5 Harmful Chemicals Lurking in Our Homes

We live in a world where chemicals are present in almost every product we use.  They’ve been put there to serve a purpose, but at what cost?  Are the benefits really worth the risks to our health and the well-being of the environment?  This post highlights five common types of harmful chemicals that can be found in everyday household products.  I’ll discuss where they can be found and why they’re unhealthy for us and the environment.   

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This is intended to be a quick reference: enough details to help a consumer understand what might be lurking in their household products and big picture ways to navigate around them.  The chemical groups included in this document include:

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)

PFAS (sometimes referred to as PFCs) are a very large group of man-made chemicals that are found in an astonishing number of consumer products.  Their unique chemical structure makes them extremely strong and resistant to water, oil, and stains, and they're commonly used to coat the surface of products.    

Where Are They Found?

Some of the more common places you’ll find PFAS in the home include non-stick cookware, fabric coatings for waterproofing, stain-resistant furniture and carpets, and food packaging such as the inside of microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers.  If something is non-stick, water-proof, or stain-resistant, there’s a pretty good chance these chemicals are present.

What Are the Concerns?

Not only are these compounds in our consumer products, but since they’ve been used for so long (since about the 1940s) and don’t break down in the environment, they have also contaminated many drinking water supplies.  This is of great concern to many, so please refer to USEPA’s website (https://www.epa.gov/pfas) and contact your state environmental protection agency to see how they are addressing the issue in your state.

Two of the more widely-studied PFAS compounds are PFOA and PFOS.  Results of animal studies for those compounds include reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects. In addition, both chemicals have caused tumors in animals. Increased cholesterol levels have also been observed in humans exposed to PFOA and PFOS.  

How Do We Avoid Them?

What can you do to avoid these chemicals?  I believe an important first step is to change our mindset and ask ourselves whether certain everyday conveniences that we've come to rely upon are worth the associated risk.  Here are just a few ideas on how to navigate around these chemicals:

  • Look up products touted as water-proof, non-stick, or stain-resistant on websites like the Environmental Working Group before buying them to see if they contain PFAS.
  • Make the switch from non-stick to stainless steel pots and pans. 
  • Avoid the chemical-laden microwave popcorn bags and make it the old-fashioned way - on the stovetop.
  • Caret Right
    Choose furniture that hasn't been treated with stain-resistant chemicals, and avoid applying stain-resistant chemicals to your home furnishings and carpets.
  • Caret Right
    Contact your state's environmental protection agency and ask whether they offer free testing of home drinking water supplies.

Synthetic Fragrances

Synthetic, or artificial, fragrances are made up of thousands of chemicals grouped under the simple and innocuous term “fragrance”.  

Where Are They Found?

Synthetic fragrances are found in a wide range of our household products, including cosmetics, shampoos, body wash, air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softener, candles, and the list goes on and on. These are generally easy to "sniff out".

What Are the Concerns?

According to the Environmental Working Group, studies have shown that chemicals found in fragrances are linked to many health problems including allergies, skin reactions, endocrine/hormone disruption, and possibly even birth defects. 

Two of the bigger hazardous chemical groups in fragrances include phthalates and VOCs (both discussed later in this post).   Fragrances are one of the top five known allergens, and are known to cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks. 

The American Lung Association recommends establishing a fragrance-free work environment since fragrances impact indoor air quality and represent potential health hazards for employees with allergies and chronic lung diseases. The same principals carry over to the home environment.

How Do We Avoid Them?

So how do we get around inadvertently surrounding ourselves with these allergens?

  • Be aware of tricky terminology when you’re trying to find a product without artificial fragrance. Fragrance-free is what you're looking for - it means that fragrances have not been added to the product.  Products labeled as unscented may still contain fragrances to mask the odor of the other chemicals used to make the product.  
  • USEPA’s Safer Choice program has a fragrance-free certification that you can look for on products; refer to their fact sheet for more information. 
  • Look for chemical-free alternative solutions such as using wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets.  (Check out this post for more information on dryer sheet alternatives)
  • Caret Right
    Essential oils, which are plant-based fragrances, can be used as a natural substitute for products containing synthetic fragrances.

Phthalates

Where Are They Found?

Phthalates are a large group of industrial chemicals used extensively in consumer products from plastics to personal care products.  They’re found in plastic food containers, plastic wrap, plastic toys, vinyl flooring, perfume, hair spray, cleaners, fragrances, and so on.  

We’re exposed to these chemicals by using personal care and cleaning products, consuming food and beverages that have come into contact with plastics, and to a lesser extent through dust contaminated with phthalate particles.  

Young children may be more susceptible to phthalates in dust due to their hand to mouth behaviors.  Young children and babies are also exposed by eating from plastic bowls/utensils, chewing/mouthing plastics toys, and retail cow’s milk. 

What Are the Concerns?

Not surprisingly given their prevalence in our products, studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have found phthalates in the general population at measurable concentrations.   

