Like most people, we used to just buy the popular brands of things for our home. The easiest way to describe it is that we walked into a big box store and bought what was on the shelf.
Later, my husband and I were going through a long run of infertility and treatment for it, so I started looking around my environment and wondering about how I could affect my own fertility. Then when I was pregnant, I heard different things about chemicals in products and how they could affect the baby. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all, and I didn’t always believe it. But I started paying more attention.
The biggest trigger of all was once we had our baby. I’m embarrassed to say it now, but I was using a popular brand of deodorizer that I’d spray around my son’s diaper pail because I thought it would kill germs and keep the smell away. When my son was 2, he got a cold that wouldn’t go away, and he had a cough for something like six months. The doctor called it “suspected asthma.” My son was put on an intensive medication and had to use a nebulizer. At the time, we didn’t really know how to question that or what to do about it.
That’s when I really started learning about chemicals and how they affect health. The mainstream media only touches on this a little bit, but when you look closer, the research and studies are pretty astonishing. I realized that these chemicals coming into our bodies could have so many more consequences than what we know at this point.
I essentially said, “That’s it, I’m peeling away anything that’s controversial and cleaning everything out in the house.” It didn’t happen all at once, of course, and with some items, it takes a monetary commitment too.
First, I stopped using the deodorizer in my son’s room and started making all my own cleaning products. We also stopped using anything with bleach or antibacterial soaps, neither of which is necessary. We got rid of everything plastic that we could, especially storage containers for food and the PVC plastic that’s in some baby toys and shower curtains and raincoats. We switched to glass baby bottles and stainless-steel sippy cups. I also changed cookware and got rid of our nonstick stuff and went to cast iron—which we love cooking with!—and stainless-steel pans. We also eventually bought a new mattress for my son. Although it wasn’t organic, it was a much cleaner version than what he had before. And now we don’t buy anything with a scent unless the fragrance comes from an essential oil.
As soon as we got the gunk out of the house, especially the deodorizer, my son’s cough went away. He no longer had “suspected asthma,” and he didn’t need the medication or nebulizer anymore. My allergies also got dramatically better.
When I used popular cleaning products, I’d get headaches or my eyes would water or my nose would run. That should be a red flag for all of us. With my homemade cleaning products, none of that happens.
After learning more about this and seeing the difference in my own family, I believe in this so much. If people can make small changes now, it will help in the short term and the long term. At the end of the day, you have to be your own advocate and stand up for integrity in the products you purchase. If you just buy cheap all the time, that’s what you’ll get. It shouldn’t be about getting the best deal; it should be about finding products with integrity that work for your family.
This can feel overwhelming for people, but I’d say just start with one thing you know you can do and go from there. It doesn’t all have to happen at once, but if you start with one thing, the next thing will come easier.
For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.
John F. Kennedy
At its best, our home is a place we look forward to after a long day, a place we feel relaxed, comfortable and safe. When we think of home, certainly the last thing that should come to mind is “health hazard.” But the simple choices we make about what everyday products we use—furniture, mattresses, cleaning products, paint, phones, electronics, candles and even toys—can determine whether our home is a breath of fresh air or a bastion of funk.
Consumers’ choices about seemingly innocent products have led to indoor air being typically two to five times (and even up to 100 times) more polluted than outdoor air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.1 And mounting scientific evidence links everyday chemicals used in consumer products to a range of health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.
What homes can harbor
People absorb household chemicals in numerous ways: through the air they breathe, the way they prepare their food and even the products they touch.
One big health issue has to do with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are invisible particles that evaporate off products and into the air you breathe. All sorts of items and materials let off VOCs, sometimes for years or even decades: furniture, carpet, glues, cleaning supplies, shower curtains and paint. According to the EPA, concentrations of VOCs indoors are consistently higher than outdoors—up to 10 times so. VOCs lead to short- and long-term health problems, everything from headaches and fatigue to cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.2
Another major problem comes in the form of dust. In addition to shed skin cells and microscopic mites, dust often consists of tiny particles that migrate off all kinds of products, including furniture, plastic toys, carpet and paint. Many harmful chemicals aren’t bound, which means they easily travel off and through products. The end result? Household dust that contains carcinogens, flame retardants, hormone-disrupting chemicals and heavy metals, such as lead. Dust settles in thin layers all around the house: in heating and ventilation systems, on the floors and atop furniture. People, especially babies and children, ingest dust mainly through hand-to-mouth contact and inhalation.
Flame-retardant chemicals are one of the big health concerns, and they’re added to many household items: crib mattresses, furniture, electronics, fabrics, blankets, drapes, kids’ pajamas, hair dryers, electronics and more.
