How to Avoid Toxic Chemicals

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After watching this week’s interview with Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, you’ll probably be wondering what you can do to protect yourself and your family from toxic chemicals. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is become politically involved – join the fight against both chemicals in our environment and money in our political system. In today’s world, it’s virtually impossible to avoid dangerous chemicals, even in your own home, but here are a few simple steps you can take to limit your exposure to known toxins like lead, flame retardants and BPA.


(AP Photo/Stew Milne)

If you think that lead poisoning is a problem of the past, or one that only affects the urban poor, think again. While it’s true that lead paint has been illegal since the 70s and leaded gasoline was phased out in the 80s, the highly toxic substance still lurks in old homes, parking lots, water pipes, and in products imported from countries that don’t have the same regulations. And while lead poisoning no longer the killer it once was, miniscule amounts of lead can cause neurological damage and behavioral problems in children. According to the CDC, there are currently half a million children with elevated levels of lead in their blood. Here’s what you can do to protect your family from lead poisoning:

1) Find out if there’s lead in your water. A good place to start is with your local government. website. At, for example, you can order a free testing kit. You can also try contacting your local water company, your landlord or a private lab. You may also want to install an NSF-certified water filter on your water tap. Though the EPA has mandated that water systems be tested for lead since 1991, your home’s own internal plumbing could still contain lead, particularly if you live in an older building.

2) Replace old windows. Though lead paint has been illegal since 1978 and has largely been removed from old buildings, in some cases, it was seen as too costly to replace the windows. To have your windows replaced (or to do any sort of renovation on a building that may still contain lead paint), contact an EPA-certified renovator who has been trained to follow lead safety practices. In some cases, your local government may cover the costs.

3) Throw out colorfully-painted toys that were made outside the U.S. or Europe. They may look innocent, but toys, crayons, ceramic and jewelry, particularly those manufactured in China or Mexico, may contain lead, and as any parent knows, children are likely to put these things in their mouths.

4) Dust or vacuum regularly. Even without any obvious source of lead in your home, there may still be lead in the air, particularly if you live in an industrial area or if a neighbor has been renovating an old home. Dust particles containing lead are especially dangerous to babies who crawl around on the floor. It’s also important to keep toys and hands clean.

5) Test the soil. Urban and suburban yards can still contain contaminants from the days when lead paint and gasoline were widespread. Before planting a garden or even letting your kids run around in the yard, make sure the soil is lead-free. Your local public health department may offer free testing; you can also contact a private or university-run lab.

Flame Retardants

The hazards of flame retardants have been known for some time — brominated tris was banned from children’s pajamas back in 1977. And yet, similar chemicals can still be found in everything from couch cushions to television sets. Studies have linked one group of flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, to lower IQs, behavioral problems, early puberty and fertility issues. And the fire-safety benefits of these chemicals are debatable. Here’s what you can to keep toxic flame retardants out of your home:

1) Check the labels on your furniture. The California Furniture Flammability Standard essentially requires that cushioned furniture, children’s car seats, diaper-changing tables and other products containing polyurethane foam are dipped in toxic chemicals. (Don’t breathe a sigh of relief just because you live in one of the other 49 states — because of California’s size, most mass-produced furniture is designed to meet California’s standard). Check the tags for the familiar notice: This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117. (The tag is not required though, so just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s safe.) Fortunately, California has proposed changing the rule; until that happens, you can look for products made with wool, cotton or polyester filling instead of polyurethane foam. And if you can’t afford all new eco-friendly furniture, be sure to dust, vacuum and wash your hands regularly — most of the toxins enter the body by swallowing contaminated dust.

2) Check the labels on electronics, too. Flame retardants have long been used in electronic equipment like computers and television sets. Thankfully, that’s slowly changing. As of 2008, the following companies had committed to phasing out all brominated flame retardants: Acer, Apple, Eizo Nanao, LG Electronics, Lenovo, Matsushita, Microsoft, Nokia, Phillips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony-Ericsson, and Toshiba. To find flame retardant-free versions of everything from refrigerators to nose-hair clippers, check this list created by ChemSec, an environmental non-profit based in Sweden.

