Are the chemicals we encounter every day making us sick?

Are the chemicals we encounter every day making us sick

When her kids were young, Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, knew more than most people about environmental toxics.

After all, she was a senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But even she never dreamed, as she rocked her children to sleep at night, that the plastic baby bottles she used to feed them contained toxic chemicals that could leach into the warm milk.

Back then, in the late 1990s, it wasn’t widely known that the chemicals used in plastic sippy cups and baby bottles can potentially disrupt child development by interfering with the hormone system.

That, in turn, could alter the functionality of their reproductive systems or increase their risk of disease later in their lives.

“When I had babies, I did many of the things we now tell people not to do,” says Woodruff, who for the past decade has been the director of UC San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE).

Also a professor in the University’s Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, she earned her doctorate in 1991 from a joint UCSF-Berkeley program in bioengineering and then completed a postgraduate fellowship at UCSF.

Woodruff’s children have since grown into physically healthy teenagers, but many children are not as lucky. Unregulated chemicals are increasing in use and are prevalent in products Americans use every day.

Woodruff is concerned by the concurrent rise in many health conditions, like certain cancers or childhood diseases, and the fact that the environment is likely to play a role in those conditions.

What motivates her is the belief that we need to know more about these toxics so we can reduce our exposure to the worst of them and protect ourselves and our children from their harmful effects. (Woodruff points out that the word “toxics” as a noun means any poisonous substances, from either chemical or biological sources, whereas “toxins” are poisons only from biological sources, either plant or animal.)

The PRHE is dedicated to identifying, measuring and preventing exposure to environmental contaminants that affect human reproduction and development. Its work weaves together science, medicine, policy and advocacy.

For example, research over the past 10 years by UCSF scientists and others has showed that bisphenol A (BPA) – an industrial chemical used since the 1950s to harden plastics in baby bottles, toys and other products – is found in the blood of those exposed to items made with BPA and that it can harm the endocrine systems of fetuses and infants.

As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) outlawed BPA in baby products in 2012, and some manufacturers developed BPA-free products. But now scientists believe the chemicals that replaced BPA may be just as harmful.

Furthermore, BPA is only one in a long, long list of chemicals we encounter every day in our homes, schools, workplaces and communities. And scientists have barely scratched the surface of understanding them. Of the thousands and thousands of chemicals registered with the EPA for use by industry, the agency has regulated only a few.

“In the last 50 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in chemical production in the United States,” Woodruff explains. Concurrently, there’s been an increase in the incidence of conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, childhood cancers, diabetes and obesity. “It’s not just genetic drift,” Woodruff maintains.

And we’re all at risk from increasing chemical exposure. The water we run from our taps, the lotion we smear on our skin, the shampoo we rub in our hair, even the dust in our houses is full of synthetic chemicals.

Protecting Your Family From Toxics

Here are some recommendations from the PRHE.

  • Use nontoxic personal care products. Many such products contain ingredients that can harm reproductive health, but safer options are available.
  • Choose safer home improvement products. Many paints, glues and flooring materials release toxic chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) long after you complete a project. Ask for VOC-free and water-based products.
  • Mop and dust often. Toxic substances like lead, pesticides and flame retardants are present in household dust. Use a wet mop or wet cloth to regularly clean floors and flat surfaces.
  • Clean with nontoxic products. It is easy and cheap to make effective, nontoxic cleaners with common ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.
  • Remove your shoes inside. Outdoor shoes can carry toxic chemicals into your home.
  • Don’t dry-clean your clothes. Many dry cleaners use toxic chemicals. Hand-wash delicate clothes or ask your dry cleaner to use water instead of chemicals.
  • Avoid pesticides and herbicides. Toxic chemicals used to kill insects, rodents, weeds, bacteria, mold and other noxious animals and plants can also harm your health.
  • Select flame-retardant-free foam products. Crib mattresses, nap mats and other upholstered products can contain flame-retardants, which can harm health and affect a child’s brain. Instead, select foam products labeled as “flame-retardant-free” or tagged as compliant with TB-117-2013.
  • Avoid toxics in your food and water. Whenever possible, eat organic food to reduce your exposure to pesticides. If you can’t buy organic produce, choose the fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue and avoid the most contaminated ones.
  • Limit foods high in animal fat. Many toxic substances build up in animal fat.
  • Use less plastic. Choose glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers for food. Don’t use plastic containers for hot foods or drinks and use glass instead of plastic in the microwave, because heat makes plastic release chemicals.
  • Avoid lead exposure. Any home built before 1978 may have lead paint. There may also be lead in household dust and garden soil.
  • Keep mercury out of your diet, home and garbage. Eat fish with lower levels of mercury. Replace your mercury thermometer with a digital one. Don’t throw items containing mercury (such as old thermometers or compact fluorescent bulbs) in the trash.
  • Avoid canned foods and beverages. Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. This limits your exposure to BPA, a toxic substance used in the lining of most cans.