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.
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.
Volatile Organic Compounds
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.
So what can I do…realistically?
When asked what can we do about toxic exposure, all the experts say the same thing: Avoid them. Right.