12 Common Endocrine Disruptors and Other Environmental Chemicals

chemicals-bodyIn this segment, we examine the 12 most common endocrine disruptors according to the Environmental Working Group and 4 other common environmental chemicals we come in contact with daily and review the potential health effects of these compounds according to the most recent research.  We review the evidence showing how these compounds may be contributing to various hormonal and reproductive disorders, cognitive and neurological disorders, kidney and liver disease, immunological disorders and cancer.  We also make recommendations on how you can protect you and your family against exposure to each of these toxic compounds.

TILT-iceberg-graphicIn the next segment, we introduce the concept of chemical tolerance and body burden.  We introduce the concept of toxicant-induced loss of tolerance (TILT) and examine how this develops and why this may be important for more and more people today.  We review common signs and symptoms of loss of chemical tolerance including chemical sensitivity to a wide variety of chemicals in your environment.


Key concepts for this issue

  • What are “Endocrine Disruptors”?
  • 12 Common Endocrine Disruptors as Identified by the Environmental Working Group
  • What are “Xenoestrogens”?
  • 4 Other Notable Environmental Chemicals that you Probably Come in Contact with on a Daily Basis

What are “Endocrine Disruptors”?

From the moment of conception, human growth and development is regulated by tiny amounts of biochemicals called hormones. Our bodies manufacture trace quantities of these chemical messengers, which enter our bloodstream and tendocrine-systemravel throughout our circulatory system, managing our metabolism and controlling the function of specific tissues and organs. Hormones are able to produce an array of sophisticated regulatory signals crucial to human health at part per billion or part per trillion levels in the blood.  Disruption of the human hormone (endocrine) system can cause a broad range of illnesses, including reproductive and metabolic disorders and cancer.  There are numerous environmental chemicals that we potentially come in contact with on a daily basis that have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system.  Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system are called endocrine disruptors.

12 Common Endocrine Disruptors as Identified by the EWG

In October, 2013, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a list of 12 common environmental chemicals and toxins that act as endocrine disruptors in human physiology.[1]  This means they disrupt hormonal signaling (alter hormonal responses) in the human body.  Since hormones act as biochemical messengers and regulators of physiologic function, this can lead to a wide range of physiological problems and it’s interesting to note that most of them impact multiple endocrine organs simultaneously.

endocrine-disruptor-effects2Here is a list of those chemicals:

  1. BPA
  2. Dioxin
  3. Atrazine
  4. Phthalates
  5. Perchlorate
  6. Fire retardants
  7. Lead
  8. Arsenic
  9. Mercury
  10.  Perfluorinated chemicals
  11.  Organophosphate pesticides
  12.  Glycol Ethers

As we did in the previous list of hazardous and toxic compounds, we will take a close look at the most current research on each one of these compounds (not already covered in the last article) and discuss impacts of exposure on human health.

no-more-BPA1.     Bisphenol A (BPA)

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a plastics chemical currently used in enormous amounts to manufacture hard plastic water bottles and to make epoxy linings of metal food cans, like those for canned infant formula.  Another common source of BPA is cash register and credit card receipts, the handling of which have recently been shown to cause elevations in BPA in the blood, as just published by the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association a couple months ago.[2]

How common is BPA exposure?

Although its long-time use in consumer products has come with assurances of its safety from industry, studies conducted over the past 20 years now show it to be not only a ubiquitous pollutant in the human body–it contaminates approximately 93% of the population according to the CDC [3]—but also a potent developmental toxin at very low doses.  One recent study that examined over 80 published human biomonitoring studies that measured BPA concentrations in human tissues, urine, blood, and other fluids, concluded the following on BPA exposure:

“Available data from biomonitoring studies clearly indicate that the general population is exposed to BPA and is at risk from internal exposure to unconjugated BPA.”[4]

fetal-development2What are the health effects of BPA exposure?

In September, 2008, the National Toxicology Program of NIH determined that BPA may pose risks to human development, raising concerns for early puberty, prostate effects, breast cancer, and behavioral impacts from early-life exposures.[5] But this came after many warnings from consumer environmental groups such as the Environmental Working Group and an accumulation of studies spanning more than 10 years showing that BPA had potentially harmful effects in the human body.[6]

A recent review of the most current literature on the health effects of BPA published in December 2013, concluded:

“The growing human literature correlating environmental BPA exposure to adverse effects in humans, along with laboratory studies in many species including primates, provides increasing support that environmental BPA exposure can be harmful to humans, especially in regards to behavioral and other effects in children.”[7]

xenoestrogen-receptor-bindingWhat are “xenoestrogens”?

BPA is currently understood to be a xenoestrogenXenoestrogens are a type of foreign or synthetic compound  (“xeno” means foreign) that imitates estrogen in the human body.  This means they stimulate estrogen receptors and produce an estrogenic effect on a living organism even though they differ chemically from the natural estrogenic hormones produced internally by the endocrine system.  Synthetic xenoestrogens are widely used industrial compounds, which include BPA, PCBs, and phthalates, among others.  Xenoestrogens are clinically significant because they can mimic the effects of endogenous (naturally-produced) estrogen and thus have been implicated in several types of cancer, including breast cancer [8-14], prostate cancer [15-18], and testicular cancer.[19,20]

fetal-development3Extensive literature has raised concerns about their impacts on human development, particularly during the developmental states of the brain and nervous system and endocrine system during pregnancy and implications for many endocrine-related disorders such as metabolic disorder, diabetes and obesity [21-29], cardiovascular diseases [30-34], liver and kidney toxicity [35-38], abnormal prostate development [39-42], low sperm count [43-45] and other reproductive disorders.[46-52]

“Importantly, many of these studies have reported BPA-related effects at very low doses, e.g., at exposure levels less than 50 μg kg−1 day−1, the current “safe” dose that is considered acceptable for daily intake by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that is also the reference dose established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This suggests that, like endogenous hormones, environmental estrogens can elicit biological effects at extremely low concentrations.”[53]

pregnant-woman-happyWho are the most vulnerable to the effects of BPA?

Many studies indicate that pregnant women and the developing fetus and baby are the most vulnerable to BPA’s toxic effects.[54-59]  Unfortunately, they also have the highest BPA exposure of any age group.  The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that babies have 12.5 times more BPA exposure than adults.[60]  Therefore, it is critical for pregnant mothers to avoid BPA as much as possible.

