Chemical Deal

Chemical Deal

Chemicals in Our Products are Wreaking Havoc on Our Health

By Megy Karydes

Most of us blindly buy products sold in major stores, certain that they have been tested for safety. Why would we think the soap we use to bathe our kids or the products we clean our homes with might be slowly killing us?

We have been deceived into trusting manufactured products; believing that government regulations are in place to prevent toxins from being used as ingredients in everyday products. Unfortunately, regulations are not in place, and companies are not required to reveal all ingredients by name, so searching labels may not always help, according to Dr. Susan Buchanan, associate professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System.

“Many personal-care products contain phthalates because they carry fragrance,” says Buchanan. Studies on rodents show that high exposure to phthalates can change hormone levels and cause birth defects.

“We all want our homes to be clean, and there are plenty of commercial products available to help us meet that goal,” says Deborah Niemann, author of Eco Thrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life. “However, most of them are filled with dangerous chemicals that can cause allergic reactions, skin irritations, respiratory distress and other health problems. And they pollute the environment. There are many natural alternatives available.”

A Level of Safety

Buchanan can’t definitively answer whether there is a safe level of chemicals in products, but she’s doubtful.

“As our ability to test levels in the products increases and our testing of the health effects becomes more sophisticated, we are finding [negative] health effects at lower and lower doses,” she says. “This was the case with lead; acceptable levels of lead have decreased 10-fold in the past 50 years, and we now believe that any level of lead above zero can affect development of the brain in the fetus and young child. This may also be the case with other chemicals in everyday products.”

The FDA does not review any cosmetic product unless the manufacturer makes a medical claim. So, as consumers, we are left to take the company’s word about its products, Niemann says.

“There are thousands of chemicals in body products that have never been independently tested for safety,” she continues. “Because our skin is the largest organ of our body, and because it can absorb anything we put on it, we should be just as concerned about [these] products as we are about the food we eat.”

Making a Change

Part of the challenge to making changes is that most consumers don’t have a clue what chemicals are in the products they use daily. Sheila Hansen, a Chicago-based eco-friendly makeup artist and owner of If a Goddess Wore Makeup in Andersonville, had a lifelong interest in natural health, nutrition and alternative healing, but, like most people, didn’t think about how personal care products might be affecting her health.

“This all changed when I took a healthy cooking class, where the instructor briefly touched on the topic of toxic chemicals in cosmetics,” says Hansen. “My interest was piqued. I started reading, studying and testing products.” The revelation resulted in her current career.

Stories like these don’t surprise Buchanan or Niemann. Both recommend the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as an online source to learn more about products.

“EWG has an online database called Skin Deep that lists hundreds of products and ingredients, with recommendations of which ones to avoid,” says Buchanan. Another resource for identifying brand-name products she promotes is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Niemann likes to remind us that it’s very easy to make our own cleaning products using just one or two ingredients. “Basically, you can use vinegar and/or baking soda to clean almost anything,” she says. “Baking soda is great for scrubbing sinks and tubs, and diluted vinegar is good for cleaning countertops and glass. Being 5 percent acid, vinegar is also a good disinfectant.” Her book provides very easy-to-follow directions to clean a variety of household items.

“Baking soda is also a great facial scrub,” adds Niemann. “Just put about a teaspoon in your hand, wet it, and then spread it across your face. I’ve been using it for almost 20 years.”

For pesky stains or when vinegar and baking soda don’t do the trick, Niemann says that you can use borax or washing soda.

Buchanan realizes that change isn’t easy, and she’s very careful in her messaging to the public, preferring to be informative rather than alarming.

“The news about the number of hazardous chemicals in the world around us can be scary and overwhelming, and I don’t want people to throw up their hands and think ‘well, I gotta die of something so…’,” she says. “I encourage people to make small changes they are comfortable with, like storing leftovers in glass instead of plastic, using natural cleaners such as vinegar and water, or allowing a few ants in the house instead of blasting them with pesticides.”

Another way to enact change would be to ban everyday products that include chemicals, says Buchanan. “The federal government needs to update its chemical regulations. So communicating with your legislators and using the power of your vote will give them the message that we demand a safer environment.”