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The 9 Most Hazardous Chemicals for People With Special Needs

Toxic chemicals in the environment are a problem for everyone, but people with special needs are especially vulnerable. For half a century, American products and advertisements touted “better living through chemistry.” But today’s children are repeatedly exposed to a wide variety of harmful chemicals in the food they eat, the water they drink, the things they touch, and the air they breathe. Most homes are full of potentially damaging chemicals in food, cookware, plastic wrap, toys, and even shampoo. Environmental toxins are on walls, floors, furniture, under the kitchen sink, in the laundry room, and in the garage.

It’s impossible to completely avoid hazardous substances because they are found in small doses almost everywhere. But they can build up in the body over time, creating a toxic load that can have long-lasting neurological effects – especially for kids with special needs. The sensory issues faced by many children with autism and other diagnoses can be worsened by their inability to efficiently remove these toxins from their bodies. Neurotoxic chemicals can interfere with auditory, visual, motor, and physical sensory systems. They often disrupt the endocrine system, wreaking havoc with hormones and affecting brain function and development.

After reviewing nearly a hundred studies in medical and scientific journals, we’ve compiled a list of the 9 most hazardous household chemicals for people with special needs, including helpful information about where these chemicals are most commonly found, what effects they have, and how to minimize or eliminate exposure.


1. Lead

What is lead?

Lead is a heavy metal that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust and can be found in all parts of our environment. However, human activities have dramatically elevated our levels of exposure. It tops our list because of the myriad ways it impacts human growth and development.

How are we exposed to lead?

Lead can get into the body by eating, drinking, inhalation, or contact through the skin. Levels of lead exposure have decreased in the U.S. in recent decades, but it is still a problem in many parts of the country, particularly in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. Most recently, it came to national attention in the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Paint in older homes – Lead paint hasn’t been sold in the U.S. since 1978, but it is still found in many older homes – particularly on windows and window sills, doors, stairs, railings, porches, and banisters. Paint that is peeling, chipping, or chalky is especially dangerous for children.

Drinking water – Lead was used in plumbing pipes and soldering until 1986. In homes with older plumbing, pipes can become corroded and lead can leach lead into the water supply.

Children’s toys – Concern over lead in children’s jewelry and toys led to massive recalls in 2004 and 2007. Toy manufacturers have taken steps to reduce lead exposure, but it is still a concern today.

Ceramics – Colorful pottery is often painted with glazes that contain lead. Sometimes there is a warning sticker that a plate or dish is decorative and not intended for use with food. However, some imported pieces labeled “lead-free” were recently found to contain lead. Even crock pots and ceramic cookware can contain lead, which is especially troubling when they are heated to very high temperatures.

Cosmetics – The FDA tested more than 400 lipsticks in 2012 and found trace amounts of lead in all of them. The agency followed up by testing eye shadows, blushes, mascaras, foundation, and more with similar results. There is some debate over whether the levels are high enough to be hazardous, but because lead accumulates over time, regular and repeated use can pose a risk.

Some batteries – Most household batteries are alkaline and do not contain lead. However, car batteries and rechargeable batteries often do. Special care should be taken when handling and disposing of these so they don’t leak or contaminate groundwater.

What are the health risks of lead exposure?

Lead can affect every organ system in the body, but the most serious damage occurs in the central nervous system. It has well-documented cognitive effects in children, causing learning difficulties, memory loss, and speech and hearing problems. In adults, high levels of lead are linked to brain and nervous system damage; hearing, vision, and muscle coordination problems; and a variety of other issues. It has been linked to cardiovascular disease, kidney problems, and impotence. Lead is structurally similar to calcium, which means bones can easily absorb and store it for dozens of years. Lead in bones can inhibit absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium. There is no safe level of lead exposure.

Tips for dealing with lead:


2. PBDEs (fire-retardant chemicals)

Also known as: Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PentaBDE, OctaBDE, and DecaBDE

What are PBDEs?

PBDEs are man-made chemicals widely used as fire retardants. They were introduced in the 1970s and added to textiles, plastic, foam, and electronic products for nearly four decades to make them difficult to burn. U.S. manufacturers voluntarily stopped using most classes of PBDEs between 2004 and 2013 under pressure from health advocates. However, newer chemicals adopted in their place ( TDCIPP and Firemaster 550) might be just as problematic.

How are we exposed to PBDEs?