One study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, showed that toddlers have significant exposure to flame retardants through dust.3
According to a recent report from the Green Science Policy Institute, “Toddlers have three to four times the levels of toxic flame retardants in their bodies compared to their parents. These chemicals pose a serious hazard to pregnant women and young children who are the most vulnerable to endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, mutagens, and neurological and reproductive toxins.”4
Flame retardants are in pretty much everyone’s body, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research. And contamination levels have risen sharply over the past couple of decades.5 One study showed that levels of flame retardants in breast milk had risen 60-fold from 1972 to 1997.6 Research shows flame retardants can disrupt the hormone system, decrease fertility7 and lower thyroid hormone levels in pregnant women.8 Exposure in utero is associated with poorer attention, fine-motor skills and cognition in grade-school children.9
Contaminants linked to many modern diseases
A home certainly doesn’t have to be so polluted—informed consumers can make better choices for healthier homes, says David O. Carpenter, M.D., director for the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany in New York.
“Fifty years ago or so, we used natural materials like cotton, linen, wool and real wood, but today, almost everything is made from oil-based products: plastics, artificial fabrics and synthetic materials,” he says. “Now there are 85,000 man-made chemicals in our environment, and it’s becoming apparent that exposure to them is increasing our risk for disease.
“We’re finding that environmental exposure to chemicals has a strong influence on the rates of common diseases that people have never considered to be related, like high blood pressure, diabetes and thyroid disease. Many chemicals also make it harder to learn and trigger abnormal attention spans or behavior problems, which is especially concerning for children,” Carpenter says. “The effect that common chemicals have on health is incredibly important, but people are generally just not aware.”
The President’s Cancer Panel, after two years of research, reported in 2010 that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated” and that “the public remains unaware of many common environmental carcinogens.” The panel added, “The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.”10
Research shows chemical exposure is contributing to other modern diseases and health conditions. Consider the following:
There’s a “striking” relationship between the concentration of certain pollutants in a person’s body and the prevalence of diabetes, according to a study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.11
Lead exposures, “even at levels well below the current U.S. occupational exposure limit guidelines,” are associated with higher blood pressure and risk for hypertension, according to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association.12 Another study links arsenic exposure to hypertension,13 and another shows PCB exposure is strongly associated with higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure.14
Research shows an association between children’s exposure to phthalates—a class of man-made chemicals widely used in products such as synthetic flooring, shower curtains, wall coverings and shampoo—and increased body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.15
The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity report acknowledges that exposure to certain chemicals may play a role in childhood obesity: “Such chemicals may promote obesity by increasing the number of fat cells, changing the amount of calories burned at rest, altering energy balance, and altering the body’s mechanisms for appetite and satiety.”16
A study supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences shows a link between exposure to polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)—found in stain-resistant coating, food packaging and nonstick kitchen products—and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.17
Chemicals can change your genes
How is it that chemicals can trigger disease? Carpenter explains that chemicals can change how a person’s genes are expressed. For instance, a chemical exposure could affect the gene that controls a person’s metabolism and cause his or her metabolism to slow. Or if someone has the genetic potential for a certain disease, chemical exposure could cause that gene to “turn on,” thereby activating a disease that might have otherwise never actually developed for the individual. “Modern genetic techniques are showing that hundreds of genes can be changed as a result of chemical exposures,” Carpenter says.
The fact that chemicals can change gene expression—leading to the eventual development of disease and adverse health conditions—is concerning enough. It’s even more daunting when you consider that a person’s exposure can change the genetic code for his or her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.18
Exposure begins before birth
It’s well established that babies—even before they’re born—are contaminated with chemicals, and it’s affecting their health.
One study by the Environmental Working Group and Rachel’s Network found up to 232 toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of a sample of newborn babies. Among the chemicals were those used in metal food cans and plastic bottles; flame retardants; chemicals used to make nonstick, grease-, stain- and water-resistant coatings; synthetic fragrances and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are now banned from being manufactured in the U.S. but have been used for years in lubricants, insulating materials and caulk.19
Another study showed that baby boys who were exposed to phthalates while still in the womb showed various signs of delayed sexual development, including incomplete testicular development and smaller penis volume.20
One analysis of multiple studies on parental pesticide exposure and childhood cancer concluded that “the incidence of childhood cancer does appear to be associated with parental exposure during the prenatal period.”21
Studies confirm that most of us are taking in chemicals that are found in everyday household products. Research by the CDC shows that:22
More than 90 percent of people sampled were contaminated with BPA, which is commonly used in metal-can lining and hard-plastic water bottles.
Nearly everyone has some flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies.
Most people show exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid, which indicates they’re taking in the chemicals used to make nonstick coatings.
Small doses still matter, and they’re adding up
It would be easy to dismiss the data on widespread contamination by surmising that many of these chemicals are present only in small doses. How much does the off-gassing from a plastic shower curtain really matter? Or the flame retardants on your sofa? Or the chemicals that slough off from the plastic toys kids play with?
Research shows that low-dose exposures are a concern, and experts are warning about the harmful cumulative and synergistic effects.
