The EPA’s most worrisome toxins

Posted: January 14, 2013

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Uses: It hardens clear "polycarbonate" plastics, which are used in compact discs, plastic dinnerware, eyeglass lenses, toys, beverage bottles, and impact-resistant safety equipment. Also used in the linings of food cans, in dental sealants, and on cash register receipts.

Health concerns: BPA is considered estrogenic and has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. BPA also has been linked to many other disorders. Potential harm is considered highest for young children, because their bodies have immature systems for detoxifying chemicals.

How to limit exposure: Limit consumption of canned foods and canned liquid baby formula. Avoid plastics marked with the recycling code "7." Avoid microwaving baby food or drinks in plastic containers.

Nonylphenols, including nonylphenol ethoxylates

Uses: Laundry detergents, shampoos, household cleaners, latex paints.

Health concerns: NPs have been detected in human breast milk, blood, and urine, and are associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents. Fish exposed to low levels can become feminized. EPA concerns center mostly on industrial laundry workers.

How to limit exposure: This is difficult. Experts say to avoid using detergents, cleaning agents, and other products that contain nonylphenols, but many times they are not labeled. They recommend calling the manufacturer and asking. Some organizations, including the Environmental Working Group, publish guides to safer cleaning products.

PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals)

Uses: Widely used water, grease, and stain repellents. Contained in the coatings of nonstick cookware. Used to greaseproof paper and cardboard food packaging. Added to carpeting and clothing for stain protection.

Health concerns: They are bioaccumulative in wildlife and humans, and are persistent in the environment. They are toxic to laboratory animals and wildlife. The EPA says that "to date, significant adverse effects have not been found in the general human population. However, given the long half-life of these chemicals in humans (years), it can reasonably be anticipated that continued exposure could increase body burdens to levels that would result in adverse outcomes."

How to limit exposure: Avoid nonstick cookware. Avoid highly processed and fatty foods. Skip optional stain treatments. Use real plates instead of paper. Cook popcorn on the stove, not in microwave bags.

Flame retardants, including PBDE

Uses: To prevent the spread of fire, many versions of these chemicals are added to upholstered furniture and mattresses - including many products for babies - plus textiles, plastics, electronics, wire insulation.

Health concerns: PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics or other products in which they are used, making them more likely to leach out. "Certain PBDEs are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment," the EPA states. Concern is highest for children, who might crawl on the floor, get dust containing PBDEs on their hands, and then put their hands in their mouths.

How to limit exposure: PBDEs are being phased out, so beware of old foam items, which are most likely to contain PBDEs. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Clean carefully after removing old carpet and padding. When dusting, use a damp cloth or a cloth with microfibers that will trap and hold the dust better.


Uses: They make plastics more malleable, and are found in vinyl shower curtains, toys, vinyl flooring. They help lotions penetrate skin, so they are found in a wide variety of personal care products, including cosmetics, fragrances, and nail polish. Also found in air-fresheners and cleaning products.

Health concerns: Known to interfere with the production of male reproductive hormones in animals and considered likely to have similar effects in humans. The EPA is concerned about phthalates because of their toxicity and the evidence of pervasive human and environmental exposure to these chemicals. Phthalates have been detected in food and also measured in humans.

How to limit exposure: Manufacturers aren't required to list phthalates on the label, but any item listed as "fragrance" can be a chemical mixture containing phthalates. Buy cosmetics from companies that have pledged not to use phthalates. Avoid items with PVC, V, or the No. 3 recycling code on the item or its packaging.

SOURCES: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council

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