4 potentially harmful substances in everyday products and how to minimise your exposure to them

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Potentially harmful substances taint many of our health, beauty and cleaning products and much of our furniture and food.

Body burden testing examines pollution in people, via blood and urine sampling, and demonstrates that even the most clean-living of us are effected, including unborn babies.

While impossible to avoid completely, here’s a brief run down of how to minimise your exposure to the worst of the harmful substances that surround us.

1. Endocrine disruptors

You may have seen labels stating products do not contain parabens, phthalates or BPA (bisphenol A) and wondered what that is about.

Endocrine disruptors interfere with the normal functioning of human hormones and have possible links to children’s testicular development, premature breast development, prostate and breast cancer.

Reduce your exposure:

  • BPA lines most cans including canned vegetables and soft drinks, so eat fresh or frozen food or food stored in glass and avoid canned soft drink.
  • Don’t re-heat food in plastic containers in the microwave. Manufacturers have recently been making BPA-free plastic food storage containers, but some of these alternatives may be just as bad.
  • Phthalates are often not labelled, but are usually present in artificial fragrances. Avoid products with Fragrance or Parfum listed as an ingredient.
  • Parabens prevent the growth of microbes in cosmetics. They have been found in biopsies of breast tumors but a causal link with breast cancer has not been proven. To avoid them, switch to certified organic shampoos, conditioners cleansers and lotions.

2. Known carcinogens

The US National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens lists 243 substances that are known to cause cancer in humans or are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.

Some of these, including formaldehyde and benzene, are used in everyday products and some, such as DDT and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), have persisted in the environment, and people’s bodies, though banned many years ago.

Reduce your exposure:

  • Formeldahyde and formaldehyde resins, as well as phthalates, are common in many nail polishes and some cosmetics. Buy only nail polish promoted as ‘5 free’ as they are free of five common toxic substances.
  • Benzene is in many glues, paints, furniture waxes and detergents. As a result of this, and other factors, indoor air quality is poorer than outdoor air. Keep rooms well ventilated, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter regularly and dust with a damp cloth.
  • Switch to safe, natural cleaning products. Vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and some elbow grease will often work as well as the toxic alternatives.

3. Other chemicals

The chemicals industry has been very good at convincing us we need products like flame retardant furniture, stain repellant carpet and non-stick pans, all of which use toxic chemicals that persist in the environment.

A study in 2008 found triclosan, the active ingredient in many antibacterial products, to be in present in the urine of 75 per cent of the US population. It was also found in human blood and breast milk samples. Studies have not proven it to be harmful, but its presence in our bodies is concerning and calls for a ban are growing louder.

Everyone is exposed to low levels of chemical pesticides in food and dust, and artificial colours, flavours and preservatives are added to processed food.

Reduce your exposure:

  • When buying new, look for furniture that has not been treated with toxic chemicals. For example, IKEA has made a commitment their products do not contain hazardous substances. Don’t have stain repellant applied.
  • Natural fibres like wool, hemp and cotton are naturally fire resistant. Childrens pyjamas must be labelled for fire danger in Australia, so it’s safe to assume any synthetic fabric has been treated with flame retardant chemicals.
  • Avoid buying Teflon coated cooking pots and pans and certainly don’t use any that have been scratched or damaged. PFOA, which is used to make Teflon, is a likely carcinogen.
  • Antibacterial cleaning products are unnecessary for household use. Avoid products that contain triclosan or Microban. There are concerns triclosan is an endocrine disruptor and may be adding to the problem of antibiotic resistant super-bugs. Read the labels of your soaps, cleansers and toothpaste – you’ll be surprised how many products triclosan is in.
  • Whole foods certainly are better for you in this area, and organic whole foods especially so. Make sure you wash your fruit and vegetables before eating them.
  • Don’t use chemical pesticides on your lawn or garden. In some places in Canada and the US domestic use of chemical pesticides has been banned.

4. Metals

Mercury bioaccumulates in fish, which are eaten by bigger fish, eaten by bigger fish, eaten by us. Mercury used to be in a number of consumer products like batteries, fluorescent lights and paint, and still is in some.

Lead and arsenic are also common in the environment. Lead was used in paint and petrol until relatively recently and arsenic was used in pesticides. Scientists are currently studying arsenic levels in rice, which is particularly susceptible to contamination. All rice sold in Australia is tested to comply with standards so is safe in moderate consumption.

These three metals are naturally occurring in Earth’s crust and have been released into the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning, mining and incineration and leached into waterways from landfill.

A new possible threat is the use of nano silver. Silver has been known as an effective antimicrobial for thousands of years, but it is only recently that science has allowed it to be melted into particles small enough for use in products like surface coatings and clothing. Though it may not be harmful for humans, it is harmful to aquatic plants and animals and there is some concern widespread use may lead to silver resistance in bacteria.

Reduce your exposure:

  • Reduce your consumption of shark, ray, swordfish, barramundi, gemfish, orange roughy, ling and southern bluefin tuna.
  • Regularly vacuum with a HEPA filter and dust with a damp cloth to keep household dust under control.
  • Paint over old paint rather than disturbing the surface.
  • Don’t store food in pewter, lead crystal or glazed pottery containers.
  • Avoid brown rice as it contains much more arsenic than white rice and wash rice thoroughly before cooking.
  • Give the silver coated band aids and socks a miss.

More information:
Safe Cosmetics Australia
Environmental Defence Canada
Environmental Working Group (US)
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen


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