Additionally, a large number of studies have linked BPA exposure with neural development and neurological disorders [61-70], learning and behavioral disorders [71-74] and abnormal growth and development.[75,76]

As one recent study concluded regarding the current safety standards for BPA:

bpa-free“We propose that a new risk assessment for BPA is needed based on a) the extensive new literature reporting adverse effects in animals at doses below the current reference dose; b) the high rate of leaching of BPA from food and beverage containers, leading to widespread human exposure; c) reports that the median BPA level in human blood and tissues, including in human fetal blood, is higher than the level that causes adverse effects in mice; and d) recent epidemiologic evidence that BPA is related to disease in women.”[77]

BPA-in-receiptsHow to Avoid Exposure:  Go fresh instead of canned – many food cans are lined with BPA – or research which companies don’t use BPA or similar chemicals in their products. Use powdered baby formulas instead of canned.  Don’t use polycarbonate plastics for warm food or drinks.  Say no to receipts, since thermal paper is often coated with BPA.  Avoid plastics marked with a “PC” for polycarbonate or recycling label #7. For more tips, check out: www.ewg.org/bpa

Avoiding BPA for Pregnant Mothers and Infants

canned-formula-baby-bottlesAvoid BPA in formula and baby bottles

BPA exposure comes primarily from canned foods and polycarbonate food containers, but baby bottles and baby formula can also contain BPA.  Most manufacturers now make BPA-free baby bottles. Glass is the safest and most durable option. Never microwave baby food or drinks in plastic containers. Many parents who have replaced their polycarbonate baby bottles are unaware that BPA contaminates liquid baby formula sold in metal cans. A 1990s test by FDA show BPA leaching from metal cans into all brands of liquid formula. Since formula can make up to 100% of a baby’s diet over her first 6 months of life, parents unable to breast feed should choose a powdered formula if your baby tolerates it.  Powdered formula appears to be BPA-free.[78]

cansAvoid BPA in canned foods

Almost all canned foods sold in the United States have a BPA-based epoxy liner that leaches BPA into the food. EWG tested 97 canned foods and found detectable levels of BPA in more than half of the foods. The highest concentrations were in canned meats, pasta and soups. Pregnant women and children should limit their consumption of canned foods to avoid BPA. Rinsing canned fruit or vegetables may reduce the amount of BPA you ingest.

water-bottlesAvoid BPA in water and food containers

Less BPA leaches from plastic water bottles and food containers than from cans into canned foods and baby formula. Nevertheless, it is good to take simple precautions to reduce your exposure.  Polycarbonate plastics are rigid, transparent and used for food storage containers and water bottles, among other things. Trace amounts of BPA can migrate from these containers, particularly if used for hot food or liquids. Soft or cloudy-colored plastic does not contain BPA.

Avoid putting any plastic containers in microwaves and do not heat up food in plastic containers. Some metal water bottles lined with an epoxy-based enamel coating could leach BPA. Look for stainless steel bottles that do not have a liner.[79]

yuschenko-dioxin-exposure22.     Dioxin

Dioxins are major environmental pollutants and are of concern because of their highly toxic potential.  They have the dubious distinction of belonging to the “dirty dozen”–a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  In the 1970s, dioxin was identified as a contaminant in Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant deployed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War and blamed for diabetes and other diseases among exposed personnel.[80]  Based on animal data and on human epidemiology data, dioxin is classified by IARC as a “known human carcinogen” although the EPA has categorized dioxin as a “likely human carcinogen”.

The name “dioxins” is often used for the family of structurally and chemically related polychlorinated dibenzo para dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs). Certain dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) with similar toxic properties are also included under the term “dioxins”.  Dioxins are found throughout the world in the environment and they accumulate in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals, including fish.  More than 90% of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish.[81]

dioxin-sources-exposureSources of dioxin contamination

Dioxins are mainly by-products of industrial processes but can also result from natural processes, such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires. Dioxins are unwanted by-products of a wide range of manufacturing processes including smelting, chlorine bleaching of paper pulp and the manufacturing of some herbicides and pesticides. In terms of dioxin release into the environment, uncontrolled waste incinerators (solid waste and hospital waste) are often the worst culprits, due to incomplete burning.  Dioxins are found throughout the world in the environment. The highest levels of these compounds are found in some soils, sediments and food, especially dairy products, meat, fish and shellfish. Very low levels are found in plants, water and air.[82]

Accumulation of dioxins in animals and the human body

Once dioxins have entered the body, they endure a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be seven to eleven years! In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher in the animal food chain one goes, the higher the concentration of dioxins. Due to the omnipresence of dioxins, all people have background exposure which contributes to their body burden.[83]

mother-infantInfant exposure to dioxins

Again, infants are exposed to the highest amounts and are most vulnerable to exposure.  EWG research found that the amount of dioxin a nursing infant ingests daily is up to 77 times higher than the level EPA has proposed to protect the endocrine and immune systems.[84] The fact that both breast milk and formula are contaminated with dioxin highlights the urgent need for EPA to finish its assessment on dioxins.

Health effects of dioxin exposure

Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function.[85] Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the developing immune system [86-92], respiratory system [93-99], nervous system [100-107], endocrine system [108-114] and reproductive functions [115-124] and cause cancer.[125-134]  For cancer risk, the situation is concerning: the general public is exposed to up to 1,200 times more dioxin than regulatory agencies typically consider safe.[135]

fetal-development6The developing fetus, infants and other vulnerable subgroups

The developing fetus is most sensitive to dioxin exposure. The newborn, with rapidly developing organ systems, may also be more vulnerable to certain effects. Some individuals or groups of individuals may be exposed to higher levels of dioxins because of their diets (e.g., high consumers of fish in certain parts of the world) or their occupations (e.g., workers in the pulp and paper industry, in incineration plants and at hazardous waste sites, to name just a few).[136]

How to Avoid Exposure:  Eat organic foods whenever possible. Products including meat, fish, milk, eggs and butter are most likely to be contaminated, but you can cut down on your exposure by eating fewer animal products and eating organic foods when possible. Trimming fat from meat and consuming low fat dairy products may decrease the exposure to dioxin compounds. Make sure your fish oil supplements are checked for dioxin levels.

5-legged-frog3.     Atrazine

Atrazine, the most heavily used herbicide in the United States but banned in the European Union, is a cancer-causing weed killer applied to 50 million acres of corn each year. After it is applied each spring, it runs off cornfields and through drinking water plants into the tap water of millions of Mid-western homes. While many larger water utilities suppress atrazine levels through special treatments, toxic traces remain in finished water.[137] Atrazine has gained the attention of a number of current researchers.

According to amphibian endocrinologist Tyrone Hayes of U.C. Berkeley, exposure to the herbicide Atrazine results in what amounts to chemical castration in frogs.[138]  In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio news, Hayes said:

tyrone-hayes-lecture“One of the things we discovered is that atrazine chemically castrates the frog, meaning that it causes a reduction in the male hormone, testosterone, which results in things like decreased sperm count, a decrease in the voice box which controls the male’s ability to attract mates.”

But Hayes says the enzyme that atrazine activates in frogs is the same one found in humans. It converts testosterone into estrogen.

conversion-testosterone-estrogen“This same enzyme, or machinery if you will, controls estrogen production in humans. And atrazine is associated in laboratory rodents with development of mammary cancer, or breast cancer, and there are epidemiological studies that associate atrazine exposure to breast cancer in humans.”[139]

Atrazine has been linked to delayed puberty and prostate inflammation in animals, and some research has linked it to prostate cancer in men with possible implications for other reproductive cancers.[140-142]

atrazine-sourcesAtrazine Continues to Contaminate Surface Water and Drinking Water in the United States

The most recent data confirms that atrazine continues to contaminate watersheds and drinking water across the Midwest and Southern United States.  Atrazine was found in 80% of drinking water samples taken in 153 public water systems in 2007 to 2008. All twenty watersheds sampled during this time had detectable levels of atrazine, and sixteen had average concentrations above the level that has been shown to harm plants and wildlife.[143]

How to Avoid Exposure: Eat organic whenever possible!  Drink filtered water certified to remove atrazine. Check out the EWG’s “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” for more information: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/guide.php?key=40442072

cosmetics4.     Phthalates

Phthalates (pronounced “tha–lates”) are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl.  Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is made softer and more flexible by the addition of phthalates. Phthalates are used in hundreds of consumer products, including cosmetics and personal care products, perfume, hair spray, soap, shampoo, nail polish, and skin moisturizers. They are used in consumer products such as plastic and vinyl baby toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap.  Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.[144]

cosmetics2How are people exposed to phthalates?

