Dangerous Chemicals in Your Life: How They Can Hurt You, and How You Can Protect Yourself

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…

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Dangerous Chemicals in Your Life: Pesticides

A pesticide is a chemical used to kill or repel pests—anything from mice to weeds, bugs, fungi, and disease-causing bacteria and viruses (U.S. EPA, 2012). People have been using substances for thousands of years to protect themselves and their crops from pests—from lye to ash, Sulphur, tobacco, soapy water and green lizard gall—all with varying results (University of Minnesota). Chemical pesticides took a giant leap forward in the 1940s, after Paul Müller discovered that DDT killed mosquitoes that spread malaria and fleas that spread typhus (U.S. EPA, 2015-b). (Müller won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1948 for this discovery. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come.) In 1944, the chemical 2,4-D showed its effectiveness against weeds. By 1952, nearly 10,000 new pesticide products were registered with the EPA (Ganzel). Chemical pesticides enjoyed their heyday of beating back disease and increasing crop production for people around the world, until Rachael Carson’s book, Silent Spring, showed the world that these successes came with a great price—the destruction of birds and other wildlife because of the biomagnification of these chemicals up the food chain. Silent Spring helped inform the world about the health impacts of chemical fertilizers and led to the banning of DDT in the United States in 1972. Pesticides_yuma

A farmer spraying pesticides on lettuce in Yuma, Ariz., in 2011 (source: Wikimedia)

Dangers to Humans Because many of these chemicals last a long time, their effects can on people and wildlife can last for decades. For example, a recent study showed that women exposed to DDT in the 1960s may have an increased risk of breast cancer today. DDT is still used to control mosquitoes in Africa and Asia (Cohn). Pesticides have been linked to asthma, memory loss, loss of coordination, slower reaction times, uncontrollable mood and behavior changes, impaired motor skills, allergies, hormone disruption and cancer.  The World Health Organization estimates there are 3 million cases of pesticide poisoning each year and as many as 220,000 deaths, mostly in developing countries (Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders). Three recent, independent studies showed that children whose moms were exposed to organophosphate pesticides while pregnant had lower IQ scores and poorer working memory than other kids. Organophosphate pesticides are similar to the nerve agents produced during World War II and are among the most common pesticides used today (Grossman, 2011, May 16). What Dangers Lurk in Your Food? Pesticides include the following chemicals: Organochlorines, organophosphates, organosulphers, carbamates, formamadines, dinitrophenols, organotins, pyrethroids, nicotinoids, spinosyns, phenylpyrazoles, pyrazoles, pyrroles, pyridazinones, quinazolines, benzoylureas, and toxic plant extracts—and this is a short list (University of Minnesota). Most of these chemicals did not exist in nature before they were invented by the chemical industry. And although many break down easily and are short-lived, many can persist for decades. And remember, they were designed to kill. Is it worth the extra expense to buy organic food over conventional? A Consumers Union research team tested 94,000 samples of more than 20 different crops, grown both organically and conventionally. They found 73% of conventionally grown crops had residue of at least one pesticide. Only 23% of the same crops grown organically had any pesticide residue. More than 90% of apples, pears, peaches, strawberries and celery had pesticide residues. Conventional crops were six times more likely to have residues from multiple pesticides. And the levels of residues found on organically grown crops were consistently lower than conventional samples in all cases (Consumers Union, 2002). Although there may be only small residue amounts on your food when you eat it, how much is too much? Is it worth the risk? What You Can Do Knowledge is power. Arm yourself. Everyone eats different food and has different sensitivities to what we eat. Protect yourself and your family by learning about what you eat. Whatsonmyfood.org is a searchable database, courtesy of the nonprofit Pesticide Action Network, that brings to light the pesticide levels on the foods you eat. I like their Conventional v. Organic comparisons. Spend a few minutes researching your favorite foods, and make adjustments to the fruits and veggies on your table if you need. You’re worth it! If you want the details, and enjoy diagrams of complicated chemicals, check out this Introduction to Insecticides (University of Minnesota). Take Action Join the Pesticide Action Network’s Action Center, and let your voice be heard to influence decision-makers about laws and regulations that will affect your health.

