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8 Ways to Avoid Harmful Chemicals

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by guest blogger Robin Dodson, ScD, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute

It's difficult to avoid all of the potentially harmful chemicals in everyday products, but there are steps you can take to choose safer products and reduce your exposure. At the Silent Spring Institute, we recently did a study, called the Household Exposure Study, and the results, along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's (CDC's) National Exposure Reports, show that consumer product chemicals are ending up in people's homes and bodies. And everyone is asking, "So, what can I do?"

To answer this question, our first step was to contact manufacturers for information about what's in their products; however, the majority of them would not provide complete information.  So we were left with having to test the products ourselves. In total, we analyzed 50 product types, including personal care products (such as shampoo, lotion, and toothpaste), cleaning products (like surface cleaner and laundry detergent), and other household items (shower curtains and cat litter, for instance) for 66 hormone disruptors and chemicals associated with asthma.

We not only wanted to know which consumer products might be contributing most to people's exposure, but we also were interested in whether it was possible to identify products with fewer of those chemicals by reading product labels. The results from our product label analyses were mixed: It's possible to avoid some target chemicals through label reading, but not all.

Based on previous research and the label analyses, we have come up with several tips to help you reduce your exposure.

Big-picture tips
  • Use fewer products. We know that the more products you use, the more chemicals you are potentially exposed to. For example, a person using a typical array of everyday products--surface cleaner, tub-and-tile cleaner, laundry detergent, bar soap, shampoo and conditioner, facial cleanser and lotion, and toothpaste--is potentially exposed to 19 of the harmful chemicals we studied. So, keep it simple and use less.
  • Use simple cleaners. Plain water mixed with baking soda or vinegar or castile soap can be used for many cleaning tasks throughout the home. There are a variety of recipes for do-it-yourself cleaners available. Again, keep it simple, and clean like your grandmother.
  • Be safe in the sun. Sunscreens contain many problems chemicals. Avoiding the sun during peak hours, wearing wide-brimmed hats, and wearing tightly woven fabric cover-ups and sunglasses can block UV rays without any added chemicals--giving you an excuse to round out your summer wardrobe!
Things to avoid when you're at the store:
  • Fragrances. Fragranced products, such as dryer sheets, air fresheners, and perfume, had the largest number of chemicals detected and some of the highest concentrations of harmful chemicals. Fragrances can trigger asthma, and some synthetic fragrances are hormone disruptors. Avoid products with terms like "fragrance" or "parfum" in the product ingredient list and choose "fragrance-free" when you can.
  • Vinyl. Vinyl products, such as pillow protectors and shower curtains, contain more than 10 percent by weight of diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), a phthalate associated hormone disruption and increased respiratory symptoms. Asthmatics seeking to reduce their exposure to dust mites by using these may be exposing themselves to another asthma trigger without realizing it. Alternatives to vinyl exist, such as chemical-free cotton pillow covers and nylon shower curtains.
  • Antimicrobials. Triclosan and triclocarban, both hormone disruptors, are broad-spectrum antimicrobial agents commonly added to personal care products. These chemicals should be fairly easy to spot, since labeling requirements mean that these chemicals are often listed in a product ingredients list, especially when they are used as active ingredients.  Besides, studies have shown that washing your hands with regular soap and water is just as effective as using antibacterial hand soaps.
  • Parabens. Used as preservatives in personal care products, parabens are often included in the list of product ingredients. They are estrogenic, meaning they mimic estrogen. Look for labels saying "paraben-free" and watch out for methylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben among the ingredients.
  • Cyclosiloxanes. We found cyclosiloxanes in sunscreens and hair products, as they are often used in products to enhance conditioning and spreading, and to make products water resistant. They've been linked with hormone disruption. Avoid products with "cyclomethicone" on the label.
These tips can be handy when heading to the store, but what we really need is to overhaul the patchwork of regulations pertaining to chemicals and consumer products in our country. More comprehensive product testing and modernization of chemical policies would mean that when we purchase products, we are not unknowingly exposing ourselves to chemicals associated with hormone disruption, asthma, and other health problems. It is time to take action and shift the burden.

To learn more about the study, visit our website and watch a short video.

Robin Dodson, Sc.D., is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute, a not-for-profit scientific organization researching the links between the environment and health.  Her expertise is in indoor environmental exposure assessment.

For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com

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