You can be exposed to low levels of phthalates through air, water, or food or if you use cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning products, or other plastic and vinyl products that contain them.  Exposure to low levels of phthalates may come from eating food packaged in plastic that contains phthalates or breathing dust in rooms with vinyl miniblinds, wallpaper, or recently installed flooring that contain phthalates. You could also be exposed by drinking water that contains phthalates, though it is not known how common that is. Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on soft vinyl toys or other products made with them. Children can also be exposed by breathing household dust that contains phthalates or using IV tubing or other medical devices made with phthalates.[145]

baby-toysHow much environmental phthalate gets into our bodies?

In September, 2000, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the first accurate measurements of human phthalate exposures, and reported finding phthalates in every one of 289 people tested, at unexpectedly high levels.[146]  Levels of some phthalates in U.S. women of childbearing age have been found to exceed the government’s safe levels set to protect against birth defects, according to another CDC study.[147]  Results of phthalate testing in more than 2,500 people ages 6 and above confirmed the CDC’s original findings: phthalate exposures are widespread across the population, and women are exposed at higher levels than men.[148]  In a 2007 study of girls age 6 to 8 spearheaded by Mount Sinai School of Medicine, phthalates were found in every one of 90 girls tested.[149]  Phthalates are widespread contaminants in the environment as well [150,151).

infertilityWhat are the health effects of phthalate exposure?

Epidemiological studies of ordinary people have linked high phthalate levels to a wide variety of problems with the male reproductive tract, including reduced sperm motility and concentration, increased damage to sperm DNA, alterations in hormone levels in adult men.[152-154] Exposure to phthalates in the developing fetus and infant boys (through the mother’s breast milk) has been associated with congenital anomalies, decreased testosterone levels and infertility[155-158] which confirmed earlier animal studies.[159-160]

Recent studies indicate phthalates may produce non-reproductive health effects in both males and females.[161,162]  Phthalate exposure has been associated with a wide range of health effects, including allergies, asthma and atopic dermatitis (eczema) [163-166], pulmonary function [167], alterations in thyroid function [168-171], learning, memory and behavioral problems in children [172-176] and breast cancer.[177-181]

lipstickHow to Avoid Exposure:  Avoid plastic food containers, children’s toys (some phthalates are already banned in kids’ products), and plastic wrap made from PVC, which has the recycling label #3. Some personal care products also contain phthalates, so read the labels and avoid products that simply list added “fragrance,” since this catch-all term sometimes means hidden phthalates. Find phthalate-free personal care products with EWG’s Skin Deep Database: www.ewg.org/skindeep/

5.     Perchlorate

Perchlorate is the explosive chemical of solid rocket and missile fuel that is produced for and used in rocket fuel, fireworks, ammunition and explosives.  The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates it contaminates the drinking water of more than 20 million Americans.[182]  Perchlorate contaminates more than 350 drinking water sources in California alone!  Nationally, perchlorate contamination of drinking water has been confirmed by testing in 22 states.[183]  Perchlorate contamination of food is also widespread.

cowsPerchlorate in our milk and food supply

A 2008 Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of FDA data shows that three quarters of 285 commonly consumed foods and beverages are contaminated with perchlorate. That means that every day, the average two-year-old is exposed to more than half of the EPA “safe” dose of perchlorate from food alone. This is especially troubling in the 22 states that also are exposed to perchlorate through contaminated tap water.[184]

A 2004 analysis by EWG found that milk from cows raised in some parts of California may expose infants and children to more of a toxic rocket fuel chemical than is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  In their study which looked for perchlorate in California supermarket milk, EWG found perchlorate in almost every sample tested: 31 out of 32 samples purchased from grocery stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties. EWG also obtained results of tests for perchlorate in milk by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), which found perchlorate in all 32 samples of milk collected from unspecified sources in Alameda, Sacramento, and San Joaquin counties.[185]

child-drinking-milkOur children our most vulnerable to perchlorate exposure

EWG’s computer-assisted analysis of federal dietary data shows that by drinking milk contaminated with the levels of perchlorate found in the two studies, 7 percent of women of childbearing age would get a daily dose of rocket fuel larger than the level currently considered safe by the EPA. But children are by far more at risk: Half of all children 1 to 5 would exceed EPA’s provisional daily safe dose just by drinking milk, and more than a third would get twice that dose. One-third of children 6 to 11 would get a larger dose than EPA says is safe, with one-fifth consuming twice as much. These risk estimates assume zero perchlorate exposure from other sources, such as contaminated tap water and foods.[186]

perchlorate-sourcesSources of perchlorate

Perchlorate occurs both naturally and as a manufactured compound.  Natural deposits tend to be of low concentration, except for the high natural perchlorate concentrations found in Chile.[187]  Man-made perchlorate  sources can be many times more concentrated than most natural sources. Their production and use can lead to releases of perchlorate into the environment. Sites that have been identified with relatively high concentrations of perchlorate contamination involve manufacturing, testing, or disposal of solid rocket propellant; manufacturing of perchlorate compounds; and industrial manufacturing operations where perchlorate compounds were used as reagents.

perchlorate-lettuceHow does perchlorate get into our food?

Contamination of perchlorate occurs in the soil and water.  Many crop and feed plants, including lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and alfalfa, concentrate perchlorate in their tissues when grown with contaminated water. This perchlorate, in turn, can be passed along in cow (or human) milk.  A study published in 2009 reported elevated perchlorate levels in powdered infant formula! They also observed that infants given formula reconstituted with perchlorate-contaminated drinking water would be consuming unsafe amounts of the chemical, according to the current EPA standards.[188]

thyroidWhat are the health effects of perchlorate exposure?

Perchlorate can affect the thyroid gland’s ability to make essential hormones.[189,190] For fetuses, infants and children, disruptions in thyroid hormone levels have been shown to cause lowered IQ, mental retardation, loss of hearing and speech, and motor skill deficits.[191-196]

In addition, toddlers are particularly vulnerable because they eat and drink substantial amounts of food and water relative to their small size. Also affected by perchlorate levels are women with low iodine levels, which may account for up to 1/3 of women in the U.S.[197,198]

 How to Avoid Exposure:  You can reduce perchlorate in your drinking water by installing a reverse osmosis filter or buying filtered water. (You can get help finding one at: www.ewg.org/report/ewgs-water-filter-buying-guide) As for food, it’s almost impossible to avoid perchlorate, but you can reduce exposure by buying organic food, especially milk, and making sure you are getting enough iodine in your diet. Eating iodized salt is one good way.

wanted-PBDEs6.     Fire retardants

Fire retardants are found in many types of furniture, computers, televisions and other electronics in the home and office.  Fire retardants are commonly found in polyurethane foam furniture like couches and upholstered chairs, mattresses and pads, futons and carpet padding and even children’s pajamas. Product studies also find fire retardants in the foam of children’s products including car seats, changing table pads, portable crib mattresses, nap mats, and nursing pillows.  Foam products made before 2005 are most hazardous. Older foam items commonly contain PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), a highly toxic fire retardant mixture now removed from the U.S. market.  Since 2004 these chemicals have not been manufactured in the U.S.  However once PBDEs were withdrawn, other concerning chemicals took their place.[199]

children-ADDHow do fire retardants affect health?