PBDE levels in U.S. residents are generally 10–100 times higher than levels measured in people in Europe and Asia. It is estimated that 80 to 90% of total PBDE exposure in the U.S. comes from inhaling house dust. This is especially concerning for young children, because of the amount of time they spend on the floor and their penchant for putting things in their mouths.

Upholstered furniture – PBDEs are found in most furniture with foam cushions produced before 2005. They’re also found in vehicle seats and children’s car seats of the same vintage. The foam cubes in gymnastics pits may contain PBDEs.

Carpets and carpet paddingCarpeting and its backing, adhesives, and padding are often treated at the factory with flame retardants, stain protectors, and insecticides to repel dust mites, bacteria, molds, fungi, and moths. Many of these chemicals are toxic, both at the time of installation and as they break down over time and release dust into the air.

MattressesMattresses and polyurethane bedding are commonly treated with fire-retardant chemicals, especially foam mattresses that would otherwise be highly flammable.

Flame-retardant sleepwear – Starting in the 1970s, children’s pajamas were required to be treated with flame-retardant chemicals to provide potentially life-saving seconds in the event of a fire. However, one by one, many of the chemicals used for this purpose have been found to have health risks. Children’s sleepwear from 9 months to size 14 still must be treated with flame retardants unless it is made of cotton and designed to fit snugly.

Plastic housing on electronics – One of the only places PBDEs are still manufactured and used in the U.S. is in the plastic housing on computers, televisions, and other electronics. Disposal of electronic equipment is an environmental concern because PBDEs don’t break down and can contaminate the atmosphere, landfills, and wastewater.

Food - PBDE contamination in the air, soil, and water has made its way into our food supply. PBDEs are found in fish, beef, chicken, and dairy products as well as wildlife as far away as Antarctica. Concentrations tend to be higher in fatty foods.

What are the health risks of PBDE exposure?

Research suggests PBDEs affect the thyroid and liver in addition to brain development. Several studies of pregnant women and young children have found correlations between higher PBDE levels and behavior and cognition difficulties, thyroid abnormalities, and deficits in attention and fine motor skills. There is no known safe level of exposure to PBDEs.

PBDEs are considered "persistent organic pollutants" because they don't readily break down in the air, water, and soil. Levels of PBDE have been building steadily in animals throughout the food chain, even turning up in orca whales in Puget Sound and polar bears in the Arctic.

Tips for dealing with PBDEs:

  • Reduce your exposure to dust. PBDEs shed off of consumer products and build up in household dust and indoor air. To reduce exposure, clean your home often with a wet mop or microfiber cloth and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
  • Replace your air filters and clean your air ducts regularly.
  • Remove your shoes at the door to avoid tracking chemicals inside.
  • Choose furniture that is free of fire-retardant chemicals. Mattresses, sofas, and other foam products produced after 2005 should not contain PBDEs, however it is unknown whether newer chemicals are any less toxic. A 2012 Chicago Tribune exposé found that fire-retardant chemicals didn’t actually work as promised. Instead, look for products made with fibers like cotton and wool that are naturally fire-resistant.
  • Look for PBDE-free electronics. PBDEs are still used in many televisions, computer monitors, and consumer electronics. Because labeling is not mandatory, you might have to call or email the manufacturer to find out if the product you’re interested in contains PBDEs.
  • Buy children tight-fitting pajamas that have not been treated with fire-retardant chemicals. Cotton pajamas that are not flame resistant bear a yellow hang tag saying they must be worn snugly.
  • Reduce your fat intake. PBDEs are common contaminants in meat, fish, and dairy products. They tend to concentrate in the fatty parts of these foods. You can reduce your exposure by choosing leaner cuts of meat or poultry, cutting off visible fat, and using cooking methods such as broiling, grilling, and roasting.
  • Avoid farmed fish. European and U.S. farmed salmon have been found to contain particularly high levels of PBDEs. Choose wild salmon instead.
  • Use caution removing or replacing carpet. Even carpet padding produced after 2005 might contain PBDEs if it includes recycled foam. When padding with PBDEs breaks down, it releases toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested. If you must handle it, wear a face mask, vacuum residue or debris immediately, and wash your hands as soon as you’re finished.
  • Replace torn couches, stuffed chairs, or automobile seats that have exposed foam. If you can't afford to replace them, cover the holes with sturdy tape or cloth and vacuum around them frequently.
  • Don’t reupholster older foam furniture. This is especially important in homes with pregnant women or young children.
  • Blood tests can detect your level of PBDE exposure. These tests are not routinely available at most doctors’ offices, but samples can be sent to labs that have the necessary equipment.


