The Chemicals in All of Us

Kathleen Schuler MPH
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

You may be surprised to learn that you have hundreds of toxic chemicals in your body. What’s even more surprising is the fact that these chemicals come from products you use every day. Here are just a few examples of harmful chemicals found in everyday products: vinyl baby chew toys and cosmetics that may contain phthalates; bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby bottles and sport water bottles; lead in children’s vinyl bibs and raincoats; and toxic flame retardants in furniture and electronic equipment. Use of toxic chemicals in these and other products is unnecessary, as safer alternatives are available.

These chemicals are not harmless. A growing body of science shows that long term exposure can cause numerous health problems. Phthalates cause harm to the developing reproductive system of rodents, and should be considered a potential risk to humans as well, according to the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to the Human Reproduction (CERHR), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Studies published by scientists at the University of Missouri and Case Western Reserve University demonstrate that BPA disrupts hormone function, causes genetic damage in animals and is linked with reproductive, immune and developmental problems. Lead is a well-known brain toxin that causes reduced IQ, as well as learning and behavior problems in children. Brominated flame retardants are toxic to the brain, reproductive system, and liver and disrupt thyroid function, as reported in the scientific literature.

Everyday exposures from products increase exposures to global and local pollutants that enter our air, our water and our food, ultimately finding their way into our bodies. For example, DDT and PCBs are global pollutants that were phased out decades ago, but are so persistent in the environment that they are still commonly found in fish and in the human body, including breast milk. (However, breast milk is still by far the best food for infants.) Communities also have exposure to toxins through local pollution sources. For example, some Minnesota communities are facing contamination of drinking water and fish from perflurocarbon chemicals, which the 3M Company used to make Scotchgard until 2002. Communities in agricultural areas also experience involuntary exposure to pesticides that contribute to chemical body burden and may increase risk of cancer, learning disabilities and miscarriage.

We are all exposed to hundreds of chemicals. Through exposure in the womb, babies enter the world with a “body burden” of toxic chemicals. A study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found a total of 287 chemicals in cord blood samples from 10 newborn children. This is especially alarming as fetuses and young children are the most vulnerable among us, and exposure during a critical stage of development can have lasting adverse effects. Adults also carry a chemical body burden. The EWG’s study of 55 adults revealed 432 of 528 tested chemicals, including those mentioned above.

Though these chemicals are generally found in miniscule levels in the body, there is cause for concern. Newly emerging science is finding that chemicals can cause problems at very low levels and that chemicals interact with each other to increase the severity of effects. This is not surprising, considering the therapeutic effectiveness of prescription drugs at very low dosage levels. Although the presence of these chemicals in a person’s body doesn’t automatically mean that adverse health effects will occur, we should be concerned because these toxic chemicals, which could potentially cause health problems, do not belong in our bodies. Furthermore, we don’t need toxic chemicals in our products.

Innovative businesses are already making safer products, and hundreds of companies have taken a safe cosmetics pledge to eliminate the use of problem chemicals. We can also use our consumer and citizen power to demand safer products that don’t pollute the environment and our bodies.

Consumer power: Purchase safer products whenever possible. Use the Resource Boxes below to find more information on products and product safety. Ask the stores where you shop to carry safer products. Ask product manufacturers to label toxic ingredients and ultimately to eliminate these ingredients from their products.

Citizen power: Advocate for green practices in schools and communities e.g. using safer cleaning products and eliminating pesticide use. Advocate for public policies that do not allow the use of chemicals in products until they are proven safe and that require companies to use safer substitutes to protect public health and the environment. For more information on state legislative initiatives, see

Individually we can reduce our burden of toxic chemicals, but we can also work together to create a healthier world for ourselves and for generations to come.

For further information on the studies cited within this article, please contact Do It Green! Minnesota.

Read Up

Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products: Who’s at Risk and What’s at Stake for American Power, Schapiro, Mark, Chelsea Green, 2007.

The Safe Shoppers Bible: A Consumer’s Guide to Nontoxic Household Products, Cosmetics and Food, David Steinman and Samuel Epstein, MD, Wiley, 1995.

Clean House, Clean Planet, Karen Logan, Pocket, 1997.

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Healthy Legacy
Minneapolis, MN, 612-870-0453
Chemicals in Us

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