The Toxic Stuff of Daily Life
It seems like we hear about another dangerous chemical in our furniture, clothing, or food packaging every day.Posted Mar 3, 2016
In May of last year, a document known as the Madrid Statement warned of the dangers of a class of common chemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which are used in everything from water-repellant clothing to the lining of pizza boxes. Over 200 scientists registered their concern about the increasing amounts of these “highly persistent” compounds, which are found in the tissue and fluids of humans and animals worldwide.
They explain that PFASs from consumer products wind up in our air, soil, water, and household dust. They cite studies suggesting “long-chain” PFASs cause an array of health effects, from disruption of immune and endocrine systems to cancer.
The chemical industry, on the other hand, maintains that replacements for these compounds using “short-chain” PFASs (which have shorter chains of fluorocarbons) are less toxic and are excreted more quickly from the body. Jessica Bowman, executive director of the FluoroCouncil, writes in her FluoroCouncil Counterpoint to the Madrid Statement that “Fluorotechnology Is Critical to Modern Life.” She points to fluorochemicals’ “unmatched thermal and chemical stability” that leads “chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers [to] rely on this technology… to allow safe and clean production of products we use and consume every day.” Some fluorochemicals enable the high speeds we expect in data transfer on our smart phones and other electronics. Others protect medical professionals from pathogens, prevent fires, or even reduce our vehicle emissions.
Awareness of many chemicals’ possible adverse health effects has risen significantly in the last decade, as numerous widely-used chemicals have proven dangerous. BPA has been banned from baby products (though not from many other products, like can linings), and companies have voluntarily phased out numerous other compounds shown to harm human health or that pose environmental risks.
Unfortunately, our broken chemical regulatory system allows chemically similar replacements with untested safety records to enter the market in their stead. Many baby products, now labeled BPA-free, are made with BPS, another bisphenol that mounting evidence suggests works similarly to BPA in our systems. Likewise, the Madrid signatories warn that the replacements chemists have devised for Teflon and other substances shown to be hazardous have not adequately been proven any safer. They call on governments to restrict the uses of PFASs and on scientists to monitor these compounds and “improve methods for testing the safety of alternatives.”
Lead author on the statement, Arlene Blum, serves as executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. A chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, Blum has called this chemical shell game “toxic whack-a-mole.”
In an editorial published with the Madrid statement, head of the national toxicology program for the Department of Health and Human Services Linda Birnbaum and Philippe Grandjean, chair of environmental medicine at University of Southern Denmark wisely ask, “Should these chemicals continue to be used in consumer products in the meantime, given their persistence in the environment? And, in the absence of indisputably safe alternatives, are consumers willing to give up certain product functionalities, such as stain resistance, to protect themselves against potential health risks?”
As Bowman notes, we’ve come to expect these chemical miracles of modern life, but they come with trade-offs. Now that we rely on materials that enable the high-tech elements of modern life to function, Bowman has a point in calling these chemicals “critical.” But at what cost? We made do without these compounds on pizza boxes and camping gear in the past. Surely it’s worth giving up some of these marginal benefits in order to avoid known hazards to human health?
Broken Toxics Control System
Scientists, nonprofits, and concerned citizens have been steadily raising awareness of the dangers of the thousands of unstudied chemicals in our lives and the undue influence industries have in preventing oversight of such critical public health issues. In December, bills to overhaul the notoriously ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) received approval needed to move forward, though the details of the bill are still under negotiation.
Scientists are increasingly seeking to consider health and environmental effects of the materials and compounds they create. Amy Cannon, executive director of Beyond Benign, believes chemists have a responsibility to understand the potential toxicological effects of their creations. Beyond Benign strives to provide “educators and citizens with the tools to teach and learn about green chemistry in order to create a sustainable future” to help “minimize the impacts of science on the environment.” More academic chemistry programs are turning to “green chemistry” so the next generation of chemists don’t create hazards like so many of their predecessors did.
How to Reduce Your Exposure
Even with the strides forward in our chemical practices and awareness, we can’t avoid these ubiquitous compounds entirely. Since these chemicals are so persistent in the environment, you’re likely consuming some in your water and breathing some in your air. While we wait for legislation to make the material of our daily lives safer, you can significantly reduce your exposure to chemical health hazards with a few simple steps.
The Environmental Working Group has produced a tipsheet for avoiding this class of chemicals. They recommend the following:
- Skip optional stain-repellent treatment on new carpets and furniture.
- Avoid greasy takeout food, which often comes in wrappers treated with PFASs.
- Avoid clothing with labels that say they’re stain or water-repellent, or have the words Gore-Tex or Teflon.
- Choose stainless steel or cast iron pans and kitchen tools rather than non-stick.
- Pop popcorn on the stove or use an air popper instead of microwaveable bags.
- Choose personal care products without “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients. (EWG’s Skin Deep database and app can help you find safer choices.)
Keep the pressure on Congress to make the updated Toxic Substances Control Act protect citizens rather than industry profits. Let your representatives know you expect them to back real reform to our broken toxics safety system.
Action can be taken on a very local level as well. Most people have little understanding of how many unstudied chemicals they expose themselves to daily, so sharing this information with family, friends, and neighbors will help spread awareness, which may eventually help end the vast science experiment we’re conducting on ourselves. Below are some resources to help you cut back on some of the chemicals in your life.
Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.