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Bioaccumulation and Biomagnification

Many chemicals—like mercury, DDT, dioxins, PCBs and others—are dangerous because they’re persistent; they don’t break down easily in the environment, and living creatures cannot metabolize them.

When these chemicals are ingested or absorbed by a living organism, they accumulate in the body’s tissues and become more concentrated over time, as the creature eats more and more prey infected with the chemical.

foodweb_EPASource: U.S. EPA

As these substances move up the food chain, they become more concentrated. The little fish eats the plankton, the big fish eats the little fish, then you or a bald eagle eats the big fish. A study in Long Island Sound in 1967 showed DDT concentrations in gulls and ospreys to be 200,000 times higher than in the water (Woodwell).

The same can happen to you, especially when you eat high-on-the-food-chain fish, or when you are surrounded by persistent chemicals in your home. When you inhale, absorb and ingest these chemicals, you often do so faster than you can metabolize them or flush them out. Over time, concentrations increase, and the risk of health problems increases.

Check out this interactive primer from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Dangerous Chemicals in Your Life: Flame Retardants

In 1975, in response to a growing number of tragic house fires, California implemented Technical Bulletin 117 (California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation), which required the use of flame retardants in furniture, bedding and children’s pajamas. Because California controls such a large sector of the market, manufacturers adopted TB 117 standards for most products and met them by adding man-made polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) (Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry). In 1977, however, scientists discovered the retardants had been absorbed through children’s skin and were mutagens linked to cancer (Blum, A.). Although the Environmental Protection Agency banned the specific PCB in question—bromenated Tris (1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (also called TDCPP)—in 1978, manufacturers have since been using a similar chemical, chlorinated Tris, as well as numerous equally questionable compounds—polybromated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), organohalogens and organophosphorous compounds—in electronics, carpets, upholstery, furniture, insulation, children’s toys and vehicle and airplane parts (Grossman, 2011, Sepember 1). Evidence is mounting that these substances accumulate in our bodies. American women have been shown to have 75 times more flame retardants in their bodies than women in Europe (Environmental Working Group). Data also show these chemicals interfere with hormones, women’s reproductive systems, baby birth weight, thyroid and metabolic function and neurological development in infants and children (Grossman, 2011, May 16). One study links exposure to flame retardants in the womb to lower IQs and greater hyperactivity in children. It warned that children who play on floors and put their hands in their mouths often at higher risk of ingestion (Maron). Researchers at Duke University recently found the flame retardant TDCIPP (a likely carcinogen) in 100% of the mothers and babies they tested (Butt, et al.). Flame retardants thought to be off the market due to health concerns continue to be used in the U.S. in cribs, mattresses, pillows, nursing pads and car seats (Stapleton, et al.). Many of these chemicals also appear to have a travel bug, freeing themselves from the foam in your couch, for example, and joining your house dust. Discarded furniture can leach flame retardants into water supplies. From these sources, flame retardants have made their ways into peanut butter, bacon, lunch meat, tree bark in Tasmania and Indonesia (Blum, D.), and in polar bears across the Arctic (Muir). burning chairs

tests showed that chairs with and without flame retardants were equally enflamed in under 4 minutes.

