A while back I wrote an introductory article on environmental toxicants and general tips for avoiding them, and today I’m going to go a bit deeper on the highest priority chemicals to watch out for in your home, with the help and input of certified Building Biologist, Corrine Segura of My Chemical-Free House. It’s important to note that this information is valuable whether you are sensitive to chemicals or not because these chemicals can cause a host of health issues as your toxic load increases.

Quick reminder: toxic load, or body burden, is what happens when you are continually exposed to chemicals and toxicants from the environment, which are often long-lasting, and sometimes difficult for our body to clear. Your toxic load or body burden increases as your ability to detoxify decreases. Our detoxification pathways can become overwhelmed with constant toxicant exposures and as more chemicals are pumped into our air, water, soil, food, cosmetics, and so on.  Using the analogy of a sink, some people have deep sinks and large drains and can handle many more exposures than others, the canaries, who have shallow sinks and narrow drains, in whom chemical toxicant exposure shows quickly up as illness.

Some classes of chemicals can cause immediate symptoms, and many will not cause reactions at all, even in chemically sensitive folks, yet they still can cause serious health concerns in the long term. Learning about which products have these chemicals of concern can help you make better decisions that can improve the health of your house and those who call it home.

 

Home interior with hallway and front door

Tox #1: VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are everywhere and there are even some natural VOCs. These are usually gasses and you may know them as benzene, toluene, styrene and formaldehyde.  Molds can also produce microbial VOCs which can have deleterious health effects.

Symptoms of significant VOC exposure include:

  • eye and respiratory irritation
  • respiratory problems
  • Allergies and asthma
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Brain fog and cognitive issues
  • Depression and anxiety

Exposures can trigger chemical sensitivity in people or worsen pre-existing chemical sensitivity.  Prolonged or severe exposures can lead to liver damage, cardiovascular disease, infertility, DNA damage, cancer, dementia, and neurodevelopmental disorders.   (1)

Many building products and furnishings can raise indoor VOC levels to be much higher than outdoor air. The products highest on the list to avoid are spray foam insulation, vinyl sheet flooring, rubber gym flooring, some carpets (especially nylon carpets when glued down with rebonded padding), liquid asphalt products (used on the roof, for “hot mopping” a shower, and below grade on the foundation), butyl caulking, most polyurethane caulking, solvent-based paints and stains, and fiberboard and particleboard made with formaldehyde.

Other sources of VOCs include:  Gasoline, paints, stains, finishes, air fresheners, pesticides, personal care products, aerosol sprays, cigarette smoke, and polystyrene food containers.  Parking the car in a garage attached to the house is a significant source of exposures and should be avoided!

Luckily, VOCs are typically easily cleared from the body, though some people have genetic mutations which make it more challenging to excrete the VOCs as efficiently. If there is continuous exposure, that could mean ongoing symptoms.

The best form of treatment is avoidance!  If you are unsure, you may want to invest in a VOC meter.  My favorite is the AirKnight 9-in-1 sensor which can identify particulate matter in air pollution, total VOCs and formaldehyde, as well as temperature and humidity.  There are other ones on the market, too.

The primary treatments for VOC exposure are adequate amino acids, especially glycine and taurine, for the body to conjugate (combine) with the VOCs in preparation for excretion. Just as important are antioxidants, such as glutathione, NAC, vitamin C and green tea.

 

The interior of a beautiful hall with a clothes rack and a wooden staircase

Tox #2: PFAS

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of highly fluorinated chemicals that have been widely synthesized and utilized since the 1940s in various industrial practices and consumer products, acting as surfactants, flame retardants, additives, lubricants, and pesticides.  Over 10,000 compounds belong to this class and we monitor very few.  These are known as “forever chemicals” and are used mostly to imbue stain resistance.   Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are two of the most used PFAS compounds in various applications.

Although they have been phased out globally for use in textiles such as on sofas, rugs, and carpets, they are still used in building materials and persist in the environment, and are listed under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Chemicals. Items such as stone sealers (including countertop sealers) are usually PFAS-based. You can also find PFAS in traditional non-stick coatings on cookware, in some water-based floor finishes, as well as some insecticides, firefighting foams, paints, cosmetics, public drinking water, and contaminated food sources.  PFAS are intricately connected to the global issue of plastic pollution, as they co-occur with microplastics and other additives.

