The 3 Biggest Sources of Chemicals in Your Home

Ever wonder what's exposing you to the highest levels of chemicals? A new study hopes to give you an answer.

By Emily Main


Ever wonder what's exposing you to the highest levels of chemicals? A new study hopes to give you an answer. It's pretty well known that products like vinyl shower curtains and floor tiles, personal care products, and household cleaners expose people to a variety of harmful chemicals that have been linked to asthma and reproductive problems, including infertility in both men and women. But when it comes to eliminating chemicals in your home, where do you start?

That's what scientists at the Silent Spring Institute were hoping to uncover with a massive review of more than 200 products, all of which were analyzed for their hazardous-chemical content. "This is the first large peer-reviewed study of its kind that has looked at such a wide range of products for hormone disruption and asthma," says the study's lead author Robin Dodson, ScD, research scientist at Silent Spring. "It gives us a much clearer snapshot of what people might be exposed to."

A number of studies have pinpointed things like fragrances, cleaners, and personal care products as a source of exposure to hormone disruptors, chemicals that act like estrogen or block testosterone in both men and women and can lead to problems with infertility, reproductive cancers, and other hormonal functions. But until now, it's never been very clear which products posed the greatest threat, says Dodson.

She and her coauthors selected 170 household products—including dish liquids, laundry detergents, lotions, sunscreens, cosmetics, vinyl shower curtains, and vinyl pillow protectors—and analyzed those for the presence of the 66 chemicals that can trigger breathing problems and reproductive abnormalities, among them:

• phthalates, linked to both asthma and infertility
• fragrances, which contain mixtures of a dozen or more chemicals and are even used in "unscented" products to mask chemical odors
• glycol ethers, asthma-triggering solvents often added to cleaning products
• parabens, preservatives used in a variety of personal care products and suspected of causing breast cancer
triclosan, used in cosmetics and antibacterial soaps and known to interfere with reproductive hormones
• bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical used in certain plastics

The researchers also selected 43 "alternative" products that were promoted as being free of some of the above chemicals, for instance, white vinegar, nylon shower curtains, and a variety of "fragrance-free" personal care and cleaning products. To see the brand names of all the products tested, check the full list published by Silent Spring online. They detected at least one of the six chemicals listed above in nearly all products tested, including 41 of the 43 "green" or "nontoxic" products.

Based on the results of their analysis, here are the three biggest sources of chemicals in the home that Dodson recommends we all steer clear of:

Fragranced products: Orange-scented dish soap, your makeup, that strawberry-scented shampoo—any product with a fragrance is likely to have high levels of chemicals, Dodson says. "They also contained a lot of the compounds we're most concerned about," she adds. For instance, the phthalate used to keep fragrances from dissipating was the chemical most commonly detected in the study.

There are more than 3,000 chemicals used to make synthetic fragrances, and a single product scent can contain anywhere from 30 to 500 of them. When those chemicals are released into your indoor air, they can combine to create cancer-causing formaldehyde and ultrafine particles that trigger respiratory problems.

To protect business secrets, companies don't have to list those chemicals on labels or even disclose them on corporate websites. In fact, the researchers detected fragrances in 26 products, many of them cleaners, that didn't even list either "fragrance" or a specific scent on the label. Perfumes, car and home air fresheners, and dryer sheets were the products containing the highest levels of fragrance.