GO NATURAL: 5 chemicals to avoid at home, part 1


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Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals used to make #3 plastic (PVC or vinyl) flexible. PVC leaches phthalates when it’s heated or worn down. Phthalates are found in personal-care products and detergents, often labeled as “fragrance.” Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later breast cancer.

To minimize: Never microwave plastic containers. Store food in glass or metal containers. Avoid vinyl flooring, shower curtains, PVC pipes, and products with “fragrance.”

Bisphenol A, or BPA

Perhaps the most widely studied endocrine disruptor on the market, BPA actually started out in the 1930s as a synthetic estrogen given to women. So it’s no surprise that this hormonal chemical has been found to act like estrogen, with current exposure levels leading to things like decreased sperm production in men, early puberty in girls, and fertility problems in both genders, or that animal studies have linked it to greater chances of miscarriage. BPA also interferes with metabolic hormones and plays a role in heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

BPA is found in the linings of food cans, and it’s used as a coating on receipts. The chemical is still used in some plastic products and as a flame retardant, as well, but thanks to the lack of laws requiring companies to disclose how BPA is being used, it’s impossible to know all the places where the nearly 3 billion pounds of the chemical produced each year wind up.

Opt for fresh, frozen, or homemade versions of your favorite canned foods. You can also limit additional exposures by rejecting unnecessary receipts when shopping.

Synthetic Pesticides

Chemical weed, fungus, and bug killers all fit under this category and should be avoided both inside and outside of your house. Researchers have linked these pesticides to various forms of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; insecticides have been connected to brain damage in kids. “This is a good time of the year to resolve not to use pesticides on lawns and gardens,” says Phil Landrigan, MD, director of Mount Sinai’s Children’s Environmental Health Center. “A few dandelions or buttercups or other little flowers in the middle of the lawn are not unsightly.”


Exposure to mercury impairs neurological development, and recent research has linked high levels of mercury to ADHD. Because neural development happens rapidly in pregnancy and early childhood, it is important to eliminate exposure where possible. Mercury enters the environment through air pollution and industrial waste. When mercury enters water, fish absorb it through their gills. For people, the primary exposure to mercury is from consuming shellfish and large, older, and predatory fish, which accumulate higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh. Older thermometers also contain mercury.

Eliminate large fish such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish from your family’s diet. The American Pregnancy Association has a complete guide (americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/fishmercury.htm). Children, pregnant women, and women trying to conceive can have different amounts of tuna, depending on their weight. It’s safe to eat other kind of fish, which are still a healthy source of protein and essential nutrients. “The omega-3-fatty acids in some fish can offset some of the mercury issues,” Lunder says. Check advisories before consuming shellfish and seafood if you are unsure about their mercury content. If you have mercury-filled glass thermometers, replace them with newer models that do not contain mercury.

Hand Sanitizer

The antimicrobial compound triclosan, widely used to kill germs for decades, is an ingredient in everything from hand sanitizers to toothpaste. But triclosan has been linked to hormone problems including infertility and early puberty, and it causes liver cancer in mice. Despite the fact that triclosan is no better than soap and water for removing germs, manufacturers are phasing triclosan out, only to add in benzalkonium chloride, another antibacterial chemical. Benzalkonium chloride and related quaternary ammonia compounds, known as quats, are respiratory irritants that exacerbate asthma.

Avoid antibacterial products. Unless you are prepping an operating room, they are, um, overkill. Use soap and water instead. If you like having a hand sanitizer when you are on the go, look for one powered by ethyl alcohol.