Manufactured chemicals are the DNA of our technological ecosystem. Most of the stuff we interact with on a day to day basis, from the carpet under our feet to the cell phones at our ear, is created from combinations of hundreds of thousands of artificial substances.
We have no idea how most of these chemicals effect our bodies, but they’re accumulating in our bloodstream at an alarming rate. The FDA will only regulate a chemical once it’s been proven to have adverse effects – something that often doesn’t happen until lives have been lost. For now, then, it’s up to us consumers to keep tabs on the latest scientific understanding of these substances. Here are some of the substances currently on the sketchy list, courtesy of Jeff Frost at AKA Green (thanks Jeff!):
PBDEs are a class of flame retardants used in everything from circuit boards to furniture. In 1998, Swedish researchers found the compounds in breast milk, and a 2005 study detected levels in Canadian cheese and meat that were thousands of times higher than in Europe, where certain types of PDBEs are now banned. The jury’s still out on how they might affect us – studies have shown possible links to damaged liver, thyroid and neurosystem functioning. This month, PDBEs were outlawed in the state of Washington, though not without some serious backlash from industry.
Phthalates are plasticizers: compounds that make rigid plastic flexible. Used in toys, packaging, flooring, and shampoo, phthalates are suspected to mimic the effects of estrogen in the bloodstream, causing hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance and obesity in males.
PFOS is a known carcinogenic compound commonly used for water-repellent coatings. Until 2002, it was a key component of Scotchgard, and it’s still used in some furniture, fabric, cookware and microwave popcorn bags. Fortunately, the EPA is working with the eight largest producers of PFOS to phase it out by 2015.
Biphenol A is another potential hormone disruptor found in polycarbonate plastics, used to make stuff like CDs, food containers, and baby bottles. Biphenol A appears to cause cancer and impair development in rodents, while another Canadian study (are they the only ones looking?) released in March found that the levels of Biphenol A in canned food were 200 times the recommended maximum concentration.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a class of carbon-based molecules that cause numerous health effects when released into the air. VOCs are present in materials ranging from carpet backing to paints to gasoline to dry-cleaned clothes, and are one of the primary causes of “sick building syndrome.” According to the EPA:
Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness… at present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.
Low- or zero-VOC materials are now common in the green building industry, though VOCs are far from eliminated everywhere else.