The worst part about this: these flame retardants don’t work. Tests have shown that flame retardants offered “no significant protection.” (Chicago Tribune, 2012). On the pro-retardant side, the American Chemistry Council contends flame retardants prevent at least 360 deaths and 740 injuries each year (2011). In most circumstances, flame retardants in a couch cushion or crib cannot withstand the intensity of a burning house. And when they burn, they release enormous amounts and nasty chemicals in smoke, leading to firefighters’ organizations calling for stricter controls (Marine and Environmental Research Institute). In addition, more than 200 environmental, health, and fire-safety experts from 30 countries signed a consensus statement urging for stronger controls of several flame retardants (DiGangi, et al.). Why Do Dangerous Flame Retardants Surround Us? Chemical flame retardant manufacturing and sales are growing each year, contributing $4 billion dollars to the global economy. In 2013, more than 2 million metric tons (4.4 million tons) of flame retardants were used worldwide (Ceresana Market Research). And The Chicago Tribune has shed light on decades-long efforts by the tobacco industry to shift focus away from the role of cigarettes in starting house fires and in favor of flame retardants (A powerful series. Read it here). We certainly wouldn’t want poisons in babies, nursing mothers, wildlife around the world, and the rest of us to get in the way of jobs and a “healthy” economy, would we? And according to critics, the main law governing nation’s chemical safety, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is toothless and badly need of reform (Environmental Defense Fund). What can you do?
  • Wash your hands frequently. Flame retardants can easily free themselves, end up in household dust, then enter you when you touch food or put fingers in your mouth.
  • Choose air filters and vacuum cleaners with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters.
  • Look for “TB 117” labels on your furniture and padded baby products. Phase these items out first when it’s time to buy new furnishings, because they have been treated with possible dangerous flame retardants.
  • Take care when you remove old carpet. Not only have many carpets been treated with flame retardants, but flame retardants have likely accumulated in the dust collected over the years in and under your carpet.
  • Choose baby products and household furnishings that do not have flame retardants (You may have to ask the manufacturer specifically). One way to do this is avoid foam rubber and plastics as much as possible. Not only do these petroleum products contribute to global warming, they are often the items that have flame retardants applied. If you can’t escape foam, choose foam that is retardant-free.
  • Manufacturers that provide retardant-free products include BabyBjorn, Naturepedic, and OrbitBaby.
  • Write your representatives in Congress. (http://www.contactingthecongress.org/) Urge them to support TSCA reform to remove dangerous flame retardants from your household. Check out Environmental Defense Fund's website for details about TSCA reform.

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Dangerous Chemicals: Sick Building Syndrome

If you’re like most people, you spend up to 90% of your time indoors. Unfortunately, many buildings have poor ventilation, making airborne chemical levels significantly higher in your home, office or school than outdoors (Consumer Product Safety Commission). Industrial chemicals can evaporate into air, collect in dust, and get into people. Kids are particularly at risk for inhaling, absorbing and ingesting chemicals, because they crawl around on floors and put things into their mouths (Maron). Sometimes the chemicals can be obvious. When you’re breathing fumes from fresh paint, you’re breathing a mix of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that have been known to cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, fatigue, and loss of coordination and have been associated with damage to the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, as well as cancer (Falcon), Your “new carpet” smell is likely a combination of odors from styrene and 4-phenylcyclohexane (4-PC—also a VOC), both of which are associated with the latex backing, which is found on 95% of new carpets. 4-PC may irritate eyes and respiratory tracts and has been linked with impacts to the central nervous system. In addition, the glue used to affix carpets contain benzene and toluene, also VOCs (Cowles). Hang a new vinyl shower curtain, and you’ll likely have to leave the room because of the smell. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) shower curtains contain as many as 40 different VOCs, as well as phalates, organotins, and metals, all of which have been associated with severe health impacts (Lester, et al.) But even if it’s not obvious to you, the air and dust in your home can make you sick, because throughout your house, walls, flooring, treated wood, fabrics, furniture, beauty products, cleansers and electronics are releasing fumes and dust that contain potentially dangerous chemicals. Ventilate poorly, and you can end up breathing a mixed-up cocktail of chemicals that can harm you (Consumer Product Safety Commission). What can you do? Ventilate. If you can open doors and windows, do so often. Let some fresh air in and get those pollutants out. This is especially true if you have recently installed new carpets, paint, shower curtains, cabinets or counters. Change the filter on your heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Learn more about Sick Building Syndrome at The Healthy Building Network. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has a good website, with more information on Indoor Environmental Quality and ways you can mitigate your problems. The EPA Green Chemistry program is an effort to reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals during the manufacture of many products.