According to a review published in a scientific journal just a couple months ago:

“Plausible outcomes associated with brominated flame retardant (BFR) exposure include diabetes, neurobehavioral and developmental disorders, cancer, reproductive health effects and alteration in thyroid function.”[200]

In rodents, repeated exposure to PBDEs results in thyroid hormone disruption, developmental neurotoxicity, some changes of fetal development, and hepatotoxic effects.[201]

Very serious health effects are associated with exposure to PBDEs, but toxicity depends on the compound and the amount that one is exposed to. PBDEs are chemically similar to PCBs and, not surprisingly, they show similar health effects as well. They are biomagnified toxic compounds, meaning they accumulate within food chains.  Brominated fire retardants are still being studied for health effects but so far have been found to have the following effects in human studies:

hyperthyroidismThyroid disruption

According to an article published in 2005, brominated fire retardants have a striking structural similarity with the thyroid hormones and may constitute a potential health risk by interfering with thyroid hormone homeostasis.  The thyroid hormones are essential for normal brain development. Disruption of the hormonal balance may lead to serious and permanent defects of neurological functioning. Brominated flame retardants may interfere with thyroid synthesis, transport, receptor binding, and elimination. The clinical consequences have so far not been firmly established, but results from animal studies suggest that even subtle disturbances of thyroid homeostasis during pregnancy may have serious implications for the developing brain.[202-205]

xenoestrogen-mechanismEndocrine disruption

Many studies have found some type of endocrine disruption that occurs on exposure to fire retardants.  One of the mechanisms that has been identified is that this compound acts as a xenoestrogen in the body as discussed earlier in this article.  Xenoestrogens are foreign compounds that mimic estrogen in the body.  The potential health impacts of xenoestrogens are still not completely understood.[206-208]

indexNeurobehavioral dysfunction

Studies have shown that prenatal exposure to organohalogens, including brominated flame retardants, influences motor, cognitive, and behavioral performance in school-age children.[209, 210]  Numerous laboratory studies on mice have shown them to have neurotoxic or neurobehavioral effects[211-213] and in rodents the neurological impacts are more significant if exposure occurs during a specified period of time during neurological development.[214]

reproductive-systemReproductive abnormalities

Studies have shown an association between fire retardant exposure and reproductive problems such as spontaneous abortion and abnormal uterine tissue and affecting male genitourinary conditions as well.[215-217],

stethoscope-over-red-heartCardiac and metabolic abnormalities

Studies have also shown associations with fire retardant exposure and metabolic syndrome in the U.S. and effects on the heart in animal studies.[218, 219]


The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that PBDEs are possibly carcinogenic to humans.[220]

breastfeeding2Exposure to PBDEs in breast milk

Exposure to PBDEs is nearly impossible to avoid due to their ubiquity in the air, water, food, human fat, and breast milk.  The fetus is exposed to the toxins in utero as well as from breast milk, which is where the toxins are transferred from the mother to the baby.  A Swedish study published in 2006 found that the concentration of PBDEs in breast milk doubled every five years during the 25-year period that was examined in the study[221] while another showed that higher levels of PBDEs were found in breast milk of women in the U.S. than their European counterparts.[222]

couchesHow common is exposure to fire retardants?

Like PCBs, their long-banned chemical relatives, the brominated fire retardants are persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative, meaning they build up in people’s bodies over a lifetime. There are ubiquitous in our environment, meaning they are found everywhere. As one newspaper writer puts it: “PBDEs: They are everywhere, they accumulate and they spread”.[223]  In 2004, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) performed the first nationwide tests for brominated fire retardants in house dust.  This study found unexpectedly high levels of these neurotoxic chemicals in every home sampled.[224]  EWG’s test results indicate that consumer products, not industrial releases, are the most likely sources of the rapid buildup of PBDEs in people, animals and the environment, which has been documented by tests from Europe to the Arctic.

household-dustScientists now recognize that indoor environmental contamination, including contaminants accumulating in household dust, pose a substantial health risk to the population.[225] It is no surprise that American homes are contaminated with PBDEs since these fire retardants are added to thousands of everyday products, including computers, cars, TVs, furniture and clothing. But the EWG study showed the surprising degree to which these chemicals are escaping into the air from consumer products and exposing people, especially children, who continually ingest or inhale dust.

How to Avoid Exposure: “Remove old foam (pre-2005) from your home.  Clean the dust in your home frequently and regularly, especially if you have infants or children at home.”

7.     Lead (previously discussed in last segment)

8.     Arsenic (previously discussed in last segment)

9.     Mercury (previously discussed in last segment)

10.    Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)

teflon-pansWhat are PFCs?

PFCs are a large group of manufactured compounds that are widely used to make everyday products more resistant to stains, grease, and water. For example, PFCs may be used to keep food from sticking to cookware, to make sofas and carpets resistant to stains, to make clothes and mattresses more waterproof, and may also be used in some food packaging, as well as in some firefighting materials. Because they help reduce friction, they are also used in a variety of other industries, including aerospace, automotive, building and construction, and electronics.[226]

PFCs in the environment

PFCs break down very slowly in the environment and are considered persistent organic pollutants (POPs). There is widespread wildlife and human exposure to several PFCs, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).  Perfluorochemicals are so widespread and extraordinarily persistent that studies show approximately 99% of Americans have these chemicals in their bodies.[227]

carpetWhere do they come from?

Both PFOA and PFOS are byproducts of other commercial products, meaning they are released into the environment when other products are made, used, or discarded.  PFOS is no longer manufactured in the United States, and PFOA production has been reduced and will soon be eliminated. More research is needed to fully understand all sources of human exposure, but people are most likely exposed to these compounds by consuming PFC-contaminated water or food, or by using products that contain PFCs.

Are PFCs like other toxins?

