Most Toxic Household Chemicals

The Silent Threats: 6 Most Toxic Household Chemicals According to Experts

A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that over 100 everyday-products contain chemicals linked to cancer or problems with reproduction and development.

Here are the 6 most toxic household chemicals you should steer clear of at all costs.

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1. DEA – Diethanolamine

DEA is listed as an ingredient in a variety of products, including:

  • Soaps
  • Lotions
  • Hair products (such as shampoos)
  • Household cleaners
  • Other products that are creamy or foamy in nature, like shaving creams

Risks of Exposure to DEA

DEA is classified as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). When DEA reacts with other preservatives in personal care products, it can form nitrosamines. 

Nitrosamines are chemicals identified by both the IARC and the U.S. National Toxicology Program as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” This means there is a potential link between DEA exposure and an increased risk of cancer.

Consumer advocates recommend avoiding not only DEA but also other ethanolamines (such as monoethanolamine, MEA, and triethanolamine, TEA) due to the potential for these compounds to form nitrosamines and their associated health risks.

2. Formaldehyde

According to this study, Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasers can be present in a range of products, including:

  • Some cosmetics
  • Hair straighteners and dyes
  • Nail polishes
  • Water-based personal care products (e.g., shampoos and liquid baby soaps) that use certain preservatives

Besides formaldehyde itself, compounds like DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, glyoxal, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and quaternium-15 are mentioned as preservatives in water-based personal care products. These compounds can release formaldehyde gas over time, potentially exposing individuals to formaldehyde.

Risks of Exposure to Formaldehyde

  • Irritation: Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde fumes is known to irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. This can lead to discomfort and respiratory symptoms in individuals exposed to formaldehyde-containing products.
  • Carcinogenic Potential: Formaldehyde is classified as a known carcinogen. Higher exposures to formaldehyde, particularly over longer periods of time, have been linked to more severe health risks, including the development of nose and throat cancers. Certain workers, such as hair stylists and manicurists, who are exposed to formaldehyde-containing products over extended durations, may be at increased risk.

3. Phthalates

Phthalates are industrial chemicals that are found in a wide range of products and environments. They are used to make plastics and other materials more flexible, durable, and fragrant. Here are some common sources of phthalate exposure:

  • Plastic Products: Phthalates are added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. They can be found in plastic containers, toys, food packaging, and vinyl flooring.
  • Personal Care Products: Many personal care items like lotions, shampoos, perfumes, deodorants, and nail polishes contain phthalates to enhance their fragrance and texture.
  • Cosmetics: Phthalates can be present in cosmetics such as foundation, eye makeup, and lipstick. They may not always be listed on ingredient labels but can be hidden under the term “fragrance.”
  • Food and Beverage Packaging: Phthalates can leach into food and beverages from packaging materials, especially when exposed to heat or acidic conditions.
  • Medications: Some medications are coated with phthalates for controlled release, which can lead to exposure.
  • Airborne Exposure: Phthalates can be present in the air, especially in indoor environments. They can be released as vapors or particles from products like blinds, shower curtains, and flooring materials.

Risks of Exposure to Phthalates

Exposure to phthalates has raised concerns due to their potential adverse health effects, especially on reproductive and developmental health. Here are some of the risks associated with phthalate exposure:

  • Reproductive and Fertility Issues: Phthalates are known as hormone-disrupting chemicals that can interfere with the body’s hormone production, elimination, or binding. They have been linked to fertility problems in both men and women. In women, exposure to phthalates may result in reduced fertility, poor egg and embryo quality, and an increased risk of miscarriage.
  • Developmental Effects: Studies on animals have shown that prenatal exposure to phthalates can lead to reproductive organ abnormalities, which can affect a lifetime of reproductive health. There is concern that similar effects may occur in humans.
  • Miscarriage Risk: Higher levels of phthalate exposure have been associated with an increased risk of miscarriage, particularly in women undergoing fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF).
  • Endocrine Disruption: Phthalates are considered endocrine disruptors because they can interfere with the endocrine system, which regulates hormones. This disruption can have far-reaching effects on various bodily functions.
  • Chronic Health Conditions: Some studies have suggested potential links between phthalate exposure and chronic health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and respiratory problems, although more research is needed in these areas.
  • Environmental Impact: Phthalates can also have environmental consequences as they can leach into soil and water, potentially affecting ecosystems.

4. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

Here are some common products where PFAS have been used:

  • Cookware: Non-stick pans and pots, especially those with Teflon coatings, may contain PFAS to make them non-stick.
  • Food Packaging: Some fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, and pizza boxes are treated with PFAS to repel grease and liquids.
  • Stain-Resistant Fabrics: Carpets, upholstery, and clothing, particularly those labeled as stain-resistant or water-repellent, may contain PFAS.
  • Outdoor Gear: Waterproof jackets, tents, and hiking boots often use PFAS to make them water-resistant.
  • Cosmetics: Some cosmetics, such as foundation, mascara, and eyeliner, may contain PFAS for water and smudge resistance.
  • Dental Floss: Certain dental floss products have been found to contain PFAS for smooth glide and durability.
  • Electronics: PFAS have been used in the manufacturing of electronics, including semiconductors and wiring insulation.
  • Cleaning Products: Some household cleaning products, particularly those marketed as grease removers or stain removers, may contain PFAS.
  • Car Care Products: Certain car wax and detailing products use PFAS to provide water-repellent and protective properties.

Risks of Exposure to PFAS 

  • Liver Impairment: There is consistent evidence from rodent experiments and epidemiological studies that PFAS exposure can increase the risk of liver impairment, including nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Oxidative Stress: PFAS, once inside cells, have been shown to increase oxidative stress, which can lead to structural damage associated with a wide range of conditions, including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
  • DNA Impact: PFAS can penetrate the nucleus of cells, where DNA resides, potentially affecting gene expression and cellular functions.
  • Endocrine System Disruption: There is suspicion that PFAS may disrupt the endocrine system, potentially affecting metabolism and energy balance, which can have implications for obesity and related health issues.
  • Prenatal and Developmental Effects: PFAS exposure during pregnancy and early development may lead to lower birth weight, which can have long-term health consequences for the child, including an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
  • Immune System: There is concern that PFAS exposure may impact the immune system, making individuals potentially more susceptible to certain diseases or infections.
  • Brain and Neurological Effects: While it’s challenging to define the specific effects of PFAS on the brain, there is concern about their potential impact on neurological health, including conditions like ADHD and autism.

5. Flame Retardants

Here are some of the products where flame retardants have been identified:

  • Food: Flame retardants, such as PBDEs, have been discovered in lipid-heavy food items, including butter, peanut butter, bacon, salmon, chili with beans, and sliced lunch meat.
  • Consumer Products: Flame retardants have been used in a wide range of consumer products, including furniture, bedding, clothing, and baby products. They are often sprayed onto fabrics and foams used in these items.
  • Homes and Offices: Flame retardants have been detected in indoor environments, including homes and offices, where they can be found in dust particles that settle on floors and surfaces.
  • Transportation: Flame retardants have been found in transportation settings, including airplanes, where they can leach from seats and other materials. They are also present in cars and trains.
  • Outdoor Environment: Flame retardants can be transported by water and winds, spreading across the environment. They can settle on outdoor surfaces and be carried away from their original source.
  • Dust: Flame retardants often attach to dust particles, which can settle indoors and outdoors, and may pose a risk, especially to young children who may ingest dust by putting their hands in their mouths.
  • Children’s Toys: Flame retardants, such as chlorinated tris, have been found in children’s toys, specifically in a polyester tunnel intended for play. Manufacturers use flame retardants in children’s products to meet flammability standards.

Risks of Exposure to Flame Retardants

While not all flame retardants pose health risks, concerns have been raised about formulations containing chlorine, bromine, or phosphorus. 

Research, often conducted on lab animals, has linked various flame retardants to health problems, including cancer, disruption of hormones, harm to the reproductive system, and neurodevelopmental issues. 

Some studies suggest potential health effects in humans as well, including increased cancer risk and cognitive impairments.

6. Benzene 

The natural gas delivered to homes contains several chemicals, including benzene, which was detected in 95 percent of the samples in a recent study.

Benzene is one of the chemicals found in natural gas. It is highly flammable, colorless or light yellow, and is also found in products made from coal and oil, including plastics, resins, nylon fibers, rubbers, dyes, pesticides, vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, and gasoline.

Risks of Exposure to Benzene

  • Short-Term Exposure: Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene, in particular, can lead to various health issues, including drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, and irritation of the eyes and skin.
  • Longer-Term Exposure: Longer-term exposure to benzene can increase the risk of blood disorders and certain cancers like leukemia. Benzene is classified as a carcinogen, and continuous exposure over time can accumulate, leading some experts to suggest that there is no safe level of exposure to this chemical.

To learn how to reduce exposure to these chemicals, read our articles.

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