What are toxics?
Toxics is a term currently used to mean harmful chemicals produced by humans. It is similar in meaning to the words pollutants or contaminants.
The word toxin has a different meaning. A toxin is a poisonous chemical produced by an animal or plant. Examples are the active chemicals in snake venom or a poisonous mushroom.
What are PBDEs?
PBDEs stands for polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a group of chemicals used for many years as flame retardants in a wide range of household items. Exposure to PBDEs, especially in small children, has been linked to developmental abnormalities and serious health problems. Although PBDEs are no longer used as widely as they once were, they continue to contaminate our homes and the environment.
What are PBDEs doing to us?
PBDEs belong to a group of long-lasting chemicals called “persistent organic pollutants,” a group that also includes DDT and PCBs. They are easily absorbed by humans and animals, and they have serious health effects.
PBDEs interfere with important hormone systems that guide our development and maintain our health. Unborn babies and small children are at special risk. Exposure to PBDEs early in life can lead to developmental defects as well as learning and behavioral disorders. PBDEs are now found in the bodies of people all over the world, but people in the U.S. have the highest levels. Although the use of PBDEs is declining in the U.S. and elsewhere, contamination of our population continues to rise. Our children have higher levels than their parents, and people who consume meat and fish have 25% more PBDEs in their bodies than people who don’t.
Several European countries have banned all PBDEs, and many states, including Washington, have banned certain PBDE compounds. But the chemicals replacing them have health risks of their own, and no safe substitute for them has been found.
What are PBDEs doing in the arctic?
Flame retardants and other pollutants that are carried to the arctic by wind are a growing health threat to its animals and people. High PBDE levels have been found in birds, seals, beluga whales and especially in polar bears, already facing starvation due to effects of climate change. Traditional cultures that place a high value on hunting marine mammals and fish have an especially high risk of exposure.
How are PBDEs affecting Orcas?
PBDEs have been in use for over 30 years, but we’ve only recently learned the extent to which nearshore animals are now contaminated with these chemicals. PBDEs are similar to PCBs, another chemicals group with useful properties that were found to be highly toxic to living organisms. Both are extremely stable, enduring for decades in the environment. PCBs were banned over 30 years ago, but they’re still a major contaminant of marine ecosystems.
PBDEs use is now declining, yet their levels are still increasing exponentially in coastal marine mammals. Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas have 5 times the PBDEs levels found in other fish-eating orca populations of the Eastern Pacific.
How are orcas affected by high PBDE levels? Because Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales are protected from disturbance by the Endangered Species Act, scientists are limited in the ways they can gather information on these whales directly. Instead, they are studying the effects of PBDEs on harbor seals, which also have high exposure rates. They’ve found that seals with a diet high in PBDEs are more likely to develop reproductive and immune system abnormalities than seals with lower exposure rates. Other health disorders have been observed coastal marine mammals too; scientists are concerned that these might be linked to PBDEs as well.
What's the problem with pharmaceuticals?
Medicines and drugs are reaching aquatic environments at record levels. The medicines we ingest often stay active long after they leave our bodies. We compound the problem by flushing unused medications down the drain. Few wastewater facilities are are designed to remove them.
Many pharmaceuticals work by acting on our endocrine systems. In the environment they act on the endocrine systems of aquatic life, interfering with reproduction and development and impacting entire populations of organisms.
What can we do about pharmaceuticals?
There’s no easy solution in sight, but improving the way we treat our wastewater is essential. Find out if your wastewater is treated with advanced technology that can remove pharmaceuticals. If not, voice your support for an upgrade.
We can all make the effort to dispose of unused medications at medical waste pick up stations. If there are none in your community put them in the trash. Never flush pharmaceuticals down the drain.
What's wrong with lawn and garden products?
Chemicals applied to homes and lawns to control insects and weeds are are extremely dangerous. Long term exposure in humans has been linked to birth defects and cancer, and children are especially vulnerable.
The pesticides Atrazine and Chlorpyrifos are are no longer allowed in household products, but these highly toxic chemicals are used commercially on lawns and in agriculture. They reach us as residues in our food and water.
Whether flowing off a cornfield or a suburban lawn, pesticides cause lasting damage to our environment. Amphibians and fish with endocrine damage should be a warning to us.
You can learn about specific chemicals and their effects at Chem-Tox.com.
What can we do to avoid pesticides?
Go organic in your grocery shopping to reduce pesticide use in agriculture and in your diet. Go organic in your house and yard. Work with your neighbors to help make public spaces in your community pesticide-free.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics soft and flexible. They’re found in shower curtains, car interiors, food packaging, medical devices and toys. They’re also in cosmetics, perfumes, air fresheners and many other products in our homes. Phthalates are linked to cancer and birth defects.
