Girl Planting seeds

Something Stinks Under Your Sink

fragrance_shutterstock_180172166By Deirdre Imus, June 1, 2016
According to a new report released last week, a toxic chemical that is also a known hormone disruptor is more pervasive than ever. You may have just yawned upon reading that sentence, or thought to yourself, “What else is new, Deirdre?” Perhaps you’re experiencing fatigue when it comes to hysterical headlines about the various environmental toxins that are destroying human health.  Another day, another food to avoid, or toy to throw out, or cleaning product to scrutinize.

But turning a blind eye to such information because it bums you out or overwhelms you does little to change the harsh reality that these threats to our well-being – and especially to that of our children – persist. Ignoring them is exactly what the chemical industry wants; it’s how and why they continue producing harmful substances (well, that and an extremely powerful governmental lobby) despite emerging science linking such substances to a host of major health problems.

In this most recent report, called “What Stinks? Toxic Phthalates in Your Home,” data submitted to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection showed that phthalates (the serial hormone disruptor referenced earlier) are found in more household products than previously known. Aside from lobster and pine trees, Maine is also known for being a national leader in protecting the public from dangerous chemicals, and requires manufacturers to disclose their use of “high priority chemicals of concern” in consumer products sold in the state.

According to the “What Stinks?” report, sponsored by the advocacy groups Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm, phthalates are used for more than just softening plastics. It turns out they are also in “fragrance” for more than half of the 130 products in the report, including cleaners and household paints. “Fragrance” is a purposely vague term companies use to get away with not disclosing ingredients (such as phthalates) that people may recognize as detrimental to their health.

Beyond fragrance, phthalates were also found in reusable adhesive tabs for art projects, clothing and footwear (on shoelaces and drawstrings), toys, games, dolls, jewelry, and hair care products. Though Maine requires manufacturers to report the use of four phthalates in 130 products sold in the state, there are exemptions – like if a product is not intended for use by children (even though pregnant women are also vulnerable to the health effects of phthalates).

And what are the health effects of phthalates? As the report highlights, phthalates have been linked to lowered IQ; learning disabilities; behavioral problems; decreased fertility and increased risk of prostate and testicular cancer in men; and impaired immune function that may lead to asthma and allergies.

Avoiding phthalates is hard, but it is necessary.  Since they are rarely listed on product or food labels, you’ve got to do the work yourself. Be wary of terms like the aforementioned “fragrance,” which almost always indicates phthalates, especially in personal care products. Phthalates are also frequently found in flexible plastics made with PVC (vinyl), unless a label specifically states otherwise. This includes children’s toys, food containers, water bottles and other everyday items.  In aPlastic_toys_shutterstock_28200391 handout entitled “Phthalates: The Everywhere Chemical,” The National Institutes of Health offers a list of the names of common phthalate chemicals, and products in which they are routinely used. 

Another helpful way to determine if an item contains phthalates is to look for the number 3 inside the universal recycling symbol, or the letters V or PVC below it. Some products specifically indicate “phthalate-free,” but remember – the ingredient replacing it could be worse, if we even know what it is.

As the authors of the report rightly note, our nation’s chemical safety system is badly broken. Known toxins are routinely used in a wide range of products used by everyone from infants to the elderly, with little regard for public health. Until the government acknowledges this massive problem and assumes no product is safe until proven otherwise, such substances will continue to infiltrate our environments.

So until the government starts enacting laws to protect us from harmful chemicals in everyday products, educating ourselves and voting with our wallets are ways to make our voices heard. 

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