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Dangerous Chemicals: Take Action for a Healthier Life

Unlike Europe, where manufacturers must prove chemicals are safe before selling them, chemicals in the United States are innocent until proven guilty. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) allows American manufacturers to sell chemicals without testing them for safety. TSCA places the burden of proof on the Environmental Protection Agency to show harm, rather than on manufacturers to show safety (Moyer). After more than 20 years of DDT use to control mosquitoes, it took the publication of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring and a decade of scientific data before the EPA removed DDT from the American market. And 40 years after flame retardants were discovered to be harmful, many of them, or their dangerous substitutes, are still on the market. The government might not act in time to protect you or the ones you love. Your safety may not be the priority of chemical manufacturers. And the great work by watch-dog and advocacy groups isn’t enough—we’re still surrounded by dangerous chemicals every day. This puts the burden on you. What you don’t know CAN hurt you. The Good News There are numerous resources available to help you learn about the threats chemicals pose and help you take the necessary steps to reduce your exposure: The Good Guide ranks more than 250,000 household products for their health, environment and social impacts, then recommends healthier alternatives when they exist. Good stuff! The Green Science Policy Institute is a clearinghouse for scientific data to inform consumers and decision makers about chemicals. Ecocenter.org is a Michigan-based nonprofit organization with good information for consumers, such as their reports on chemicals of concern and their healthystuff.org database of least-toxic products. 10 Harmful Chemicals to Avoid, by Parents Magazine, will help you identify some of the most dangerous chemical culprits in order to avoid them. Whatsonmyfood.org is a searchable database that will help you understand the chemicals and their associated health risks, which might be in your shopping cart or on your dinner plate. Sign up for the Pesticide Action Network’s Action Center. Their action alerts will keep you informed about laws and regulations in development that affect you, your family, and the environment, and give you opportunities to weigh-in to influence healthier and stronger regulation of the toxics that endanger you. Toxipedia.org is a free encyclopedia of articles and resources about toxic chemicals and their impacts on humans and the environment. Toxipedia.org is a project of the nonprofit Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders.

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Dangerous Chemicals in Your Life: Mercury

The inorganic element mercury (Hg) has always been present in nature and is often spewed into the atmosphere in smoke from volcanoes (University of Oxford) and forest fires (National Science Foundation). In addition to these sources, mercury also comes to us from human-made (anthropogenic) sources. The main sources of anthropogenic mercury emissions are gold mining operations, coal combustion, non-ferrous metals production and cement production (U.S. EPA, 2015-a). Mercury can also be present in a variety of products, from batteries to jewelry (learn more here). Click here for a map of Sierra Nevada abandoned mining sites, many of which have left a legacy of downstream mercury (Sierra Nevada Conservancy). Click here for a map of national mercury concentrations in precipitation as a result of factory emissions and other airborne sources (National Atmospheric Deposition Program) Mercury poisoning has been linked to impaired neurological development in fetuses, infants, and children. It can also impact thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual skills (EPA, 2014-b). The greatest source of mercury poisoning for people comes from eating infected fish (EPA, 2014-c). The difference between tolerable, background levels of mercury and harmful levels in the environment is very small (Eisler), so whatever we can do to reduce emissions and minimize our exposure to this heavy metal might mean the difference between health and dangerous effects. Although mercury is unhealthy in any form, inorganic mercury can get significantly more toxic when it enters aquatic systems, such as lakes, rivers, wetlands, meadows, soils, and the open ocean, where anaerobic organisms convert inorganic mercury to organic methylmercury (Ullrich). Mercury accumulates in the tissues of each organism that eats infected prey, then magnifies in concentration as it travels up the food chain—a process known as biomagnification. What you can do.
  • Avoid eating fish high in mercury. This includes shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and larger tunas. Larger and more predatory fish tend to have higher levels of mercury. Fish with lower levels of mercury include shrimp, tilapia, canned light tuna, pollock and catfish. (NRDC-b).
  • Mercury levels in fish near you depend on the mining history in each specific watershed where the fish live. Click here for a map database of fish advisories where you live.
  • Buy Fairtrade Gold. This initiative supports and certifies mercury-free gold from small-scale, artisanal miners and their communities. To learn more about the initiative and where to buy mercury-free gold, login to www.fairgold.org.

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