These 9 Common Products May Contain a Potentially Dangerous Chemical

Story at-a-glance -

  • Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) may cause liver toxicity, disruption of your immune and endocrine systems, adverse neurobehavioral effects, neonatal toxicity and death, and tumors in multiple organs
  • PFCs are common in products that resist stains and oil or repel water
  • Common products where PFCs are often found include takeout food containers, pizza boxes, non-stick cookware, popcorn bags, outdoor clothing, stain-resistant clothing, and more

By Dr. Mercola

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are so ubiquitous that many of them are now detected in humans—including children. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a dozen different types of perfluorinated compounds were detected in Americans tested.1

The two most talked about PFCs include PFOA, which was widely used to make non-stick cookware, and PFOS, which was a key ingredient in stain-resistant fabrics. These chemicals have been linked to so many health problems – cancer, miscarriages, thyroid problems, and more – that they've been phased out in the US and essentially banned in Europe.

The problem is that PFCs, which are scientifically known as poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), are a family of chemicals, and PFOA and PFOS make up only two of them.

The products being used in their place are structurally similar and likely pose many of the same health and environmental risks. Some of the newer PFCs have even caught the attention of international scientists, who released a statement calling for caution. According to the report:2

"…the most common [PFOA and PFOS] replacements are short-chain PFASs with similar structures, or compounds with fluorinated segments joined by ether linkages.

While some shorter-chain fluorinated alternatives seem to be less bioaccumulative, they are still as environmentally persistent as long-chain substances or have persistent degradation products.

Thus, a switch to short-chain and other fluorinated alternatives may not reduce the amounts of PFASs in the environment. In addition, because some of the shorter-chain PFASs are less effective, larger quantities may be needed to provide the same performance."

What Are the Health Risks of PFCs?

In 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined PFOA is a likely human carcinogen.3 The chemicals are also known as endocrine disrupters; birth defects, reproductive problems, and other serious health problems have also been linked to their use.

For instance, research from the University of Southern Denmark found women with higher levels of PFASs (specifically PFNA and PFDA) had a 16 times greater risk of miscarriage than women with the lowest levels.4

The statement released by 14 scientists sounded further alarm and urged consumers to avoid the chemicals as much as possible. "PFASs are man-made and found everywhere," the report noted, adding "PFASs are highly persistent, as they contain perfluorinated chains that only degrade very slowly, if at all, under environmental conditions."5

The chemicals migrate out of consumer products into air, household dust, food, soil, and ground water, and they make their way into drinking water. The report continues:6

"In animal studies, some long-chain PFASs have been found to cause liver toxicity, disruption of lipid metabolism and the immune and endocrine systems, adverse neurobehavioral effects, neonatal toxicity and death, and tumors in multiple organ systems.

In the growing body of epidemiological evidence, some of these effects are supported by significant or suggestive associations between specific long-chain PFASs and adverse outcomes, including associations with testicular and kidney cancers, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, obesity, decreased immune response… and reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty.

Due to their high persistence, global distribution, bioaccumulation potential, and toxicity, some PFASs have been listed under the Stockholm Convention as persistent organic pollutants (POPs)."

In addition, EWG's report on these global contaminants is based on a review of 50,000 pages of regulatory studies and government documents, internal documents from PFC manufacturers, and an examination of independent studies on PFCs. Among the health concerns noted in the report are:

Cancer Hypothyroidism
Reproductive problems Birth defects
Immune system problems Organ damage
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9 Common Products Where PFCs Are Found…

PFCs are used in a wide variety of consumer products, particularly those made to repel water or resist oil and stains. Products that often contain these chemicals include:7,8

  1. Takeout containers such as pizza boxes and sandwich wrappers
  2. Non-stick pots, pans, and utensils
  3. Popcorn bags
  4. Outdoor clothing
  5. Camping tents
  6. Stain-repellant or water-repellant clothing
  7. Stain treatments for clothing and furniture
  8. Carpeting and carpet treatments
  9. Certain cosmetics, particularly eye shadow, foundation, facial powder, bronzer, and blush

It's important to understand that while PFOA is no longer being used in the US, similar replacement chemicals have been added in its place. As recently as 2013, Greenpeace International tested 15 samples of waterproof clothing, shoes, and swimsuits and found PFCs in all but one, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).9

Some food wrappers, beverage containers, pizza boxes, and other food packaging may also be PFOA-free, but not necessarily safe, as the PFOA replacement chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety. According to EWG:10

"Production, use, and importation of PFOA has ended in the United States, but in its place DuPont and other companies are using similar compounds that may not be much – if at all – safer. These next-generation PFCs are used in greaseproof food wrappers, waterproof clothing, and other products.

Few have been tested for safety, and the names, composition, and health effects of most are hidden as trade secrets. With the new PFCs' potential for harm, continued global production, the chemicals' persistence in the environment and presence in drinking water in at least 29 states, we're a long way from the day when PFCs will be no cause for concern."

