Thankfully, in these modern times, we seldom have to worry about things like death by bubonic plague or smallpox. But as progress has given us the tools to tame those troubles, it has also given us the ability to breed a whole new family of deleterious imps that can wreak havoc on our health — mostly compliments of the chemical industry.
The chemicals and pollutants that escape industry and invade the environment are obviously awful, but the chemical ingredients that sneak in through the products we buy are particularly troubling. They’re an insidious bunch, and ones with which we have a special intimacy. We rub them on our skin, eat them, and spray them in our homes. The unfortunate fact is that chemical additives make manufacturing easier and cheaper, and make many a product more appealing to the unwitting consumer. Synthetic chemicals make lipsticks last longer, keep food fresh, and make cleaning products fragrant.
But it’s primarily those same chemicals that star in study after study as allergens, carcinogens, and endocrine disrupters, to name just a few of their roles. Over the years there have been a number of standout toxins that at one time were thought to be perfectly safe. From DDT to PBCs, the chemical industry released compounds first and discovered damaging health effects later. Regulators have long allowed for a standard of innocent until proven guilty, and continue in this vein today. Only a quarter of the 82,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. have ever been tested for toxicity.
In terms of everyday consumer products, here are some of the more surprising items that may be cause for concern.
1. Nontoxic nail polish
In the early 1800s, nails were adorned with scented oil and buffed with a chamois. Some time around 1900 a glossy red varnish was created, but it rubbed off after one day. Fast-forward to modern polishes, which seem more akin to car paint than cosmetics.
The naughty triplets in conventional nail polish — the so-called “toxic trio” — are toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and formaldehyde. Regulators say that exposure to large amounts of these chemicals has been linked to developmental problems, asthma and other illnesses. And thus, nail polish has received enough bad press that a number of manufacturers have worked to develop formulas that are devoid of these ingredients. Great, you say. Except unfortunately, not all nail polish manufacturers are that scrupulous when it comes to labeling.
Recently, investigators randomly chose 25 brands of polishes, including a number of products claiming to be nontoxic or free of the toxic trio. They found that 10 of 12 products claiming to be free of toluene contained it, with four of the products having dangerously high levels of the chemical. The report also found that five of seven products that claimed to be "free of the toxic three" actually included one or more of the agents in significant levels.
See why Maria Rodale says, I'm done with nail polish! Perhaps a return to scented oil and chamois buffing is in order?
If you’ve never thought very much about perfume, you might think little more than how lovely it smells. The fragrance of roses and white florals might even transport you to a reverie of traipsing through rose gardens or a gardenia-spiked paradise.
Cue the sound of screeching breaks: Modern perfumes are almost always made from synthetic chemicals that are most commonly synthesized from petroleum distillates. Nary a rose petal or drop of moonlit gardenia dew in sight.
In the late 19th century, the first synthetic fragrance was created (from coal-tar) in a lab. Expensive raw natural materials that had been used to create luxury perfumes were now swapped in the lab with waste byproducts of the industrial revolution. Nowadays, 95 percent of the fragrance chemicals used in perfume are derived from petroleum, many of them quite toxic. A 1991 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that numerous potentially hazardous chemicals are commonly used in fragrance, including acetone, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, camphor, ethanol, ethyl acetate, limonene, linalool and methylene chloride.
According to Material Data Safety Sheets, these chemicals — when inhaled — can cause central nervous system disorders, dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, and lungs, kidney damage, headache, respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue, among other things. The FDA reports that fragrances are responsible for 30 percent of all allergic reactions.
For more on perfume toxins and some naturally derived alternatives, read: Are chemicals in perfume and cologne harmful?
3. Air fresheners, including “all-natural” and “unscented”
About 80 percent of all adult Americans have purchased some type of air care product (candles, sprays, plug-ins, room fresheners, potpourri, air fresheners, air purifiers, etc) in the past year. And why not? Who wouldn’t prefer the scent of “Angel Whispers” or “Fresh Waters” over pet odors or cooking smells?
The problem is, much like personal fragrance, scents for the home are not distilled essences of said scent. Glade and Air Wick aren’t condensing the whispers of angles or fresh water to create their home fragrances; they rely on a cocktail of compounds such as formaldehyde, aerosol propellant, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, terpenes, benzene, styrene, phthalates, and toluene, phosphates, chlorine bleach and ammonia.
