Environmental toxins & chemicals: Unwelcome House Guests

Environmental toxins & chemicals: Harboring in your home?

Chemicals and toxins—where are they found?  Cling wrap.  Ziplock bags.  Plastic tupperware.  My favourite new, pull out sofa bed.  These were just some of the seemingly harmless items in my home that I was surprised contained an array of toxic compounds.

Sofas, as well as many other upholstered furniture, contain brominated flame retardants and are coated with stain-resistant chemicals, both linked to an increase risk of developing cancer, and are unknowingly absorbed by anyone wanting to ‘put up their feet’ after a long day.

The end of this article will focus on what you can do to avoid exposure to these harmful chemicals.

The disturbing truth…

Humans are exposed to thousands of chemicals on a daily basis.  From the outside environment, in the workplace, at home, and even more troubling, the water we drink, the food we eat, and air we breath is now contaminated with hundreds of toxic compounds.

According to Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie, “A large and growing number of scientific research links exposure to toxic chemicals to many ailments that plague people, including several forms of cancer, reproductive problems and birth defects, respiratory illnesses such as asthma, and neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

The science is slow to catch up

Due to the ever changing exposure routes of environmental toxins, it makes it increasingly difficult to determine exact mechanisms of exposure to harmful chemicals and specific long term health outcomes.  Put simply, the science just isn’t there and many studies haven’t been done yet.

Phthalates: Common household invaders

All phthalates are translucent, like clear vegetable oil.  It is their greasy characteristic that makes them useful.  Much of the phthalate production is used to keep substances, like vinyl, soft and rubbery in texture.  Otherwise, vinyl would be hard and brittle.

A different type of phthalate, DEP (diethyl phthalate), has become pervasive in personal care products.  It acts as a lubricate for other substances in a given formula.

For example, it allows body lotions to penetrate and soften the skin and allows the fragrance in perfume products to last longer.

Smelly air fresheners, toilet bowl and bathroom cleaners, and shampoos (among an abundance of other products) contain phthalates.

Brominated flame retardants: Toxic trespassers

Found in clothes, electronics, and furniture, are another class of chemicals that raise a concern with regards to their effect on human health and the environment.  There are numerous flame retardant chemicals used at present time (approximately 175), and some of the most common and most debated, are ‘brominated’.

Many of these flame-retardant chemicals are considered carcinogenic.  The story of Tris-BP (2,3-dibromopropyl phosphate) is a case in point.

In 1973, the U.S. department of Commerce set compulsory fire-resistance standards for children’s pajamas.  Prior to this point, children’s pajamas had been made from cotton.  The fabric changeover was made from cotton to polyester, as the Tri-BP chemical treatment was difficult to use with cotton.

Although early evidence suggested a decrease in infant mortality (from the pajamas igniting) with respect to the recent fire safety standards in place, new evidence was rapidly escalating that Tris-BP was a mutagen and a carcinogen.

It wasn’t until 1977, when further research from the National Cancer Institute confirmed that Tris-BP was a potent cause of cancer, and that the chemical could be absorbed by children directly through the skin.

A few months later, a decision was made to ban the treatment of all garments with Tris-BP.  Shortly afterwards, a study found Tris-B in the urine of children who were wearing, or who had worn Tris-BP chemically treated sleepwear.

What can you do to limit your exposure?

It is clear that we need to cut down on plastic.  We need to change how plastic is made, and what it’s made from.  Currently, researchers are working on ‘bioplastic’, which is biodegradable, compostable, and made from renewable and sustainably harvested materials.

However, consumers should be aware, bioplastic is not automatically a green solution for the environment.

Some bioplastic is made from GMO crops, some does not biodegrade, and some contain toxic additives.  Look for BPA (Bisphenol A) free plastic containers.

A safe alternative to plastic water bottles is steel canteens or glass bottles.  Never microwave or heat foods in plastic containers–always use ceramic or porcelain cookware.

Other tips include:

  • Unplug your air fresheners–Baking soda is a natural alternative that can be used to absorb bad odors.
  • Reduce fatty food consumption–Many chemicals are stored up the food chain in fat tissues. By reducing fat intake in foods such as meat and dairy, exposure to phthalates, but also pesticides and PBDEs will likely be reduced.
  • Eat organic food as much as possible.
  • Choose organic and eco-friendly cleaning products.  If expense is an issue, vinegar, baking soda, and vinegar are all safe alternatives to conventional cleaning products.
  • Use natural fiber products like wool, hemp and cotton.
  • Before buying a product, ask the manufacturer if it is PBDE free–this includes furniture and electronic equipment.
  • Dust and vacuum often to keep the dust and PBDEs away.
  • It is likely that newer foam items do not contain PBDEs, however, older mattresses, mattress pads, couches, foam pillows, carpet padding and any other foam items purchased before 2005 are likely to contain PBDEs.
  • Avoid contact with decaying or crumbling foam.
  • Buy organic cotton bed sheets and pajamas. Our bodies rest and rejuvenate while we sleep–an important time to lessen the chemical burden on the body.
  • Take care when removing old carpeting in the house. When done, vacuum with a HEPA filter vacuum to remove fine dust particles.
  • Shop wisely. Read labels. Avoid any products that contain brominated fire retardants.
  • Lastly, education.  Becoming aware of environmental issues and learning how to live an eco-friendly lifestyle is key to life long health.  Family, friends, and co-workers are all ears to share a wealth of gained knowledge.  Reducing the toxic load on our bodies is one step towards restoring our health.

Amanda Harasym

Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist



Haas, Elson, Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine. NewYork: Crown Publishing Group, 2006.

Javna, John, 50 Simple Things You can do to Save the Earth. New York: Hyperion Books, 2008.

Smith, Rick, & Lourie, Bruce, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday         Life Affects our Health. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Suzuki, David, & Boyd, David, David Suzuki’s Green Guide: How to Find Fresher, Tastier, Healthier     Food, Create an Eco-friendly Home, make Sustainable Transportation Choices, Reduce Consumption      and be a Green Citizen. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008.

Suzuki, David, & Flannery, Tim, Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable   Future. Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, 2009.   

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