By Eve Harris
They’re in the paint cans in your garage and the cleaners in your cabinets. They’re hiding in your furniture and your walls. They’re even in your fruit bowl. From phenols and pthalates to flame retardants and formaldehyde, there are over 60,000 man-made chemicals found all over your home. Don’t panic: The vast majority are perfectly safe. However, there are a few chemicals lurking in your home that may pose a risk to your family’s health long-term. Here are ten common toxins that may be present in your home — and steps you can take to get rid of them.
What it is: BPA, or bisphenol A, is a toxic chemical found in certain plastics and resins used to package food, and in the lining of some metal food cans.
What it does: BPA can seep into food or beverages from BPA-laden containers, and appears to release hormones that act like estrogen. The long-term effects of BPA on humans is still unclear, but lab studies that tested the effects of BPA on animals and cells have linked the chemical to cancer, infertility, diabetes and obesity.
Fix it: Think outside the can: Choose fresh or frozen vegetables and cook from scratch, or look for food or beverages that come in a carton or in containers marked “BPA free.” Store food in glass, ceramic, or metal containers, and don’t microwave polycarbonate plastic food containers; the heat might cause the plastic to break down and leak toxins.
What they are: Flame retardants are chemicals added to foam products like couches, pillows and upholstered chairs to make them less flammable. They’re also found in insulation, carpets, electronics and other common household fixtures.
What they do: The chemicals can leach out of household items and accumulate in the dust found throughout your home. Your body then absorbs these chemicals; they have been found in human blood, urine and breast milk. Exposure to flame retardants at certain stages of development (including in the uterus during pregnancy and throughout early childhood) can interfere with hormones and damage the reproductive system. Exposure can also cause neurological damage in babies and children, leading to problems with motor skills, learning and memory.
Fix it: Check old furniture for damage, and replace items that have rips exposing the foam interior or have foam that is misshapen or wearing down. Vacuum your home frequently using a device with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to trap more small particles from your home. If you can, opt for furniture and textiles made from natural fibers like wool or cotton. These materials are more naturally flame-retardant than synthetic fibers.
What they are: Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and resistant. They're also used as solvents. Phthalates are found in a variety of products, including children’s toys, shower curtains, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo.
What they do: While the health hazards of phthalates in humans have not yet been established, research suggests that phthalates may disrupt the endocrine system, which controls the balance of hormones in your body. Male lab rats exposed to phthalates had reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and reproductive abnormalities.
Fix it: The FDA requires that any cosmetic products containing phthalates list the chemical on their ingredients label if they are to be sold in stores. However, manufacturers don’t have to list the individual ingredients that make up a fragrance; any product with “fragrance” in the ingredients list may contain phthalates. Read the label carefully before you head to the checkout counter, or go with products labeled “fragrance free."
You can also avoid phthalates by using shower curtains made from nylon or those marked “chemical free,” and by buying children’s toys manufactured after February 2009 (when Congress banned the use of phthalates in children's toys).
What it is: Your frying pan might be serving up more than just bacon: Some non-stick cookware and food wrapping contains Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. This group of chemicals prevents food and stains from sticking to cookware.
What it does: While the EPA is still investigating the effects of PFOA on humans, lab animals that were given large amounts of PFOA had problems with reproduction, growth and development, and also experienced liver damage.
Fix it: PFOA is on its way out. Many major manufacturers have banned the chemical from their products, and many more have agreed to eliminate their use in the coming years, meaning only a handful of companies still use this chemicals. To be safe, make sure your cookware is steel-clad, cast iron or anodized aluminum.
What they are: Pesticides knock out everything from insects and rodents to weeds, fungi and bacteria. Many common household products, including insect repellant, flea and tick collars for pets, mildew sprays and weed killers, contain pesticides. Since most farmers rely on pesticides to keep their crops pest-free, the fruits and vegetables that you buy at the supermarket may also contain these chemicals.
What they do: Pesticides include a wide variety of chemicals, so different pesticides have different risks and toxicities. Some pesticides may cause skin or eye irritation. Others have been linked to cancer, as well as problems with the nervous and endocrine systems. The danger of a pesticide is also linked to the amount you’re exposed to.
Fix it: If you’re worried about pesticides, do your research before you invest in a particular product for your home or your pet — there are several chemical-free cleaners on the market today. At the supermarket, go organic: Organic fruits and vegetables tend to contain little or no pesticides when compared to regular produce. If you buy regular produce, make sure to wash thoroughly before eating, or peel off and discard the skin.