3. Phthalates

Also known as: Butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP), di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), di-isodecyl phthalate (DiDP), di-isononyll phthalate (DiNP), di-n-hexyl phthalate (DnHP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP)

What are phthalates?

Phthalates are considered “ everywhere chemicals” that are nearly impossible to avoid because they are used in thousands of consumer products. Phthalates are chemicals that make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They also help scents and chemicals bind together. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates over 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced or imported in the U.S. each year.

How are we exposed to phthalates?

People are most often exposed to phthalates by consuming it through food, inhaling it, or absorbing it through the skin via personal care products. Phthalates in a mother’s body can enter her breast milk. Infants and small children can be exposed to phthalates by sucking on toys and objects made with phthalate-containing plastics. The indoor air in the typical American home contains over 500 chemicals. A study of indoor air found phthalate chemicals in large concentrations inside most American homes.

Plastic bottles and food containers – Most plastic wrap, plastic baggies, and plastic food containers have phthalates that can leach into food. This is especially problematic when containers are heated.

Cosmetics and personal care products – Phthalates are a common ingredient in cosmetics, fragranced lotions, shampoos, conditioners, perfumes, colognes, hairspray, soap, body washes, nail polishes, and more.

Household cleaners – Almost anything fragranced will have phthalates in it. This includes air fresheners, dryer sheets, laundry detergents, cleaning products, scented candles, and more.

Children’s toys – Any soft, squeezable plastic toy like a rubber duckie, bath toy, or bouncy ball most likely contains phthalates. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 banned the use of three types of phthalates from articles such as pacifiers, soft rattles, and teethers. However, there are more than half a dozen other types of phthalates that have not been banned.

Home and building materials – Phthalates are found in shower curtains, mini blinds, lawn furniture, vinyl flooring, plastic plumbing pipes, and most other plastic or vinyl items.

Drinking water – Phthalates often enter the water supply from industrial contamination and plastic pipes.

What are the health effects of phthalates?

Phthalates are a huge class of chemicals and there has only been limited research into their effects. But they have been linked to a host of negative health impacts including lower IQ, autism spectrum disorders, asthma, allergies, attention deficit disorder, lower birth weight, infertility, genital malformations, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and more.

Tips for dealing with phthalates:


4. BPA, BPS & BPF

Also known as: Bisphenol-A, bisphenol-S, and bisphenol-F

What are BPA, BPS & BPF?

BPA (bisphenol-A) is an industrial chemical that has been used for more than 40 years to harden plastics and make them more resilient. When health advocates raised concerns about the chemical’s effect on children, many manufacturers began producing “BPA-free” products that used bisphenol-S (BPS) or bisphenol-F (BPF) as a replacement. However, that may not be a solution. Recent research suggests that even small concentrations of BPS and BPF may disrupt the function of your cells in a way similar to BPA. Plastic items labeled with the recycling numbers 3 and 7 or the letters PC likely contain BPA, BPS, or BPF.

How are we exposed to BPA, BPS & BPF?

More than 90% of Americans have BPA in their bodies. We get most of it by eating foods that have been in containers made with BPA. It's also possible to pick up BPA through air, dust, and water.

Plastic bottles and food containers – In 2012, the FDA banned BPA in In 2012, the FDA banned the use of BPA in all baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant formula packaging. However, it is still used in many reusable plastic food and beverage containers. And items labeled BPA-free might contain BPS or BPF.

Canned food – BPA is used on the inner lining of many canned food containers to keep the metal from corroding and breaking. There are some brands of soup and canned goods that are BPA-free, but you have to read labels carefully to be sure.

Toiletries and feminine hygiene products – BPA is found in most sanitary napkins sold at stores, but it’s hard to know exactly what else is in there because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose what goes into feminine hygiene products. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced legislation nine times between 1997 and 2015 to require manufacturers to be more transparent, but it failed every time.

Cash register receipts – An estimated 40 percent of cash register receipts are printed on thermal paper and include BPA. The EPA hasn’t banned the practice, but it issued a report in 2014 recommending safer alternatives.

CDs and DVDs – Optical discs such as CDs and DVDs are made of polycarbonate plastic made with BPA. The BPA makes the plastic tougher and more shatter-resistant, while providing optical clarity. The polycarbonate layer acts as a lens, focusing the laser beam so it can read the disc.

