The second-most-widely used herbicide in the United States, atrazine is famous (or maybe infamous) for causing male fish and frogs develop female genitalia. In humans, it can cause infertility. It may also be carcinogenic, but researchers haven’t yet gathered enough information to make a definitive conclusion.
Avoid it: The easiest way to avoid atrazine is by eating organic food and reducing your meat consumption. Why less meat? Many animals eat corn, which is often treated with atrazine, which can bring the substance into your body. If you can find meat from organic-fed animals, you may be safer.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
This is a component in plastics and is used in water bottles, on receipts, and in canned food linings. It’s what’s called a xenoestrogen, meaning that it behaves somewhat like the hormone and can also interact with sex hormones in the human body. While the substance is controversial, authorities in the US and Europe haven’t found enough evidence to definitively link it to any negative health outcomes – but some people are still proceeding with caution.
Avoid it: The good news here is that you can avoid BPA pretty easily. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose its use, but you can assume that if a metal can isn’t labeled “BPA-free,” it has the substance in its lining. Avoid BPA by choosing those cans that are labeled “BPA-free,” or choosing glass jars or fresh or frozen food.
These substances (and similar substances like DDT and PCBs) are a byproduct of industrial processes like paper bleaching and trash incineration. In the body, they’ve been linked to decreased fertility, diabetes, cancer, endometriosis, immune system problems, and more.
Avoid them: The bad news is that nobody can avoid dioxins altogether. But you can reduce the amount you take into your body by limiting the amount of fatty animal products you consume. That’s because dioxins are stored in animals’ fatty tissues. Note: going organic here won’t help because dioxins come from air and water rather than animals’ food supply.
Flame retardants are in lots of stuff: furniture, kids’ supplies, bedding, and more. Some of the substances in them (including polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) have been linked to fertility problems, thyroid problems, and neurobehavioral changes in the young – but at this point, most of those findings are from animal studies.
Avoid them: Actually, don’t avoid them! Flame retardants can save your life and your home. To minimize the impact of any toxic substances they contain, dust and vacuum your home regularly. The toxic parts get into your system by binding to dust particles; the less dust, the less damage.
This baby’s a nasty one. A known carcinogen, it can also cause respiratory and eye irritation, nausea, dizziness, and headaches in the short term. Far from being confined to the labs of mad scientists to preserve newts, formaldehyde is present in pressed-wood products (particleboard, wood paneling, plywood), foam insulation, latex paints, wallpaper, some synthetic fabrics, and some personal care products.
Avoid it: Choose hardwood furniture when possible (you can ask for a formaldehyde testing report). Invest in air-filtering plants like the bamboo palm or the peace lily to help keep your home’s air toxin-free.
We mentioned earlier that glycol-based substances might be in your antifreeze or windshield fluid. Glycol ethers are also found in dry cleaning chemicals, some personal care products, and some home cleaners.
Avoid them: Skip dry cleaning whenever possible and make your own cleaning products at home. Tips and recipes for doing that in Part 3!
Lead causes a lot of well-documented health problems, including impaired development of the brain and nervous system. Newer research suggests it may also affect the body’s ability to regulate stress hormones.
Avoid it: For most people, the biggest risk of lead exposure is via paint, which legally contained lead in the United States until 1978. In some parts of the country, lead in the water is also a problem, in part because of lead pipes and socioeconomic inequalities that we won’t get into right now.
The best ways to avoid lead are these:
- If your house is older than 1978, assume there’s lead paint in it. Consider renovating to eliminate the lead, but consult a lead remediation professional first. If you’re pregnant, avoid the renovation area.
- If you live in an area with lead in the water, buy a filter that can eliminate it.
- Eat a healthy diet, as that can help your body absorb less lead.
Mercury is most dangerous to young children and pregnant women (because it can hurt the development of the fetus). It can be toxic to the nervous system, digestive system, immune system, and can damage the lungs, eyes, skin, and kidneys.
Avoid it: In the United States, most people’s biggest exposure comes from seafood. Limit your consumption to animals low on the food chain – generally, the smaller the animal, the less mercury it contains.
These pesticides are very common and have been tied to a number of health problems, including cardiovascular diseases and endocrine disruption (though more research may be needed to show a definitive link).
Avoid them: The easiest way to avoid these toxins is to choose organic food.
Used in rocket fuel, this chemical can prevent your thyroid from absorbing iodine properly. And your thyroid needs iodine to function.
Avoid it: Unfortunately, you really can’t: it’s in groundwater, food, and more. But if you get enough iodine in your diet, you’ll diminish its impact.
Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)
Branded as Teflon and Stainmaster, these toxins can impact the function of the thyroid and have been linked to infertility in men and women.
Avoid them: PFCs are primarily used to make “non-stick” dishes and cooking utensils and to make products stain-, water-, or grease-repellant (pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, pet food bags, etc.).
Opt for stainless steel, copper, or cast iron cooking gear, and for clothing that’s made waterproof with polyurethane rather than Gore-tex. Opt for glass containers to store food. If you’re a popcorn fanatic (as this writer is), learn how to make stovetop popcorn. It’s super easy and way more delicious.
Phthalates are used to keep plastic flexible and sturdy. They’re found in all kinds of materials: vinyl products like shower curtains, PVC plastics, synthetic scents, nail polish, fake leather, and some plastic food containers. Some forms of phthalates are known carcinogens. In the shorter term, contact with phthalates can cause nausea, respiratory system irritation, stomach irritation, damage to the central nervous system, liver and kidney damage, headaches, and loss of coordination.
Avoid them: Whenever possible, choose glass or metal to store food. Opt for natural fibers (like cotton) and choose a nylon (or other non-vinyl) shower curtain. Avoid synthetic scents. Note: these compounds made some cool plastic applications possible, but they’re an environmental bummer at every stage of their lifecycle.