It is an unfortunate fact that we are now living immersed in a chemical soup. If you’ve been paying attention to the headlines, many of the chemicals that surround us in our air, water, food, and consumer products may be compromising your health.
This is the focus of the documentary Unsafe: The Truth Behind Everyday Chemicals. Industrial chemicals and pollutants are contributing to illness in the US, especially to certain types such as asthma, autism, ADHD, breast cancer, infertility and miscarriage, Parkinson’s disease, childhood cancers, and birth defects, especially in little boys.
Children are also entering puberty at younger and younger ages; girls are now developing breast buds at age seven or eight. Common household goods and personal care products are major sources of chemical exposure that can cause your body to accumulate a variety of toxins.
Some toxins are avoidable, but many are not, as they are contaminants or simply not listed on the label. Industrial chemicals tend to accumulate in the environment, some persisting for decades or more.
In 2004, the Silent Spring Institute1 tested 120 homes for 89 endocrine disrupting chemicals. They were shocked to find 67 of them, the majority being pesticides and flame-retardants. Perhaps the most surprising finding, however, was that two-thirds of the homes tested positive for DDT—despite the fact it was banned 40 years ago.
How Endocrine Disruptors Trick Your Body
A number of common household chemicals are endocrine disruptors, meaning, they disrupt your hormone function. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are similar in structure to your natural sex hormones, such as estrogen, so they can potentially interfere with normal physiology, even in extremely small amounts.
Endocrine glands regulate vital physiological processes such as metabolism, reproduction, growth, and development, as professor Meeker explains in the video above.
A hormone’s job is to interact with the cells in your body, sending signals that instruct them to perform certain tasks, but EDCs interfere with proper hormone signaling.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals can mimic your natural hormones, tricking your body into increasing or decreasing hormone production or blocking hormone signals by binding to cell receptors. Therefore, compounds that interfere with these vital processes can produce profound effects.
It’s the tiny repeated exposures that really mimic your natural endocrine system—and that is what’s so concerning. Hormones in your body operate at parts per million and parts per billion concentrations. That’s why many experts believe there is NO safe level of exposure for many of these EDCs.
Chemical Exposure Begins in the Womb
Chemicals affect infants and younger children more than older children or adults because the young are developing much more rapidly, so their organ systems more sensitive. As an expectant mother, everything you take into your body can potentially get passed along to your developing child.
In a 2005 landmark study,2 EWG found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of infants born in the US. Tests revealed a total of 287 chemicals from pesticides, consumer products, food packaging, and environmental waste, including BPA, flame-retardants, PCBs, and even DDT. EWG writes:
“Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.
The dangers of pre- or post-natal exposure to this complex mixture of carcinogens, developmental toxins and neurotoxins have never been studied.”
There is scientific data that prenatal exposure to certain industrial chemicals is associated with abnormal fetal and child development, diminished intelligence, behavior problems, infertility, abnormal sexual maturation, metabolic dysfunction, and cancers later in life.
Some of these chemicals can cross the placenta, enter the womb, and have effects at incredibly tiny doses. In a groundbreaking 2012 World Health Organization (WHO) report about endocrine disrupting chemicals, the authors wrote:3,4
“The diverse systems affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals likely include all hormonal systems and range from those controlling development and function of reproductive organs to the tissues and organs regulating metabolism and satiety.
Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility or reduced fertility, learning and memory difficulties, adult-onset diabetes or cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases.”
Fetal Exposure Can Impact You, Your Children, and Your Children’s Children
These chemicals typically build up in your body over time. For example, more than 90 percent of us have detectible BPA and flame-retardants (such as PDBEs) in our bodies right now.5 And the toxic herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) is found in a significant percentage of American women, even those actively trying to avoid chemical contaminants.
Scientific studies suggest that the endocrine disruptors you were exposed to in-utero may affect not only you, but be passed down multiple generations—even to your great-great-grandchildren. In a 2005 animal study published in Science,6 chemically induced impairments (in this case, male infertility) were seen in nearly all males of subsequent generations. The exposure “reprogramed” the family DNA, and the impairments rippled down across multiple generations via “epigenetic inheritance,” a process whereby the behavior of the genes is altered.7 If this doesn’t underscore how profoundly endocrine disruptors can influence your biology, I don’t know what will!