Study after study have found disruptive effects due to the use of air fresheners, so in general this category of product may already be on the radar of people looking to lessen the toxins they encounter. The disturbing part, though, is that the air freshener industry is minimally regulated and manufacturers are not required to meet standards specific to their product, especially in terms of labeling. So, for instance, when the Natural Resources Defense Council tested 14 different brands of common household air fresheners, they found that 12 contained the hormone-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates. The products that tested positive included ones marketed as “all-natural” and “unscented.”
How then to overcome eau de catbox? Try this: Natural air fresheners: 9 nontoxic options that really work.
Beware of foxy spies wearing poison lipstick. For that matter, be careful of the 400 lipsticks on the market that contain lead. Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database gives a large number of lipsticks a “10,” the highest score in terms of potential toxicity. The culprits? “Neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, persistence and bioaccumulation, organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), additive exposure sources, biochemical or cellular level changes.”
A recent study by the Food and Drug Administration found 400 lipsticks on the market tested positive for lead. Even though they note that the lead is at a low enough level to not cause a serious health risk, other experts disagree. Dr. John Torres says it could potentially pose a health risk for children.
"The small amount of lead exposure especially in developing brains in young children, can cause a problem and the main problem it can cause is development of that brain," Torres said. "Essentially, they start having problems in language development, with math development, those types of things. It doesn't take much lead for that to happen; but again, these lead levels are very, very small. I wouldn't be too concerned using it on a casual basis, but if it's something they are playing with on a daily basis, or they are ingesting or eating it, then stay away from that."
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics argues that there is no safe level of lead exposure and wants the government to set lead limits for lipsticks. Is it really too much to ask?
See our writer's recommendations for lovely (lead-free) lipsticks: 3 beautifully natural red lipsticks.
5. Canned food, including organic items
Ever since the early 19th century, people have been relying on canned food as a convenient method of food preservation, and for this reason canning has been highly valuable. But in the 1950s, can manufacturers began using bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic and resin ingredient, to line metal food and drink cans — and it’s become one of the more controversial chemicals in town.
The heavily produced industrial compound has been in the news a lot over the years. When the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) did an analysis of BPA exposure, the agency detected it in 92.6 percent of the people sampled, and noted that, “many Americans are exposed to bisphenol A at levels above the current safety threshold set by the EPA based upon decades-old data.”
More than 100 peer-reviewed studies have found BPA, which acts as a synthetic estrogen, to be toxic at low doses. As Nicholas D. Kristof points out in an op-ed in the New York Times, scientists have linked it to everything from breast cancer to obesity, from attention deficit disorder to genital abnormalities in boys and girls alike.
Consumer Reports’ latest tests of canned foods including soups, juice, tuna, and green beans found that all of the 19 name-brand foods tested contain some BPA. The canned organic foods they tested did not always have lower BPA levels than nonorganic brands of similar foods analyzed. They even found the chemical in some canned products that were labeled “BPA-free.” They report that a 165-pound adult eating one serving of canned green beans from the test sample could ingest about 80 times more BPA than their experts’ recommended upper daily limit. Children eating multiple servings per day of canned foods with BPA levels comparable to the ones they found in some tested products could get a dose of BPA approaching levels that have caused adverse effects in several animal studies.
Making simple soups from scratch can eliminate your BPA intake from canned soup, one of the common offenders. See 5 easy-to-make soups for the how-to.
All in all, the FDA has tallied more than 1,000 indirect food additive chemicals in packaging and food processing, but food is just one of the ways we are exposed to industrial chemicals. EWG research reveals "more than 200 pollutants in tap water supplies across the country; thousands of chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products; 470 industrial chemicals and pesticides in human tissues; and an average of 200 pollutants in each of 10 babies tested at the moment of birth." Nothing is known, EWG notes, about the safety of the complex mixtures of low doses of a myriad of industrial chemicals in the human body.
We can only hope that in a hundred years, a writer might be starting an article with, "Thankfully, in these modern times we seldom have to worry about things like death by pollutants or industrial chemicals."
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