It’s not surprising that the mixture of everyday chemicals could make for an even more toxic cocktail. Consider one study of 10 pesticides and their impact in an aquatic environment. The study exposed various species of aquatic life, including zooplankton, gray tree frogs and leopard frogs, to low doses of 10 pesticides one at a time. Administered individually, each pesticide wiped out varying percentages of different species. But when all 10 pesticides were mixed together and administered, they killed 99 percent of one species.23
One large class of commonly used chemicals is known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals because they disrupt the body’s endocrine, or hormone, system. The hormone system is responsible for many lifelong vital functions, including growth, cell division, endocrine disruptors0 response, metabolism, blood sugar, behavior and intelligence, as well as the development of the brain, reproductive system and nervous system.
A group of experts on endocrine disruption recently reviewed the studies and data on the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, referred to here as “EDCs.” They concluded that “there is now substantial evidence that low doses of EDCs have adverse effects on human health” and that “these recent studies have suggested wide-ranging effects of EDCs on the general population.”24
The scientists also said that “dozens if not hundreds of environmental chemicals are regularly detected in human tissues and fluids, yet very little is known about how these chemicals act in combination. Several studies indicate that EDCs can have additive or even synergistic effects, and thus these mixtures are likely to have unexpected and unpredictable effects on animals and humans.”
Theo Colborn, founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, based in Paonia, Colo., was one of the scientists on the review. “We know that even in minute amounts, such as parts per billion or parts per trillion, these chemicals can interfere with every major organ system,” she says. Besides, Colborn adds, even if a small amount were to be proven safe, people are surrounded by multiple products every day.
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, wrote in a 2012 editorial that “the mere presence of a chemical in humans is not necessarily cause for concern. What is concerning is the increasing number of epidemiological studies showing associations between the concentration of these chemicals in the general population and adverse health end points.”25
Obstacles to safer products
With alarm bells ringing and researchers and other health professionals voicing concern, why hasn’t more been done to protect consumers from chemicals in household products?
Part of the problem is that there’s a massive number of man-made chemicals that have come into our lives in the last several decades, says Richard J. Jackson, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician and professor and chair of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
“There are 85,000-some chemicals being used out there, and in the U.S. they’re treated as innocent until proven guilty,” he says. “Proving them guilty and worthy of removal is extremely difficult.” Europeans, he points out, have moved to requiring a new chemical be proven safe before it can be put to market.
“Another problem is that damage from early exposures are often unclear—a young body is better able to mask or overcome exposure,” he says. “It’s not until later in life that vulnerabilities and the consequences of that exposure start to emerge.”
The time it takes for diseases and conditions to develop (often decades) adds another challenge to attempts to prove a chemical is not safe, says Carpenter. Plus, he adds, there are numerous conflicts of interest in this area: If a chemical is banned, industries have to spend a lot of time and money reformulating products; consumers today are used to cheap goods; and doctors and other health professionals are so busy trying to make people well that they often don’t have time to look into what’s causing disease and illness in the first place or keep up with the latest research.
Chemicals’ much younger cousin: electromagnetic fields (EMFs)
Another area of growing concern is exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Newer technologies, such as cellphones and WiFi, carry powerful waves that emit EMFs and can penetrate the human brain, organs and other tissues.
EMFs have the potential to interfere with how cells in your body communicate with one another, inhibit your cells’ ability to detoxify and repair themselves, create a stress response in the body and affect hormone levels.
Research in the area of EMF exposure and health is in its infancy, however, and its study is challenged by conflicts of interest, conflicting results and ever-changing, increasingly powerful technology.
Some of the health consequences, including cancer, can take decades to develop, for instance, so they may not be captured by studies that span shorter periods of time. Nonetheless, there are already plenty of studies that indicate EMF exposure puts people in danger, including those showing an increased risk for brain tumors26272829, serious damage to human sperm,303132 and behavior problems in children.33
One respected review analyzed multiple long-term epidemiological studies and determined that using a cell phone for 10 years or more “approximately doubles the risk of being diagnosed with a brain tumor on the same (‘ipsilateral’) side of the head as that preferred for cell phone use.”34
“EMF exposure and all the other aspects of a healthy home can really affect your vitality,” says Kara Parker, M.D., who practices with the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. “The home environment is a cornerstone—I often wish I could do home visits to see what’s in a patient’s environment that could be negatively affecting their health.”
The problem of exposure to chemicals and EMFs can be overwhelming and complicated, but the good news is that your home is an area over which you have some real control. Because it’s probably a place you spend a good portion of your time, the choices you make toward a healthier home can make an important difference.
6Meironyté D, et al. Analysis of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in Swedish human milk. A time-related trend study, 1972-1997. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. 1999;58(6):329. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10580757↩
9Eskenazi B, et al. In utero and childhood polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) exposures and neurodevelopment in the CHAMACOS study. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2013;121(2):257. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23154064↩
11Lee DH, et al. A strong dose-response relation between serum concentrations of persistent organic pollutants and diabetes: results from the National Health and Examination Survey 1999-2002. Diabetes Care. 2006;29(7):1638. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16801591↩
17Hoffman K, et al. Exposure to polyfluoroalkyl chemicals and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in U.S. children 12-15 years of age. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2010;118(12):1762. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20551004↩