12 Disturbing Chemicals Commonly Found in Everyday Products

The Environmental Working Group exposes which hormone-altering chemicals frequently make their way into what we eat and what we buy.

(Illustrated by Lauren Wade)

Oct 28, 2013· 4 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Eating a healthy diet, drinking lots of water and getting exercise may not be enough to lead a healthy lifestyle because, chances are, your daily habits expose you to chemicals that may wreak havoc on your health.

Endocrine disruptors are dangerous hormone-altering toxins that the public is routinely exposed to—but most simply aren't aware. From shopping receipts to fragrances to nonstick cookware, these chemicals linger in common items that often find their way into even the savviest consumer's lifestyle.

In order to raise awareness about these dangers, the Environmental Working Group, along with the Keep a Breast Foundation, released their "Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors" today—and the results are enough to give anyone pause.

Hormone health is important because hormones travel through your body sending regulatory messages. When they're disrupted, hormones can wrongly tell your body to increase production of certain hormones, turn one hormone into another, or compete with essential nutrients, among other malfunctions. Everything from reproduction to metabolism relies on hormone health.

"It’s important to do what we can to avoid them, but at the same time we can’t shop our way out of the problem. We need real chemical policy reform," said Renee Sharp, EWG’s Director of Research, in a statement.

That reform should have been taken care of with the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which was intended to protect the public from chemicals like the ones found on the Dirty Dozen, but it falls far short of its mission.

The EWG's hope is to put pressure on Washington to enact meaningful federal legislation that will finally prohibit the use of these hazardous compounds altogether. Among states, California is leading the way by banning carcinogenic chemicals in every day items—though legislation has been approved, the implementation of the plan is in its nascent phases, and it's still unclear what products will be targeted first.

To check out which chemicals earned the dubious distinction of making it onto the Dirty Dozen list, scroll below. And for more information on each, visit the EWG website.

1. BPA

This synthetic hormone has been linked to various forms of cancer, as well as reproductive problems and heart disease.

How to Avoid It: Many canned goods use BPA in their lining, but the chemical is also found in up to 40% of store receipts, and some hard plastic containers. Forgo taking sales receipts whenever possible and avoid plastics that are marked with "PC" or recycling label #7.

2. Dioxin

This carcinogen can build up in the body and the food chain, and can adversely affect the immune and reproductive systems of those who are exposed to it.

How to Avoid It: Industrial processes release dioxin, meaning that the American food supply is already widely contaminated. But it helps to cut down on exposure by eating fewer animal products, especially meat, fish, milk, eggs and butter.

3. Atrazine

An herbicide frequently used on corn crops, Atrazine is also a common drinking water contaminant that's been linked to breast tumors and prostate cancer.

How to Avoid It: Buy organic produce and purchase a drinking water filter that's certified to remove Atrazine. You can find a list of EWG-approved filters on their website.

4. Phthalates

Phthalates can encourage the death of testicular cells in men and are linked to hormonal changes, birth defects related to the male reproductive system and thyroid abnormalities.

How to Avoid It: Avoid plastic food containers, children's toys and plastic wrap that's made from PVC. Phthalates are also found in some personal care items, sometimes listed generically as "fragrance", so check your labels.

5. Perchlorate

This rocket fuel component can severly disrupt the proper thyroid function.

How to Avoid It: Perchlorate is already widely found in produce and milk, so avoiding it altogether isn't necessarily possible. But using a reverse osmosis water filter can help reduce your intake.

6. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers

PBDEs are flame retardants, and while some of them have been phased out of industrial use, their long chemical lives mean that people and wildlife across the world have already been exposed to them.

How to Avoid Them: It's virtually impossible to avoid PBDE's entirely, but it helps to use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which can cut down on toxic-laden house dust. Taking extra safety precautions when removing carpet is also recommended, as old padding underneath may contain PBDEs.

7. Lead

It's common to write off lead as something that's avoidable as long as you're not eating paint chips, but exposure to it can also come by way of breathing in the dust from old paint that's crumbling off your walls. This hormone disruptor has been linked to brain and kidney damage, nervous system problems and a host of other physical and psychological impairments.

How to Avoid It: Keeping your home free from crumbling paint helps to avoid exposure, as does using a filter that prevents lead contaminants from making it into your drinking water.

8. Arsenic

This poison can cause skin, bladder and lung cancer, but it can also result in osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and suppression of the immune system.

How to Avoid It: Use a water filter. (Are you sensing a trend yet?)

9. Mercury

This toxic metal gets into the air and oceans primarily through the burning of coal. Mercury can damage pancreatic cells as well as women's reproductive processes, and poses significant problems for pregnant women in particular.

How to Avoid It: Some people are weary of eating seafood at all because of its association with mercury, but the EWG recommends that if you still want to eat sustainably-sourced varieties, your best bets are wild salmon and farmed trout.

10. Perfluorinated Chemicals

PFCs are so pervasive and resistant to biodegration, 99 percent of Americans carry traces of them in their bodies. The chemicals have been linked to health issues like kidney disease, thyroid disease and low birth weight in infants.

How to Avoid Them: Avoid using nonstick cookware, and forgo furniture, clothing and carpet that comes with water-resistant coatings.

11. Organophosphate Pesticides

These pesticides were originally developed by Nazi Germany during World War II for use in chemical warfare. Using the same chemistry, we now spray them on our crops. Organophosphates are linked to impaired brain development, fertility and thyroid function.

How to Avoid Them: Buy organic produce whenever possible and use the EWG guide to find out which nonorganic produce contains the least amount of pesticide residue.

12. Glycol Ethers

Glycol ethers are solvents found in paint, brake fluid and some cleaning products, and exposure to them has been linked to blood abnormalities, fertility impairments and increased asthma in children.

How to Avoid Them: Keep away from cleaning products that carry ingredients like 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME).

For a list of safe cleaning product options, check out the EWG website.