We couldn’t possibly catalog all of the 90,000+ chemicals in use today. But this section contains a handy reference of most of the more prevalent and concerning chemicals out there. It is designed to give you a little information on what they are and how they affect human health or the environment.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and just because a chemical isn’t included here doesn’t mean it’s safe. But it does serve as an overall reference for the various toxic chemicals our environment is swimming in.

2-methylimidazole (2-MEI) and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI)
Used as a food coloring in colas and foods. Also shows up as a byproduct in foods and cigarette smoke, according to a report by the National Toxicology Program. Also used in various products, everything from pharmaceuticals to rubber. Shown to cause cancer in animal studies.

Aluminum is a common environmental contaminant, and aluminum contamination is high enough on 17% of the world’s farmland to be toxic to plants. (Haviland et al., 2005, p. 728) It can also be toxic to human health, and has been linked to senile dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

(See our section on arsenic)

Asbestos is one of the most famous toxic substances. It causes a host of lung and other health problems when breathed in. Though it was known since the 1920s that asbestos dust was dangerous to factory workers, it continued to be used, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that a cancer link was established.

Though it was phased out of mainstream use a long time ago, the problem continues to claim lives – an example of how toxic exposures create a destructive legacy that doesn’t just instantly go away. A 2009 report found that deaths from malignant mesothelioma, for which asbestos exposure is the primary cause, are not yet falling in the United States. The situation is even worse on the global stage: A recent study found that asbestos-related deaths are likely to surge in Asia in the coming decades. (Science News, 3-10-2012)

(See our eBook section on pesticides)

Biphenyl-A (BPA)
(See our section on BPA)

A known carcinogen used as a key ingredient in synthetic rubber.

Cadmium is a heavy metal and known carcinogen. Unlike other metals such as copper or zinc, it isn’t essential to human life, so the body has no use for it. Since cadmium doesn’t degrade on its own, its residue can stay in the body or in the soil for decades.

Cadmium can be absorbed into the body either through inhalation or ingestion. It enters the soil through industrial waste, polluted irrigation water, or the overuse of fertilizer. Cadmium exposure can lead to impaired kidney function, liver damage, and an increase of lung cancer and bone disease. The Japanese disease of “itai-itai” was traced to cadmium exposure in the 1960s.

Chlorinated tris
(See our ebook info on flame retardants)

(See our eBook section on pesticides)

(See our eBook section on pesticides)

Dioxins aren’t actually a chemical but a highly toxic byproduct that is emitted whenever certain chemicals containing chlorine are burned. This includes things like plastics with polyvinyl chloride or chlorine based pesticides. These compounds are common to medical supplies and other plastic products, which is why you should never burn plastics.

Once in the air dioxins fall to the ground, landing on grass and pastures. Livestock then eat them up and store the chemical in body fat, so it ends up in the meat and milk we consume. Ninety-nine percent of human exposure comes through our diet. Thirteen southern states from North Carolina to New Mexico bear the brunt of all dioxin releases. Adults typically have 22-times the maximum recommended dioxin exposure listed by the EPA as safe. Nursing infants get 35 to 65 times the recommended dosage. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, pp. 74, 81)

Dioxins tend to have a de-masculinization effect, turning the play of both school-age boys and girls more feminine. (Vreugdenhil et al., 2002) An explosion in 1976 in the small town of Sevesco, Italy, spread a cloud of dioxin over nearby towns and provided the perfect natural experiment on the effects of this chemical. The increase of dioxin in the bodies of residents was small – the equivalent of 1 drop of dioxin in a string of 7,400 bathtubs. (Houlihan, 2002, p. 44) Yet this increase had a noticeable effect on fertility: Not only was fertility reduced, but the sex ratio of infants was vastly distorted: In the first 7 years following the accident, there were 46 live female births to only 28 males among the exposed parents. By 1985, the sex ratio had evened back out again and things had returned to normal. (Mocarelli et al., 2000)

A chemical that poses a moderate health risk. In high doses it can cause nausea, dizziness, and provoke allergy-like symptoms. Chronic exposure can damage your liver and central nervous system. It is commonly used in treated wood, furniture, paint and adhesives.

Hydrogen Sulfide
Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that smells like rotten eggs. According to the CDC, low levels of hydrogen sulfide exposure, when exposed over long periods of time, can have effects on respiratory and nervous systems, depending on the dosage.

