Barely a month goes by without some toxic scare, whether it's the chemicals in the plastic used for some baby bottles, or lead in lipsticks. You could be forgiven for being a nervous shopper, even if much of the data on what's toxic is inconclusive. It's not necessary to become compulsive, but to help cautious consumers navigate all the confusing warnings and advisories, Nena Baker, author of "The Body Toxic" (North Point Press, 2008), offers her tips for reducing your exposure to everyday toxins.
1. Filter Your Water. A simple water filter can capture a lot of pollutants. Some cities' water supplies can contain trace amounts of arsenic, lead, perchlorate and/or atrazine, a pesticide that may cause cardiovascular and reproductive problems, and possibly cancer. (Though the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that atrazine is not likely to cause cancer in humans, it is awaiting the results of further studies.) Traces of atrazine in drinking water are most likely to be found in areas of heavy agricultural production like the Midwest and Southeast. (To find out how safe your city's water is, get a copy of your local water-utility report at the EPA’s water-safety site.)
2. Know What ' s in Your Grooming Products. Shampoos, lotions and makeup can contain a number of toxins like parabens and phthalates, which have been identified as hormone disruptors and may be linked to certain cancers. When shopping for cosmetics and personal-care products, read the ingredients labels—avoid anything that includes the words "paraben" (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or "phthalate" (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just "fragrance"). If there isn't an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.
3. Don ' t Eat Microwave Popcorn. The inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a perfluorinated chemical (PFC) called a fluorotelomer that can break down to form perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Designed to prevent oil from seeping through the bag, PFOA can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals and preliminary epidemiological studies suggest that a pregnant woman's exposure to PFOA may reduce her baby's birth weight. Moreover, the EPA's scientific advisory board has recommended that the chemical be listed as a likely human carcinogen. The good news is that the EPA has asked manufacturers to work toward eliminating PFOA from their products by 2015. While it's unknown what level of exposure from popcorn bags is harmful, Baker says that consumers should be aware that any exposure could result in very long lasting presence of the chemical in your body. Some perfluorinated compounds are extremely persistent and never break down in the environment, she explains.
4. Don ' t Get Stain-Protection Treatment. This is an extra you can add to new furniture, shoes or clothes, but Baker says you should avoid this option because these treatments usually contain perfluorinated chemicals. "If you use this on new furniture, it's going to be in your home; you're going to breathe it," she says. Baker also recommends avoiding pots and pans that have a nonstick coating. While nonstick materials are not made of perfluorinated chemicals, the substance is often used in their production. If the pan gets scratched or worn, the chemicals can be released into the air, says Baker.
5. Limit Use of Canned Food and Plastic Containers. Baker recommends reducing your intake of canned foods. Most canned goods are coated with a resin lining derived from Bisphenol-A (BPA), which recently made headlines because of its presence in the plastic used in some baby bottles. A component of polycarbonate plastic, BPA may be linked to certain cancers, fertility and behavioral problems in children. The risk is especially great when exposed in the womb; women who are pregnant or are thinking of becoming pregnant and young children should be especially careful of their canned-food intake.
Not all plastics contain BPA, but because it can leach into food when heated, Baker suggests that consumers avoid heating foods in plastic containers. "If you can avoid heating plastic, it's probably a good thing to do." She suggests using glass or ceramic containers for heating food instead. BPA can also leach into food when it is scratched or worn; so to be safe, if you have a water bottle or other plastic container, discard it if it becomes scratched or clouded.
6. Use PBDE-Free Electronics. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE) are a family of flame retardants; two types of the chemical were once added to furniture, car upholstery and mattresses, but were voluntarily taken off the market by manufacturers after concerns were raised about their toxicity. Another kind of PBDE remains on the market however, and according to Baker, "it is equally as problematic as the one voluntarily removed from the market." The chemical, most commonly found in TVs and computer monitors, is stirred into the equipment's plastic and can heat up over time, causing the material to break away and settle into the dust. Many manufactures have stopped using PBDEs for electronics, but not all have. Check with the manufacturer to determine if your goods contain PBDE. You can find a list of PBDE-free products at the Environmental Working Group’s Web site.
7. Don ' t Use Paint Made With Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). VOCs include a variety of chemicals and are found in some household products like paint and paint strippers. They are emitted as gases and have been associated with allergies, breathing problems and asthma, and are suspected to cause cancer, according to the EPA. Fortunately, low-VOC and no-VOC paints are readily available.
8. Patronize a Perc-Free Dry Cleaner. Perchloroethylene (perc) is also a VOC and is most commonly used in dry cleaning. The EPA identifies perc as a known human toxin and "a precursor to ground-level ozone (smog)." It usually enters the body through inhalation and remains stored in fat tissue. While many dry cleaners have begun using alternative cleaning practices (the EPA has ordered a phaseout of perc machines in residential buildings by 2020, and California will eliminate all use of perc by 2020), it's best to ask what chemicals they use. If they use perc, make sure you hang your newly cleaned clothes outside for a day to air out the chemical.
9. Dust and Vacuum Weekly. Baker says that toxins like PBDE can settle into the dust in your house, so to be extra safe, it's best to keep your house clean through regular dusting and vacuuming. This is especially important if you are pregnant, have a young child or have a pet, which can transfer the dust through its movements.