The Latest On The Hidden Chemicals In Your Life

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Robert Louis Stevenson was right: The world is indeed full of a number of things. They may not, however, make us all as happy as kings. In fact, we're surrounded by toxins (found in nature) and toxicants (synthetic). We hear about them, but never quite seem to understand what and how they are affecting us. To help clear this up, experts at the global nonprofit Society of Environmental Toxicity and Chemistry (SETAC) took to reddit for an AMA discussion. Here are a few of the most intriguing things we learned about how the chemicals in our environment intersect with our health.
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What's the real story on fluoride in drinking water? "By now, there is a large amount of good literature supporting the idea that the concentrations of fluoride present in fluoridated waters do not pose a risk to human health," they say. "A more interesting and less understood question is whether the treatment itself is actually useful." While most research does suggest it can help prevent tooth decay and remineralize our teeth, the SETAC experts point out that our dental habits have changed a lot since adding fluoride was first proposed. But, they continue, "this would depend on socio-economical factors relevant to each location."
Are the little plastic microbeads in face washes something we need to worry about in the environment? Because these microbeads aren't filtered out during waste-water treatment, the experts say, they can pose a risk to aquatic organisms. But, some manufacturers have phased them out of their products. Still, microplastics — tiny bits of synthetic glass and plastic thought to be the broken-down remains of larger bits of glass and plastic — are a worry for marine life.
Are there any chemicals that are widely used in our society but can cause serious damage? "The amount of exposure to a chemical and the chemical's toxic effects need to be known before we can determine serious damage to human health or the environment," SETAC experts say. So, in theory, a chemical that we use a lot should not cause any serious effects to human health or the environment. But, they acknowledge that exposure to mercury, lead, or persistent organic chemicals are long-term problems, and that "regulating agencies are taking steps to limit...humans' and the environment's [exposure to these chemicals]." And, as new research is done, the risks of being exposed to chemicals are re-evaluated.
What are the most pressing environmental toxicology/chemistry issues of the near future? "Major issues would include climate change, multiple stressors of ecosystems, habitat quality, and emerging contaminants," the experts say. At least we're starting to increase awareness of the first one.
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