Imagine if you could put sticky notes on your household products to denote each potentially hazardous chemical lurking in your home, in the personal care items you put on your skin and the foods or drinks you consume. If that were all worked out and known, how many individual reminders of harmful ingredients would there be? Would it be nothing to sneeze at or would a light breeze turn your abode into a flutter of paper?
“We are being exposed, if not bombarded, by chemicals every day. Our chemical regulatory system is such that a lot of the chemicals on the market haven’t been assessed for safety, or they’ve been grandfathered into our products or the things that we bring into our homes every day,” says Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington. “So while many may assume that if a product is on the market, it has been assessed for safety and it’s perfectly good for us to use, or eat or slather on our skin – a lot of times that is not true.”
Not all chemicals are hazardous, of course. The wellspring of life – water – is a chemical compound made of hydrogen and oxygen; and though gorging oneself on water can drive the level of sodium concentrated in the blood dangerously low, causing a condition calledhyponatremia, which can kill in extreme instances, we need H2O to survive and thrive.
[See: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Lung Cancer.]
However, the ubiquity of some other chemicals in common products can present real dangers – known and unknown – experts say. “We live in a soup of chemicals, and chemicals may act even additively or synergistically at times,” says Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, one of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Toxicology Program. “We’re trying to understand all that, trying to help educate not only communities, but also we work with our stakeholders across the spectrum … the regulatory agencies – EPA, FDA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Department of Labor, you name it – and we work with our industry partners as well, so that they have the information to make better public health decisions.”
The aim is to increase understanding of what chemicals may present hazards and to give consumers something, experts say, we don’t have now: a firm grasp of the potentially dangerous substances we’re putting on or in our bodies or to which we’re otherwise exposed. “We need more transparency in chemical use in consumer products,” says Heather Stapleton, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Despite long-standing governmental regulation aimed at providing that, as well as Congressional efforts to reform those regulations, Stapleton notes, there’s disagreement on how to improve transparency.
“There are a lot of chemicals out there that are not associated with any sort of health harms whatsoever,” Leiba says. “But the vast majority of the chemicals on our market have not been assessed for safety, and that’s where the concern lies.” While there’s no way to prevent exposure to all potentially hazardous chemicals, experts say there are resources and simple steps consumers can take to reduce risk.
Pick over your personal care products. The average woman uses 12 personal care products that contain 168 unique ingredients every day. “Men, on the other hand, use six products daily with 85 unique ingredients, on average,” she adds, noting that governmental regulation requires product makers to list all ingredients on packaging – though much about those ingredients remains unknown. In one particularly high-profile court case, Johnson & Johnson was recently sentenced to pay $72 million and the company admitted some of its products contain ingredients that cause cancer. It did so after Jackie Fox of Birmingham, Alabama, filed a suit claiming she developed ovarian cancer as a result of using a Johnson & Johnson baby powder containing talcum.
Nor is full transparency a gaurantee in areas ranging from feminine products to fragrances. Consumer pressure, including over worries about products possibly contributing to cancer risk and causing allergic reactions, have led some companies to be more forthcoming about, for example, ingredients in tampons and pads. But experts still say much remains unknown.
To help consumers evaluate what’s in their personal care products, EWG compiled chemical profiles of tens of thousands of these products in its Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, where products can be searched to return a color-coded rating from green to red, alerting consumers to hazard levels as well as how much is known about product ingredients.
Beware of regrettable chemical substitutions. “One of the problems that we’re all dealing with is we identify a chemical of some concern, and so the marketplace responds, and then industry responds to the marketplace and gives us a substitute,” Birnbaum says. “But often we move from something we know something about to something that we know nothing about, and I think that’s an issue.” Stapleton’s own research, in concert with EWG, found a higher level of triphenyl phosphate in the bodies of women who applied some popular nail polishes marketed as “eco-friendly” that contained the chemical. Triphenyl phosphate is also used in flame retardants in place of a chemical called dibutyl phthalate, because of health concerns associated with the latter; the Environmental Protection Agency notes on its website that animal studies have reported developmental and reproductive effects resulting from oral exposure to the chemical, but that its effects in humans aren’t clear. “But in the flame retardant research world, there’s a lot of concerns about health effects now from triphenyl phosphate, because it also is an endocrine disruptor,” Stapleton notes. Not familiar with a chemical of concern? Learn more about it through the U.S. National Library of Medicine Toxicology Data Network, TOXNET.
[Read: From DDT to BPA: How Do Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Affect Our Health?]
Clean up your cleaning solutions. “Regulation of cleaning products does not require the manufacturer to list all the ingredients,” Neika says. “They notoriously also have chemicals of concern – some preservatives, like methylisothiazolinone, and some of those complicated ones that, again, only a chemist would know what it is, that have been linked to severe dermatitis and allergic reactions, and are especially concerning for babies.” EWG rates many cleaning products in its Guide to Healthy Cleaning on an A to F scale based not only on ingredients listed, but how much manufacturers tell consumers about what’s in the products.
Wash your hands frequently. The same happy birthday song-and-clean routine that reduces the spread of germs can help protect against unsafe chemical exposures, including the likelihood you’ll ingest something hazardous. “People put their hands in their mouth all the time – it’s not only infants and toddlers,” Birnbaum says. “Washing your hands and not putting your hands in your mouth is a good way to lessen some of your exposures.”
You are the chemicals you eat. On Tuesday, EWG released its latest annual report detailing produce that have the highest rates of detectable pesticide residues; strawberries grown with conventional farming methods topped the latest list, knocking off the perennial list-topper, apples, which came in second. “Some of the chemicals detected on strawberries are relatively benign,” according to EWG. “But others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption and neurological problems.” Nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers and cherry tomatoes rounded out EWG’s so-called Dirty Dozen for 2016, while on the “clean” side, less than 1 percent of samples of certain produce, such as avocados, corn, pineapples, cabbage and onions, showed any detectable pesticides. To reduce exposure to pesticides, buy organic, particularly for produce with higher rates of detectable pesticides, Neika says. Also, thoroughly wash all fruits or veggies before eating them.
Pesticides are just the beginning, too, experts say, as chemicals are found in all types of modern foods from fresh to stored, canned to boxed. EWG scores food, based on nutrition, ingredient and processing concerns, on its website and through its Healthy Living app, which also contains the personal care products ratings. Health and governmental organizations like the Food and Drug Administration provide information on known threats in the food system – chemical and otherwise – and experts recommend keeping up on the latest guidance.
[See: Fresh Fish Shouldn’t Stink, and Other Rules of Thumb.]
Clean to reduce dust. “More frequent vacuuming can reduce the accumulation of dust in the home, and thus one’s exposure to chemical contaminants in dust,” Stapleton says. “Wet mopping techniques are ideal because they can trap particles and prevent them from moving into the air.”
Though much remains unknown, experts say it’s important to take action, where possible, to minimize potential harmful chemical exposures, including if it might be carcinogenic. “If you have the options, or you are able to minimize your ingestion, or your inhalation, or just your exposure to a certain potentially cancer-causing ingredient, then you take that opportunity as much as you can, because there are other cases where you will not have that opportunity,” Leiba says. She adds that consumers should choose products with the same discretion, taking into account any potential associated ills. “Don’t get overwhelmed, educate yourself and then vote with your wallet.”