Unlike many other persistent environmental chemicals, PFCs are not stored in body fat. However, PFCs are similar to other persistent chemicals, because the half-life, or the amount of time it takes for 50% of the chemical to leave the human body, for some of these chemicals, is several years. This slow elimination time makes it difficult to determine how changes in lifestyle, diet, or other exposure-related factors influence blood levels.

half-life-PFOAsOne particularly notorious compound called PFOA has been shown to be “completely resistant to biodegradation.” In other words, PFOA doesn’t break down in the environment – ever. That means that even though the chemical was banned after decades of use, it will be showing up in people’s bodies for countless generations to come. This is worrisome, since PFOA exposure has been linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, kidney disease, thyroid disease and diabetes, among other health issues.[228]

Let’s take a quick look at some of this research on the health effects of exposure to PFCs:

PFCs-cancerEndocrine disruption

PFCs are a known endocrine disruptor. Many observational studies suggest that endocrine disruptors contribute to cancer, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and infertility.[229]  Until recently, most of this data was derived from animal studies but there is growing epidemiologic health data that support associations between adult exposures and outcomes.  Recent studies suggest that there are several mechanisms by which PFCs such as PFOA may lead to endocrine disruption.[230]

Studies indicate there is disruption in both male and female reproductive physiology.[231]  In males, there have been associations with decreased sperm count, semen quality and reproductive hormones.[232]  Endocrine disruptors have also been implicated in the development of obesity.[233]

Thyroid disruption

The thyroid-disrupting effects of PFCs have been documented in many studies, and disruption has been shown to occur with total T3, total T4, and free T4 in the U.S. general population.[234-237]

boy-feverReduced immune function

There is evidence from both epidemiology and laboratory studies that PFCs may be immunotoxic, affecting both cell-mediated and humoral immunity.[238]  PFC exposure has also been associated with allergic skin reactions such as atopic dermatitis and pediatric atopy.[239]

Multiple organ and tissue effects

PFCs can cause adverse effects on multiple organs, including the liver and pancreas and have been shown to cause damage at multiple biological levels including oxidative stress, DNA damage, membrane instability, suppressed filtration rate, and reduced body weight.[240]  PFCs have also been associated with osteoarthritis in women.[241]

brainNeurological and neurobehavioral effects

PFCs have been shown to be neurotoxic to the brain[242] and cause fetal growth and developmental problems and affect birth outcomes.[243-247]

How to Avoid Exposure: Skip non-stick pans as well as stain and water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture and carpets.  Don’t do the Scotchguard®!  Stay away from Teflon®, Goretex® or any foreign-sounding names to protect you from stains and water!

pesticide-spraying211.    Organophosphate pesticides

“In this century, several hundred billion pounds of pesticides have been produced and released into the global environment. Nearly 5 billion pounds of the insectide DDT alone have been applied both indoors and out since it was introduced in 1939, and DDT is one of nearly 600 pesticides currently registered for use in the world.  By 1969, almost 60,000 different products were sold containing some combination of pesticides along with their inert ingredients.  As we approach the 21st century, an additional 5 to 6 billion pounds of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides and other biocides are added to the world’s environment each year, with roughly ¼ of this amount released or sold in the U.S.”[248]

child-eating-fruitPesticides can be extremely toxic to human health and the environment.  U.S. and international government agencies alike have linked pesticides to nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone system disruption and IQ deficits among children.  Studies indicate that children are the most vulnerable to the damaging effects of pesticides.  According to one expert on childhood exposure to pesticides:

“Children are especially vulnerable to health damage from pesticides. Following conception, a child’s susceptibility changes as organ systems grow and certain functions mature, such as the detoxification potential of the liver or the filtration potential of the kidneys.  Children may be especially vulnerable to carcinogens during periods when their cells are normally reproducing most rapidly, generally between conception and age five.  They may be more susceptible to loss of brain function if exposed to neurotoxins during critical periods of development.”[249]

ADD-childNeurological effects on children from pesticide exposure

Studies show even small amounts of these chemicals add up and can impair a child’s neurological development when they are exposed during the early, critical stages of their development.  Numerous studies have been conducted in humans and animals to evaluate the potential effect of myriad exposures, including environmental contaminants, on neurologic development.[250]  Neurodevelopmental deficits include a broad spectrum of disorders and dysfunctions such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), decreased intelligence, learning disabilities, developmental delays, emotional or behavioral problems, and deficits in gross or fine motor skills. The exact prevalence of these deficits is difficult to ascertain; however, it has been estimated that approximately 3 to 8% of infants and 12% of children are affected by one or more of these conditions.[251] Strong arguments have been made that our government agencies and the science on which policies are based have been insufficient to protect our children against these harmful chemicals.[252]

pregnant-mother-facemaskPregnancy and fetal exposure to pesticides

Epidemiological data shows that prenatal exposure to OP pesticides may be associated with an increased risk of pervasive developmental disorders, delays in cognitive development, and attentional deficits.  In children, OP exposure has been associated with behavioral problems, poorer short-term memory and motor skills, and longer reaction time.[253]

One recent study concluded the following:

“These findings support the notion that prenatal exposure to pesticides—at levels not producing adverse health outcomes in the mother—can cause lasting adverse effects on brain development in children. Pesticide exposure therefore may contribute to a “silent pandemic” of developmental neurotoxicity.”[254]

pesticides-children2Three epidemiological studies published in April, 2011, show a clear link between a mother’s exposure to organophosphate (OP) insecticides during pregnancy and deficits to children’s learning and memory that persist through the ages of 6 to 9. (255)

“The risks of dietary exposures to synthetic pesticides, especially organophosphate and pyrethroid insecticides, are greatest during pregnancy and childhood, when the brain and nervous system are most vulnerable. These are two groups that should really avoid eating foods with high levels of pesticide residues.” (256)

In an award-winning study published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2009, Payne-Sturges of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research analyzed CDC biomonitoring data for organophosphate insecticide exposure in American children. She concluded that two in five American children are exposed to enough organophosphate pesticides to exceed safe amounts![257]

ADHDIn May 2010, a team led by Maryse F. Bouchard of the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed the same biomonitoring data and found that the children with elevated organophosphate exposure were more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactive disorder.[258]  Several studies have also shown that agricultural workers have substantially greater opportunity for pesticide exposure than the population at large.[259-262]

“Pesticides, while designed specifically to kill certain organisms, are also associated with a host of very serious health problems in people, including neurological deficits, ADHD, endocrine system disruption and cancer.  My advice to consumers is to whenever possible avoid exposure to pesticides, including pesticide residues on food.”

–Andrew Weil, MD, Founder and Director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine[263]

eating-organic-reduces-cancerHow to Avoid Exposure: Buy organic produce. Consumers can markedly reduce their intake of pesticide residues and their exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria by choosing organic produce and meat, according to researchers at Stanford University who reviewed a massive body of scientific studies on the much-debated issue.[264]

“Consumers selecting organic produce ingest fewer pesticides. They also eat meats that harbor fewer deadly bacteria. While you still need to take responsibility for eating a varied and healthy diet, you can rest assured that organic food provides a healthier choice for people and the planet.”[265]

Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which can help you find the fruits and vegetables that have the fewest pesticide residues at: www.ewg.org/foodnews/

paint-cans12.    Glycol Ethers

Glycol ethers (GE) are a family of solvents, the use of which has increased dramatically since the 1960’s, in domestic and occupational settings and persist mainly in water-based products, such as paints, inks, varnishes and cleaning agents. There are two subgroups: E series and P series. EGME, among the E series, is the reference substance for most studies.  Human and animal studies have shown that glycol ethers can cause adverse reproductive, developmental, and hematological effects through inhalation, dermal absorption, and ingestion. The reproductive organs, nervous system, blood and blood-forming organs are the primary organs affected in acute and chronic intoxications of glycol ethers.[266]

pesticides-effects-on-fetal-developmentCongenital birth defects

Studies in multiple countries show that glycol ethers act as human teratogens (substances that cause birth defects) when fetuses are exposed to these chemicals in utero.[267-269]

Fertility and reproductive health

Glycol ethers are a reprotoxic (toxic to the reproductive system) chemical causing infertility and genital atrophy on both sexes (shrinks the testicles and ovaries) and embryofetal toxicity through maternal exposure (malformation, growth alterations and functional deficits).[270-275]  Studies show that glycol ether exposure is related to low motile sperm count in men.[276, 277]  Female workers exposed to ethylene glycol in the semiconductor manufacturing industry have been shown to have prolonged menstrual cycles, inhibition of ovulation and prolonged time to pregnancy.[278-281]

Hematological effects

Studies show that glycol ethers are a hematological toxin in rat studies and leads to anemia in workers exposed to this toxic compound.[282-284]

headache-depressionNeurologic effects

Overexposure to propylene glycol monomethyl ether (PGME) has been associated with increases in central nervous system depression in rat toxicology studies.[285]  It is known that ethylene glycol ethers (EGEs) cross the blood-brain barrier and acute intoxication with these compounds causes disturbances of motor coordination, headaches, permanent cognitive dysfunction, central nervous system (CNS) depression and occasionally convulsions in humans [286].

