A Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure – There are over 9 million known chemicals – many of which are man-made. In the United States, there are some 90,000 chemicals licensed for use; In Canada and the European Union – that number is around 25,000.
There can be great discrepancies country by country, in terms of how these chemicals are regulated. As we saw in the previous article about pesticides and the “forever chemicals’ used as fire retardants, it can take time to document adverse effects. The needed regulations are thus implemented too slowly, often exacerbated by industry delay tactics.
Health effects from toxic chemicals are especially consequential in the following circumstances – a) from occupational exposure – farm workers, firefighters, factory workers; b) from proximity exposure – living in an area near heavy industry and thus dealing with contaminated water and air; and c) living in a city with highly polluted air – cities in China and India are ranked the worst.
Most of us, especially in developed countries are not facing such consequential exposures and therefore may not be all that concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals. This is valid to a point. Unfortunately, many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. They are present in everyday products such as furniture, clothing, food, water, hygiene products etc.
Here are some examples of our day-to-day exposures – not necessarily in any particular order and without specific details about health effects; each bullet point below could be the subject of a full article. To be clear – the information presented is not meant to be alarmist. It is likely that the health risks for many are minimal. But the health risks are also not zero. A little knowledge about these exposures will be useful especially for parents with young children.
Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure
- Air pollution – Globally, air pollution causes about 7 million premature deaths a year. For the most part, this is due to the inhalation of particulate matter (PM2.5) – less than 2.5 microns (about 1/30th the width of a human hair. These tiny articles can also “carry’ toxic chemicals such as by-products of combustion. Air pollution is mostly prevalent in heavily industrialized cities in China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. However, due to the increasing prevalence of forest fires in North America, Russia, Europe and Australia, exposure to PM2.5 is increasing even in rural communities.
- Smoking – The dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke are very well documented.
- In the kitchen – Cooking with natural gas produces nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and formaldehyde (CH2O or HCHO). All these pollutants are health risks. As such it is critical to use a hood fan when cooking. Also of concern is PFAS (yes them again) when cooking with Teflon coated cookware. It should not be a big concern if the pans are newer than 2015. See a previous blog on this web site.
- Indoor air – As discussed in the previous article, fire retardants are everywhere in our homes. PFAS – scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been called ‘forever chemicals’ because they take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. Exposure to these chemicals can be in the form of breathing in off-gases but also microfibers that can flake off furniture and carpeting.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), have been called ‘forever chemicals’ due the fact they take hundreds of years to break down. There are over 4700 different PFAS molecules.
- Tap water – PFAS – a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit advocacy organization, reveals a widespread problem: the drinking water of most North Americans likely contains traces (parts per trillion) of PFAS – because they are so widely used. The problem is widespread in Europe as well, but efforts are underway to ban many of these substances.
- Tap water – Lead – Another concern in water, is lead exposure – the lead leaching from galvanized pipes. Flint, Michigan was a recent example that was widely covered by the media. Flint changed its water source from treated water from Lake Huron to water from the Flint River without adequate use of corrosion inhibitors. Water samples tested in a number of Canadian cities, including Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Rupert, were found to contain elevated lead levels. Lead in drinking water is regulated and should thus be frequently monitored
- Tap water – by-products from chlorination – The vast majority of drinking water systems use chlorine to disinfect the water supply. Natural organic material such as tannins and lignins, when present in the surface waters, reacts with chlorine which can create chemicals called ‘trihalomethanes’ including chloroform – a banned chemical. Trihalomethanes in drinking water are regulated and must be routinely monitored.
- Canned food – the aluminum cans used are lined with plastic films – some (or many formulations of which contain Bisphenol A, or A 2017 study carried out in California tested a variety of canned products. Forty percent showed detectable levels of BPA. An earlier Canadian study revealed similar findings. BPA exposure is linked to multiple health effects including fertility issues, altered brain development, cancer, and heart complications. It is thus banned for many uses – especially baby products.
- Bottled beverages – Most bottled water as well as other beverages are sold in plastic #1, also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Research shows that PET may be an endocrine disruptor, altering our hormonal systems. Although this type of plastic is BPA free, phthalates (plasticizers) in bottles can still leach into the water, especially when exposed to high temperatures or stored for an extended period of time. Basically, phthalates are practically in all products stored in plastic. Also of note – bottled water can contain significant amounts of microplastics.
It’s shocking how widespread the PFAS contamination is across many types of makeup products – especially considering obvious ingestion of these chemicals when used in lipstick and lip gloss.
- Cosmetics – There is such a variety of cosmetics on the market with products coming from around the world. In general, the cosmetics industry seems to be very poorly regulated. Indeed, toxic substances may not even be listed in the ‘ingredients” panel. Here are some examples – formaldehyde in hair straightening products and nail polish // coal tar in eye shadow // parabens in skin and hair products // dioxane in dyes and shampoos. Of particular concern is the use of PFAS (AGAIN) -to make lipstick, lotions, cosmetics, and hair products more water-resistant, durable and spreadable as well as the use of benzene, despite the fact it’s a banned carcinogen
- Pesticides in food – For the most part – pesticide use in the USA, Canada, and Europe, is well regulated. However – According to a recent (2019) study by the Environmental Working Group, there were several fruits and vegetables that contained detectable levels of pesticides – such as strawberries, spinach, kale, peaches, etc. Although, the levels detected, were below published health guidelines, this may not be of comfort to those wanting to completely avoid exposure.
- Antibiotics and other chemicals in Meat – Industrial agriculture to supply the world’s growing demand for meat protein involves animals ‘farmed’ under very crowded conditions. This then, requires the use of antibiotics used in ‘sub-therapeutic’ doses to prevent disease. This in turn raises the risk of transmitting drug-resistant bacteria to humans either by direct infection or by transferring resistance genes from agriculture into human pathogens. A separate issue with meat is caused by grilling – no doubt a favourite way to cook meat. Meat cooked this way exposes us to by-products of combustion – chemicals called Poly-aromatic hydrocarbons – PAH
- Fish – Mercury – Different types of fish and other seafood contain varying amounts of mercury. Larger fish such as tuna usually contain higher levels. They eat many smaller fish, which contain small amounts of mercury. As it’s not easily excreted from their bodies, levels accumulate over time. This process is known as bioaccumulation.
- Fast food – PFAS (again!!) – A variety of PFAS compounds are commonly used to keep your burger from sticking to its fast-food wrapper, your salad from turning its fiber-based bowl into a soggy mess, and your popcorn bag from bursting into flames in the microwave.
- Household products – cleaners, paints, paint thinners, etc. are generally toxic and must be used in accordance with the instructions. Of particular concern are paint strippers. The active ingredient in the most effective paint strippers is dichloromethane, also called methylene chloride. Dichloromethane has serious health risks including death, is likely a carcinogen, and is banned in some countries for consumer use.
This list is not exhaustive. There are more ways in which we can be exposed to toxic compounds. This area of environmental science is indeed understudied. It can certainly seem overwhelming with almost no options to avoid exposure. As well, it is not possible to comment adequately on the various health risks as there is insufficient data to prove (or disprove) the risks.
In the next article (Part 3), I will outline the challenges in linking illness to exposure and thus ensuring adequate regulations. Buy it is not as bad as it seems.
In the final article (Part 4), I will outline options for avoiding, or at least minimizing risks.