All News & Blogs
View More Images from this story
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 1/20/2013
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA--In testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Ken Cook spoke passionately about 10 Americans who were found to have more than 200 synthetic chemicals in their blood.
The list included flame retardants, lead, stain removers, and pesticides the federal government had banned three decades ago.
"Their chemical exposures did not come from the air they breathed, the water they drank, or the food they ate," said Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy group.
How did he know?
The 10 Americans were newborns. "Babies are coming into this world pre-polluted with toxic chemicals," he said.
More than 80,000 chemicals are in use today, and most have not been independently tested for safety, regulatory officials say.
Yet we come in contact with many every day--most notably, the bisphenol A in can linings and hard plastics, the flame retardants in couches, the nonstick coatings on cookware, the phthalates in personal care products, and the nonylphenols in detergents, shampoos, and paints. (See sidebar on Page F5.)
These five groups of chemicals were selected by Sonya Lunder, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, as ones that people should be aware of and try to avoid.
They were among the first picked in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent effort to assess health risks for 83 of the most worrisome industrial chemicals.
Lunder's basis was that they are chemicals Americans come in contact with daily. You don't have to live near a leaking Superfund site to be exposed. They are in many consumer products, albeit often unlabeled.
Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have shown that they are detectable in the blood or urine of many of us.
Plus, much data exist showing their harm. "We have an incredible body of evidence for all these chemicals," she said. "In all cases, we have studies linking human exposure to human health effects."
Lunder and others see these five as symbolic of the government's failure to protect us from potential--or actual--toxins.
"A lot of people presume that because you're buying something on the store shelf someone has vetted that product to make sure it is safe," said Sarah Janssen, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, another advocacy group. "Unfortunately, that's not true."
Some chemicals are regulated through laws governing, say, pesticides or air quality.
BISPHENOL A (BPA) Uses: It hardens clear "polycarbonate" plastics, which are used in compact discs, plastic dinnerware, eyeglass lenses, toys, beverage bottles, and impact-resistant safety equipment. Also used in the linings of food cans, in dental sealants, and on cash register receipts. Health concerns: BPA is considered estrogenic and has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. BPA also has been linked to many other disorders. Potential harm is considered highest for young children. How to limit exposure: Limit consumption of canned foods and canned liquid baby formula. Avoid plastics marked with the recycling code "7." Avoid microwaving baby food or drinks in plastic containers. NONYLPHENOLS, INCLUDING NONYLPHENOL ETHOXYLATES Uses: Laundry detergents, shampoos, household cleaners, latex paints. Health concerns: NPs have been detected in human breast milk, blood and urine, and are associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents. EPA concerns center mostly on industrial laundry workers. How to limit exposure: This is difficult. Experts say to avoid using detergents, cleaning agents, and other products that contain nonylphenols, but many times they are not labeled. They recommend calling the manufacturer and asking. PFCS (PERFLUORINATED CHEMICALS) Uses: Widely used water, grease, and stain repellents. Contained in the coatings of nonstick cookware. Used to greaseproof paper and cardboard food packaging. Added to carpeting and clothing for stain protection. Health concerns: They are bioaccumulative in wildlife and humans, and are persistent in the environment. They are toxic to laboratory animals and wildlife. The EPA says that "to date, significant adverse effects have not been found in the general human population. However, given the long half-life of these chemicals in humans (years), it can reasonably be anticipated that continued exposure could increase body burdens to levels that would result in adverse outcomes." How to limit exposure: Avoid nonstick cookware. Avoid highly processed and fatty foods. Skip optional stain treatments. Use real plates instead of paper. Cook popcorn on the stove, not in microwave bags. FLAME RETARDANTS, INCLUDING PBDE Uses: To prevent the spread of fire, many versions of these chemicals are added to upholstered furniture and mattresses--including many products for babies--plus textiles, plastics, electronics, wire insulation. Health concerns: PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics or other products in which they are used, making them more likely to leach out. "Certain PBDEs are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment," the EPA states. Concern is highest for children, who might crawl on the floor, get dust containing PBDEs on their hands, and then put their hands in their mouths. How to limit exposure: PBDEs are being phased out, so beware of old foam items, which are most likely to contain PBDEs. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Clean carefully after removing old carpet and padding. PHTHALATES Uses: They make plastics more malleable, and are found in vinyl shower curtains, toys, vinyl flooring. They help lotions penetrate skin, so they are found in a wide variety of personal care products, including cosmetics, fragrances and nail polish. Also found in air-fresheners and cleaning products. Health concerns: Known to interfere with the production of male reproductive hormones in animals and considered likely to have similar effects in humans. The EPA is concerned about phthalates because of their toxicity and the evidence of pervasive human and environmental exposure to these chemicals. How to limit exposure: Manufacturers aren't required to list phthalates on the label, but any item listed as "fragrance" can be a chemical mixture containing phthalates. Buy cosmetics from companies that have pledged not to use phthalates. Avoid items with PVC, V or the No. 3 recycling code on the item or its packaging.
Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council