3) Beware of fleece pajamas. Though one flame retardant, brominated tris, was banned from children’s pajamas, some sleepwear is still treated with another flame retardant called PROBAN which has been linked to genetic abnormalities and cancer. Check the label — children’s pajamas that DO NOT contain flame retardants must have a tag that reads: “For child’s safety, garment should fit snugly” (the snug fit limits the flow of oxygen in order to prevent fire from spreading, an approved alternative to chemical flame retardants). Cotton and polyester products rarely contain flame retardants, but look out for those cozy fleece footed pajamas — they usually do.


Bisphenol A, or BPA, has been linked to cancer, asthma, obesity and reproductive issues. And yet, until recently, the chemical was found in, among other things, baby bottles. The FDA finally banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and children’s sippy cups in 2012 — three years after major manufacturers had voluntarily stopped using it. But BPA is still found in other hard plastic containers, the lining of metal cans and the paper that receipts are printed on. It’s difficult to completely avoid BPA — 90 percent of Americans have traces of the chemical in their urine. But here are some things you can do to limit your exposure:

1) When purchasing plastic products — particularly those that come into contact with your food, such as food storage containers, plastic plates and cups, look for those that are clearly marked BPA free. Thanks to vocal consumers, many companies are now manufacturing BPA-free products and marketing them as such.

2) Avoid food containers marked with recycling codes 3 or 7, which may be made with BPA. If your food does come in a container marked 3 or 7, don’t microwave it in that container – chemicals are more likely to leak into your food at high temperatures.

3) Limit your consumption of canned foods, or look for cans marked BPA free — they are rare, but do exist. Eden Organic cans have been BPA free since 1999.

4) BPA is often used in the thermal paper that receipts are printed on. Since it’s impossible to know whether or the receipt you’re being handed has contains BPA, don’t take receipts that you don’t need. If you operate a business that uses receipts, switch to a BPA-free paper manufacturer, such as Appleton Paper, which went BPA-free in 2006.

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  • ImportantStuff

    thanks for covering this incredible topic. we need more of this kind of reporting.

  • anthropologist

    Many thanks for your article Lauren,

    My mother died from ovarian cancer at age 55 because of hormone replacement therapy. My father died from lung cancer because of a life-long addiction to cigarettes. and my brother died from chronic liver failure because of an addiction to alcohol.

    And exactly how much of our GDP are we spending in the wars against illegal drugs and “terrorists”? According to the CDC, tobacco is the single most preventable cause of death in the USA today. Big Tobacco lost a loyal customer when my father died in 2005- one of approximately 434,000 Americans that year.

  • Claire Wilson

    Check out the book. The 100-Year Lie. Amazing accounting of all the toxins in our bodies and our environment and how disease corresponds to the introduction of certain substances.

  • portland dan

    Eden Organic isn’t worthy of our patronage: they want to control your birth control: These customers, to put it mildly, are not pleased at the news that Eden hired the Thomas More Law Center to file a lawsuit against Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and other government parties, associated with the Obama administration’s rule on contraception.

    The lawsuit claims the contraception rule violates Eden Foods owner Michael Potter’s religious freedom under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by requiring him to provide his employees with medical coverage for contraception.

    Potter believes contraception “almost always involves immoral and unnatural practices.”

  • Pat Field Ravasio

    You should also advice people who must handle receipts all day to simply grab them from the back (the clean side) and fold the BPA inward. That way, nobody gets hurt. This article falls short in many important ways — it omits the whole issue of pesticides which are regularly used in children’s playgrounds and public parks, not to mention our lawns and gardens. But hey, at least you are trying, and that is to be commended!

  • Edward Vigneau

    Please edit articles before publishing. Proper English sentences are still helpful: “1) Check the labels on your furniture. The California Furniture Flammability Standard essentially requires that cushioned furniture, children’s car seats, diaper-changing tables and other products containing polyurethane foam are dipped in toxic chemicals. ” WTF?

  • Kay DeFreese

    Eden Ogranics is a leader in providing food that does not contain BPA. I’m still going to use their cans whenever possible.

  • Criticon

    What’s wrong with the sentence?

  • Christopher Maxwell

    Regarding windows and dusting regularly.
    Much of the dust comes from badly airsealed return ductwork in crawlspaces and attics. Have someone with a BPI Air Sealing certification (or an experienced person who CARES what you breathe) fix the airsealing. Better yet, keep that ductwork and the air handler in the conditioned space and NOT the Attic!

