This post originally appeared on WomansDay.com:
No one wants to be exposed to dangerous chemicals. That’s why manufacturers sometimes phase out one chemical, and replace it with something that doesn’t spark health fears. But because of toothless chemical safety regulations in our country, there’s little that prevents those new chemicals from being just as bad as—or worse than—the chemicals they are designed to replace. Because advance safety testing is scant, these kinds of useless substitutions are all too common. Here’s what you need to know about chemical replacements in your products. (Tweet this)
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is widely used in clear plastics. Unfortunately, BPA mimics estrogen in the body, and therefore could be harmful to babies and children. In 2012, the FDA banned it from baby bottles, but not from other products. Many shoppers would rather avoid it altogether, which is why manufacturers routinely tout “BPA-free” on their water bottles. But the standard replacement for BPA—bisphenol S, or BPS—is closely related to its infamous predecessor, and it may disrupt normal cell functioning, leading to serious health problems.
What you can do: Choose bottles without BPA, BPS, or BP-anything. Splurge on a reusable stainless steel or glass water bottle, or look for a polypropylene plastic bottle (marked with “PP,” or recycling code 5).
PLASTIC FOOD CONTAINERS
Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly added to plastics to make them flexible. But they also mimic hormones in the body, interfering with normal fetal development and possibly increasing the risk of reproductive health impacts, such as reduced sperm quality. Concerns about DEHP, one of the most widely used of the phthalates, has led to its replacement in recent years in hundreds of products by other phthalates known as DINP and DIDP. The kicker? The replacement chemicals have been linked to high blood pressure and insulin resistance in adolescents, and birth defects in baby boys. If you are worried about the health effects of phthalates, which are found in a whole host of consumer products, keeping them out of your food is a good place to start.
What you can do: Avoid plastic wrap and plastic food containers when possible; use tin foil, glass jars, and ceramic containers instead. Or, choose polyethylene or polypropylene containers (marked with recycling numbers 2, 4, and 5), which do not have estrogenic chemicals in them. And never microwave food in a plastic container. If you must use plastic wrap, make sure it’s not directly touching your food, especially in the microwave.
A stain-resistant carpet seems like a great idea (hello, red wine). But several industrial chemicals used to repel stains are linked to a host of health problems. Older carpets with stain treatment probably included PFOA, the Teflon chemical linked to cancer and thyroid disease. A stain-resistant carpet from within the past decade more likely contains chemicals called PFASs, which build up in the body and are passed to babies through breast milk. Leading scientists are concerned about the health risks of PFASs.
What you can do: If you are buying a new carpet, look for untreated, natural materials like sisal or wool. Also, steer clear of wall-to-wall. Area rugs are easier to wash if you do get spills.
It has taken more than a decade, but Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which was used to make Teflon and linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and thyroid disease, has finally been completely phased out of production. But hold the champagne, because the chemicals harnessed to replace PFOA, known as PFASs, are now added to thousands of products, such as microwave popcorn bags, camping tents, carpet cleaners — and the box containing your pizza. That box is likely covered in a clear coating to keep grease from soaking through the cardboard. As it turns out, the coating has been linked to birth defects and cancer. The FDA finally required all food-contact surfaces to eliminate PFASs in January. But we don’t know anything about the latest replacement chemical. If past history is any guide, you may want to keep it away from your food.
What you can do: Ask for your take-out pizza slice in foil, not a box, and in general, avoid non-stick, grease-proof products. And for pizza, consider this: If you make it yourself with store-bought dough and sauce from a jar, it will be on the dinner table faster, taste fresher, and save you money. Now that’s appetizing.
A chemical used in artificial butter flavor, diacetyl, has been linked to a severe lung disease, sometimes called “popcorn lung,” in popcorn factory workers. It was phased out by many popcorn makers in the mid-2000s, but its replacement, called 2,3 pentanedione, has been linked to—you guessed it — breathing problems. Despite this concern, it remains in many butter-flavored products, as part of the suite of artificial flavors.
What you can do: Check ingredients. Avoid “artificial flavors” in all microwave popcorn, and in any other butter-flavored food product (butterscotch candy, for example). Instead, try adding your own flavor palate to plain popcorn (Parsley flakes? Cumin? Cinnamon?) for variety.
The antimicrobial compound triclosan, widely used to kill germs for decades, is an ingredient in everything from hand sanitizers to toothpaste. But triclosan has been linked to hormone problems including infertility and early puberty, and it causes liver cancer in mice. Despite the fact that triclosan is no better than soap and water for removing germs, manufacturers are phasing triclosan out, only to add in benzalkonium chloride, another antibacterial chemical. Benzalkonium chloride and related quaternary ammonia compounds, known as quats, are respiratory irritants that exacerbate asthma.
What you can do: Avoid antibacterial products. Unless you are prepping an operating room, they are, um, overkill. Use soap and water instead. If you like having a hand sanitizer when you are on the go, look for one powered by ethyl alcohol.
Until recently, almost all upholstered furniture contained industrial flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals easily migrate from the furniture into the air, dust, and nearby food. (There’s a reason we shouldn’t eat on the couch!). The history of these chemicals is like a game of chemical Whack-a-Mole: When asbestos and PCBs were phased out for health concerns manufacturers started using PBDEs and Tris. When PBDEs were withdrawn in the mid-2000s, also due to health concerns, the industry upped its production of the suspected carcinogen Tris —even though Tris had been banned from children’s pajamas in 1977. The chemical industry also created a proprietary concoction called Firemaster 550, an endocrine disruptor and suspected obesogen.
What you can do: If you are buying a new sofa, it’s easier than ever to steer clear of these chemicals, which don’t actually improve fire safety. Within the past year, due to changes in furniture flammability standards and consumer pressure, many retailers have started making fire-safe furniture without the industrial flame retardant chemicals. Talk to your retailer, and look for a label certifying that materials “contain NO added flame retardant chemicals.”
Large-scale strawberry production entails fumigating soil before planting. Methyl bromide has long been used for this purpose, but it erodes the ozone layer of the atmosphere, so an international treaty will complete its California phase-out by next year. (California grows 80% of America’s strawberries.) Until 2012, methyl bromide was often replaced by methyl iodide, a neurotoxin linked to cancer and miscarriages. That fumigant was withdrawn in 2012, but replacement pesticides for methyl iodide, such as 1,3-Dichloropropene, are also linked to cancer.
What you can do: Even organic California strawberries rely on fumigant chemicals to sterilize starter plants, but they use far less of it than conventional versions, so choose organic. Look for frozen organic strawberries for a more affordable version. Or buy strawberries locally, in-season, from small-scale farmers who don’t fumigate their soil.