Here’s a rundown of the most common toxins hiding in plain sight:
If Sunday chore day has become Sunday Funday one too many times, you might have seen a furry fungus start to creep up in your bathroom’s nooks and crannies. But, according to Dr. Johanna Congleton, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, some molds, like mycotoxins, don’t just look bad— they can cause a range of health problems like respiratory irritation and asthma attacks. Can’t seem to shake that post-nasal drip? “Chronic colds and sinus infections that you can’t get rid of no matter what could mean you’re breathing in mold spores,” says Dr. Andrea Maxim. Other signs of a fungal infection include rashes and white spots on the skin. And, even if your bathroom’s got Mr. Clean’s seal of approval, toxic mold could still be hiding out elsewhere. Heating grates, like those in old dorm and hotel rooms, are “cesspools” for mold, says Dr. Maxim, and infestations are often worse in buildings with HVAC systems.
You might have heard people making a fuss about BPA (a.k.a. bisphenol A) and phthalates, chemicals that are added to plastics; BPA makes them hard, while phthalates make them flexible. They're often called “everywhere chemicals” because they’re so common. And, they can be found in everyday items like water bottles, trash-can liners, and even children’s toys. Because phthalates are not chemically bound to the plastic, they're continuously released into the air, food, or liquid, especially when heated. According to Congleton, phthalates are considered endocrine disruptors – meaning they can interfere with the production, secretion, transport, action, function, and elimination of natural hormones and have been shown to cause gross reproductive abnormalities in laboratory animals, as well as more subtle reproductive effects in humans, particularly baby boys. Phthalates may also disrupt metabolic processes, she says, and some research suggests they might contribute to obesity and diabetes.
Metals like arsenic (yes, the poison), lead, aluminum, and mercury have been used for centuries, both personally and industrially. You can find them in your mouth if you have mercury amalgam fillings, your armpits, as they’re added to some deodorants, cookware, canned goods, aluminum foil, some antacids, shampoo, body lotion, and — wait for it — our water supply. According to officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, these metals can accumulate in soft tissues, eventually becoming toxic. Long-term exposure has been linked to chronic headaches, receding gums, reproductive problems, respiratory problems, kidney damage, and cancer.
What do eggs stuck to the bottom of a skillet and wet jackets have to do with one another? The answer is perfluorochemicals, the wondrous modern inventions that have given us non-stick cookware and stain-and-water-resistant materials. However, have you ever noticed that your handy-dandy non-stick pans become not so non-stick over time? That’s because the PFCs can wear off the pans and into our food. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the jury is still out on the impact of PFCs on human health, but lab animals, on the other hand, have not been so lucky. Some test animals have suffered changes in liver and thyroid function, increased tumors in certain organs, and reproductive problems.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are used as flame retardants in textiles and plastics. Like phthalates, PBDEs are not chemically bound to the materials they’re added to, which makes them more likely to leach out of the product and into your body. We're talking the padding under your carpet, the foam in your couch, or the plastic in your cell phone. PBDEs are also associated with endocrine disruption, says Congleton, noting that they may interfere with thyroid signaling and neurodevelopment. The good news is that PBDE use is being phased out in the U.S. However, many people still have these chemicals in their bodies, thanks to bioaccumulation.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard the warning “Don’t inhale the fumes” or “Spray in a well-ventilated area.” And, most likely, you only took them half seriously. Well, turns out they exist for a reason. Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are gases that have a high vaporizing pressure, meaning they easily evaporate at room-temperature conditions. According to EPA officials, VOCs have both short- and long-term health effects. The short term could look like eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; allergic reactions; loss of coordination; and nausea; while the long-term could be damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. And, potential for VOC exposure tends to be two to five times higher inside than outside, because they’re found in household products like carpeting, paints, cleaning fluids, varnishes, dry-cleaned clothing, moth repellants, and air fresheners.
There are certain smells that take you to a happy place, and, for me, it's chlorine. Call me crazy, but chlorine means middle-school summer at the community pool. But, this pungent gas, which turns your hair green and your skin into sandpaper, permeates the water supply far beyond the pool. According to the EPA, chlorine is typically used to disinfect public water supplies. Which sounds all good, except for the fact that when chlorine is added to water, it reacts with the organic matter and forms what are called Trihalomethanes (THMs), chemical compounds which have been found to be carcinogenic. So, even if you’ve got yourself a filtered water pitcher, and you’re not hot tubbing every weekend, you’re still probably showering, and this is where we can be unknowingly dousing ourselves in the chemical. Plus, says Maxim, thanks to the hot water, your pores are more open — making it easier to absorb whatever’s in your water.
When asked what can we do about toxic exposure, all the experts say the same thing: Avoid them. Right.
Maxim says our bodies have the ability to naturally detoxify, in about a week, by steering clear of the toxins. However, the length of time it takes to flush them out is proportional to the time of exposure, she says. So, if you’ve been feasting on microwaveable “cuisines” since the last time flare jeans were in style, it might take you a little bit longer. All the more reason to get a jump on reducing your exposure now, and when it comes to VOCs, PFCs and chlorine, the good news is, it doesn’t take much.
Congleton suggests you start by choosing low VOC paints and cleaning supplies (Google can help you out with that), and when using them, make sure the area is well ventilated. The EPA recommends ventilation in general, opening windows, and running fans to get more outside air to come inside. As far as chlorine goes, Maxim recommends a shower filter, which you can get for around $50 to $60, and saving the hot tub for special occasions. If you think you might have a mold issue, call and have an inspection. If you’re a renter, your landlord might cover the cost of the clean out.
While it’s probably damn near impossible to completely avoid phthalates in our plasticized society, it is possible to limit exposure, says Congleton. She recommends avoiding using products that list the word “fragrance” among the ingredients, tossing that vinyl shower curtain, and limiting your use of “Type 3” PVC plastics – look for the number in the triangle on the bottom of the product.
So, although it might seem like there’s toxins gassing you from every couch, cabinet, and canned good, the moral of this story is not to stress out, burn your mattress, and seal yourself into a bio-dome. It’s awareness. Now that you know where toxins are, you can start cutting down by doing simple things, like ditching the plastic and cracking a window the next time you decide a DIY is a good idea. Your body will thank you.