People have always been exposed to dangerous chemicals—from naturally occurring arsenic in some drinking water (Click here to see if it’s in your water), to dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides spewed from erupting volcanoes, (U.S. Geological Survey, 2010) to poisonous mushrooms (North American Mycological Association) growing in shady woods.
Our exposure to dangerous chemicals has increased considerably over the last century, as humans have increasingly used chemicals in mining, agriculture and manufacturing.
In fact, there doesn't appear to be consensus about how many chemicals we’re exposed to in our lives. The 2011 textbook Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet states that more than 20 million synthetic chemicals have been produced, and roughly 1 million more join the market each year (Botkin & Keller, p. 193).
And yet the Natural Resources Defense Council states, “more than 80,000 chemicals in the United States have never been fully tested for their toxic effects on our health and the environment” and that “the EPA has only required testing for about 200 of those chemicals.” (NRDC-a).
Even the smaller number is a scary one, especially considering many of the chemicals in question never existed before the 20th Century; people, wildlife and Earth’s ecological processes have not evolved ways to resist or metabolize them.
Many of these chemicals are extremely persistent—they don’t break down easily, enduring for decades in the air, water, and soils we depend on for sustenance, and in our bodies once we ingest, absorb or inhale them.
Although many of these chemicals may be safe, many are probably not. It’s hard to know for sure, because it takes a lot of time and money for scientists to establish clear links between chemicals and possible health impacts.
How dangerous chemicals are depends on their concentration, how long you’re exposed, and your individual sensitivity to these substances (pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are more vulnerable than others). Even less is known about the combined effects of multiple chemicals in your life—mercury in your tuna, PCBs in your couch, and pesticides in your produce, for example.
The term biomagnification explains how toxic chemicals can become more concentrated as they move up the food chain—from bugs and algae, to small fish, bigger fish, and into you.
Similarly, dangerous chemicals can bioaccumulate in your body over time, increasing your risk of sickness or disease.
Learn more about bioaccumulation and biomagnification here.
At what point is enough information enough to decide what level of exposure to these substances is safe? Although the answer isn't always easy, it seems prudent to take precautionary steps to protect ourselves from possible serious health or environmental effects, even when full scientific proof hasn't been established yet.
Information is power. You can minimize the danger these chemicals pose to you and your family by learning ways to avoid them and telling elected officials and other decision makers that such chemicals shouldn’t be in the products you buy.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert. I am just a normal guy trying to educate myself on this topic to protect myself and my family from dangerous chemicals in our lives. I am sharing this with you to help you understand the risks you might be facing, and to empower you to make the healthiest choices for you, your family and your community.
The information you’re reading here is just a basic introduction to an enormous topic.
Empower yourself by learning more and getting involved to help create a healthier future for all of us.
Let’s get started…