It's pretty well known that products like vinyl shower curtains and floor tiles, personal care products and household cleaners expose people to a variety of harmful chemicals that have been linked to asthma and reproductive problems, including infertility in both men and women. But when it comes to eliminating chemicals in your home, where do you start?
That's what scientists at the Silent Spring Institute were hoping to uncover with a massive review of more than 200 products, all of which were analyzed for their hazardous-chemical content. "This is the first large peer-reviewed study of its kind that has looked at such a wide range of products for hormone disruption and asthma," says the study's lead author Robin Dodson, ScD, research scientist at Silent Spring. "It gives us a much clearer snapshot of what people might be exposed to."
A number of studies have pinpointed things like fragrances, cleaners and personal care products as a source of exposure to hormone disruptors, chemicals that act like estrogen or block testosterone in both men and women and can lead to problems with infertility, reproductive cancers and other hormonal functions. But until now, it's never been very clear which products posed the greatest threat, says Dodson.
She and her co-authors selected 170 household products — including dish liquids, laundry detergents, lotions, sunscreens, cosmetics, vinyl shower curtains and vinyl pillow protectors—and analyzed those for the presence of the 66 chemicals that can trigger breathing problems and reproductive abnormalities, among them:
• phthalates, linked to both asthma and infertility
• fragrances, which contain mixtures of a dozen or more chemicals and are even used in "unscented" products to mask chemical odors
• glycol ethers, asthma-triggering solvents often added to cleaning products
• parabens, preservatives used in a variety of personal care products and suspected of causing breast cancer
• triclosan, used in cosmetics and antibacterial soaps and known to interfere with reproductive hormones
• bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical used in certain plastics
The researchers also selected 43 "alternative" products that were promoted as being free of some of the above chemicals, for instance, white vinegar, nylon shower curtains, and a variety of "fragrance-free" personal care and cleaning products. To see the brand names of all the products tested, check the full list published by Silent Spring online. They detected at least one of the six chemicals listed above in nearly all products tested, including 41 of the 43 "green" or "nontoxic" products.
Based on the results of their analysis, here are the three biggest sources of chemicals in the home that Dodson recommends we all steer clear of:
1. Fragranced products
Orange-scented dish soap, your makeup, that strawberry-scented shampoo — any product with a fragrance is likely to have high levels of chemicals, Dodson says. "They also contained a lot of the compounds we're most concerned about," she adds. For instance, the phthalate used to keep fragrances from dissipating was the chemical most commonly detected in the study.
There are more than 3,000 chemicals used to make synthetic fragrances, and a single product scent can contain anywhere from 30 to 500 of them. When those chemicals are released into your indoor air, they can combine to create cancer-causing formaldehyde and ultrafine particles that trigger respiratory problems.
To protect business secrets, companies don't have to list those chemicals on labels or even disclose them on corporate websites. In fact, the researchers detected fragrances in 26 products, many of them cleaners, that didn't even list either "fragrance" or a specific scent on the label. Perfumes, car and home air fresheners, and dryer sheets were the products containing the highest levels of fragrance.
2. Vinyl curtains and bedding
The two Target shower curtains Silent Spring tested were 28 percent phthalates by weight. "That means that a quarter of those shower curtains is phthalates," Dodson says. The vinyl pillow protector was 14 percent. "What's concerning is that people are using these pillow protectors to reduce exposure to dust mites because they suffer from asthma, yet the pillow protectors themselves contain high levels of chemicals that cause asthma," she says.
And it's not just the asthma-inducing, hormone-bending phthalates that consumers need to be concerned about. BPA is another hormone disruptor that's used in vinyl products, and it too was detected in the shower curtain and pillow protector. Another hormone disruptor found in the shower curtains was nonylphenol, a breakdown product of a chemical used to prevent plastic from breaking down. The researchers also found glycol ethers, chemicals that are associated with low sperm counts and asthma, in the pillow protector.
3. Anything labeled "antibacterial"
Triclosan and triclocarban are the two most common ingredients in antibacterial soaps and cleaners. Personal care products that use them are considered over-the-counter drugs, and cleaners that use them are considered pesticides, and therefore, both chemicals have to be listed on labels. Both chemicals were detected in products that were properly labeled, but one dish soap contained triclosan even though it wasn't listed.
The sheer number of "antibacterial" products has skyrocketed in the past decade, as germ-phobic shoppers buy up antibacterial towels, bedsheets, workout gear, toothpastes and even cutting boards. But all that germ protection comes at a cost: Many scientists suspect triclosan and triclocarban of contributing to the meteoric rise in drug-resistant bacteria over that same period.
We can't shop our way out of this problem
One of the reasons Silent Spring Institute conducted this study, said Dodson, was to show that even the most devoted label-reader and product-researcher can't avoid all the toxic chemicals used in household products. "Products don't tend to be fully labeled," she notes, as evidenced by all the chemicals they found in products that didn't list them on the label. In addition to finding fragrances and triclosan that weren't in label listings, the authors found paraben preservatives in products that didn't list those on ingredients labels.
A number of online resources, such as the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database, use label information to generate safety ratings for a variety of personal care and cleaning products. "Many of these are simply an analysis of labels, which is what their ratings are based on. Unfortunately, these labels aren't complete," Dodson says. "You can't make good decisions without all the information."
Silent Spring is working with other nonprofits to revamp the '70s-era law that regulates chemicals in consumer products, the Toxic Substances Reform Act, which has allowed thousands of older chemicals to be used for decades without adequate safety testing. "Consumers shouldn't have to be chemists," she says, "and we don't have to be forced to shop our way out of this."
In addition to eliminating the products listed above, Dodson offers one final tip: "Choose fewer products. The less you use, the fewer chemicals you're exposed to." Opt for baking soda and white vinegar over commercial cleaners, and use coconut oil, olive oil and baking soda in place of lotions and deodorants.