Chemicals Abound at Your Nail Salon

Chemicals are all around us, and if you frequent a nail salon, or work at one, you'll be exposed to a unique set of chemicals that could harm your health. As reported by Scientific American:11

"Chemicals inside of the glues, removers, polishes, and salon products—which technicians are often exposed to at close proximity and in poorly ventilated spaces—can be hazardous individually. When combined, however, they could potentially cause even greater harm. Yet, it is difficult to know how these chemicals affect the body because current evaluations do not look at these substances comprehensively. There are also few reports looking at how each compound individually affects nail workers."

Nail technicians often report health problems including respiratory, skin and musculoskeletal issues, along with headaches. According to a study published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health:12

"Musculoskeletal disorders, skin problems, respiratory irritation, and headaches were commonly reported as work related, as were poor air quality, dusts, and offensive odors. The reporting of a work-related respiratory symptom was significantly associated with the reporting of exposure factors such as poorer air quality. Absence of skin disorders was associated with glove use and musculoskeletal symptoms were associated with years worked as a nail technician. Work-related health effects may be common in nail salon work."

4 Dangerous Chemicals at Your Nail Salon

The chemicals are not only a concern for workers in nail salons, who are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis, but also to the women using nail polish products or frequenting salons. Four of the most concerning nail-salon chemicals to watch out for include:

1. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

In 2000, EWG released a study showing 37 nail polishes from 22 companies contained dibutyl phthalate (DBP). DBP is known to cause lifelong reproductive impairments in male rats, and has been shown to damage the testes, prostate gland, epididymus, penis, and seminal vesicles in animals.

It's used in nail polish because it increases flexibility and shine, but research by the CDC revealed that all 289 people tested had DBP in their bodies.13 Worse still, this chemical, which is linked to birth defects in animals, was found at the highest levels in women of childbearing age. EWG's findings were the impetus for a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, including EWG, to begin a push for companies to get these toxic chemicals out of their products…

2. Toluene

Toluene is made from petroleum or coal tar. Chronic exposure is linked to anemia, lowered blood cell count, liver or kidney damage, and may affect a developing fetus. In nail polish, toluene is used to give the polish a smooth finish.

3. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant, and a known carcinogen (formaldehyde exposure has been associated with leukemia specifically). Formaldehyde is used in nail polish as a hardener and preservative.

4. Methacrylate Compounds

Ethyl methacrylate (EMA) is used to make artificial nails. It's linked to allergies, asthma, and dermatitis, and should only be applied at a ventilated worktable (if at all).

Some might argue that occasional application of nail polish is only going to expose you to trace amounts of chemicals in levels too low to raise concern, but nail polish is just one beauty product that many women use on a regular basis. When you add up the toxic exposures from nail polish, however "small" they may (or may not) be, with those from fragrances, makeup, body lotions, and more (like the PFCs in your food wrappers), it can no longer be brushed off as insignificant.

Many chemicals, including endocrine disrupters, have shown adverse effects at even very low doses, and even more concerning are the effects of such chemicals on the most vulnerable populations, like pregnant women and young children (who may also have their nails painted on occasion).

Tips for Lowering Your Risk of Chemical Exposures

You'll want to begin with what are likely your largest avenues of chemical exposures: your diet and your home, starting by paying careful attention to what you eat. Eating organically grown, biodynamic whole foods is a primary strategy and, as an added bonus, when you eat properly, you're also optimizing your body's natural detoxification system, which can help eliminate toxins your body encounters from other sources. When your diet is mostly fresh foods, you'll also avoid exposure to PFCs common in take-out containers. From there, simply leading a healthy lifestyle will help you to have as minimal a chemical exposure as possible. This includes the following:

  1. As much as possible, purchase organic produce and free-range foods to reduce your exposure to pesticides, growth hormones, GMOs, and synthetic fertilizers.
  2. Rather than using conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity.
  3. Eat mostly raw, fresh foods, steering clear of processed, pre-packaged foods of all kinds. This way you automatically avoid artificial food additives, including dangerous artificial sweeteners, food coloring, and MSG. Freshly grown sprouts are particularly nutritious, especially watercress, sunflower, and pea sprouts.
  4. Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA- and BPS-containing liners).
  5. Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).
  6. Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
  7. Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a useful database to help you find personal care products that are free of PFCs, phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemical.14 I also offer one of the highest quality organic skin care lines, shampoo, and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
  8. Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other synthetic fragrances.
  9. Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
  10. When redoing your home, look for "green", toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
  11. Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric, or install a glass shower door. Most flexible plastics, like shower curtains, contain dangerous plasticizers like phthalates.
  12. Limit your use of drugs (prescription and over-the-counter) as much as possible. Drugs are chemicals too, and they will leave residues and accumulate in your body over time.
  13. Avoid spraying pesticides around your home or insect repellants that contain DEET on your body. There are safe, effective, and natural alternatives out there.