Household electronics – BPA-infused plastic is often used in the housing of electronic equipment including cell phones, laptops, tablets, and game consoles. It protects the internal electronic components and prevents scratches on the screens.

Eyeglass lensesPolycarbonate lenses made with BPA are popular for eyewear because they are extremely strong and difficult to break. They are also thinner and lighter than many other materials.

Sports equipment – While not widely used in toys, polycarbonate plastic is used in sports safety equipment such as helmets, shin guards, and goggles.

Dental sealants and fillings – Dental sealants and fillings don't directly contain BPA, but many of them contain compounds that turn into BPA on contact with saliva. Fortunately, scrubbing and rinsing sealants and fillings after they are applied can remove 88% to 95% of the BPA-related compounds.

What are the health effects of BPA, BPS & BPF?

BPA has been studied much more comprehensively than BPS or BPF. However, all three are endocrine-disruptors that mimic hormones like estrogen. Research has linked BPA to breast cancer, miscarriage, lower birth weight in babies, early puberty in girls, polycystic ovary syndrome, erectile dysfunction and decreased sperm production in men, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

A study of children in Ohio found those born to mothers with higher BPA levels were more hyperactive, anxious, and depressed at age 3. They also showed 1.5 times more emotional reactivity and were more aggressive.

Tips for dealing with BPA, BPS & BPF:


5. Chlorpyrifos (pesticide)

Also known as: Dursban, Lorsban

What is chlorpyrifos?

Chlorpyrifos was once one of the most widely used household pesticides in the U.S. It was in hundreds of products including Raid sprays, Hartz yard and kennel flea spray, and Black Flag liquid roach and ant killer. After its neurotoxic effects were discovered, the EPA stopped most interior residential use of the pesticide in December 2001. However, chlorpyrifos is still used outdoors in agriculture, on golf courses, and to treat wood fences and utility poles.

According to the EPA, it’s the “most used conventional insecticide” in the U.S. with roughly 6 million pounds used on around 10 million acres between 2009 and 2013. Farmers spray it on citrus trees, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, and more.

In a study that tested the air inside 52 different homes almost a decade after residential use was discontinued, chlorpyrifos was one of the most common pollutants. It was found in every single home that was tested. The EPA proposed a complete ban in 2015, but then reversed itself in 2017 under the guidance of new director Scott Pruitt.

Chlorpyrifos is of particular concern for babies and young children who spend a lot of time on the floor. Like many contaminants, it weighs more than air. In one study, chlorpyrifos was found to be nearly four times more concentrated at about 5-10 inches from the floor (a typical breathing zone for a baby) compared with the air 2 feet or more above the floor in a room with a window open for ventilation.

How are we exposed to chlorpyrifos?

People are exposed to chlorpyrifos as pesticide residue on food and by inhaling it. It is found in the majority of American homes because people track it in on their shoes.

Conventional (non-organic) fruits and vegetables – Chlorpyrifos is licensed for use on nearly 50 food crops, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Among the foods most likely to be exposed – 55% of apple crops, 45% of broccoli and walnut crops, and 40% of asparagus and cauliflower crops are treated with chlorpyrifos according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program.

Fences and treated wood – Products containing chlorpyrifos are often used to treat wood fences and utility poles so they don’t get damaged by termites.

Golf courses – Chlorpyrifos is used on golf courses and public lands across the country, but one state has passed a ban. In the next three years, all use of the pesticide will be banned in Hawaii.

Outdoor areas treated with pesticides – Although it is no longer used for residential purposes, chlorpyrifos is still widely applied to ornamental plants, non-residential, and commercial turf.

What are the health effects of chlorpyrifos?

According to the National Pesticide Information Center, exposure to small amounts of chlorpyrifos can cause drooling, headaches, and nausea. Prolonged exposure can lead to vomiting, tremors, unconsciousness, and paralysis, among other effects. A study of 265 children found that higher levels of prenatal exposures to chlorpyrifos were associated with lower IQ, working memory problems, and attention disorders at age 7. Another study found significant motor and developmental delays in 3-year-olds who had been exposed.

