10 Everyday Chemicals to Avoid at All Costs

10 Everyday Chemicals to Avoid at All Costs

Perhaps you remember an old popular variation of a DuPont slogan that said “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Although it’s true that chemistry has given us some outstanding products and has made our everyday lives easier and safer, it also has introduced many potentially dangerous and deadly items and substances, a great number of which were not adequately studied for their impact on people and the environment before they are put into wide general use.

We find ourselves surrounded by chemicals from the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep at night, and even then we don’t escape. Although it’s not possible to avoid every harmful chemical in our lives, we can take significant steps to stay away from and minimize our exposure to some of the major offenders to our health and well-being.

Aluminum. This soft metal has made its way into the medicine cabinets and kitchen cabinets of millions of homes. If you use aluminum pots and pans, aluminum foil, baking soda, antacids, antiperspirants, or aluminum cans, you’ve been exposed. How worried should you be?

Aluminum has been associated with a number of serious health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and breast cancer. For now, experts don’t agree about the toxicity of aluminum or its role in these diseases. As one British scientist noted in June 2016: “To ascertain if Alzheimer’s disease is a symptom of chronic aluminum intoxication over decades or breast cancer is aggravated by the topical application of an aluminum salt or if autism could result from an immune cascade initiated by an aluminum adjuvant requires that each of these is considered independently and in the light of the most up to date scientific evidence.”

If you are concerned about your exposure to this metal, aluminum is one of the easier elements to avoid. Replace any aluminum cookware and utensils, don’t buy aluminum foil or cans, and be sure to read the labels on baking soda, antacids, and antiperspirants for any aluminum content.

Read about your body on aluminum preservatives.

Arsenic. If you are the parent of young children, this chemical is especially important for you to understand because it can be found in juices and foods often fed to babies and toddlers: apple and grape juice as well as rice and rice-based products such as brown rice syrup. These products can contain both organic and inorganic arsenic, but it’s the latter one that raises the health red flag. Arsenic has been linked to bladder, kidney, lung, and skin cancers as well as other health issues.

Rather than apple or grape juice, provide your children with water, whole fruit, or diluted juices from other fruits (to reduce sugar intake). Substitute other cereals for your child, such as amaranth, quinoa, corn grits, or oatmeal instead of infant rice cereal. You can reduce the amount of arsenic in rice by rinsing it well before cooking and then using six cups of water for each one cup of rice, draining off the excess water before serving.

Bisphenol-A and Phthalates. Plastics are ubiquitous in our daily lives, appearing in items as varied as vinyl (PVC) shower curtains to food containers, water bottles, toys, store receipts, and soaps. Two plastic additives found in these and other products are bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, both of which are endocrine disruptors (mimicking natural hormones and having an ability to interfere with reproductive and endocrine processes). 

Regulators and manufacturers are slowly eliminating or reducing their use of these toxins, yet they can still be found in thousands of products. Some ways to avoid exposure to BPA and phthalates include never using any plastic containers to microwave food or beverages, using reusable stainless steel water bottles (BPA-free bottles may contain BPS, which is just as damaging as what it replaced), purchasing PVC-free items (e.g., shower curtains, tablecloths, backpacks, raincoats), avoiding personal care items with “fragrance” mentioned in the ingredient list (often indicates it contains phthalates), eliminating or significantly reducing your use of canned foods, and not taking store receipts (contain BPA; you can ask for an email copy instead if necessary or discard in the trash without touching it).

Read about 4 tips to avoid phthalates

Fever-reducing medications for kids. No parent wants to see their child suffer with a fever, but fever-reducing medications are not the way to treat it, according to Russell Blaylock, MD, board-certified neurosurgeon, health practitioner, and author. The body’s immune system automatically raises the body temperature to fight viral infections. If you give a child a fever-reducing drug such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, you weaken the immune response and can actually make the infection worse and last longer. If a child’s temperature reaches 105 degrees, then applying a cool cloth to help bring the temperature down slightly is recommended, says Blaylock, as well as keeping the child well covered and hydrated.

Flame retardants. Exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a type of flame retardant, is not safe for anyone, but it’s especially a problem for infants and toddlers. These young folks can experience damage to their reproductive system as well as to learning, memory, and motor skills as well as hearing when exposed to even minute doses during their development.

PBDEs are found in foam: in pillows, mattresses, carpet padding, and upholstered furniture. As these products age, the chemical is released as dust. The good news, however, is that use of PBDEs in these items was stopped in 2005. If you have older furniture or pillows made with foam and they are breaking down, you may want to replace them. Cleaning with a HEPA filter vacuum or using a HEPA air filter can help remove the particles from the air, carpet, and furniture.

