By Dr. Mercola
It’s an unfortunate fact that we’re now living in a chemical soup. The documentary “Our Chemical Lives” focuses on the myriad of chemicals in our air, food, water, and household products that may be compromising your health.
Eighty-four thousand chemicals are legal for commerce in the US, all essentially unregulated. In 2011, chemicals accounted for more than $763 billion in revenue. As an example, the six billion pounds of BPA produced every year generates about $8 billion in profits for its manufacturers.
Roughly 13,000 chemicals are used in cosmetics alone, of which only 10 percent have been evaluated for safety, and new ones are introduced every year. Ordinary household products can be major sources of chemical exposure that add to your body’s toxic load.
Exposure to industrial chemicals and pollutants is contributing to a wide array of health problems, including asthma, breast cancer, and reproductive abnormalities, to name just a few.
Children are entering puberty at younger and younger ages. In 2010, the average age of the onset of puberty was 10.5 years for girls— six years younger than in 1860, when it was 16.6 years,1 and hormone-disrupting chemicals are likely the cause.2,3
Many industrial chemicals have been found to accumulate in the environment, and others also accumulate in your body. But even chemicals that are less likely to bioaccumulate, such as BPA, may produce significant biological effects due to their near-continuous exposure today.
How Endocrine Disruptors Trick Your Body
A number of common household chemicals are endocrine disruptors, meaning, they alter the normal function of your hormones. These are referred to as “endocrine-disrupting chemicals” (EDC).
Your endocrine glands regulate vital physiological processes such as your metabolism, reproductive ability, and your growth and development.
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 this communication process.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are similar in structure to your natural sex hormones, such as estrogen, so even extremely small exposures can potentially interfere with your normal physiology, tricking your body into increasing or decreasing its hormone production.
It’s the small but repeated EDC exposures that can mimic your natural endocrine system—and that’s what’s so concerning. Your hormones operate at parts per million and parts per billion concentrations. This is 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 and their organs are more sensitive.
Everything an expectant mother takes into her body can potentially get passed along to her developing child. In a 2005 landmark study,4 EWG found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of infants born in the US.
Tests detected a total of 287 chemicals from pesticides, consumer products, food packaging and environmental waste, including BPA, flame-retardants, PCBs, and even DDT. EWG wrote:
“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 convincing science that pre-natal exposure to certain industrial chemicals is associated with abnormal fetal development, diminished intelligence, behavior problems, infertility, abnormal sexual maturation, metabolic dysfunction, and cancers later in life.
Some of these chemicals can cross the placenta and produce effects at very small doses. In a groundbreaking 2012 World Health Organization (WHO) report about endocrine disrupting chemicals, the authors wrote:5,6
"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."
The warnings from an Endocrine Society report7 are every bit as ominous as those in the WHO report:
“The evidence for adverse reproductive outcomes (infertility, cancers, malformations) from exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is strong, and there is mounting evidence for effects on other endocrine systems, including thyroid, neuroendocrine, obesity and metabolism, and insulin and glucose homeostasis...
Effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be transmitted to further generations through germline epigenetic modifications or from continued exposure of offspring to the environmental insult.”
The 12 Worst Hormone Disrupting Chemicals
An Environmental Working Group report8 identifies many of the best known hormone wreckers, but it also lists some that may surprise you, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. While these are notorious for other harmful health effects, hormone disruption is not typically discussed in relation to them.
The EWG's "dirty dozen" list for the 12 worst endocrine disruptors are outlined in the following table. I've written about many of these in prior articles, so for more information about any particular one, please follow the links.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) Dioxin Atrazine Phthalates Perchlorate Fire retardants Lead Mercury 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—and it’s these combined effects that pose the greatest concern.
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 provide data or testing to the EPA only if EPA can prove substantial risk, but this is hard to do without industry data. The burden of proof needs to shift from the financially strapped EPA to industry, which is profiting handsomely from these chemicals and should bear the responsibility for establishing 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, as a result of consumer pressure, in 2012 Johnson and Johnson agreed to remove some of the toxic chemicals from their products in order to make them safer.9
Be Careful About What You Eat and Wear
Contrary to what you might expect, just because the government allows a chemical into your food does NOT at all mean it has been tested for human safety. Many food additives have questionable safety profiles, and only a small percentage have ever been properly tested.
Why? A loophole in the 1958 Food Additives Amendment allows food companies to add chemicals to their products without sharing safety information with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Items that fall under the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation are exempt from the approval process, and food manufacturers use this loophole to circumvent FDA oversight.
Personal care products are also common avenues of exposure for toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde and arsenic. Remember that your skin is a semi-permeable membrane, so most of what you apply topically gets absorbed into your body.
Cosmetics are a major source of exposure, particularly for women. Tests suggest that women can absorb five pounds of chemicals each year from their daily makeup routines alone! On average, women apply 126 different ingredients to their skin daily and 90 percent of them have never been evaluated for safety.
Nail polish, which is now under investigation for the presence of flame retardants, typically contains formaldehyde along with toxic dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and toluene. Many of these chemicals have been directly linked to cancer or are known to cause damage to your brain, reproductive system, and other organs. But don’t despair—you can control some of your exposure to these potentially toxic compounds.
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 minimize your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.
- Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh, and ideally organic whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it’s not organically grown.
- Choose grass-pastured, sustainably raised meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers. Avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
- 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 for you as BPA.
- Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Use glass baby bottles.
- 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 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 others.
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame retardant chemicals.
- When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, consider buying flame retardant free varieties, containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk, and Kevlar.
- 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—even books, which are often plasticized. It’s advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.
- Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME)—two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
- Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. EWG’s Skin Deep database10 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.