Toxic chemicals exist all around us, from the cosmetics we apply on our face to the food we indulge in. Check out this guide to find out the top four sources of hidden toxics and how to avoid them.
1. Toxics in personal care products
The average woman uses 12 personal care products containing 168 unique ingredients a day. Here are some of the most common toxics found in products we use every day.
Phthalates are hormone disruptors and can affect reproductive development. One of their main purposes is to make plastics flexible. These chemicals also hide in a product’s fragrance. Makers of these products claim that fragrances, whether in lotions, perfumes, or cleaning products, are a trade secret, so these ingredients are often not on the label.
But fragrances aren’t the only places where phthalates lurk. They’re also present in flooring, shower curtains, synthetic leather, toys, and even food packaging.
Check the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (ewg.org) to find the best personal care products—those with the least potentially harmful toxic ingredients.
Antibacterials kill bacteria, right? Oddly enough, antibacterial triclosan, found in many soaps, hand sanitizers, toothpastes, and deodorants, is actually a hormone disruptor that builds up in our bodies. Companies that use it have failed to show it’s more effective at removing germs or preventing illnesses than plain soap and water.
Antibacterial chemicals such as triclosan are regulated under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. CEPA was last updated in 1999 and is largely outdated, failing to protect Canadians from toxics and their harmful effects on human health and the environment. Check with Environmental Defence (environmentaldefence.ca/toxics) to see what you can do to change this.
Nail polish often contains a cocktail of toxics that are easily absorbed into our bodies through our nails. The good news is that “5-free” nail polishes exist, meaning they don’t contain the five most common toxics found in nail polish: toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, and camphor.
By being label-savvy and understanding ingredient lists, you can protect yourself from toxics found in personal care products. Carry Environmental Defence’s Toxic Ten Pocket Guide to find out which chemicals to avoid while shopping: environmentaldefence.ca.
2. Outdoor exposure to toxics
With spring in the air and summer around the corner, we’re spending more time outdoors. Unfortunately, we can’t always control the quality of the air we breathe each day.
Dry cleaning: Spilled red wine on your dress? Before taking it to the dry cleaners, it’s important to know that dry cleaning uses a toxic carcinogen called PERC (or perchloroethylene). PERC contaminates the indoor air that workers and customers breathe as well as outdoor air that nearby residents breathe.
Instead of going to a traditional dry cleaner, find a professional cleaner that employs wet cleaning technology. It’s an effective nontoxic alternative that uses specialized computer-controlled washers and dryers along with specially formulated wet-cleaning soaps/detergents.
3. Indoor exposure to toxics
People spend the vast majority of their time indoors—about 90 percent of their lives, in fact. This is why it’s important to make sure that the indoor air we breathe is safe.
Household cleaning products in Canada do not require an ingredient list. Some of the main chemicals of concern found in cleaning products are phthalates, synthetic musks, chlorine, and sodium hydroxide, which are linked to acute and long-term health issues.
Beware of greenwashing! Buy cleaning products from trusted green brands. Check the EWG’s online database of cleaning products (ewg.org). Or, make your own multipurpose cleaning spray using white vinegar, water, baking soda, and lemon essential oil.
Flame retardants are often added to couches, mattresses, mats, and electronics to reduce the ability of materials to ignite. Growing evidence shows these chemicals can accumulate in our bodies and the environment, may be linked to cancer, and can interfere with our hormones and reproductive system.
Choose wool or cotton fill over polyester and foam products to reduce your exposure to flame retardants.
Perfluorinated compounds are often found in older nonstick cookware, water- and stain-resistant clothing, microwave popcorn bags, and fast food packaging. These chemicals are suspected hormone disruptors.
Avoid using nonstick cookware on high heat or scratching the material. When shopping, opt for cast iron, stainless steel, or ceramic cookware. And, because dust harbours a cocktail of airborne toxics that accumulate from household products, minimize accumulation by wiping surfaces with a damp cloth and vacuuming with a HEPA filter.
4. Toxics in food
Your food has more toxics than you may think, in the form of additives and contaminants. Here are the most common toxics you might find in food.
Pesticides are linked to acute symptoms ranging from muscle cramps and heart rate changes to serious chronic illnesses such as cancer. Choose whole foods and organic fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods to minimize your exposure.
Check out EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (ewg.org) to find out which fruits and veggies you should definitely buy organic to avoid exposure to toxic pesticides.
Bisphenol A (BPA) may be found in canned food and drink linings, reusable plastic containers and bottles, and most surprisingly, receipts. This hormone-disrupting chemical is linked to breast cancer, reproductive and behavioural problems, obesity, and diabetes. Beware of products labelled as “BPA-free” as they may contain equally harmful BPS or BPF.
To avoid BPA, don’t heat food in plastic containers—better yet, don’t use them at all. Purchase food and drinks in glass jars instead of cans and say no to receipts. Encourage your favourite stores to send e-receipts instead.