Alzheimers-Disease2A recent rat study found that 4-week administration of a mixture of two ethylene glycol ethers (EGEs) decreased total antioxidant capacity and enhanced lipid peroxidation (oxidation of lipids) in the frontal cortex and hippocampus of the rats.  These are the same mechanisms involved in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.  The study concluded:

“The obtained results suggested that EGEs exerted adverse effects on the central nervous system (CNS) cells and may contribute in pathogenesis of neurodegenerative disorders.”[287]

How to Avoid Exposure: Start by checking out EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning (www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/) and avoid products with ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME).

4 Other Notable Environmental Chemicals that You Should Avoid

1.    Perchloroethylene/

Tetrachlorethylene (PERC) dry-cleaning-clothing

Perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, PCE, or PERC, is a chlorinated solvent long used in dry cleaning, industrial cleaning and production of other chemicals and consumer products. Biomonitoring surveys have detected it in the bodies of a significant number of Americans. It has been found in drinking water across the country.  The federal Environmental Protection Agency has declared tetrachloroethylene, or PERC, a chemical used by many dry cleaners, a “likely human carcinogen.”[288]

dry-cleaning-sign2Dry cleaners use dangerous chemical solvents that can stick to clothing. Most cleaners in the U.S. still use PERC as a solvent for dry cleaning.  A recent study by scientists at Georgetown University, published in 2011, in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, found high levels of residual PERC on dry-cleaned wool, cotton and polyester (what do you have on now?). Subsequent dry cleaning cycles intensified these concentrations.[289]  When inhaled, even low concentrations of PERC are known to cause respiratory and eye irritation, headache, dizziness and vision problems.  Once in the environment, the chemical breaks down into other known human carcinogens, including trichloroethylene (TCE) and vinyl chloride.

Health effects of PERCs

Based on toxicology, metabolism, animal studies, and human studies, occupational exposure to chlorinated aliphatic solvents (PERCs) has been associated with numerous adverse health effects, including central nervous system, reproductive, liver, and kidney toxicity, and carcinogenicity (initiation of cancer).[290]


Human exposure to PERCs can produce various types of cancer, including esophageal cancer, cervical cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, urinary bladder cancer, kidney cancer, leukemia and multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer).[291-295]

Neurotoxicity and mental illness

PERC exposure has been found to be toxic to the brain and nervous system and lead to neurobehavioral problems.[296, 297]  Studies have also linked prenatal and early childhood exposure to PERC-contaminated drinking water to mental illness, including bipolar disorder and PTSD.[298]

birth-defectsBirth defects

A 2009 study also linked exposure to PERC-contaminated drinking water to birth defects.[299]

How to Avoid Exposure:  Ask your cleaners what solvents they use. Watch out for perchloroethylene under any of its names (PERC, PCE, tetrachloroethylene), siloxane and hydrocarbon solvents.  Patronize cleaners that use liquid carbon dioxide or the wet-cleaning method.  Tetrachloroethylene can remain on clothes and evaporate into the air at home, unnecessarily exposing you and your family. Don’t leave dry cleaned items in the car for a long time because PERC vapors can build up inside the vehicle.  Air dry cleaned clothes outdoors.[300]

formaldehyde-home2.    Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is used in a vast array of industrial and consumer products, and there is widespread agreement that consumer exposures must be reduced to protect health.[301] It exists all around us in our homes, office buildings and automobiles and newer construction and material means increased exposure.  According to ICIS, an international chemical market research firm, nearly two-thirds of the formaldehyde market is for resins to make construction materials such as plywood, particle board, fiber board, laminate flooring, carpeting, foam underlays, insulation and for vehicle coatings and brake linings. Other major uses include plastics for electronic, automotive and consumer goods, polyurethane foam, and adhesives and sealants for construction and consumer goods, including children’s toys.  It is also used as the wet-strength resin added to paper products such as facial tissue, table napkins, and paper towels.

cosmeticsFormaldehyde is also a precursor to polyfunctional alcohols which are used to make paints and explosives.  The textile industry uses formaldehyde-based resins as finishers to make fabrics crease-resistant.[302a]  Formaldehyde-based materials are key to the manufacture of automobiles, and used to make components for the transmission, electrical system, engine block, door panels, axles and brake shoes. There are also compounds known as “formaldehyde releasers” found in cosmetics and personal care products such as shampoos and conditioners which are known to release formaldehyde into these products, even those intended for children.[302b] The value of sales of formaldehyde and derivative products was over $145 billion in 2003, about 1.2% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States and Canada. Including indirect employment, over 4 million people work in the formaldehyde industry across approximately 11,900 plants in the U.S. and Canada.[303]

danger-formaldehydeHealth Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure

Acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) exposures have been shown to cause respiratory symptoms and irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract. Human studies have suggested an association between formaldehyde exposure and various cancers, including lung and nasopharyngeal cancer.[304] In 2011, the U.S. National Toxicology Program described formaldehyde as “known to be a human carcinogen“.[305]  But it has also been shown to be toxic to the brain and nervous system, white blood cells (immune system), the lungs, the reproductive system and human DNA.[306]  Let’s take a closer look at the various health effects linked to formaldehyde exposure:

formaldehyde-effects-eyesEffects Due to Acute Exposure

Formaldehyde is known to induce acute poisoning and cause irritation, as well as other immunotoxic effects. It is a highly reactive chemical that readily reacts with biological tissues, particularly the mucous tissues lining the respiratory tract and the eyes.[307,308]  Acute mucus membrane irritation is the most common adverse effect of formaldehyde exposure, often leading to dry skin, dermatitis, tearing eyes, sneezing, and coughing.[309-312]  Skin sensitization and dermal allergic reactions following dermal exposure to formaldehyde has been well documented.[313-318]  Short exposures to high level formaldehyde are identified to cause a sudden onset of asthmatic symptoms called reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS).[319-321]  It was reported that the likelihood for the development of allergic asthma increases proportionately with level of indoor formaldehyde concentration, especially when levels exceed 0.08 ppm.[321-327]

