In the 1981 film The Incredible Shrinking Woman, a toxic brew of ordinary household chemicals shrinks Lily Tomlin’s character to microscopic size. The movie became a smash hit, capitalizing on our fear of the unpronounceable substances all around us.
Today, a growing group of environmental activists, scientists, and ordinary people is calling attention to the possible real-life risks of the products we swallow, spray, and smear on our bodies every day.
“It’s not in question that many consumer products contain toxins -- they do,” says Alan Greene, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and author of Raising Baby Green. “Most are felt to be in too tiny of a quantity to pose any real risk. But sometimes, very small exposures can have large impacts.”
Spurred by recent research studies, some of which contradict established opinion about what’s safe, environmental advocates now have some of the most commonly used consumer products on their watch lists.
"The irony is, these products’ presumed safety has led them to be produced and consumed almost indiscriminately,” says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. “We’re now all exposed to multiple chemicals on a continuous basis whose long-term health effects aren’t known.”
Certain personal care products have become so popular, they’re literally in our blood. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now monitors the levels of ingredients from cosmetics and other products in the bloodstream of random Americans, to help guide public health discussions.
As consumers become increasing aware of potential risks, many are asking: Just what’s in this stuff, anyway?
Learn how your household habits and products affect your family — and the environment.
Antibacterial Soaps and Cleaners
If it’s antibacterial, it must be better at killing germs, right? That’s true for healthcare-grade antibacterial soaps – the kinds used in hospitals -- but not for the weaker concentrations in household products, according to Allison Aiello, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.
“Consumer antibacterial soaps don’t reduce bacteria or prevent disease spread any better than ordinary hand washing,” Aiello tells WebMD.
Worse, data suggest that long-term use may contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistant “superbugs,” says Aiello. The risk is a potential one, but “that possibility is there, and needs to be considered in future discussions about these products,” she adds.
Other scientists are sounding an alarm over the environmental effects of millions of pounds of antibacterial chemicals in soap that get flushed and rinsed into waterways each year.
Research by Rolf Halden, PhD, associate professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, demonstrates harm to algae and other aquatic life from the antibacterial chemicals deposited in the water. In his view, the risks to the environment are only likely to increase, as massive use of these products continues.