Una owner of Econscious Living, is a passionate environmental scientist. She specialises in empowering families to create a healthy, green home and workspace. Here she shares why many everyday items are a health risk and 12 ways that you can avoid hormone-disrupting chemicals in your home. This post is a collaboration between Wholehearted Family Health and Econscious Living.
Chemicals are ubiquitous: they are in our air, soil, water and food from the Arctic to the Antarctic; in polar bears to bees. We cannot escape them.
Why are chemicals a problem?
Ninety per cent of the 130 million chemicals registered globally have never been tested for safety or human health effects. In Australia, only 3% of the 10,000 new chemicals introduced annually are assessed. Many of these chemicals are known hormone-disrupting chemicals, also known as ‘endocrine disruptors.’ Our endocrine system – thyroid, gonad and adrenal glands produce hormones such as adrenaline, oestrogen and testosterone critical in fertility, reproduction, growth and metabolism.
The World Health Organisation uses breastmilk as a biomarker for assessing our chemical load and global environmental contamination. The fat-loving toxicants can get deposited in the adipose tissues of our bodies and get mobilised into breast milk, the most nutritious and immune-boosting food we can give a child. Toxicants can also cross the placenta.
The WHO has stated that hormone-disrupting chemicals are a global public health threat; children and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. The reason is apparent when you look at the findings from the 2005 Environmental Working Group study which found that newborn babies, prior to taking their first breath, had over 200 toxicants in their cord blood – 180 of them are known carcinogens, 208 can cause birth defects and 217 are known to be dangerous to the brain and nervous system.
Some of these chemicals were banned years ago but still persist in our environment and many of them are endocrine disruptors. The chemicals they found included derivatives of fire retardants, synthetic fragrances, non-stick materials, PolyChlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and BisPhenol A (BPA).
A 2011 study found that 96% of pregnant women had BPA in their blood – a known endocrine disruptor. A more recent study showed that children born to women who used endocrine disruptors known as phthalates commonly found in perfume and cosmetics had a 6.7 point deficit in IQ, that hadn’t recovered by the age of seven.
While these are some scary stats, the good news is there are many simple actions you can take to reduce your chemical load.
What are these endocrine disruptors and where do we find them?
Endocrine disruptors are mostly man-made compounds derived from petroleum, pesticides and herbicides. They can mimic, block or alter the way a natural hormone is expressed in the body and consequently cause adverse health effects. They do this by interacting with endocrine receptor sites on cells in the body increasing or decreasing hormone-mediated functions.
They can persist in the environment and our bodies anywhere from hours to months or years. The more persistent include certain flame retardants, dioxins and PCBs. PCBs were banned in the 1970s but still show up in the cord blood of our newborn babies. The more short-lived chemicals include BPA, phthalates and some pesticides.
Endocrine disruptors are found in hundreds of regular household items including cosmetics, personal care products, food packaging, medications and building materials.
More specifically: shop receipts, paint, cookware, vinyl flooring, carpets, tins, laundry detergent, air fresheners, shoes, household cleaners, shower curtains, prams, mattresses, dental sealants, jewellery, plastic toys, dishwashing detergent, wallets, sofas, scented candles, perfumes, nail polish, children’s clothing and raincoats, garden hoses, car seats and other everyday items.
Whilst we can never totally eliminate these chemicals from our lives we can do a lot to reduce the toxic load, especially within our own home.
Why are endocrine disruptors so bad for us?
One of the reasons the toxicity of endocrine disruptors has flown under the radar is because we have been led to believe that “the dose makes the poison.”
Manufacturers will tell you that the chemical dose in products is so small that it will not harm you. However there are endocrine effects observed at high doses that are different to those at very low doses, and there are effects seen at low doses that are non-existent at high doses. Our endocrine system functions on ‘parts per billion’ doses and so to do these synthetic endocrine disruptors.
Despite what industry will tell you, low doses matter a lot.
It’s also clear that any adverse effects in the womb do not end there but play out over a lifetime. They have been shown to have trans-generational effects. Think about a pregnant woman; her unborn baby has all the eggs she will ever have. Trans-generational effects have sadly been experienced by many pregnant women prescribed endocrine disrupting drugs up until about 1970 to alleviate morning sickness and prevent miscarriages. The mothers themselves didn’t appear to have any serious ill effects from the drugs but their children did.