(See our section on lead)

A natural element, manganese is a known neurotoxin at high levels, which are typically produced by airborne pollution or pesticides. Iron deficiency increases manganese absorption, so maintaining a healthy diet can lower your risk.

(See our section on mercury)

(See our eBook Toxic Childhood for information on nanotoxins)

(See our e-book section on pesticides)

(See our eBook section on pesticides)

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)
PCBs were used between 1929 and 1978 in a variety of products, including electronics, plastics, and adhesives for household products. Based on chlorine, PCBs are fire-resistant and so were often used as insulators. Though banned in the late 1970s, the fact that they were so widely used means their chemical residue is common.

The PCB family includes more than 200 different chemicals, each of which can affect the body in slightly different ways. They can alter gene expression, affect thyroid hormones, increase cholesterol, and may play a role in obesity. They damage the skin, liver, kidneys, and thyroid, and can lead to cognitive impairment in kids. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 98) PCBs seem to masculinate girls’ play and lead to less-masculine play in boys, suggesting they disrupt sex hormones. (Vreugdenhil et al., 2002)

Penta BDE
(See our eBook information on flame retardants)

Perchloroethylene (PCE)
Also known as perc, this toxic chemical is commonly used in dry cleaning, and so newly dry-cleaned clothes can release vapors of perc.

A chemical typically used in rocket fuel, this toxin can be found in virtually every water system. One of the reasons is that this chemical has a short shelf life in terms of usefulness, which means companies that need it must constantly replace old stocks. This means a lot of waste that must be disposed of. And although it has a short shelf life as rocket fuel, it stays in the environment for a long time.

Small amounts can interfere with the uptake of iodide in the thyroid gland, which is especially concerning for pregnant or nursing women, since it interferes with the secretion of hormones that are important for her baby. It lurks in produce, breast milk, food, and powdered formula. So far there are no federal standards for perchlorate in drinking water or food.

Phosphates are more a threat to the environment than they are to human health. They pollute our waterways and can contribute to toxic algae blooms that deprive aquatic wildlife of oxygen. Seventeen states have passed laws limiting their use in dishwasher detergents; the U.S. banned their use in laundry suds in 1993.

(See our eBook section on plastics chemicals)

(See our eBook chapter on plastics chemicals)

(See our eBook section on pesticides)

Talcum Powder
Talcum powder is made from talc, a material which reduces friction and absorbs moisture. Talcum powder was originally used for diapering babies, but health concerns at one point led doctors to recommend against its use. At one time talc even contained asbestos. Talc is still used in a variety of cosmetic products.

Some studies have indicated that there might be a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. “Studies of personal use of talcum powder have had mixed results, although there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk,” states the American Cancer Society on its website. If you’re concerned about talc, there are alternative products you can use, such as cornstarch-based products. “There is no evidence at this time linking cornstarch powders with any form of cancer,” notes the American Cancer Society.

Trichloroethylene (TCE)
This is an industrial solvent commonly used for degreasing machine parts. It is one of the more ubiquitous chemicals in our environment, and “the most prevalent contaminant in Superfund waste sites and one of the most common toxins in the water supply across the nation. …over two thousand communities have reported chronic diseases from TCE.” (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, pp. 13-14, 119)

TCE has been linked to a number of adverse health effects, including…

  • Birth defects
  • Several types of cancer
  • Cleft palates in children
  • Chronic health problems
  • Low birth weight
  • Fetal death
  • Reproductive problems
  • Neurological damage
  • Immune system disorders

Levels as low as 1 ppb can induce some of these effects.

Triclosan is a common germ-fighting chemical that is routinely added to consumer products like soaps, toothpastes, deodorant, and fabrics. U.S. surveys have found triclosan in fluid samples from about three-quarters of people tested. (Raloff, 2012B)

Triclosan is a chemical cousin of PCBs, which are known to cause damage by acting on the thyroid. Research has also shown that the chemical can interfere with how muscles contract. An August 28, 2012 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Isaac Pessah and colleagues suggests that triclosan interferes with the movement of calcium in and out of cells. This was tested on mice and fish, but the mechanism by which it impaired muscle activity could work the same in people. The doses used to diminish muscle strength and blood flow in the mice roughly matched what is already found in people across many parts of the United States. (ibid)