Studies are ongoing to better understand the health effects of phthalates.  The USEPA has classified one common phthalate (di(2-ethylhexl)phthalate, or DEHP), as a probable human carcinogen.  

Phthalates are often classified as endocrine disruptors because of their ability to interfere with the endocrine system, which is the body’s system of regulating things such as metabolism, growth and development, and reproduction.  Certain phthalates have been found to have adverse health effects on male reproductive development in laboratory animals.  

How Do We Avoid Them?

How do we limit our exposure to these chemicals, which are seemingly ubiquitous in our products and environment?  This one isn’t easy, but there are some things we can do - remember, even small steps help decrease exposure.  

  • Avoid using PVC plastics where suitable alternatives are available, particularly when they come into contact with our food.  For example, buy glass food storage containers instead of plastic ones.  This is especially important for heating up your food, which is when chemicals leaching from plastics is more severe. 
  • Avoid the use of synthetic fragrances and opt for fragrance-free alternatives.  
  • Look for cosmetics and other self-care products labelled as being phthalate-free.  
  • Caret Right
    Purchase toys made of wood or other natural materials.

Volatile Organics Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are a vast group of chemical compounds that are commonly used in household products. What makes VOCs unique is that they easily turn from a solid or liquid into a gas, which is why many of the products they’re found in can be characterized by having a strong odor.  The strong odors are the gaseous phase of the VOCs and generally equal indoor air quality issues.  

According to the USEPA, “concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands.”

Where Are They Found?

VOCs are very commonly found in products around the house like paint, varnishes, paint strippers, degreasers, and solvents, as well as less industrial products like cosmetics, air fresheners, cleaning products, and dry-cleaned clothing. Those synthetic fragrances I mentioned earlier….full of VOCs.  They’re also in household products like glue, permanent markers, and white-out.

What Are the Concerns?

Ok so they smell, what’s the big deal?  The problem is that they not only stink, but many VOCs are suspected or known carcinogens.  A few of these include benzene and methylene chloride, which are found in products like paint and paint strippers, and perchloroethylene, which is emitted from our clothing after being dry cleaned.  

Other long-term health effects include damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. They also cause a whole slew of more immediate harmful health effects such as nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reactions, labored breathing, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness.  

How Do We Avoid Them?

Even though VOCs are all around us, there are steps that can be taken to lessen our exposure to them. 

  • If you’re working with products that contain VOCs (paints, varnishes, etc.), make sure the space is well-ventilated by opening windows and turning on fans to exhaust the area. 
  • Close all paint cans and other chemical containers when they’re not in use.  Better yet, since VOCs can escape through the packaging, dispose of what you don’t use at your town or city’s next hazardous waste collection day.
  • Many manufacturers are now making paint, glue, and other products that have low or no-VOC formulas.  Look for the GREENGUARD Certification to help identify safe products. 
  • Caret Right
    Buy clothes that don’t need to be dry-cleaned.  Dry cleaners are almost surely using toxic VOCs in their washing fluids that can end up in your indoor air. 
  • Caret Right
    If you’re unwrapping something that emits an odor (e.g., shower curtain, mattress) bring it outside to let it air out right after it’s opened up and keep it out there for a little while.  It makes a difference.
  • Caret Right
    Use natural cleaners and opt for fragrance-free products.

Triclosan

So far we’ve looked at groups of chemicals, but now we’re going to take a look a single chemical all on its own – triclosan. 

Where Is It Found?

Triclosan is a chemical that has antibacterial properties and is used in many household products. The FDA thankfully banned it from liquid hand soaps in September 2017, but it can still be found in products like dishwashing detergent, bodywash, toothpaste, and deodorant, and home products such as plastic food containers and cutting boards. 

What Are the Concerns?

Triclosan has been linked to the disruption of thyroid function and endocrine disruption even at very low doses.  It has also been found to cause immune and allergenic effects.  In addition, the widespread use of triclosan has been found to increase the development of stronger bacteria that are more difficult to control, putting people at a higher risk of other bacterial diseases.  

It’s also a big problem for our environment because wastewater treatment plants aren’t effective at removing it, so it’s released to surface water bodies and has been shown to be toxic and bioaccumulate in aquatic life. 

How Do We Avoid Them?

It’s great news that triclosan is no longer in our antibacterial hand soaps, but how do we know if it’s in other products we’re using?  If a home product is touted as antibacterial or odor-fighting, it can often indicate the presence of triclosan (think dish washing soap, plastic cutting boards, food containers, and shower curtains).  

To see if it’s lurking in your favorite personal care products, head over to the Environment Working Group’s SkinDeep® page for a list of personal care products that still contain triclosan.

Parting Thoughts

You might feel that the amount of harmful chemicals we encounter as part of our daily routines is discouraging.  All hope is absolutely not lost though - by making a few small changes at a time, we can make a difference in how many of these chemicals we and our families are exposed to.  I would love to hear some of your ideas for limiting exposure to chemicals on a daily basis.

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