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

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Vinyl curtains and bedding: The two Target shower curtains Silent Spring tested were 28 percent phthalates by weight. "That means that a quarter of those shower curtains is phthalates," Dodson says. The vinyl pillow protector was 14 percent. "What's concerning is that people are using these pillow protectors to reduce exposure to dust mites because they suffer from asthma, yet the pillow protectors themselves contain high levels of chemicals that cause asthma," she says.

And it's not just the asthma-inducing, hormone-bending phthalates that consumers need to be concerned about. BPA is another hormone disruptor that's used in vinyl products, and it too was detected in the shower curtain and pillow protector. Another hormone disruptor found in the shower curtains was nonylphenol, a breakdown product of a chemical used to prevent plastic from breaking down. The researchers also found glycol ethers, chemicals that are associated with low sperm counts and asthma, in the pillow protector.

Anything labeled "antibacterial": Triclosan and triclocarban are the two most common ingredients in antibacterial soaps and cleaners. Personal care products that use them are considered over-the-counter drugs, and cleaners that use them are considered pesticides, and therefore, both chemicals have to be listed on labels. Both chemicals were detected in products that were properly labeled, but one dish soap contained triclosan even though it wasn't listed.

The sheer number of "antibacterial" products has skyrocketed in the past decade, as germ-phobic shoppers buy up antibacterial towels, bedsheets, workout gear, toothpastes, and even cutting boards. But all that germ protection comes at a cost: Many scientists suspect triclosan and triclocarban of contributing to the meteoric rise in drug-resistant bacteria over that same period.

We Can't Shop Our Way Out of This Problem

One of the reasons Silent Spring Institute conducted this study, said Dodson, was to show that even the most devoted label-reader and product-researcher can't avoid all the toxic chemicals used in household products. "Products don't tend to be fully labeled," she notes, as evidenced by all the chemicals they found in products that didn't list them on the label. In addition to finding fragrances and triclosan that weren't in label listings, the authors found paraben preservatives in products that didn't list those on ingredients labels.

A number of online resources, such as the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database, use label information to generate safety ratings for a variety of personal care and cleaning products. "Many of these are simply an analysis of labels, which is what their ratings are based on. Unfortunately, these labels aren't complete," Dodson says. "You can't make good decisions without all the information."

Silent Spring is working with other nonprofits to revamp the '70s-era law that regulates chemicals in consumer products, the Toxic Substances Reform Act, which has allowed thousands of older chemicals to be used for decades without adequate safety testing. "Consumers shouldn't have to be chemists," she says, "and we don't have to be forced to shop our way out of this."

In addition to eliminating the products listed above, Dodson offers one final tip: "Choose fewer products. The less you use, the fewer chemicals you're exposed to." Opt for baking soda and white vinegar over commercial cleaners, and use coconut oil, olive oil, and baking soda in place of lotions and deodorants.

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