Tips for dealing with chlorpyrifos

  • Buy organic locally grown produce. If possible, always choose organic produce. If you can’t, at least buy organic versions of foods that are most likely to have pesticide residue. Every year, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue and the “clean fifteen” alternatives with very little pesticide contamination.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly with a solution of mild dish soap diluted with water, then rinse with lukewarm water.
  • Take your shoes off when you enter your home. Leaving your shoes by the door when you come in the house helps to cut down on the amount of pesticides, fertilizers and dirt tracked through your home.
  • Keep children from touching wood utility poles and fences. Have them wash their hands thoroughly when they come in from playing outdoors.
  • Mop and vacuum your home often. Clean your home with a wet mop or microfiber cloth and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to remove pesticide residue from floors and other surfaces.
  • Use a good air filter in your HVAC system and replace it regularly.

6. Benzene

Also known as: Benzol

What is benzene?

Benzene is a petroleum-derived chemical that is used as a building block to make other substances such as styrene (for Styrofoam and plastics), cumene (for resins), and cyclohexane (for nylon and synthetic fibers). Benzene is also used to manufacture some types of rubber, lubricants, dyes, detergents, aspirin, drugs, and pesticides.

Because of its wide application, benzene is one of the top-20 most produced chemicals in the U.S. by volume. It was a critical component of now-banned chemicals including DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are still polluting the environment more than 40 years after their production ceased.

How are we exposed to benzene?

Everyone is exposed to a small amount of benzene every day. The major sources of benzene exposure are tobacco smoke, automobile service stations, vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions. People can also be exposed to vapors from products that contain benzene, such as glues, paints, furniture wax, and detergents.

Cigarettes and e-cigarettes – About half of the exposure to benzene in the United States results from exposure to tobacco smoke, according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances.

Vehicle exhaust – Together, auto exhaust and industrial emissions account for about 20 percent of the total national exposure to benzene.

Gasoline and service stations – The air around gas stations generally contains higher levels of benzene than other areas. Leakage from underground gasoline storage tanks can result in benzene contamination of well water.

Household cleaners – Many popular cleaning products include chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform, and toluene that are not listed on the label. Furniture wax and detergents are especially likely to include it.

Industrial emissions – People who live or work near oil or coal refineries, rubber tire manufacturing plants, or other industries that make or use benzene are at the highest risk of exposure.

Volcanoes and forest fires – Natural sources of benzene include gas emissions from volcanoes and forest fires. It was one of many toxic gases causing concern during the recent eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.

What are the health effects of benzene?

Benzene is known to cause cancer. Studies have found higher rates of leukemia – and particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML) – in workers exposed to high levels of benzene. Studies have also suggested links to childhood leukemia and blood-related cancers like multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This is of particular concern to people with Down Syndrome, who are at much higher risk of developing leukemia than the general population.

Long-term exposure to benzene harms the bone marrow, which can result in anemia, low white blood cell counts, and low platelet counts. Breathing benzene can affect the nervous system, resulting in drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, tremors, confusion, and/or unconsciousness. Consuming foods or fluids contaminated with benzene can cause vomiting, stomach irritation, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and rapid heart rate. In extreme cases, it can be deadly.

Tips for dealing with benzene:

  • Don't allow smoking in your home. There is no safe level of secondhand smoke; never let anyone smoke inside your home or car.
  • If you are a smoker, try to quit.
  • Take care when pumping gas. Try not to breathe the fumes and avoid skin contact with gasoline.
  • Limit the time you spend near idling car engines to lower your exposure to exhaust fumes.
  • Check the ingredients in your household cleaners. To find out if the products you’re using are safe, search the Environmental Working Group’s database. It has analyses of more than 2,500 popular products and grades them on a scale of A-F.
  • Use common sense around chemicals that might contain benzene. Limit or avoid exposure to fumes from solvents, paints, and art supplies, especially in unventilated spaces.
  • If you work around benzene, talk to your employer about limiting your exposure or using personal protective equipment. If needed, ask the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) to conduct an inspection.
  • If you are exposed, get away from the source of benzene, remove any clothing that may have benzene on it, wash exposed areas with soap and water, and seek medical care as soon as possible.
  • Ask your doctor to test your benzene levels. Human exposure to benzene can be tested in three ways: a blood test, a urine test, or a breath test. But these tests can only detect recent exposures and they can’t predict future health effects.


7. Arsenic

Also known as: Chromated copper arsenate (CCA)

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring metal that has several industrial uses. It usually appears as a white or silver-gray powder that has no smell, no special taste, and does not evaporate. About 90% of all arsenic used in the U.S. is as a preservative for wood to make it resistant to rotting and decay. Arsenic-treated lumber was banned for residential purposes in 2004, but it is still used for marine timber, utility poles, and other commercial applications. Arsenic compounds have also been used in fertilizers, fireworks, glassmaking, and some electronics.