We absorb phthalates by inhalation or through skin contact. Babies and unborn children are at greatest risk. Boys exposed early in life have a higher rate of reproductive disorders. Exposure in girls and women is linked to breast cancer. The EPA has now banned certain phthalates from baby products and cosmetics, but they’re still used in many household items. Phthalates are now common in marine and aquatic environments where they impact the health of aquatic life.
How do we stay away from phthalates?
Start by avoiding products made of vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) such as vinyl flooring & windows and toys made of PVC. In the kitchen use polyethylene plastic wrap in place of vinyl kitchen wrap.
Read product labels. Avoid buying products that list any these phthalate compounds among their ingredients: DEHP, DEP, DBP, DMP, DINP and BzPB.
What is BPA?
Bisphenol A (BPA) is an ingredient in polycarbonate plastic, widely used in food and beverage containers. It's also in the epoxy resin that lines the cans of most most canned food sold in the US, even products labeled organic. BPA is also found in certain medical devices and even tooth fillings, and it's present in the carbonless paper receipts we're given whenever we make a purchase.
Most of us pick up BPA from food and beverages we consume that were stored in containers containing the chemical. In our body BPA is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the hormone estrogen. Even low exposures may lead to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, early puberty and brain and reproductive disorders. The unborn fetus and newborn children are the most sensitive to exposure.
BPA was recently banned from many baby products, but it is not restricted for other uses. Consumer pressure has caused some companies to convert to BPA-free cans, but there is no requirement that food containers containing BPA be labeled. Some people have raised concerns about the safety of chemicals being used to replace BPA in food containers.
How can we avoid BPA?
Don’t buy food or beverages in polycarbonate plastic containers. Check the recycling codes printed on plastic food containers and avoid those labeled #3 and #7. (Containers made of #1 and #2 plastics are safe except when heated.) When possible choose canned goods labeled BPA-Free. Avoid handling carbonless paper receipts when you shop, and be sure to wash your hands whenever you do handle them.
What is triclosan?
Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent once only used in hospitals. Today triclosan is added to everyday consumer products such as body soaps, deodorant, toothpaste, children’s clothing and more, under the pretense of protecting consumers from harmful bacteria.
Instead of making us safer, Triclosan is an endocrine disruptor that causes reproductive abnormalities in animal studies and may lead to early puberty, fertility problems and cancer. It is linked to allergies and other health problems in children. Its widespread use is making bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which will lead to a public health crisis.
Triclosan goes down our drains into wastewater. It passes through our treatment plants into rivers and oceans. Triclosan is very toxic to plankton, and it’s now accumulating in the bodies of fish and marine mammals.
What can we do about Triclosan?
Triclosan appears under many names, such as Microban and Biofresh. Avoid any products that say “built-in antimicrobial protection” or that claim to be “antibacterial.” Help educate friends and neighbors about the hidden risks in using these products.
What are parabens?
Parabens are preservatives used in personal care products, such as deodorants, shampoos, lotions and cosmetics. Parabens are easily absorbed through the skin and they mimic the hormone estrogen, binding to cellular receptors for estrogen.
Parabens have been found in breast cancer tissue, suggesting they may increase the risk of breast cancer. They are also thought to be a factor in early puberty in girls.
When we shower, parabens go into wastewater and end up in the environment, leading to endocrine disruption in aquatic life. The European Union has recently banned several paraben compounds from use in cosmetic products, but they are not regulated in the U.S.
What can we do about parabens?
Before you buy personal care products, be sure to read the ingredient lists. Avoid Methyl and Propyl and Butyl and Ethyl Paraben additives butylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and methylparaben. They are all linked to health risks.
What are nonylphenols?
Nonylphenols and their chemical cousins are industrial grease-cutting chemicals. They’re also in many of our household cleaning products. When flushed down the drain they pass through wastewater treatment plants and later end up in soils, groundwater and the marine environment. They do not degrade in water and are highly toxic to aquatic life.
Nonylphenols are now common in human breast milk. They mimic the hormone estrogen, and lab experiments show they can cause serious reproductive and developmental defects.
The European Union has banned the production and use of nonylphenols, and other countries regulate and monitor their use. They are still widely used in the U.S.
How can we avoid nonylphenols?
Since nonylphenols are not labeled in commercial products, shopping for nonylphenol-free products can be difficult.
Some brands advertising their products as "green" may be free of them, but the best way to be nonylphenol-free is to make your own cleaning products.
It's easier than you think! Try these Green Cleaning Recipes from Rodale News.