Symptoms of PFAS exposure include:

  • Cancers – breast, prostate and bladder, kidney, testicular
  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • Diabetes and blood sugar regulation issues
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Fertility issues – these chemicals are known as endocrine disruptors
  • Low testosterone
  • Mitochondrial damage
  • Fatty liver
  • Osteoporosis
  • Immune dysregulation. (2)

These forever chemicals are persistent in the environment and in our bodies! They are excreted in the bile into the GI tract and reabsorbed by the enterohepatic recirculation and then get shunted back and forth.  There is not much known about how to get these out of our bodies.  Research on sauna showed little excretion.  Short of phlebotomy and plasmapheresis (removal, treatment, and return of clean plasma to the bloodstream), these chemicals appear to be in the body for the long haul, so we need to know where we get exposed since avoidance is the golden rule!

The animal literature suggests we can mitigate the oxidative damage caused by PFAS with vitamin C, glutathione, NAC, phosphatidylcholine, and bile sequestrants like cholestyramine.

 

modern kitchen interior

Tox #3: Flame Retardants

Buckle up, because this is a big one. Chemical flame retardants are everywhere!  Advertised to decrease the ability of materials to ignite and cause harm to humans, a variety of flame retardants have been added to a range of products since the 1960s. Though many are no longer produced, they do not easily break down, remaining in the environment for years and bioaccumulating in people and animals over time. Humans are exposed to flame retardant chemicals daily.

They have been mostly phased out of foams in furniture and beds, but if you have foam furniture made prior to 2005, it likely contains PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), and if you have foam furniture made between 2005 and 2015 it likely contains “tris” (tris(chloropropyl) phosphate, or TCPP). Both of these flame retardants are incredibly toxic!

Flame retardants are also used in building products, like insulation. Canned spray foam and 2-part spray foam insulation contain the flame retardant TCPP, and foam board insulation contains TCPP or a butadiene styrene brominated copolymer. Flame retardants are also common in carpet – aluminum hydroxide, antimony-based flame retardants, or brominated flame retardants are currently in use.

Flame retardants are ubiquitous in electronic items and appliances, in both interior components and in power cords. Many different chemical flame retardants are used here – which makes sense, electrical fires are bad news – but are not usually disclosed.  One of the biggest sources in a home is household dust due to the breakdown of source material, such as all the furniture foam and electronics. Flame retardants are also found in the environment, including soil, water and fish (sardines and farmed fish), dairy products, and hot dogs.

Symptoms of chemical flame retardant exposure include:

  • Cancer
  • Infertility
  • low testosterone levels
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Neurodevelopmental issues – increased autism, decrease cognitive development, behavioral problems, ADHD
  • Neurological damage
  • Mitochondrial damage and oxidative damage. (3, 4)

Treatment options and  Interventions include vigorous dust control (HEPA vacuums, etc) and indoor air purification.  Avoidance, again, is preferable,  if there are product options without these chemicals.   Sauna works really well toe help excrete these chemicals, as well as anything that enhances fecal fat excretion, which will allow for the release of these persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  People can focus on alkalinization of the body by adding lemon or lime to their water, drinking carbonated mineral water out of glass bottles, and eating leafy green veggies, especially some of the Asian vegetables: Japanese parsley,  Chinese chive, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, Komatsuna, mitsuba, spinach, perilla, kale, lettuce, broccoli, onions and celery.

The benefits of the vegetables are related to the chlorophyll content, so taking chlorophyll and chlorella as supplements can also be helpful. Green tea and green tea supplements have also been shown to be helpful at reducing POPs.  Lastly, coffee enemas and colon hydrotherapy, or colonics,  are among the most useful techniques for mobilizing these classes of forever chemicals.

 

Open, modern living room

Tox #4: Phthalates

Phthalates are a plasticizer that is intentionally added to specific plastics to make them flexible, mainly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyether rubber. Plasticized PVC products include flexible vinyl flooring, vinyl shower curtains, vinyl roll-down blinds, toys, glues, caulks, and many more. Phthalates can also be found in trace amounts as a contaminant in polypropylene. And here’s a not-so-fun fact: phthalates can sometimes be found in non-plastic products like nail polish, perfume, and other personal care products wherever you see fragrance listed.  Although not related to building materials – but critical to know – some of the other sources include all foods wrapped in plastic (which is most food today!) and one of the biggest sources of contamination is house dust.  Think about it – all phthalate-containing materials break down and release these into the environment as house dust.

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, immunotoxicants, and neurotoxins.  Kids who are exposed can have breathing issues like asthma and allergies, as well as cognitive and emotional issues which affect behavior, including autism, mood issues, and cognitive issues – in particular, lower IQ, delinquent behaviors, and more aggressive behavior with higher prenatal exposures. Boys and men in particular are at risk for problems with reproductive development and fertility.  In fact, there is a clear relationship between high levels of phthalates and low testosterone levels worldwide. Phthalates have also been associated with the development of obesity and diabetes.

