This story was originally published in August 2020.
Toxins aren’t just the purview of polluted cities and factory dumpsites. Some of the most detrimental chemicals to human health are hiding in plain sight around your home, where many of us are spending more time than usual as the pandemic has forced us to work and learn from home.
“Because they’re not well-regulated, there are certain chemicals that are actually quite toxic, but the government is under no obligation to regulate or inform you,” said Gail Carlson, assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College. “A lot of people think if it’s on the shelf on the store it’s probably safe, which is completely false.”
Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center in Portland, said that these chemicals are often in places you would never expect.
“Most people don’t realize that their greatest exposure to toxic chemicals in the homes is not from the odd product, but rather from everyday household products and the plastics or rubber they are often made of,” Belliveau said.
Belliveau said there are three primary examples of common chemicals found around the house that science has shown again and again are detrimental to human health: phthalates, parabens and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
“Many of these chemicals are called hormone disruptors because they act like or interfere with the body’s natural hormones,” Belliveau said.
Here are some things in your home that may contain these and other toxins, and how to find out if they do.
Synthetic plastics like polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, are naturally rigid. To make the material flexible for household items like vinyl shower curtains, plasticizers like toxic phthalates are added.
“These are not chemically bound, so they continually shed into the home environment where you are,” Belliveau said.
That flexible vinyl is also present in items like inflatable air mattresses and beach balls and floats.
Belliveau said that these chemicals escape into the environment of our homes, drinking water and food. Phthalates are toxic at very small doses and have also been linked to testicular and kidney cancers. Studies have also shown that phthalates shut down testosterone production and alter thyroid production in pregnancy and early childhood.
To avoid phthalates in vinyl, look out for the number three in a recycling triangle, which indicates these kinds of vinyl plastics. Opt for nylon or natural materials like cloth.
Like vinyl shower curtains, many children’s toys can covertly contain plasticizers to make them more pliable. Carlson said that children’s toys and clothes may also be colored with lead paint, and that this is especially true of less expensive items.
Carlson said to pay attention to recalls when you can. However, she recognized that purchasing safer products for your children can also come with its own level of privilege.
“There’s an economic justice issue here,” she said. “You can afford to buy your kid the high-end L.L. Bean backpack, but other people have to go to the Dollar Store. There’s a lot more toxic crap there because it’s cheaper.”
Flooring material can make a huge difference to the contribution of toxins in your home.
“Vinyl flooring used to have a lot of phthalates in it,” MacRoy said. “A number of retailers have committed to stop selling vinyl flooring with phthalates, but particularly if you have an older home with vinyl flooring, it very likely has very high levels of phthalates.”
How you treat your flooring also matters. Floor waxes or stain-resistant treatments for rugs can also contain toxins.
“Any carpet or rug that’s advertised as stain resistant probably has used or is still using these chemicals,” Belliveau said. “They also show up in waxes in floor cleaners and floor waxes. They don’t stay in place, [and] they will build up in the household dust. Kids are exposed to those, especially toddlers. They are very toxic in very small doses.”
If your sofa is advertised as flame retardant, it has likely been made so using toxic PFAS. The same goes for any furniture classified as stain resistant.
Worse still, flame retardants specifically may be counterproductive to their stated mission.
“Flame retardants don’t actually do that much in terms of preventing fire and injury, [and] also when they are burned, they produce a lot of toxic ashes that are dangerous to firefighters,” said Patrick MacRoy, Deputy Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.
Like phthalates, PFAS is not chemically bound and can leach out into the home environment over time. MacRoy said that children end up consuming phthalates indirectly in dust.
MacRoy said that, luckily, Maine is a leader in addressing PFAS in furniture — the state has a law that prohibits upholstered furniture from having chemical flame retardants. However, the issue of covertly toxic furniture doesn’t end with upholstered pieces. Another potentially problematic furniture type is pressed wood, which is made of smaller pieces of wood glued together under pressure. Those glues can contain formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
“There continues to be concern about emissions from pressed wood products, both in terms of plywood that would be used in constructions as well as pressed wood furniture,” MacRoy said.
Many non-stick pans also contain PFAS.
“The exposure to the consumer is hard to assess,” MacRoy said. “What is clear is that the manufacturing of them requires that they do [use] a number of PFAS compounds. There are some concerns that as they’re used and as they age, they may release some as well.”
MacRoy said that most manufacturers will recommend not using non-stick pans above a certain heat, but that may be difficult for the average consumer to keep track of. Instead, MacRoy suggested opting for cast iron cookware.
Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are important to have in your house for safety, but if you have old ones lying around, you should properly dispose of them through your municipal household hazardous waste program.
“Smoke detectors have carcinogenic stuff in them,” said Rebecca Secrest, Environmental and Community Planner at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments. “If you put a new one in because yours is worn out and they sit around, that’s not a good thing. They can start leaking.”
Candles and air fresheners
Because they contain the catchall “fragrances,” candles and plug-in air fresheners can easily be putting toxic chemicals into your home. Companies consider “fragrances” a part of their intellectual property and are not legally required to disclose their contents. Often, these fragrances include chemicals like phthalates to help distribute the fragrance through the air.
“I get very nervous about what’s actually in those fragrance products,” MacRoy said. “We typically don’t have much information. Academic researchers doing detective work in the lab found a number of potentially problematic chemicals [in fragrances].”
Another concern for candles is soot. MacRoy pointed out that a number of studies have shown that candles increase airborne particulates in your home, similar to the level that people experience when they live next to heavily trafficked roads.
When you pop the top off a glass bottle of soda or beer, the metal cap has a plastic liner that Belliveau said likely contains phthalates, which leave a toxic residue on the lip of the glass that you wind up washing down with your favorite beverage.
The Environmental Health Strategy Center is currently running a Toxic Bottle Cap Drive, asking people from around the country to mail bottle caps from glass bottles so that the organization can test them for phthalates. You can submit caps for testing, too.
You may not have seen a moth ball since you went through your grandmother’s wardrobe, but if you are using them to keep critters away from your clothes, you may want to consider another option. Moth balls generally contain one of two toxic chemicals, either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene. Both become a gas when exposed to air, which not only causes that distinct moth ball smell, but are irritating to the eyes and lungs. These chemicals may cause headache, dizziness and nausea, and some have even been linked to cancer. MacRoy suggested cedar hangers as an alternative with the same moth-repellent effects.
Yes, you keep them away from your kids, but you probably still don’t realize how toxic they are.
“The problem is for most household cleaners there’s not a requirement that they actually disclose the ingredients,” MacRoy said. “It’s hard to know what’s actually in most of them.”
If you do purchase conventional household cleaners, Secrest said make sure you are properly storing them. Also, opt for soap and water or other DIY natural cleaners as a first defense against household messes.
The trust factor
Experts across the board emphasized the fact that consumers shouldn’t have to study up on all the potential toxins in their home — they should just be able to trust that items that are for sale are safe.
“The average consumer is not a chemist or a toxicologist,” MacRoy said. “We shouldn’t have to be.”
Advocacy is an essential element to keeping toxic items out of Maine homes. Though it can seem overwhelming, Belliveau said that there are reasons for hope.
“There are safer alternatives,” Belliveau said. “There are trend lines that are heading in the right direction.”