Other key factors are the timing and duration of the dose. Early foetal life is a particularly critical time period when the endocrine system is established and organs are developing. Critical windows occur around 7 to 14 weeks. During this time there is a huge surge in testosterone which masculines genitalia, the reproductive tract and the brain – and disruption to this process may be associated with an increase in male reproductive disorders.
What are some of the main sources of endocrine disruptors in your home?
Everything from pencil cases to rubbish bags come smelling of sweet nothings. The synthetic musks used in fragrances are problematic in themselves as are the phthalates that ensure the perfume sticks to you forever and a day. Fragrances are often labelled as ‘parfum’ on your personal care items. Up to 70% of perfumes contain phthalates – endocrine disruptors.
Personal Care Products and Cosmetics:
The products in your make up kit and bathroom are likely to contain endocrine disruptors including phthalates, parabens, phenoxyethanol and many other chemicals which can act as xeno-estrogens mimicking natural estrogens. When they enter our body, they attach themselves to our cells’ receptors, taking over the natural function of oestrogens, to control growth and development. Over 100 of these are found in personal care products and may be linked to breast cancer.
Many types of plastic leach endocrine disruptors including PVC, polystyrene and polycarbonates. Polycarbonate is commonly found in baby bottles. If the plastic does not contain BPA it may have been replaced with another “regrettable substance” equally as toxic such as BPS. Glass bottles are best. Plastic water bottles and lunch boxes often contain polycarbonate and hence BPA; similarly, plastic communal water dispensers found in offices. Under heat stress or boiling water, the BPA can easily leach from the plastic. There are safer plastics but best use them to store inert type foods such as rice, oats, and never for fatty meats or acidic foods. Plastics with recycling codes 2,4 and 5 are safest.
As well as being found in fragrances phthalates are also found in plastics. Poly Vinyl Chlorine (PVC) usually contains phthalates – children’s raincoats, toys, wallets and shoes are often made from PVC. Phthalates may also increase your risk of gestational diabetes (diabetes in pregnancy.)
At high temperatures, non-stick cookware releases perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) linked to thyroid disease, infertility and developmental and reproductive problems.
How can you reduce hormone-disrupting chemicals in your life?
The good news is there is a lot you can do to eliminate endocrine disruptors in your home.
- Use Apps such as the Chemical Maze; Think Dirty and Healthy Living to help guide healthy personal care choices. Shampoo, skin care products, aftershave, nails polish and hairspray, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics are likely to contain endocrine disruptors. Switch to organic brands of toiletries instead.
- Use zinc-based and natural sunscreens.
- Avoid non-stick cookware. Use stainless steel, cast iron, glass, ceramic or Corningware.
- Gradually eliminate plastic and use glass or stainless steel for food storage. Do not heat, freeze or microwave food in plastic containers. Buy products in glass bottles or jars rather than plastic or canned – chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the food. Avoid plastic wrap and use beeswax/cotton canvas covers instead.
- Avoid cleaning products with a “danger” or “warning” label. Use micro-fibre cloths or bicarbonate soda and vinegar for cleaning and sterilising. Next time you purchase a vacuum cleaner make sure it comes with a HEPA filter to remove fine house dust which is often contaminated with chemicals.
- Remove fragrances of any sort from your home including those in personal care products. The only exception is if they are derived from pure essential oils. This includes perfumes, air fresheners, fabric softeners, incense burners, scented candles, aerosols, shampoos, deodorants, pencil cases, rubbish bags etc.
- Buy furniture with natural materials that are less flammable, for example, wool, leather or cotton. Avoid stain and water-resistant fabrics, furniture and carpets.
- Use glass baby bottles and avoid plastic sippy cups. Use stainless steel or glass water bottles. Avoid plastic lunch boxes.
- Minimise your use of plastic children’s toys, try to choose natural materials instead.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric.
- If a shop assistant offers you a receipt say ‘no thanks’.
- If you are planning on having a child soon (or even if you are not) one way to detoxify your body is by using a sauna, especially an infra-red sauna. Please chat with your health practitioner about how to do this safely.
There are many fabulous online as well as brick and mortar shops where you can buy healthy eco-friendly products.
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