Even seemingly harmless household objects—from your sofa to your cookware, wallpaper, and even a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup—may harbor hazardous chemicals that can adversely affect your health. These toxins can stir up your allergies and even lower your body's immune response, making you more acceptable to illnesses such as cold and flu. In fact, toxins are now so pervasive in our homes and environment that some babies are born “pre-polluted,” according to testimony before a Senate subcommittee.
As evidence, Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, cited 10 cases of babies who were born with more than 200 synthetic chemicals in their blood. Overall, more than 80,000 chemicals are now used today, most of which haven’t been tested for safety.
Here’s a look at some surprising places where toxins may lurk in your home—and what you can do to protect yourself.
In the latest shocker, a pilot study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reports that when hot food is served in plastic bowls made from melamine, the chemical leaches into the food, raising risk for kidney stones.
Popular because they’re unbreakable, melamine bowls are widely sold online, often in colorful patterns designed for kids. Melamine is FDA-approved for use in plastics, but not as a food additive. The chemical made headlines in 2008 when some Chinese manufacturers of baby formula mixed melamine with milk powder, resulting in six deaths and 300,000 babies getting sick after drinking the tainted formula.
In the study, volunteers who ate one serving of hot noodle soup from melamine bowls excreted eight times as much melamine in their urine as those who ate the same soup from ceramic bowls. While it’s unclear if the amount found in the study would cause any harm, melamine has been linked to kidney failure and even cancer in animal studies, according to the World Health Organization.
How to protect yourself: The FDA warns against using melamine dishes in the microwave. You may also want to use ceramic dishes for hot foods.
Found in over half of all couches tested in a recent Duke University study, flame retardants are chemicals added to furniture to reduce the risk of fire. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals—which settle into household dust, get on our hands and enter our bodies when we eat—are also associated with endocrine disruption, reproductive disorders, and possibly even cancer.
How to protect yourself: Reducing dust levels by vacuuming your couch with an air filter (called a HEPA filter) will lower your risk of exposure. And since the contaminated dust enters the body by getting on our hands and in our mouths when we eat, frequent hand washing is also helpful. (This also reduces your risk of coming down with something like the flu.)
Although we don’t usually think of light as a toxin, studies link nighttime light to breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Exposure to light at night suppresses the production of the hormone melatonin, disrupting the body’s circadian rhythms and increasing our risk of cancer.
Working at night appears to be linked to an increase in rates of prostate, colon, lung, bladder, and pancreatic cancer as well, according to a new study on night work published in the American Journal of Epidemiology which analyzed information on close to 4,000 men, including over 3,000 who had been diagnosed with cancer.
How to protect yourself: It’s often tempting to burn the midnight oil, but avoiding all-nighters whenever possible is a better option. If you must work at night, using fewer lamps and switching to less intense light bulbs may be helpful. Worried about light from outside of your home filtering into your bedroom while you’re sleeping? Consider blocking it with blackout curtains.
Phthalates, chemicals used in plastic to enhance its flexibility, are ubiquitous. Not only are they found in shower curtains, wallpaper, and vinyl mini-blinds, they’re also in many detergents and personal care products.
These chemicals appear to disrupt the body’s hormone system, and may be linked to diseases such as asthma and allergies. Prenatal exposure to some phthalates is connected with disruptive and problematic behaviors (such as ADHD, conduct disorders and aggressiveness) in children aged 4 to 9, according to a 2010 study led by Mount Sinai researchers.
How to protect yourself: Avoid PVC products when possible, replacing them with metal, glass, ceramic or wooden products. Buy plastic bags and wrap made from polyethylene. Avoid household products with “fragrance” listed as an ingredient, as synthetic fragrances often contain phthalates. When buying a new plastic shower curtain, consider airing it outside for a day or two. This allows air-born phthalates to dissipate.
Cookware with non-stick coatings may be easier to wash, but it also contains PFCs, which can have harmful effects on fetal and postnatal growth and even contribute to obesity and diabetes. Elevated exposure of these chemicals is associated with an impaired humoral immune response to routine childhood immunizations in 5 and 7-year-old children, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found a link to low birth rate as well. And nonstick cookware can release toxic chemicals when used at very high temperatures.
How to protect yourself: Consider replacing cookware such as Teflon with stainless steel or cast iron, especially if you are pregnant. Do not put nonstick cookware in an oven at high temperatures (above 500 degrees). Run an exhaust fan while using nonstick cookware.
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