    On windows (except under high wind conditions) windows do NOT do the most leaking in a house. The crawl space/basement/baseboards and the leaky ceilings into the attics are the greatest source of air leakage (that brings in dust some of it with lead).
    Thus if possible, have your existing windows carefully encapsulated or stripped of lead paint. Certainly maintain them when possible and storm windows can dramatically reduce the peeling of the paint on the outside of the windows for a fraction of the price of new windows. Also the cheapest vinyl windows that do not have fiberglass or metal interior reinforcement will often warp and thus no longer close fully thus making your situation WORSE than the original wood windows!
    Sincerely, Christopher Maxwell (BPI Certified Solar Installer and building rehabilitator)

  • Paulette Delor Green

    I was just going to post about this. I was speaking out very frequently on their FB page about this outrage and will continue to spread the word that they can’t be trusted anymore and to avoid their products.

  • J Sutherland

    I risk being unpopular, but I have to weigh in on the media’s complete disregard for the real story behind breast cancer. Cutting off one’s breasts is not the way women (in the collective) should go about fighting this cancer. We’ve been told. We know. Everyone knows. We’ve known for years.

  • Kirk Anderson

    I’m going to guess that Mr Vigneau would like the subjunctive “be dipped” instead of “are dipped” ?

  • susanpub

    Long live the grammar geeks! I love you both.

  • susanpub

    Sounds like Michael Potter might be violating his employees religious freedom (or freedom therefrom)

  • susanpub

    I understand – sometimes you have to choose your battles.

  • Anonymous

    Even worse is the fact that elementary and H.S. buildings are regularly sprayed with some very toxic pesticides, especially in the cafeterias and kitchens.

  • Anonymous

    Cigarettes and the machines that make them should be banned. If a nicotine addict wants to smoke then they should be free to grow and roll their own.

    Moreover, given that a third of the contents of cigarettes are additives not tobacco, there should be labels that divulge the ingredients; one of which is designed to lower the PH in order to allow the tobacco to be inhaled.

    And lastly, most people don’t know that the tobacco industry has known since the sixties that tobacco is radioactive, containing polonium 210, which might account for our lung cancer epidemic.

  • N King

    The sentence says that the CA Standard essentially requires that those items are dipped in toxic chemicals. They’re required to be dipped in toxic chemicals???

  • Debra Winchell

    Artificial fragrance should have been covered. It is unregulated in this country and 95 percent is toxic. Some are allergic and have their social activities greatly curtailed because of the chemicals, not to mention their physical health threatened. There are few indoor places people can go that don’t have artificial fragrance. Apartment buildings aren’t safe, either. It can seep in from other units.

  • Brie

    It’s incredible that you think that a negative thing when you are reading an article on how to AVOID toxic chemicals. Free birth control is bad for the environment! Hormonal contraception is both a carcinogen (on the level of cigarette smoking according to the World Health Organization) and an environmental pollutant. It is wreaking havoc on our waterways :( There are more responsible ways to prevent pregnancies. The HHS mandate promoting birth control is a travesty for our health and environment.

  • Anonymous

    Your web address goes no where.

  • Anonymous

    They don’t want to control YOUR birth control. They just do not want to be handing it out to their employees due to religious reasons. This doesn’t effect anyone other than their employees, and those employees can still get them at Planned Parenthood. If it is against someone’s religion, they should not have to comply with that. We are still free to practice our religion in this country.

  • Casandra

    I have been eating a certain brand of organic carrots that often taste like bug spray. I thought maybe it was my imagination, until my very food conscious daughter came home from CA and tasted the same thing. One day it was so strong that I had a stinging sensation for my tongue (for 2 seconds maybe). I do not know where to report this.

  • Nancy Brown

    Personal care products are a huge problem – the number of toxins found in our personal products and home cleaning products are staggering! Ava Anderson (founder at age 15 of Ava Anderson Non-Toxic) gets it! She has been to Congress to support the campaign for safe cosmetics. Her entire line of personal care and home products are free of toxic chemicals AND they work! Guaranteed! I’ve been a consultant with them for 2 years now and am so proud to be able to help educate people!

  • Anonymous

    It’s an email address that’s why.