Arsenic lasts for a very long time in the environment. For that reason, arsenic is number one on the National Priority List of Hazardous Substances created by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

How are we exposed to arsenic?

Since low levels of arsenic occur naturally in the environment, everyone is exposed to small amounts of arsenic by eating food, drinking water, and breathing air. Researchers from Dartmouth University found that diet was the biggest contributor to total arsenic exposure in U.S. populations. However, water contamination can be high in areas near geological deposits or industrial sites.

Drinking water – Varying levels of arsenic are found in drinking water around the country. Some of it is from natural deposits, but it can also be the result of pollution. Well water is especially likely to contain arsenic.

Seafood – Seafood is the most common dietary source of arsenic, followed by rice/rice cereal, mushrooms, and poultry. Arsenic is found in fish, shellfish, and some seaweeds. Dark-meat fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines, bluefish, and swordfish) contains higher levels of arsenic than other types.

Rice and rice products – In a series of tests, Consumer Reports discovered arsenic in almost all 60 rice and rice products that they tested. Many of these foods are marketed to babies (rice cereal, for example). Brown rice had even higher levels of arsenic than white. In April 2016, the FDA issued guidance to makers of infant rice cereal proposing a limit on arsenic levels.

Fruit juices, beer, and wine – Consumer Reports found arsenic in apple and grape juices. And in a Dartmouth study, men who had 2.5 beers per day had arsenic levels more than 30% higher than non-drinkers, and women who drank five to six glasses of wine per week had levels 20% higher than non-drinkers. The arsenic may be from the water used to brew these beverages, but beer and wine producers also use diatomaceous earth, which is known to contain arsenic, as a filtration material.

Chicken – Poultry birds are often given feed containing arsenic-based drugs. A study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found significantly higher levels of arsenic in factory-farmed chicken than in organic poultry.

Fences and treated wood – Most pressure-treated lumber sold before January 2004 was treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which contains arsenic. The arsenic was used to keep the wood from being consumed by termites and other pests. Arsenic-treated lumber was used wherever outdoor wood was needed – decks, playgrounds, fences, docks, retaining walls, picnic tables, and even treehouses. Much of that wood is still in use today.

Soil – Arsenic is found in all 50 states, but the highest levels of natural arsenic are found in western states. You have a higher chance of exposure if you live in an area that was once used for farming, tanning hides, or processing ore. You can be exposed to arsenic in soil by touching, digging, or playing in soil that contains arsenic.

What are the health effects of arsenic?

According to the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, there is no element or chemical known to cause as many health problems as arsenic. Arsenic is known to cause cancers of the skin, bladder, and lungs. A recent study in Maine found that children exposed to arsenic in local well water had lower IQ scores than children who weren’t exposed.

Arsenic has also been found to interfere with receptors for estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, including hormones that regulate your metabolism and your immune system. And it has been linked with circulatory system problems.

Tips for dealing with arsenic:


8. Toluene

Also known as: Methylbenzene, toluol, ethyl toluene

What is Toluene?

Toluene occurs in nature, where it can be found in the sap of the Tolu balsam tree from South America. But the vast majority of today’s toluene is produced as a byproduct of making gasoline and other fuels from crude oil.

Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid with a distinctive smell associated with paint thinners. It is a solvent that is used in the production of benzene, nylon, plastics, and polyurethane. It is also added to gasoline along with benzene and xylene to improve octane ratings.

How are we exposed to toluene?

Toluene is used in household products including paint, paint thinners, markers, nail polish, synthetic fragrances, and adhesives. It is also present in vehicle emissions and cigarette smoke. The most common means of exposure is inhalation.

Paint, paint thinners, and adhesives – For most people, the highest concentration of toluene is usually found in indoor air as a result of using common household products including paints, paint thinners, adhesives, synthetic fragrances, cleaners, and nail polish.

Gasoline – One of the biggest uses of toluene is as an additive to gasoline to improve octane ratings. Gas stations, auto repair centers, and other places where fuel is used tend to have higher concentrations of toluene in the ambient air.