Effects Due to Chronic Exposure

formaldehyde-respiratory-effectsUpper and Lower Respiratory Tract Toxicity

Long-term exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde, especially in the occupational setting, has been designated as the cause of irritation and pain such as upper and lower airway irritation, eye irritation, degenerative diseases, coughing, wheezing, body sores, chest pain, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite.[328-329]  Long-term occupational formaldehyde exposure is also reported to be responsible for such chronic health effects as inflammatory and hyperplastic changes of the nasal mucosa, pharyngeal congestion, chronic pharyngitis, chronic rhinitis and loss of olfactory (sense of smell) function.[330-334]


Chronic exposure to formaldehyde can be responsible for the symptoms of neurasthenia which include headaches, dizziness, sleep disorders, and memory loss. Many reports indicate that chronic exposure to formaldehyde increased the chances of headache and dizziness by 30%–60%.[335-337]  Formaldehyde appears to have neurotoxic characteristics with systemic toxic effects. It is thus hypothesized that inhalation of formaldehyde, during the early postnatal period, can cause some neurological diseases with aging.[338]

cigarette-smokingIt was also recognized that apart from age and gender, environmental tobacco smoking (ETS) is perhaps the most consistent nongenetic risk factor for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).[339, 340]  (Recall that formaldehyde is an ingredient of tobacco.) ALS is a fatal, neurodegenerative disease caused by the degeneration of motor neurons system that controls voluntary muscle movement.  In an investigation conducted by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II, more than 1 million individuals were examined over time. Based on this study, it was concluded that individuals who reported formaldehyde exposure in the workplace (e.g., beauticians, pharmacists, morticians, chemists, laboratory technicians, physicians, veterinarians, dentists, firefighters, photographers, printers, and nurses) had a 34% higher rate of ALS than the non-exposure group.[341]

formaldehyde-respiratory-effects2Pulmonary Function Damage

In repetitive human exposure under occupational (or residential) conditions, formaldehyde has led to symptoms associated with irritation of the upper-respiratory tract and decreased pulmonary function.[342-347]


Hematotoxicity is defined as toxicity to the blood and hematopoietic (blood-forming) system caused by chemical exposure, often resulting in decreased blood cell counts. It was demonstrated that long-term exposure of formaldehyde can decrease the number of white blood cells (an important part of your immune system).[348-350]  A report by Huang et al. revealed that a previously healthy woman experienced lower than normal counts of white blood cells, red blood cells, platelet, and hemoglobin, just after 3 months of moving into a newly remodeled apartment.[351, 352]

pregnancyReproductive Toxicity

The potential role of formaldehyde as a teratogen (substance that causes birth defects) and its impacts on human reproduction are still a matter of scientific controversy. Until recently, very limited research has been conducted to specifically address such aspects of formaldehyde. However, a few studies found menstrual disorder and dysmenorrhea in women who were occupationally exposed to formaldehyde.[354, 355]  In a case-control study, a significant association between spontaneous abortion and formaldehyde exposure was found in Finnish women who worked in pathology or histology laboratories for more than 3 days per week.[356] Another study focusing on female wood workers reported significantly decreased frequency of pregnancies in women exposed to high formaldehyde levels.[357]

genotoxicityGenotoxicity (Toxicity to the DNA)

It was reported that formaldehyde exposure can induce DNA and chromosomal damage in human peripheral blood cells.[358, 359]  A line of evidence indicated that formaldehyde is capable of directly reacting with DNA and producing genotoxic effects on portal-of-entry tissues, especially after exceeding liver biotransformation capacities.[360, 361]  Chinese workers exposed to formaldehyde showed an increase in DNA damage in peripheral lymphocytes, when measured by single cell gel electrophoresis.[362-367]


Based on comprehensive research and large-scale human studies conducted internationally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen that can cause nasopharyngeal cancer.[368]  According to this classification, formaldehyde is “a probable human carcinogen” under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure.[369]  The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) reported formaldehyde as a “known human carcinogen” in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.[370]  There is sufficient evidence for a linkage between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer, nasal and paranasal cancer, and leukemias.[371-373]  Increased incidences of leukemia have also been reported in several occupational epidemiologic studies.[374-375]

formaldehyde-skin-productsHow to Avoid Exposure:  You cannot avoid formaldehyde exposure completely but there are some steps you can take to avoid unnecessary exposure through products such as cosmetics and skin products.  Check the label carefully, both for the ingredient formaldehyde itself and for the seven common “formaldehyde releasers” listed on the following EWG website: http://www.ewg.org/research/exposing-cosmetics-cover/formaldehyde-releasers

Or let EWG do the research for you. Check out the products in EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/).  It contains information on more than 77,000 products and their ingredients. This database highlights toxic substances like formaldehyde — and those insidious formaldehyde releasers.

hand-lotion3.    Parabens

Parabens are a group of artificial preservatives commonly found in many different cosmetics and body care products which have been in use since the 1920s. Parabens are used to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold in cosmetic products, increasing its shelf life. Studies suggest parabens can cause skin disorders and allergic reactions and act as endocrine disruptors in the human body and have been linked to breast cancer.[376]  In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tested urine samples from a group of 100 adults and found parabens in nearly all samples.[377]  Cosmetics typically contain mixtures of parabens. Five different parabens are fairly common in cosmetics: methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, and butylparaben (measured in combination with isobutylparaben); benzylparaben is less common.[378]

cosmeticsHow are we exposed to parabens?

Parabens are present in a wide variety of cosmetics and body care products, including moisturizers, face and skin cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, sunscreens, deodorants and antiperspirants, shaving gels, toothpastes, makeup, and many others. They are commonly used in sunscreens, in particular.  They are also used as preservatives in food and beverages, and in some medications. Daily use of body care products can result in repeated, direct exposure to parabens. Parabens have also been detected in household dust.[379]

allergic-skin-reactionWhat are the potential health effects of paraben exposure?

Studies show that parabens can cause skin disorders and allergic reactions, act as endocrine disruptors in the human body in both males and females, are toxic to human DNA and have been linked to breast cancer.[380, 381]  Let’s take a closer look at this research:

Skin and allergic reactions

Parabens have been shown to irritate the skin, causing atopic dermatitis and allergic skin reactions.[382-386]

endocrine-disruptor-effects4Endocrine disruption

A wide range of in vitro and in vivo laboratory studies indicate that parabens are estrogenic, meaning they can mimic the hormone estrogen, and act as endocrine disruptors, disrupting normal function of the hormone system.[387-395]  A recent study by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health linked one type of paraben to impaired fertility in women.[396]  A study published just this month showed that parabens cross the placenta and enter the fetal circulation of pregnant mothers.[397]

fight-against-breast-cancerBreast cancer

There is growing concern in the scientific literature that paraben exposure can increase breast cancer risk.[398-402]  In a 2004 study, traces of 5 different parabens were found in the breast cancer tumors of 19 of 20 women examined with methylbarapen (commonly found in sunscreens, deodorants and cosmetics) representing 62% of the total paraben recovered in the extractions.[403]  More recent lab studies have since shown that parabens increase proliferation of breast cancer cells.[404-407]  A recent study published only two months ago showed that in vitro, parabens can influence not only proliferation but also migratory and invasive properties of human breast cancer cells.[408]

 Have these chemicals been regulated?

