of how widespread this chemical contamination is, here is a sampling of some of the different products that contain chemicals and the type of toxins they contain:
- Air fresheners (Phthalates, formaldehyde, acetone, and other chemicals)
- Baby food (BPA, pesticides)
- Baby matresses (Flame retardants)
- Car seats (Flame retardants)
- Carpeting (flame retardants)
- Children’s pajamas (flame retardants)
- Cleaning products (a wide array of chemicals)
- Clothing (Triclosan, flame retardants, pesticides & other chemicals)
- Cosmetics (an assortment of chemicals, including possible nanotoxins)
- Dental implants (BPA, nanomaterials)
- Dry cleaning (Perchloroethylene)
- Dryer sheets (phthalates, benzyl and ethyl-acetate, alpha-terpineol, pentane, chloroform, among others.)
- Electronic devices (Flame retardants, mercury, lead)
- Furniture polish (nitrobensene, morpholine)
- Glues & adhesives (Formaldehyde)
- Laundry detergent (phthalates, aluminum hydroxide, monoethanolamene, alkyl- and nonyl-phenol ethoxylates)
- Packaging (PVC, nanomaterials, BPA, phthalates)
- Paint (formaldehyde)
- Plastic products (BPA & phthalates)
- Shaving products (Parabens and other chemicals)
- Synthetic rubber products (Butadiene)
- Teflon cooking products (perfluorinated compounds)
- Tile and grout cleaner (Glycol ethers, monoethanolamine, sulfuric and hydrochloric acids)
- Upholstered furniture (flame retardants)
- Wood flooring (arsenic)
Greenwashing & false claims by companies
Unfortunately, many companies have caught on to consumer anxiety and have begun to hype up the ingredients that aren’t in their products. Yet they often hype up irrelevant things while keeping mum on the harmful chemicals that are contained in their products. “It’s hard for the average consumer to know if the ingredient they are advertising they don’t have is actually the one you would be most concerned about,” says Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group. The label on one liquid laundry detergent brags that it “contains no phosphate,” which sounds cool, until you realize that phosphate was banned as an ingredient in laundry soaps in 1993, so all detergents in the U.S. are phosphate free. (Rochman, 2011) Yet curiously enough, it’s still allowed as an additive in dishwashing detergents, which makes all kinds of sense.
There is simply no way to keep up on every chemical used in the millions of consumer products sold in the U.S. each year, especially since companies are often changing their formula and swapping out one chemical for another in a constant shell game. But this chapter will address some of the more frequent offenders while teaching you how to be a more conscientious consumer.