Permanent and dry erase markers – Many permanent and dry-erase markers include toluene and xylene, which gives them that distinctive smell. The stinkier a marker is, the more likely it is to be harmful, but even low-odor brands can contain toxic chemicals. The best way to determine if a marker is non-toxic is to contact the manufacturer.

Nail polish and fragrances – Toluene is the nail polish ingredient that creates a smooth application and finish. It is also found in most conventional nail polish removers. The European Union has restricted the use of toluene in personal care products, including nail polish. It is allowed in the U.S. at this point, but many brands are voluntarily phasing out its use.

Vehicle emissions – Environmental regulations and new technologies have reduced the volume of toxic chemicals emitted by cars, but toluene is still a significant component of vehicle exhaust.

Cigarettes and e-cigarettes – Toluene is just one of many toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke. It is also present in the vapor from e-cigarettes.

What are the health effects of toluene?

Toluene is a highly toxic chemical that affects the central nervous system. It is associated with speech and motor problems and impaired neurological development in young children. Prenatal exposure has been linked to low birth weights, developmental delays, lower IQ, and other problems. Deliberate abuse of spray paint can lead to toluene leukoencephalopathy.

Tips for dealing with toluene:


9. PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals)

Also known as: PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate)

Brand names include: Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Gore-tex

What are PFCs?

PFCs are a family of fluorine-containing chemicals used to make materials stain- and stick-resistant. Manufacturers developed these chemicals to repel oil and water from clothing, carpeting, furniture, and food packaging such as pizza boxes and fast-food containers. They have also been used in fire-fighting foams, cleaners, paints, roof treatments, and as a hardwood floor protectant.

In 2006, the EPA made voluntary agreements with DuPont, 3M, and six other chemical companies to phase out the production and use of most PFCs by 95 percent by 2010. But the EPA phase-out did not affect food items, which are regulated by the FDA. Finally, in 2016, the FDA announced a ban on three chemicals from food packaging.

PFCs are highly resistant to breakdown, leaving long-lasting impacts on people, wildlife, and the environment. They considered “bioaccumulative” and have been found in unexpected places all over the world. Once they contaminate drinking water, air, or food, they are very difficult to get rid of. The half-life of PFCs in the human body – meaning the amount of time it takes for 50% of the chemical to leave – is several years. In people with special needs, it can be significantly longer.

How are we exposed to PFCs?

Humans are most commonly exposed to PFCs through food or water. It can also be inhaled through fumes. Although use in many consumer products has been discontinued, the persistence of the compounds has resulted in widespread ongoing exposure.

Non-stick cookware – Many people still use nonstick cookware coated with PTFE (Teflon), but when the coatings on these pans get scratched or reach temperatures higher than 450ºF they can release PFCs. Food cooked in older nonstick pans often contains PFCs. The fumes from overheated Teflon are deadly to pet birds.

Fast food containers and microwave popcorn bags – A 2017 study found that PFCs are still being widely used in pizza boxes and fast food wrappers and containers. Out of 327 food packaging items tested from 28 popular fast food restaurants, 40% showed signs of PFCs. Consuming microwave popcorn was linked to high PFC levels in an EPA study.

Drinking water – Water contamination has been a particularly troubling issue in areas of West Virginia and Ohio near the plant where Teflon was produced. Chemical companies have faced several class-action lawsuits over PFC contamination of water sources.

Stain-resistant furniture and carpets – Stain-resistant treatments have been popular on upholstered furniture and carpets for several decades, but the chemicals used to prevent stains include PFCs. It is best to decline add-on stain treatments when buying furniture.

Outdoor clothing and gear – PFCs are common in outdoor apparel and gear like backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags that have been treated to be waterproof and dirt-repellent.

Personal care products – PFCs are found in a variety of personal care products including dental floss, some cosmetics, nail polish, facial moisturizers, and eye makeup. Check ingredient labels. If you see the words “flouro” or “perfluoro,” the item contains PFCs.

What are the health effects of PFCs?

PFCs are linked to “smaller birth weight and size in newborn babies, elevated cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver inflammation, and weakened immune defense against disease,” according to the Environmental Working Group.

According to the CDC, the chemicals are believed to affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children. They can lower a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant, interfere with the body’s natural hormones, and increase the risk of thyroid disease and cancer – particularly kidney and testicular cancer. Children exposed to PFCs are more likely to have reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that vaccinations were not as effective in children with higher levels of PFCs in their bodies. Exposed children had weaker immune responses.

