Until recently, the health risks associated with exposure to toxic chemicals were thought to be limited to serious ills such as lung disease and cancer.
Now: The dangers, which few people (including most doctors) are aware of, are even more far-reaching than previously thought. Certain synthetic chemicals—such as those that pervade our food, water, air and many of the products and items we use and live with at home and at work—are now being linked to a much wider array of health problems, including diabetes, stroke, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
A surprising finding: Even though diabetes has traditionally been linked to poor lifestyle habits, such as an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity, epidemiological studies conducted in Sweden recently found that reducing exposure to certain synthetic chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and phthalates, by 25% lowered the rate of diabetes by 13%.
Here are synthetic chemicals you should know about…*
• PCBs. Before these 200 or so man-made chemicals were banned in the US in 1979, hundreds of millions of pounds of PCBs were produced—and used as flame retardants in electrical devices such as transformers…as solvents in paint and caulking…in carbonless copy paper…and in plastics.
Those PCBs accumulated in the soil, in the water and sediment of lakes and rivers, and in the ocean. They continue to “volatilize” into the air, forming harmful gases. In short, we eat, drink and breathe PCBs.
PCBs have long been associated with increased risks for cancer, suppression of the immune system, damage to bones and joints, lower testosterone levels and negative effects on the brain, such as reduced cognitive function and focus.
However, an increasing body of recent evidence in both animals and humans shows that these chemicals also increase risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
In fact, my research has shown that high levels of PCBs in the blood are a stronger risk factor for the development of high blood pressure—itself a risk factor for heart attack and stroke—than any other factor, except for age.
To minimize exposure: PCBs are stored in animal fat—such as red meat, poultry, fish and dairy products. To reduce PCB exposure, minimize fatty cuts of red meat and emphasize lean cuts, such as round roast and top sirloin steak. For poultry, remove the skin and opt for white meat. For dairy, minimize full-fat products such as cream.
For fish, minimize fatty fish high on the food chain, such as tuna. Atlantic and farmed salmon are also typically loaded with PCBs, as are farmed carp and catfish. Fish low in PCBs and other contaminants include wild-caught Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines. For a reliable guide to other low-PCB fish and seafood: Visit the website of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (SeafoodWatch.org).
Note: Fish oil supplements typically have fewer PCBs than fish because the manufacturing process used to minimize the fishy taste and smell helps remove some of the PCBs.
• Phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). Phthalates (also called plasticizers) are used to make plastic more flexible, transparent and durable. Phthalate-containing products include adhesives, scented products, printed store receipts, plastic clothes such as raincoats (vinyl is loaded with phthalates), synthetic leather used in clothing and furniture, sunglasses and eyeglasses with plastic lenses and contact lenses, dental fillings and sealants, DVDs and CDs, and personal-care products such as soaps, shampoos, moisturizers, hair sprays and nail polish. Phthalates are also prevalent in plastic food containers and plastic kitchen utensils.
Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). They mimic or interfere with the endocrine system, which manufactures hormones—chemical messengers that regulate every system, organ, tissue and cell in your body. That’s why EDCs increase the risk for almost every chronic disease, ranging from diabetes and cardiovascular disorders to learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Phthalates also mimic the female sex hormone estrogen, increasing risk for breast cancer.
Another endocrine-disrupting chemical: BPA, which is found in the linings of many canned food products and beverages. In adults, BPA has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, infertility and erectile dysfunction.
Important: Because of consumer demand, many manufacturers have switched from BPA to BPS (bisphenol S), but there’s no proof that it’s less toxic. It is just less studied.
To minimize exposure to phthalates and BPA: Don’t believe that there are “safe” plastics. Never microwave food in plastic—not even plastic that is labeled “microwave safe.” Avoid drinking water or any beverage that is bottled in disposable plastic—even if the bottle is labeled “BPA-free.” Don’t store food in plastic—use glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers. In a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, scientists tested more than 455 plastic products and found that almost all of them leached EDCs.
Minimize canned food and beverages—many linings contain BPA.
Don’t use scented candles or air fresheners. (Beeswax candles do not contain phthalates.) Don’t use scented detergents and dryer sheets.
Avoid personal-care products that list “parfum” or “fragrance” as an ingredient—a sure sign of the presence of phthalates.
Don’t use vinyl, which is loaded with phthalates. Example: Trade in your vinyl shower curtain for fabric. Also, avoid clothes and accessories made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), such as coats, shoes and bags.
Note: It’s helpful to check product labels for phthalates, but phthalates can be present even when not listed on the label.
To find phthalate-free personal-care products: Consult the Environmental Working Group (at EWG.org, click on “EWG’s Skin Deep Guide to Cosmetics”).
• PFCs (perfluorinated compounds). PFCs are found in food packaging, in Teflon and other nonstick cookware, in waterproof or rainproof jackets, in stain-resistant brands and treatments and in many furniture fabrics and carpets. They are also widely used in pesticides, and in the automobile, electronics and aerospace industries.
According to human and animal studies, PFCs are not only linked to increased risk for diabetes but also contribute to a host of other health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, a weakened immune system, thyroid disease, obesity and problems with fertility in both women and men.
To minimize exposure: Don’t buy or use Teflon and other nonstick pans. If you already own nonstick cookware, do your best to avoid scratching or chipping it, which releases PFCs, and cook on low heat to minimize release of PFCs into food and as vapors. When you’re ready to buy new cookware, choose stainless steel, cast iron or glass.
Nonstick chemicals are also used in some personal-care products—don’t buy anything that has an ingredient starting with “perfluoro-.”
Avoid microwave popcorn or pizza—the coating of the interior packaging may contain PFCs. For other microwavable frozen foods, be sure to remove the food from the packaging before microwaving.
PFCs are also found in many fish—follow the same guidelines as those listed for PCBs.
Don’t use clothing or furniture labeled stain resistant, or clothing labeled water resistant—most of these items contain PFCs.
Use a carbon filter to reduce exposure to PFCs and other synthetic chemicals in your drinking water.
PFCs, phthalates and other disease-causing synthetic chemicals can also end up in household dust—and in your lungs. Vacuum regularly, using a vacuum with a chemical-catching HEPA filter—they’re available from brands such as Hoover, Eureka, Bissell and Dyson.
*Because researchers have not yet determined the level of exposure tied to health risks, it’s wise to avoid these chemicals whenever possible.