Everyday Toxic Chemicals: How to Protect Your Health

You might have heard about “endocrine disrupting chemicals,” “hormone disrupting chemicals” or “EDCs.” These are all terms for the same thing: toxic chemicals that mess up hormones. BPA (bisphenol A) is a well-known example. 

But what exactly are the toxic chemicals that disrupt hormones and our bodies? Where are they found? Is there a reason to be worried?

What are hormones?

Hormones are the body’s messengers. They are chemicals that are made in one part of the body and then travel to another part of the body to “tell” it to do something. They often travel through the blood. 

Some hormones you might have heard of are: 

  • Thyroid hormone
  • Insulin
  • Testosterone 
  • Estrogen 

For example, the ovaries make the hormone estrogen. During puberty, estrogen signals breast development in young women.

The same types of hormones are present in both men and women. But hormones can affect men and women in different ways.

Hormones work in very small amounts. As small as a single drop in twenty olympic-sized swimming pools. This means tiny changes to hormones can cause big problems.

Hormones control how our body grows and functions, including:

  • Appetite
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Fertility
  • Libido
  • Male or female characteristics 
  • Fetal growth

As you can see, normal hormone activity is key to good health.

What are hormone disrupting chemicals?

Hormone disruptors are chemicals that enter the body and mess up normal hormone activity. 

The type and amount of each hormone in the body is essential for normal balance. Thus, the introduction of these toxic chemicals can change how our bodies function.

Examples of some common ones are:

  • BPA (bisphenol A)

How do toxic chemicals get in the body?

Toxic chemicals are everywhere in our daily life. We eat them in our food, breathe them from the air, and drink them in our water and drinks.

We can also absorb them through our skin. This can happen unintentionally, like when we touch cash register receipts. Or we can be exposed through personal care products such as cosmetics, lotions, and hair products.

Where are these chemicals found?

BPA and similar chemicals are in plastics labeled with the  #7 recycling mark, can linings, dental sealants, and on receipt paper (the kind that makes a mark when you scratch it).

Phthalates are used in plastic to make it soft and pliable (think shower curtains and vegetable bags at the grocery store). Phthalates are also present in cosmetics and are in fragrances, perfumes, and air fresheners.

Dioxins and PAHs are made during burning and industrial processes. They can travel far from their origin and bioaccumulate in food. 

Bioaccumulation means that the toxics do not leave an animal once they enter it. Chemicals “build up” in an animal, usually in the fat. Many of these chemicals are persistent, meaning they don’t break down. The most common sources of these chemicals are fatty foods like milk, cheese, fish, and meat.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in industry, and were banned in the United States many years ago. However, they are so persistent that they are still detectable in almost every human and animal.

Unfortunately, PCBs are also unintentional by-products of manufacturing processes. So even though production is banned, they are still being made. They can be found in pigments such as:

  • Dyes
  • Inks
  • Paints

Brominated flame retardants are used in foams to make furniture and children’s products. Although they offer limited fire safety, such flame retardants are a cause of health and environmental concerns.

What health problems do hormone disruptors cause?

These chemicals “look” like hormones. Thus, they can enhance, minimize, or block the action of the body’s natural hormones. 

Problems in Fetuses and Children

As a baby develops in the womb, hormones control almost every aspect of growth. The brain, reproductive organs, and lungs all require a proper balance of hormones to grow correctly. 

Babies can be exposed to toxic chemicals in the womb and during breastfeeding. Fetuses and infants may be at a greater risk than adults from chemical exposures. 

The effects on the fetus’s development are often permanent and can include:

Problems in Adults

The effects of toxic chemicals in adults are often reversible. Health problems in adults may include:  

Who is exposed to toxic chemicals?

The CDC found that phthalate and BPA exposure is widespread in the United States. 

Levels of dioxins in people’s bodies have decreased by about 80% since the 1980s. This is according to a 2008 study that tested people’s blood for 26 dioxins.

Most people have low levels of PCB in their bodies. This is because it is difficult to avoid environmental exposure; PCBs last a long time in the environment even though they haven’t been manufactured for years.

Brominated flame retardants are still in use today. They can be found in most people’s bodies and might even be increasing in prevalence in humans. 

Toxic chemicals are entering our bodies, and their by-products are detectable people’s bodies. Every day we are each exposed to a complex mixture of toxic chemicals.

What can be done?

How can you protect yourself and your family? Start with these steps:

  • Get yourself tested to identify exposures and eliminate them.
  • Buy safer products. Check out our approved list of products here!
  • Reduce plastic use, especially in food prep and storage.
  • Vacuum with a HEPA filter and wet dust regularly.
  • Buy furniture that is labeled “contains no added flame retardants”
  • Do not buy children’s items that claim to meet California TB 117 standard
  • Avoid processed and canned foods.
  • Avoid cash register receipts.

Have questions about toxic chemicals and your health? Contact Million Marker!

Jenna Hua, RD, MPH, PhD, is the founder of Million Marker, a service for people to measure personal exposure to everyday environmental chemicals in their body. Jenna is a registered dietitian and environmental health scientist by training, Jenna’s past research has focused on how our surrounding environment impacts our behaviors and health. An ardent believer in disease prevention, she wants to provide personalized preventive strategies to everyone to lead a healthier life.

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