Tips for dealing with PFCs:


Additional hazards to avoid:

Mercury is associated with impaired neurological development in young children. Large amounts of mercury can also damage the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune systems of people of all ages. A recent study found that up to 84% of the world’s fish contain elevated levels of mercury.

Tips for dealing with it: Limit seafood intake to 8 to 12 ounces a week and avoid king mackerel, shark, swordfish, and tilefish.

Perchloroethylene (PERC) is a chemical that is commonly used in dry cleaning. It may also be found in spot removers, automotive-care products, cleaning, and furniture-care products. In one recent study, prenatal exposure to PERC was associated with lower scores on cognitive tests. According to the EPA, it is also associated with liver problems and an increased risk of bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Tips for dealing with it: Don’t dry clean clothing or household items used by children or seek “green” dry cleaning companies that don’t use PERC. If you must have something dry cleaned, ask the cleaner not to use plastic wrap or remove the wrap as soon as possible. Let items "air out" outdoors before bringing them inside.

Lindane is a common ingredient in lice shampoos used on children, but it is widely considered hazardous. Its use is banned in 52 countries. According to the Pesticide Action Network, "it is a known neurotoxin that can cause seizures, damage the nervous system, and weaken the immune system.”

Tips for dealing with it: If your child contracts head lice, use natural non-toxic treatments to get rid of them.

Ethanol is the intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic beverages, but it is also found in common household products including hand sanitizer, laundry pods, and cough medicines. From 2011 to 2014, there were more than 70,000 calls to poison control centers across the U.S. for children ages 12 and under who ingested, inhaled, or got hand sanitizer in their eyes, according to the CDC. At least 5 young children fell into comas and several more had seizures.

Tips for dealing with it: Wash hands with soap and water instead of using hand sanitizer. Keep children away from medicines that contain ethanol. It’s best not to use laundry pods, but if you must, keep them out of reach.

Propoxur and Tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) are two chemicals commonly used in flea collars and topical flea and tick treatments for pets.

Tips for dealing with it: Use natural or oral flea and tick treatments instead of topical ones. Keep children away from flea collars.

Formaldehyde – You might associate formaldehyde with embalming dead bodies or dissecting frogs in high school biology labs, but it’s found in many personal care, cleaning, and pressed wood products. Permanent press and polyester blend fabrics can contain formaldehyde – including easy-care clothing, sheets, and pillows. Many cosmetics use formaldehyde-based preservatives to increase their shelf life. This also includes shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, lipstick, and nail polish.

Tips for dealing with it: Choose natural fabrics instead of wrinkle-free blends and buy solid wood products instead of pressed wood.

AsbestosAsbestos was widely used as a building material from the 1940s through the 1970s. Inhaling asbestos fibers has been linked to many chronic health problems and an aggressive type of cancer called mesothelioma. If you live in a home built prior to 1980, you might have asbestos in the insulation in walls and ceilings or around pipes, stoves, and furnaces. It can also be in roof shingles, siding, and older floor tiles.

Tips for dealing with it: Materials that contain asbestos are rarely labeled, so it can be very hard to know exactly where asbestos is in your home. It is recommended that you have an inspection by a licensed asbestos surveyor. Removing asbestos should also be done by a professional.


How can you reduce the risk to your family?

Many chemicals are harmful to children’s mental and physical development, and there’s no guarantee this is a complete list. The EPA requires testing on less than 2 percent of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market at some point since the Toxic Substances Control Act was adopted in 1976. You can search for hazards specific to your area by typing your zip code into the GoodGuide scorecard.

Toxic overload can challenge your child’s health, immunity, ability to learn, academic performance, behavior, and more. The effects are even more damaging for those with special needs. Detoxing your family may sound like a big project, but you can start small by selecting one item at a time to fix. Most toxins build up over time, so any chemical you reduce or remove from your home environment will help to reduce the cumulative load.

Indoor air is typically 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor and we spend about 90% of our time indoors. Yet there are no regulations for indoor air as there are for outdoor air or even workplace air. According to an article in the San Francisco Gate: “The U.S. General Accounting Office has called indoor air pollution ‘one of the most serious environmental risks to human health,’ yet no agency has authority to control pollutants in indoor air.”

No two homes have exactly the same air quality issues and there is no way to eliminate all pollutants, but good air filtration can reduce your family’s exposure to some the worst culprits. Air filters come in a variety of types and sizes (including custom sizes) and can be delivered automatically to your home.

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