Chemicals Earned Manufacturers $763 Billion in 2011
Chemicals were made to make things easier, but the cost of this convenience has come at a considerable price. Chemicals that fight disease and bolster food production are big business. Almost all aspects of modern life depend on the chemical industry. Consider the following statistics:
- Chemical production in the US has grown 25-fold since World War II; in 2011, chemicals accounted for sales of more than $763 billion
- 84,000 chemicals are legal for commerce in the US, and they are all basically unregulated; every year, new ones are introduced that have not been fully tested
- Almost 13,000 chemicals are used in cosmetics, and only about 10 percent have been evaluated for safety
- About 6 billion pounds of BPA is produced annually, earning manufacturers some $8 billion profit
- More than 1.5 million tons of flame retardants are used worldwide each year; they are added to products in order to meet flammability requirements, but the disgusting irony is that there’s virtually no evidence to suggest that these chemicals actually work when it comes to saving your life in the event of a fire
The Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors
Endocrine disrupting chemicals have been shown to bioaccumulate over time because many people’s bodies lack the ability to flush them out as quickly as they are being introduced. Nine hundred and eighty endocrine disrupting chemicals have now been identified, with phthalates, bisphenol-A (BPA), dioxin, atrazine, and flame-retardants being the most ubiquitous. In 2013, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) nominated its 12 worst hormone-wrecking chemicals—they call it the “Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors:”8
|Arsenic||Perfluorinated chemicals(PFCs)||Organophosphate pesticides||Glycol ethers|
Our Chemical Regulatory System Is Severely Broken
Tens of thousands of industrial chemicals are used daily in consumer products with grossly inadequate safety testing—if ANY safety testing was done at all. According to the GAO, 85 percent of new chemical applications include no testing whatsoever. Even under the best circumstances, the current American system does not look at how chronically low doses of chemicals affect you, or how aggregate exposures affect you over time.
In 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) grandfathered in about 62,000 chemicals, calling them “safe” because they were already in use. Needless to say, some of them are turning out to be quite problematic for your health. According to TSCA, the burden is on the EPA to show that a chemical is unsafe. Companies will only provide data or testing to the EPA if EPA can prove substantial risk, but this is hard to do without industry data. The burden of proof needs to shift from EPA, which is financially strapped, to industry, which is profiting handsomely from these chemicals and should bear the responsibility for proving their safety.
Not surprisingly, efforts at reforming federal laws have been vehemently thwarted by the chemical industry, so states have taken the lead. In 2013, 29 states introduced legislation to reduce chemical exposure. Consumer power will be the force that eventually leads to long-term change. For example, in 2012, Johnson and Johnson agreed to remove some of the toxic chemicals from their products in order to make them safer, as a result of consumer pressure.9
Tips to Help You Avoid Toxic Chemicals
Within such a dysfunctional system, you are the best one to keep your family safe. Although no one can successfully steer clear of ALL chemicals and pollutants, you can certainly minimize your exposure by keeping some key principles in mind.
- Buy and eat fresh, organic produce and grass-pastured, sustainably raised meats to reduce your exposure to added hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers. Also avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
- Eat mostly fresh, raw whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates.
- Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity, such as wild caught Alaskan salmon.
- Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings), into the contents; be aware that even “BPA-free” plastics typically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad as BPA.
- Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Use glass baby bottles for your infants.
- Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
- Filter your tap water for both drinking AND bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants. To remove the endocrine disrupting herbicide Atrazine, make sure your filter is certified to remove it. According to the EWG, perchlorate can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.
- Look for products that are made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic, and GMO-free. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses, and more.
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust.
- When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, ask what type of flame retardant it contains. Avoid items containing PBDEs, antimony, formaldehyde, boric acid, and other brominated chemicals. As you remove toxic items from in and around your home, replace them with those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, and silk.
- Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
- Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on. Better yet, avoid all plastic, especially flexible ones, as even BPA free products are loaded with other plasticizers that are just as bad if not worse than BPA.
- Use natural cleaning products, or make your own. Avoid those that contain 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME)—two toxic glycol ethers that can impair your fertility and cause fetal harm.10
- Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. EWG’s Skin Deep database11 can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one.
- Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
- Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds—even thousands—of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.
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