Symptoms of phthalate exposure:

  • Infertility
  • Low testosterone
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Autism
  • Mood issues
  • Cognitive and behavioral issues

The plasticizer used in all luxury vinyl plank flooring is Palatinol DOTP (Bis(2-ethylhexyl) terephthalate). This is a “non-ortho phthalate” which is an alternative class of plasticizer that has been approved for food contact and other places where “non-toxic” plasticizers are needed (such as toys). As of right now, there are no known adverse health effects of non-ortho phthalates, however, data is fairly new and studies do indicate that these plasticizers can migrate into foods with higher fat content. (5, 6, 7)

Phthalates are found in 100% of Americans and in the dust of all homes and commercial buildings.

Once again, avoidance is the best strategy when it comes to phthalates, but incredibly challenging due to the ubiquitous nature of plastics. General detoxification strategies from some of the other topics above help here also. Something to note about phthalates is that they aren’t persistent, like flame retardants, but they are pervasive, meaning that they can spread everywhere in the body – and they are everywhere in the world.

 

modern open dining room

Tox #5: Antimicrobials

You may have heard that antibacterial soap might contribute to antibiotic resistance and other problems, findings which led the FDA to ban some companies from using many antimicrobials, saying that soap and water is just as effective – and safer – than antimicrobials. However, some of these compounds are still used in products that we come into contact with every day, including foam, carpet, grout, countertops, textiles, flooring, soaps, personal care products, exercise mats, paints, and more.

Avoid products with triclosan, triclocarban, zinc pyrithione, quats (often ending with –onium chloride) or nanometals listed on the ingredient label. Sometimes you may see Microban listed – Microban now produces a substantial list of antimicrobials including zinc pyrithione, nanosilver, and more, so it’s not possible to know which one exactly is being used. Antimicrobials in paint aren’t a major source of exposure, but you can find better brands of paint with safer antimicrobials (and no VOCs) here.

Triclosan is an endocrine disruptor, a possible allergen, and may be linked to developmental and reproductive effects. Quats are respiratory and skin irritants, and may affect the nervous, immune, and reproductive systems. (8, 9)

 

open floor plan in house

Tox #6: Bisphenols

Bisphenols are the chemicals that make plastic hard and are known as Bisphenol A, S or F.  Bisphenols are   a component of PVC and the flame retardant tetrabromobisphenol-A.  These have been around since 1891!  BPA has been around the longest, and when information came out about toxicity levels with BPA, manufacturers created (regrettable) substitutions, Bisphenol F and Bisphenol S, which can be labeled “BPA-free” – but which may be equally problematic.

Sources of Bisphenols include:

  • Epoxy resins for glues
  • Floor coatings
  • Countertop or table resins
  • Polycarbonate plastic products like water bottles
  • food storage containers
  • Kitchenware
  • Inner linings of cans and jar lids
  • Sports equipment
  • Cash register receipt (thermal paper)
  • Personal care products
  • Paper products
  • Electrical and electronic goods
  • House dust
  • Dental composites

Keep in mind, food packaging accounts for 90% of exposures!

Bisphenols, like phthalates, are endocrine disruptors and are linked to asthma and neurodevelopmental problems such as hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, and aggression. In adults they are also associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, decreased fertility, and prostate cancer. (5)

Symptoms of bisphenol exposures include:

  • Male and female infertility
  • PCOS
  • Precocious puberty
  • Recurrent miscarriages
  • Breast and prostate cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • COPD
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Liver disease
  • ADHD
  • Asthma

In terms of treatment options, similar to phthalates, avoidance is the best course of action, however challenging it may be.  Usual methods of detoxification can be helpful such as sauna and the use of antioxidants, such as NAC, glutathione, melatonin, selenium, alpha lipoic acid, and vitamin E.

 

modern living room interior

Tox #7: Toxic Metals

I wrote an in-depth article on toxic metals, so I’m only going to dip a toe here. You know that lead is found in old paint, but an under-reported current-day risk is ceramic and porcelain tiles. Tiles of any color can contain higher levels of lead than leaded paint. This is a risk when cutting tiles and producing dust or when demolishing old tiles (which are even more likely to contain lead). Lead is also found in new and old dishware, both ceramic and glass, and some pipes and faucets. Check out Lead Safe Mama for testing results of products like glassware and dishware, and for a list of lead-free faucets, go to My Chemical-Free House.

