The Toxic Chemicals We’re Exposed to Every Day (And How to Avoid Them)
We’re exposed to hundreds of worrying chemicals as we go about our daily lives. There are flame retardants in our beds, sofas and home insulation; there are pesticides in our food; there could be PFAS in our drinking water; and there are phthalates everywhere.
The dose makes the poison, as the old saying goes, and it’s true that these chemicals often aren’t present in large amounts (some are though: there’s about 45kg of flame retardants every UK home). But according to recent reports from institutions like the EU and UK parliament, individual chemicals are only part of the problem.
Instead, for pollution experts like Professor Mike Depledge, the issue is that we’re accumulating a huge amount of substances in our blood and tissues—with different combinations of chemicals found in different socioeconomic classes, sexes, and places—and yet we know almost nothing about the health effects of each chemical, let alone how they behave in combination. Incredibly, less than 1% of chemicals used in American consumer products have been “rigorously” tested for human safety; in the EU, which has some of the most advanced chemical laws in the world, it’s only “a small proportion.”
Take phthalates and parabens, for example. Both are common in personal care products, and both are suspected of being endocrine disruptors (a chemical that acts like a hormone and disrupts the body’s normal hormone functions). So not only are the full health effects of each chemical unknown, but we’re also not sure what happens when they interact in the body: are the endocrine disrupting effects additive? Or are they multiplied? We have no idea.
Whatever the case, the toxic soup we live in certainly has the potential to cause “global epidemics of disease, disability and death,” as the Lancet Commission concluded. And the situation is only set to worsen. By 2050, the global chemical industry will have trebled in size, and we’ll be living longer than ever before: accumulating unprecedented amounts of these substances in our bodies.
5 common chemicals of concern
Bisphenols (including BPA): A building block of plastic
Some things they’re in: receipts, cans, food packaging, water bottles, toys
Some health concerns: Reproductive dysfunction, recurrent miscarriages, altered brain development
Does “BPA-free” mean it’s safe?
When the EU classified the commonly-used Bisphenol A as having “toxic effects on our ability to reproduce”, some companies switched it out of their products. But the replacements didn’t have to be proven safer: they just needed to be different.
So companies simply swapped to other bisphenols, because they have similar properties to BPA. This meant brands could advertise their products as healthy, “BPA-free” alternatives: but, because the new chemicals are almost identical to BPA, it’s likely that they’ll have similar health effects (and studies suggest that they do).
So always be skeptical of hastily made “regrettable substitutions,” and be wary of bisphenols of all kinds: the most common are called BPB, BPF, BPS, BPAF, BHPF and BPZ.
Flame retardants: Chemicals that are supposed to stop fires spreading
Some things they’re in: Furniture, carpets, home insulation, electronics, food packaging
Some health concerns: Thyroid issues, early menstruation, male reproductive dysfunction
Pesticides: Substances that controls pests or weeds
Some things they’re in: Food, soil and water
Some health concerns: Endocrine disruption, cancers, neurodevelopmental disorders
PFAS: Used to create resistance to stains, water and grease
Some things they’re in: Non-stick (AKA Teflon) cookware, pizza boxes and takeout wrappers, waterproof clothes
Some health concerns: Cancers, decreased sperm count and penis size, lowered response to vaccines
“The forever chemicals”
To destroy PFAS, you have to incinerate them at temperatures above 1,100C. This means they stick around in water, soil: and blood. They’ve been found in the bloodstream of 99.7% of all Americans tested, as well as in people from other countries all around the globe, from Peru to Afghanistan. And because of their extreme persistence, they’ll remain in the environment for decades—even centuries—affecting future generations around the world.
The EWG estimates that up to 110 million Americans are drinking PFA-contaminated water, with residents near sites that produce the substances reporting alarming numbers of aggressive childhood cancers. The Trump administration, however, has pushed back on efforts to regulate PFAS, fearing a “public-relations nightmare” and high cleanup costs for the government.
👉 If you live in the United States, check if your water source is contaminated with PFAS here.
Phthalates: Used to make plastics more durable
Some things they’re in: Cosmetics and personal care products (e.g. shampoo, perfume, nail polish, sanitary pads), food packaging and medical equipment
Some health concerns: Miscarriage and gestational diabetes, child behavioural disorders, sperm damage
6 ways to avoid toxic substances
The frustrating truth is: you can’t. Not completely.
For instance: one common piece of advice for avoiding pesticides is to buy organic, local, plastic-free food as much as possible. In a 2013 study, published in the journal Nature, one group did just this: and although they did manage to avoid pesticides, levels of the phthalate DEHP in their bodies jumped by 2,377%. When researchers tested the foods the group had eaten, they found the phthalates lurking in the organic dairy products and fancy imported spices (it’s thought that phthalates in dairy products come from the plastic farming equipment used in their manufacture).
This study shows the futility of trying to avoid concerning chemicals when they’re so all-pervasive in modern life: if you refuse that styrofoam takeout carton, your food will probably be wrapped in PFAS-coated paper instead. You can banish plastic from your fridge, and purge your makeup collection, but when you go to the office you’ll probably be sitting in a chair doused in flame retardants.
That said, there are some general steps you can take to limit your overall exposure to worrying chemicals:
An obvious one. Particularly in anything that comes into contact with food, like packaging and takeout boxes, and never microwave food in a plastic container.
