The US has the worst record in the industrialized world for regulating toxic chemicals. Thanks to the stranglehold powerful corporate lobbies have on Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), millions of Americans may be systematically poisoning themselves with common household products, toiletries and cosmetics.
At present, Americans are at highest risk from endocrine disruptors found in soft plastic and most commercial cleaning and beauty products. These are chemicals that mimic estrogen and other hormones in their effect on the human body. Many epidemiologists believe they are linked to the current epidemic of breast cancer, premature puberty, birth defects, and both male and female infertility. What many people forget is that cancer was an extremely rare condition prior to World War II and the appearance of hundreds of synthetic chemicals on the scene.
The dangerous phalates and bisphenyl-A found in plastic water bottles, pacifiers, and baby toys have been fairly well publicized (I hope.). There seems to be less public awareness that nearly all commercial shampoos, hand and body lotions, deodorants, toothpaste, and sunscreen contain preservatives that function as estrogen-like endocrine disruptors. The US bans only eight of these compounds. In contrast the EU bans more than 1,000.
In addition to causing harm to people who use them, these toxic endocrine disruptors accumulate in waterways when they’re flushed down the drain. Indigenous populations in both the third world and the Arctic are found to have hundreds of these toxic chemicals in their blood stream and breast milk even though most of them have never even heard of Right Guard or Colgate toothpaste.
Parabens: the Worst Offenders
One of the worst offenders is the paraben class of compounds (mostly found as methyparaben or PABA), which is used as a preservative in nearly all commercial toiletries. The second most common is triclosan, found in numerous so-called antibacterial products, including the following:
- Neutrogena Deep Clean Body Scrub Bar
- Lever 2000 Special Moisture Response Bar Soap, Antibacterial
- CVS Antibacterial Hand Soap
- Dial Liquid Soap, Antibacterial Bar Soap
- Softsoap Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap
- Cetaphil Gentle Antibacterial Cleansing Bar
- Clearasil Daily Face Wash
- Clean & Clear Oil Free Foaming Facial Cleanser
- Dawn Complete Antibacterial Dish Liquid
- Ajax Antibacterial Dish Liquid
- Colgate Total Toothpaste
- Right Guard Sport Deodorant
- Old Spice Red Zone, High Endurance and Classic Deodorants
- Vaseline Intensive Care Antibacterial Hand Lotion
Even less well publicized are potentially toxic “nanosized” particles present in many popular sunscreens and so called “natural” mineral foundations. (See 2010 Friends of the Earth study and recent article by Terence Newton linking nanoparticles with DNA damage and cancer.)
Nanoparticle containing skin products are strictly regulated in the UK and Europe, where laws require mandatory safety testing and labeling. In the US, the FDA, which has known for nearly a decade that common sunscreens contain ingredients that accelerate the growth of skin cancer cells. Yet they still refuse to act on this information.
Nanoparticles are absorbed into the blood stream through skin damaged through eczema or psoriasis, a major health concern as mineral foundations are specifically marketed to women to conceal unsightly dermatitis. Some studies show that mineral foundation powders are inhaled into the lungs during application. Others suggest that nanoparticles penetrate healthy skin.
Not only are these substances totally unregulated in the US , but due to lax labeling laws, 80 percent of sunscreens that claim to be free of nanoparticles are found, on testing, to contain them.
Over fifty million American women, as well as an increasing number of men, dye their hair on a regular basis. Many start in early adolescence, resulting in cumulative, lifelong exposure to some extremely toxic substances:
- Phenylenediamine (PPD) – present in over two-third of chemical hair dyes and by far the most toxic. Linked (in animals) to damage of the immune and nervous system, skin, liver and kidneys. Banned in France , Germany , and Sweden and use “restricted” in Canada .
- Resorcinal – classified by the European Union as a harmful skin and eye irritant and dangerous to the environment.
- Ammonia – irritant to skin, eyes, and respiratory system (can cause asthma).
- Peroxide – potential toxic effects on eyes, nervous and respiratory (can cause asthma) system. Can cause DNA damage, possibly leading to cancer. Banned in cosmetic use in Japan and use “restricted” in Canada.
- 4-ABP – linked to cancer
Many so-called “natural” hair dyes also contain some PPD, but in lower concentrations. As with other toiletries and beauty products described above, checking labels is essential, or better still doing a little Internet research to find a safer alternative.
Dangerous Chemicals in Household Cleaners
AIR FRESHENERS – usually contain methoxychlor, a pesticide that accumulates in fat cells, as well as formaldehyde, a highly toxic, known carcinogen, and phenol, a common culprit in contact allergies.
CARPET AND UPHOLSTERY SHAMPOO – commonly contain perchlorethylene, a known carcinogen, and ammonium hydroxide, a corrosive, extremely irritable to eyes, skin and respiratory passages.
DISHWASHER DETERGENTS (number one cause of household poisoning) – commonly contain highly concentrated dry form of chlorine, which leaves a residue on dishes that accumulates with each washing and is absorbed into hot food.
FURNITURE POLISH – contain petroleum distillates, which can cause skin and lung cancer and nitrobenzene, linked with low sperm counts, anemia and liver, kidney, lung and eye damage.
LAUNDRY detergents contain the following chemicals (which remain as residue in clothes, as well as being released into waterways):
- Petroleum distillates (aka napthas) – linked to cancer, lung damage and inflammation (can cause asthma) and damage to mucous membranes.
- Phenols – linked with damage to nervous system, heart, blood vessels, lungs (can cause asthma) and kidneys.
- Nonyl phenol ethoxylate – endocrine disruptor banded in Europe, owing to link to breast cancer, premature puberty and low sperm counts.
- Optical brighteners (convert UV light wavelengths into visible light, making clothes appear whiter without making them cleaner) – toxic to fish and can cause allergic reactions when exposed skin is later exposed to sunlight.
- Phosphates (banned in many states) – contribute to water “dead zones” by stimulating algae growth that depletes oxygen needed for fish and other animal life.
- Sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) – highly toxic chemical which reacts with organic materials in the environment to form carcinogenic and toxic compounds that can cause reproductive, endocrine and immune system disorders.
- EDTA (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate) – chelating agent that biodegrades poorly and can re-dissolve toxic heavy metals in the environment, allowing them to enter the food chain.
OVEN CLEANERS – contain highly toxic and corrosive lye and ammonia with fumes that can damage the respiratory system (especially of small children and pets) and which leave residue that is vaporized when the oven is turned on.
TOILET BOWL CLEANERS – contain hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive irritant which can damage skin, eyes, kidneys and liver; and hypochlorite bleach, a corrosive irritant that can damage eyes, skin and respiratory tract.
photo credit: Nikita Kashner via photopin cc