But it’s not all about lead. Cadmium is another metal used in ceramics (tiles and dishware), rechargeable batteries, costume jewelry, and in paints used on dishes and glasses. Mercury is found in compact fluorescent lights (and is a risk if they are broken) as well as some TVs. Arsenic can be found in old pressure-treated wood (pre-2004).  Arsenic is also very high in the drinking water in many locations throughout the USA. The US Geological Survey maintains a website where you can find a map which shows the arsenic levels in drinking water around the USA.  Be sure to test your drinking water!

Fetal or early childhood brain development can be affected with exposure to these metals, which can cause learning and behavioral issues. In adults, these metals can increase the risk of cancer. Mercury and arsenic can damage the nervous system and cardiovascular function, cadmium can weaken bones and harm the lungs and kidneys, and lead can damage organs, promote neurological changes, contribute to cardiovascular disease, and cause miscarriages and infertility. (10)

 

living room with fireplace

Tox #8: Most Synthetic Fragrance

“Fragrance” is of course not one chemical but a long list of possible ingredients plus fragrance extenders like phthalates (which are very common). Even natural fragrances like essential oils can be a health risk when volatilized in a diffuser or nebulizer, as this can produce high levels of PM 2.5, primary VOCs, and secondary formaldehyde. Based on the reactions of chemically sensitive folks, if we are to regard them as “canaries in the coal mine”, the high-priority fragranced products to avoid would be aerosol air fresheners, synthetic reed diffusers, synthetic plug-in air fresheners, scented candles, and artificially fragranced laundry products.  I admit I cringe every time a “fresh” scented laundry detergent commercial comes on TV.

The health effects of fragrance chemicals include breathing problems, skin rashes and irritation, headaches, and disruption of the cardiovascular and nervous systems. There is a possible impact on the endocrine-immune-neural axis, which means that hormones can become imbalanced, the immune system diminished, and neurological problems ensue. Additionally, the use of fragrances can cause friction between people who work or live in the same space, due to the health effects of these chemicals and/or differences in personal preference. (11, 12, 13, 14)  These products are REALLY bad for your health!  Please remove them from your healthy home.

 

modern kitchen interior

Final thoughts (and some resources)

So what are we to do? Tear down our homes and rebuild? Well, if that’s available to you, go for it! But for most of us, a total rebuild isn’t feasible.

If you could avoid all the chemicals in these categories you would be well on your way to creating a healthy home. Even reducing any of these classes of chemicals is a step in the right direction. To reduce your exposure to some of the inevitable chemicals in your home you can use increased ventilation and high carbon air purifiers for VOCs, and a HEPA vacuum for the semi-VOCs and non-volatile chemicals. There are ways to test your water using companies such as Tap Score  and Water Check.  Indoor air quality assessments can be done with an AirKnight 9 in 1 meter.

You can work with a certified Building Biologist who can guide you on modest renovations, improving the air and water quality in your home, and point to non-toxic materials to include in your space. If renting, you can talk to your landlord about things like replacing flooring or using non-toxic paints.

When shopping for food, cleaning, and personal care products, avoid plastic packaging and aluminum cans as much as possible. You can also use an app like Yuka to guide you on what products to avoid and find non-toxic alternatives.

I also highly recommend going to My Chemical-Free House for more healthy home articles, as well as product recommendations – you can also set up a consultation with Corrine Segura, who has several certifications and years of experience in helping people create a safe, healthy home.

Happy non-toxic nesting!

 

Sources

  1. https://www.lung.org/clean-air/indoor-air/indoor-air-pollutants/volatile-organic-compounds#:~:text=VOCs%20Can%20Harm%20Health,Some%20VOCs%20can%20cause%20cancer.
  2. https://www.sixclasses.org/videos/pfas
  3. https://toxicfreefuture.org/toxic-chemicals/toxic-flame-retardants/
  4. https://www.sixclasses.org/videos/flame-retardants
  5. https://www.sixclasses.org/videos/bisphenols-phthalates
  6. https://www.ecocenter.org/our-work/healthy-stuff-lab/reports/vinyl-gloves-study-2019/vinyl-gloves-study-2019
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027869152200182X
  8. https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-problem-with-antibacterial-soap-4125914
  9. https://www.sixclasses.org/videos/antimicrobials
  10. https://www.mychemicalfreehouse.net/2021/11/study-of-lead-in-tile-12-5-contain-lead.html
  11. https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4433/13/4/631
  12. https://indoorscience.com/blog/essential-oils-not-essential/
  13. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225071520_Effects_of_essential_oils_on_formation….
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10051690/