👉 Friends of the Earth have a guide to going plastic-free here
Be wary of water, grease or stain-repellent products
Again, especially anything related to food, like pizza boxes or microwave popcorn bags (Harvard Professor of Environmental Health, Phillipe Grandjean, refuses to eat from either!). Teflon (non-stick) cookware is of particular concern.
Although PFAS primarily cause harm through ingestion, it’s worth noting that they’re also widely used in waterproof outdoor gear: even by otherwise sustainable brands like Patagonia.
👉 Greenpeace’s Detox Outdoor campaign lists which brands are PFAS-free
Keep your house clean and well-ventilated
A surprising amount of exposure to toxins comes from simply being at home: household dust contains a cocktail of chemicals shed from all the products we have in our houses: cosmetics, electronics, furniture and so on.
So remember to wash your hands regularly, and banish dust as much as possible by using a HEPA filter vacuum and cleaning with a wet mop. Avoid harsh chemical cleaners; stick to gentle products from companies like:
- Seventh Generation (Worldwide)
- Ecover (UK)
- Ecozone (UK & USA)
- Koh (Australia)
👉 Further reading: How to Make Your Own Natural Cleaning Products
Use fewer personal care products, and buy them carefully
Personal care products are a particularly concerning category because we use so many of them: American women use an average of 12 each day, which makes for a total of 168 different chemicals absorbed directly into the skin. Incredibly, in the US these formulations can contain carcinogens like lead and formaldehyde.
When shopping for skincare and makeup, be wary of brands that make unsubstantiated claims to be “natural” and “organic.” This doesn’t mean anything by itself: lead is a perfectly natural ingredient, for example!
Instead, look for certifications that guarantee some level of toxin screening like:
- Madesafe (US)
- EWG Verified (US)
- Soil Association Organic (UK)
- Cosmos (EU)
- Natrue (EU)
Some great UK brands that avoid worrying chemicals include:
👉 Menstrual products can also contain toxins like phthalates: here’s a quick guide to a toxin free period.
Check the ingredients
If memorising names like Perfluorooctanesulfonamide, Hexabromocyclododecane and Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate is beyond you, you can use these handy databases to check the ingredients of what you buy:
Lists of concerning chemicals:
General product guides:
- EWG: Healthy Living App
- Good Guide
- Silent Spring: Detox Me App
Personal care product guides:
- EWG: Skin Deep
- EWG: Guide to Sunscreens
- Think Dirty: Think Dirty App
A simple one: the fewer gadgets we have cluttering our homes, the fewer steps in our skincare routines, the fewer takeouts we order; the fewer harmful chemicals we’ll be exposed to overall.
Why are there toxic chemicals in our stuff?
All of this seems too bad to be true. When we’re shopping, we take it for granted that the products wouldn’t be on the shelves unless they’d been tested: unless they were safe. Surely our governments wouldn’t let companies use chemicals whose health effects are unknown, nevermind chemicals suspected to cause cancer?
So, why is this allowed? It’s partly a matter of admin. There are thousands upon thousands of chemicals used in consumer products, and it can take years to investigate the toxicological profile of just one of them. Worse, about 2000 new chemicals are brought out every year, creating an ever growing backlog for scientists to test.
There’s also a more sinister side: business interests.
Take flame retardants. Research has shown that they fail to stop fires spreading about 90% of the time; they can even make fire more toxic. But proposed UK reforms have been blocked by companies that make money from these chemicals: meaning, in the words of Geraint Davies, MP, that “people are being poisoned in their own homes in order to pay for the profit of the chemical industry.”
This story of the chemical industry putting profit above human health has been repeated time and and time again:
- DuPont’s infamous, decades-long coverup of the dangers of Teflon, abetted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- “Monsanto ‘bullied scientists’ and hid weedkiller cancer risk, lawyer tells court”
- PlasticsEurope’s fight against the regulation of endocrine disruptors
What can we do about it?
Chemical regulation is an extremely byzantine and scientific process: it’s not something the average person will be able to get involved in easily. But there are a couple of things we can do to help shift public attitudes towards chemicals:
Support faster, stricter chemical regulation
The process for banning chemicals needs to be sped up: at its current pace, it will take the EU 40,000 years to regulate all PFAS. And following the advice of toxicologists, regulators need to work on the assumption that if a chemical is shown to have health effects, it’s likely that closely related substances will too.
You can also support individual pieces of legislation, like the PFAS Action Act in the US and Denmark’s ban of the same; Chemtrust has a list of politicians you can write to if you’re in the UK or EU, and the NRDC has a guide to contacting US representatives.
Sign petitions and share information
Add your name to petitions like the Madrid Statement on PFAS, which has been signed by hundreds of scientists.
Sharing information with family and friends is another small but significant step you can take: they almost certainly won’t be aware of the scale of the problem.
Join and support activist groups
From big NGOs (like the National Resources Defence Council) to targeted campaigns (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics) and local groups (like this one, usually found on Facebook).
Above all, we need to demand a wholesale transformation of our chemical environment. Without consenting to it, we’ve found ourselves in a situation where our blood is likely contaminated with Dupont-patented chemicals; where our children are born “pre-polluted;” where the residue of our possessions will persist in the environment to affect future generations. We need to push and push companies and governments to use many fewer chemicals, with much more caution: and to build a system where human health is prioritised over profit.