PBDEs also were used in electronics (including cell phones and remotes) prior to 2014. Young children should not put these items into their mouth.

Fluoride. The health hazards of fluoride exposure has been in the news for decades, yet it continues to be used in our drinking waterand added to toothpaste and mouthwash. Although the American Dental Association claims the addition of fluoride to drinking water reduces tooth decay, the evidence doesn’t support the claim for children or adults. Fluoride can be especially harsh on the developing teeth of young children.

Too much fluoride is associated with various health problems, including discolored teeth, brittle bones, neurotoxicity, osteosarcoma, and pitted tooth enamel. You can call your local municipal water provider or the state department of environmental protection to learn if your water is fluoridated and at what level. You can avoid fluoride by installing a water filter system capable of eliminating nearly all of the toxin; they include reverse osmosis, activated alumina, and deionizers. Children especially should avoid using fluoridated mouthwash and toothpaste until they are old enough to know they need to spit them out and rinse with water.

Lead. Exposure to lead can cause damage to the nervous system (including learning disabilities, behavioral problems, reduced IQ), delayed development, kidney damage, fatigue, and abdominal pain. Fortunately, lead was banned from household paint and products marketed to children since 1978, yet old buildings may still have lead paint on the walls and ceilings. Lead also can be found in some imported jewelry, toys, and candies (from Mexico). 

If you live in a home that has surfaces painted before 1978, be sure they are in good repair. If lead paint needs to be removed, employ a lead-safe certified contractor to do the work and don’t stay in the home while it is being repaired. Do not give your children imported toys or kids’ jewelry, as they may contain lead.  

Mercury.  One of the primary ways to avoid exposure to this toxic metal is by limiting your consumption of shellfish and fish to those least likely to have higher concentrations of mercury. These mainly include large fish such as shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish. Generally, the smaller the fish, the less likely they are to contain significant amounts of mercury and other dangerous chemicals. Children, pregnant women, and women who are trying to conceive should be especially careful to choose fish and shellfish that are the least contaminated.

Other possible sources of mercury in your home and environment include some skin lightening creams, older thermometers, fluorescent and CFL bulbs, some antiques, and button batteries. Learn how to handle and recycle these items properly and safely.

Pesticides. These potentially cancer-causing substances can be found not only on conventionally grown produce but in gardens, parks, golf courses, and lawns as well. Pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, ranging from nausea and vomiting to lung irritation, allergic reactions, dizziness, seizures, headache, muscle weakness, coma, and death. Children are especially susceptible, and exposure has been associated with the development of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and neurobehavioral problems.

Avoid exposure to pesticides by choosing organic produce, washing fruits and vegetables with a soft brush and water before consuming, using only natural pest control in your home and on your lawn and garden, and not allowing your children to play in areas treated with pesticides. In many cities and states, public lands that are treated with pesticides must be posted as such.

Petroleum by-products. Many of the personal care products for children and adults (e.g., body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, hair gels, soaps, makeup) contain petroleum by-products, which may be contaminated with carcinogenic substances. Petroleum by-products also can clog your pores, make acne worse, and affect the immune system.

Read how petroleum in cosmetics ruins your skin and your health

For example, triclosan and triclocarban are two petroleum by-products found in antibacterial soaps and body washes. The Food and Drug Administration recently ruled that they must be removed from such products because they may harm human health, including hormone disruption and damage to the immune system. However, triclosan can still be added to body washes, acne products, furniture, toys, clothes, and cookware to reduce contamination from bacteria.

Read labels carefully before buying personal care products or items that may have been treated to prevent bacterial contamination (e.g., clothes, furniture, etc). Some examples of petroleum by-products include butylene glycol, dipropylene, disodium EDTA, mineral oil, paraffin, petrolatum, polybutene,
polyethylene, triclosan, tetrasodium EDTA, and trisodium EDTA.

Image via Grey World

Blaylock R MD. We need fever to fight flu.
Earth 911. How to recycle items containing mercury
Environmental Working Group. Toxic triclosan banned from soap but still lingers in consumer products
Exley C. The toxicity of aluminum in humans. Morphologie 2016 Jun; 100(320):51-55
Food and Drug Administration. Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish 1990-2010
Mercola.com. No evidence for fluoridated water to result in less cavities
Penn State Extension. Pesticide education

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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.