The European Union banned use of sodium methylparaben in fragrance because it can strip skin of pigment (SCCPNFP 1999, 2000). While FDA limits the levels of parabens allowed in foods and beverages, it does not regulate these chemicals in cosmetics and body care products.[409]

paraben-free-productsHow to Avoid Exposure: Because parabens are found in many everyday products, some exposure may be unavoidable. One way to reduce exposure is to switch to paraben-free cosmetics and body care products. Johnson & Johnson agreed to stop using most parabens in 2012, but they can still be found in numerous cosmetics.  Read the labels carefully to spot products that contain parabens, especially the long-chained varieties—propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben.[410]  

antibacterial-soap4.    Triclosan

Triclosan is an artificial antimicrobial chemical used to kill bacteria on the skin and other surfaces. It is used in a variety of cosmetics and everyday products. Triclosan is the most common active ingredient in “antibacterial” liquid hand soaps, and is also found in toothpastes, deodorants, face and body washes, and acne treatments, among others. Besides cosmetics, triclosan is found in an increasing number of everyday items, such as dishwashing detergent, kitchen tools, toys, trash bags, bedding, bathmats, socks, and footwear.[411]  However, a scientific advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that “antibacterial” soaps, like those containing triclosan, were no better than regular soap and water at killing germs or reducing the spread of infection.[412]  The American Medical Association recommends that triclosan and other “antibacterial” products not be used in the home, as they may promote antibiotic resistance in bacteria, because while repeated use kills most bacteria, this can allow resistant strains to flourish.[413]

triclosan-productsHow common is triclosan exposure?

Widespread use has led to detection of triclosan in the breast milk, blood, and urine of ordinary people.[414-419]  It was found in the urine of 61 percent of 90 girls ages 6 to 8 tested in a 2007 study by Mount Sinai School of Medicine.[420]  Urine samples of triclosan have recently been shown to be reliable indicators of exposure.[421]  In 2002, scientists found triclosan in 58 percent of 85 streams across the U.S.[422], most likely from discharges of treated wastewater.  The amount of triclosan in the wastewater stream is estimated to be as much as 3 to 5 milligrams per person per day from residences alone [423]; in addition, substantial discharges of this antimicrobial agent are expected from laundries, hair salons, medical facilities, and many other commercial and industrial sites. Optimal water treatment can result in degradation and removal of 95 percent of triclosan [424]; however, small amounts may pass through the treatment plants to receiving waters.[425] Triclosan also has been found to contaminate household dust.[426]  CDC’s national survey indicates that triclosan contaminates the bodies of 75% of the American population.[427]

trouble-with-triclosanWhat are the potential health effects of triclosan exposure?

Although the majority of triclosan is eliminated from the blood through the urine, triclosan can accumulate in the liver and fatty tissue and build up in the bodies of people and animals over time.  However, it does not have the same potential to accumulate as bisphenyl A.[428]  Triclosan has been identified as an endocrine disruptor, therefore, it has the potential to affect the function of numerous organs, such as the thyroid and reproductive organs.  It has been associated with dysfunction of the following endocrine organs:


Human and animal studies have found evidence that exposure to triclosan leads to decreased levels of total triiodothyonine (T3) and thyroxine (T4).[429-434]  T3 and T4 are the thyroid hormones used to stimulate the thyroid receptors of all the cells of the body to drive all metabolic processes. Thyroid hormones are critical for normal growth and development of humans and animals; the developing brain of a child is particularly vulnerable to damage caused by disruption of the thyroid system.  Studies have shown abnormal development of offspring of animals exposed to triclosan.[435-439]

triclosan-hormone-disruptionEndocrine disruption and breast cancer

Triclosan may also disrupt other critical hormone systems. Recent evidence from various animal studies suggests that triclosan may have previously unrecognized endocrine disrupting properties. Research has predominantly suggested impacts to the reproductive system.[440-446]  A 2008 lab study found triclosan to exert both estrogenic and androgenic effects on human breast cancer cells. [447]

immune-suppressionImmunosuppressive Effects

Human natural killer (NK) cells are a first line immune defense against tumor cells and virally infected cells. If their function is impaired, it leaves an individual more susceptible to cancer development or viral infection. The ability of environmental compounds, such as triclosan, to suppress the function of NK cells could contribute to increased risk of cancer development. A 2011 lab study found that triclosan diminished the function of human NK cells’ ability to lyse (kill) cancer cells by 87%![448]

A recent review reported that studies support an increase in peanut allergy prevalence in children and exposure to triclosan and having certain genetic mutations associated with food sensitization![449]


Recent evidence suggests that triclosan exposure may alter cancer risk, although human studies are lacking in both number and scope.[450]  Three studies have investigated triclosan’s estrogenic action in cultured cancer cells suggesting that triclosan may induce proliferation but also inhibit cell proliferation in the presence of estradiol.[451-453]  One of these studies added confirmation that triclosan is intrinsically estrogenic at concentrations consistent with those detected in humans.[454]  Triclosan’s actions are similar to other xenoestrogens such as bisphenol A, parabens, and polychlorinated biphenyls in that it is able to bind to estrogen receptors and induce proliferation in cultured estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells.[455,456]   However, whether triclosan raises or lowers risk of cancer through estrogen-related pathways, and possible effect modification by estradiol, have not been examined in human studies.

Animal studies of triclosan exposure and cancer development have included long-term studies of its carcinogenicity but observed no increase in carcinogenesis.[457]  However, one study did observe the appearance of liver tumors in mice following 18 mwater-quality-5onths of exposure to 0–200 mg/kg/day triclosan in diet.[458]  Overall, however, the results of animal studies to date have been mixed, showing null, inverse, and positive associations.[459]

Recent research shows that triclosan in tap water can react with residual chlorine from standard water disinfecting procedures to form a variety of chlorinated byproducts at low levels, including chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen.[460]  A study published in 2007 illustrated that, under some circumstances, triclosan triggered the production of chloroform in amounts up to 40% higher than background levels in chlorine-treated tap water.[461]  Triclosan has also been shown to degrade into a form of dioxin, a class of chemicals linked to a broad range of toxicities including cancer.[462]

How is Triclosan regulated?

Triclosan is regulated by FDA when used in cosmetics and for medical applications, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when used as an antibacterial pesticide (in products that make “antibacterial” claims), and by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) when used in ordinary consumer products that do not make specific “antibacterial” claims. Current regulations do not take into account concerns regarding hormone disruption or formation of toxic byproducts, nor do they fully account for the potential for multiple exposures through the broad variety of triclosan-treated everyday products.[463]

get-the-scoop-on-soapHow to Avoid Exposure:  Switch to triclosan-free soaps, cosmetics and body care products. Avoid body care products, especially liquid hand soaps, labeled “antibacterial,” and always check the list of ingredients. If you use a skin disinfectant, use an alcohol hand rub or rinse. Avoid “antibacterial” dishwashing detergents, cleaning products, and other items – there is no evidence that these products protect your health. Triclosan is approved for use in over 140 different types of products, and most of these are not required to have ingredient labels. Vague claims such as “protection against mold,” “odor-fighting” or “keeps food fresher, longer,” may also indicate the presence of triclosan. Because triclosan is found in many everyday products, some exposure may be unavoidable. [464]


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