By Meryl Davids Landau
The Hidden Chemicals in Your Home
So much for a healthy home-cooked meal: The recent identification of a chemical in Teflon as a "likely carcinogen" might make you feel as if we're simmering in a toxic stew. But while it's true that some chemicals are harmful, most don't warrant worry, says Joshua W. Hamilton, Ph.D., director of the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at Dartmouth College. Here, smart ways to stay safe.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA)
Used to make nonstick Teflon pans, waterproof clothing, and even pizza-box liners, PFOA has long been on scientists' watch list. The reason: It causes liver cancer in lab rats, and traces of PFOA can be found in 95 percent of Americans' blood. However, PFOA is actually broken down when it's made into a product like a Teflon pan, so the pan itself doesn't contain the chemical, says James E. Klaunig, Ph.D., professor of toxicology at Indiana University in Indianapolis. Some experts suspect pollution may be to blame for PFOA in our blood, and eight major manufacturers recently agreed to reduce their factories' air emissions of this chemical.
Bottom line: There's no proved link between PFOA and human cancer, so it's safe to use products made with this chemical.
Found in plastics such as garbage bags, storage containers, and shower curtains, as well as a variety of cosmetics, phthalates appear in the urine of most Americans. Animal studies have shown that very high levels can cause cancer and reproductive problems. And pregnant women with elevated levels of certain phthalates were more likely to give birth to sons with abnormal genitals, according to one recent study.
Bottom line: Don't panic — most people have only very low levels of phthalates in their systems. "But we are troubled by their use in cosmetics, since scientists don't really know how much the skin absorbs," cautions Tim Kropp, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public-health watchdog in Washington, D.C. So check out the ingredients in your favorite brands at ewg.org. Also, before using a new plastic shower curtain, hang it outdoors for a day to air it out: That new-curtain smell is actually airborne phthalates. And avoid microwaving foods in plastic containers, since the high heat allows the chemicals to leach into food.
Some 25 million American households use well-water systems that contain too much arsenic, especially in parts of New England, the Southwest, and the West, where this chemical occurs naturally in rocks. Unfortunately, consuming even small amounts speeds the spread of cancerous tumors, according to a recent study. "Over your lifetime, arsenic increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer," Hamilton says.
Bottom line: If you're a well user, have your water tested for arsenic by your state environmental agency (to find yours, go to epa.gov). On a municipal system? Request an annual water report. If your water contains more than 10 parts per billion of this chemical, buy a filter for your kitchen tap (look for a brand with the NSF seal; these products are certified to remove arsenic). Or use only bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Coal-burning manufacturing plants emit this chemical into the air; it then pollutes the water and wildlife that live there. So, if you eat a lot of fish (three or more servings a week), you may have mercury overload. In fact, one in five women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her blood to cause developmental problems in her baby, or miscarriage, according to a recent study. Mercury may also cause fatigue, headaches, and trouble concentrating.
Bottom line: Limit fish intake to about two six-ounce servings a week. Large fish absorb the most mercury, so avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, and have white albacore tuna no more than once a week. Your best bets: shrimp, salmon, and catfish. If you have symptoms, ask your doctor to check your mercury level; side effects usually improve once levels are lowered.
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