1. Fluorinated Chemicals (stain and water repellants)
How are they used? They are used in a variety of consumer products, including cookware, clothing, carpeting, and food packaging materials to provide an oil- or water-resistant finish. Fluorochemicals are also used as surfactants in products such as firefighting foams that are used to extinguish fuel-based fires at airports, military bases, and refineries.
Why are they a concern? They are very persistent: they are inert to most natural breakdown processes and persist in humans, biota, and the environment for decades. Fluorochemicals, and especially PFOS and PFOA, are detected in arctic animals such as polar bears and seals several thousand miles from manufacturing sources. They are also detected in humans all over the world.
Do we need them? For products such as high-altitude mountaineering clothing, they may provide an important safety factor. However, in light of what is known about the harmful effects of fluorochemicals, the desirability of their presence in consumer products such as food packaging materials, everyday apparel, carpeting, and cookware could be questioned.
2. Antimicrobials (Triclosan and Triclocarban)
How are they used? Antimicrobials prevent the growth of bacteria and other microscopic organisms. They are similar in principle to antibiotics but are used outside the body to decrease bacterial levels on surfaces or in products humans contact. Two chlorinated chemicals known as triclosan and triclocarban have similar chemical structures and are the most commonly used antimicrobials. Triclosan was originally used in hospitals. Triclosan and also triclocarban are now used in many consumer products such as detergent, soap, shampoo, deodorant, body lotion, cosmetics, toothpaste, mouthwash, and clothing. Triclosan is also embedded into plastic that is used to make furniture, fitness mats, toys, and cutting boards.
Why are they a concern? The Centers for Disease Control detected triclosan at varying concentrations in the urine of 75% of Americans tested. Human health concerns stem from the evidence that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor for estrogenic, androgenic, and thyroidal systems. A Norwegian study suggested that a child’s exposure to triclosan is a risk factor for hypersensitivity to airborne allergens. Triclosan and triclocarban are released from sewage treatment plants and are prevalent in the environment. This also leads to concerns for their impact on aquatic ecosystems.
Do we need them? Triclosan may play an important role in hospital settings where dangerous bacteria are common and where there are many vulnerable patients. However, the widespread use of triclosan and triclocarban in soaps and other consumer products does not have a proven benefit.
3. Flame Retardants (brominated, chlorinated, phosphate)
How are they used? Flame retardants are chemicals added to products to delay or prevent ignition and the spread of fire. They are used in levels of about 1% to 30% of the weight of foam or plastic found in products such as furniture, baby products, electronics, building insulation, and wire and cable.
Why are they a concern? Flame retardant chemicals known to be harmful can be found at pound levels in a typical home. Many flame retardants are semivolatile and continuously migrate out of products and into dust, humans, and animals. US citizens have much higher levels of these chemicals in their house dust and body fluids than Europeans, where most flammability standards do not lead to the use of flame retardants in consumer products. In humans they are associated with reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning), fertility, birth defects, and hormonal changes.
Do we need them? Surprisingly, flame retardants, as used to meet current standards for furniture and baby products, do not increase overall fire safety. While they may delay ignition by a few seconds, they will eventually burn and can produce the toxic gases that cause most fire injuries and deaths.
4. Plasticizers & Endocrine Disruptors (BPA, phthalates, etc.)
How are they used? Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals or EDCs include components of plastics, pesticides, flame retardants, fragrances, etc. They can be found in toys, sunscreens, clothing, cosmetics, electronics, furniture, cleaning products, automobiles, building materials, foods, food packaging, etc.
Why are they a concern? We breathe, eat, drink, and touch EDCs every day. Some can remain in the environment for centuries and can build up within the body. They have been found in 100% of people tested. The endocrine system is involved in every stage of life, controlling other vital systems that orchestrate metabolism, immune function, reproduction, intelligence, and behavior.
Do we need them? There are natural alternatives to these chemicals. In the US, the cost of treating health conditions implicated with EDCs exposure is over 1 trillion dollars per year.
5. Solvents (benzene, methylene chloride, xylene, etc.)
How are they used? Solvents are used in many consumer products, including paints, coatings, inks, adhesives, nail polishes and removers, paint strippers, and cleaning and degreasing products. They are also used extensively in manufacturing and occupational settings.
Why are they a concern? Solvents are a concern to consumers and workers alike because they evaporate easily, thus users are exposed to them via inhalation. Acute, short-term exposure to solvents can cause severe, life-threatening health effects. Chronic, long-term exposure can also cause negative health effects, including neurotoxicity, liver and kidney damage, carcinogenicity, and reproductive toxicity.
Do we need them? Solvents perform an essential function. However, safer alternatives are available. For example:
– Paints: water-based products
– Paint strippers: Mechanical removal methods are available in lieu of solvents.
– Garment cleaning: Traditional dry cleaners use perchloroethylene that evaporates in the consumer’s home. Alternative dry-cleaning solvents include hydrocarbons, D5 siloxane, and dibutoxymethane (Solvon K4). Professional wet cleaning has shown to be effective for cleaning “dry-clean only” garments, and it’s the safest alternative for workers, consumers, and the environment.
6. Heavy Metals (lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, etc.)
How are they used? Often, metals are the primary material of a consumer product (such as steel products), but sometimes they are used in consumer products as minor components, such as in pigments, or to enhance the performance of a product (such as an antimicrobial action to treated lumber or mascara).
Why are they a concern? Metals are often released into the environment by mining and processing, and can be much more reactive when transformed to other chemical forms. Because they are elements and do not breakdown, they make their way into the food chain and then to humans and animals. Many, even when they are present in very low levels, can interact with human biochemistry, including:
– Mercury: Can cause nervous system disorders such as memory loss, tremors, and numbness. – Lead: Targets the brain, nervous system and peripheral sensory system. In children it is known to cause blindness, hearing loss, and decrease cognitive functions.
– Arsenic: May cause skin, lung cancer, anemia, and vascular disease.
– Chromium: Can cause kidney damage and lung cancer.
– Cadmium: Can affect the lungs and cause emphysema, act as a calcium substitute, and cause kidney failure.
Do we need them? Metals are essential in some applications. However, because of the sensitivity of human health to very low levels of certain metals, safer alternatives should be used, such as reengineering the car engine to reduce knock instead of using leaded fuel additives and replacing arsenic in treated playground wood with copper.
For more information visit: GreenSciencePolicy.org
Fluorinated Chemicals – Jennifer Field, PhD,Oregon State University Chlorinated
Anti-microbials – Gary Ginsberg, PhD, Yale University / University of Connecticut
Flame Retardants – Arlene Blum, PhD, Green Science Policy Institute
Plasticizers – Carol Kwiatkowski, PhD, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc.
Solvents – Liz Haririma, Toxics Use Reduction Institute
Metals – Graham Peaslee, PhD, Hope College