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Household Environmental Toxins: Dangers and Rumors

Household Environmental Toxins: Dangers and Rumors

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With synthetic materials, industrial solutions and chemicals going into many of the products we use day to day, it makes sense to wonder about the risk of toxins, noxious fumes or carcinogens being present in our kitchens, plumbing, homes, water and air. Many rumors have circulated concerning some of the more well-known health risks, but most people are not sure what is true and what isn't. Here we will discuss some of the rumors surrounding home toxins and take a look at what research has been done.

Plastics

Chemicals and toxinsPlastics have long been thought to release dioxins, carcinogens and other toxins into food products, causing risk of cancer and other toxicity-related ailments. These concerns have been circulating the Internet for years, causing concern over the safety of using plastic containers, plastic wrap and plastic TV dinner trays in the microwave, or drinking water from plastic bottles.

The rumors say:

Plastic food containers, plastic wrap and other plasticware, when microwaved with food, can leak toxic elements such as dioxins and other carcinogens into the food, creating serious health risks, including cancer. Further, plastic water bottles can leak dioxins into drinking water, especially after the bottle has been exposed to the sun or the water has been frozen.

Research says:

Not proven.

According to the FDA, all plastic materials used in containers intended for food use (called "food contact substances") are reviewed and tested for leakage of toxic chemicals such as dioxins.

"It's true that substances used to make plastics can leach into food," says Edward Machuga, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "But as part of the approval process, the FDA considers the amount of a substance expected to migrate into food and the toxicological concerns about the particular chemical." According to the FDA, if the levels of migrating chemicals in food contact substances are found to be unsafe, the product cannot be marketed. Thus, any store-bought plastic food container, as long as it is used according to directions, is safe from toxic contamination.

Diethylhexyl Adipate (DEHA), a plasticizer used to make plastics flexible, is one chemical that has been the subject of media attention. It has been shown to be capable of leaching into some plastic-wrapped foods, especially fatty foods like meat and cheese. But the FDA says the levels one can be exposed to are well below toxic.

According to TruthOrFiction.com, Dr. Edward Fujimoto of the Castle Medical Center in Hawaii conducted a study in which he claims plastics will release dioxins when heated in a microwave, and fatty foods will absorb them, depending on the type of plastic, the length of time the plastic is microwaved, the amount of fat in contact with the plastic, and the heat levels involved. However, TruthOrFiction.com was not able to acquire the actual study from Dr. Fujimoto, and so cannot prove or contest its validity. Also addressing this study, Snopes.com says the rumor is an urban myth, that Dr. Fujimoto’s findings were only summarized quickly on a TV news brief, that Fujimoto is not necessarily an expert on the matter. According to Snopes.com and other sources, it has yet to be proven that plastics contain dioxins.

As for rumors concerning plastic water bottles, the matter was addressed by Professor Rolf Halden of Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, who called it an urban legend. "Freezing actually works against the release of chemicals," Halden is quoted at About.com. "Chemicals do not diffuse as readily in cold temperatures, which would limit chemical release if there were dioxins in plastic, and we don’t think there are." TruthOrFiction.com confirmed Halden's statement.

Non-stick pans

Another source of concern has been the toxicity of pans coated with non-stick materials such as Teflon, with rumors claiming these pans release toxins and dangerous chemicals into foods when heated.

The rumors say:

Pans containing Teflon and other non-stick coatings release toxic chemicals into the air when heated above a certain temperature, causing health problems in humans.

Research says:

True, under some conditions.

According to the Environmental News Service, studies conducted by Teflon manufacturer DuPont and by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that a small amount of particulate, non-harmful to humans, is released when Teflon and other non-stick-coated pans are heated to 446 degrees Fahrenheit, while at 680 degrees they release harmful gasses that can cause polymer fever and other health problems in humans. According to the EWG, this temperature can be reached by leaving an empty pan on a burner on high for three to five minutes.

Another article published by Bio-Medicine backs up the claims, saying the chemical responsible is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, also called C8). PFOA is a chemical used to produce non-stick coatings and other household and industrial products, though it is removed from the process before the product is finished. The fear is that some residual amount of the chemical is left behind, causing health risks.

According to DuPont, their products are made with the assumption that users generally do not cook over 500 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is true that most stovetop recipes call for temperatures between 125 and 425 degrees. Nonetheless, DuPont is voluntarily outphasing PFOA from production, planning to reduce its use 95% by 2010, and completely by 2015.

Baby bottles

Similar to the plastic rumors, baby bottles have been the subject of speculations concerning possible carcinogens present in the plastic bottle, as well as the latex nipple.

The rumors say:

The latex used in baby bottles nipples can release nitrosamines, a carcinogen; similarly, baby bottles made of polycarbonate plastic can release the hormone-disruptive chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), while baby bottles made of other plastics can release phthalates, another hormone-disruptive chemical.

Research says:

Possible, but not proven.

According to PlasticsInfo.org, while it is true that polycarbonate plastics can release trace amounts of BPA under normal use, BPA as it is currently used has been shown by government product safety committees worldwide to produce no toxic effects in humans, including children and infants. According to PlasticsInfo.org, one study conducted by the Dutch national Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority showed that the levels of BPA migration in most baby bottles were not detectable when measured with equipment that was sensitive up to 4 parts per billion. Of the baby bottles whose BPA migration was detectable, it was measured at around 3-5 parts per billion.

According to the FDA, a BPA task force was formed in April 2008 to facilitate cross-agency review of the current research surrounding BPA to determine its toxicological risks, and if any are found, what steps to take. The task force has not announced anything as of August.

As for rumors concerning latex baby bottle nipples and nitrosamines, though solid research is hard to find, the general consensus is that latex bottle nipples can indeed release nitrosamines, which are believed to be carcinogenic. One article from SmilePage.com reported that a study of 16 types of bottle nipple found "relatively high" levels of nitrosamines, resulting in 37.5% of the tested bottle nipples being too contaminated for the US product market. The study itself isn't discussed in detail, and its relation to bottle nipples currently on the market is not clear, but the article and other articles recommended avoiding latex bottle nipples in favor of safer and cleaner substances, such as silicone.

Cleaners

Household cleaners have often been the subject of suspicion for their toxin content, particularly drain cleaner, spray cleaners containing ammonia or bleach, and the combining of different types of cleaner, which can cause toxic chemical reactions.

The rumors say:

Mixing ammonia and bleach creates a toxic gas that can be harmful or fatal if inhaled; other cleaners such as carpet cleaner, disinfectants and all-purpose sprays contain carcinogens; drain openers are harmful to the skin and eyes, and fatal if swallowed.

Research says:

True.

According to the Guide to Less Toxic Products, many household cleaners contain ingredients that can irritate the skin, eyes and lungs, while others contain known carcinogens capable of causing serious health problems. Ammonia is a common ingredient in most household cleaners, and sometimes may not be listed on the label. It is known to be a strong skin and eye irritant, as well as causing lung, kidney and liver damage. Also present in many all-purpose cleaners is butyl cellusolve, a skin-penetrating neurotoxin, and coal tar, a carcinogen.

Carpet cleaners sometimes contain perchloroethylene, a carcinogen that causes damage to the central nervous system, and naphthalene, which is a registered pesticide, and toxic if inhaled.

Another notorious cleaning product is drain opener, which contains sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite, two chemicals that can permanently damage the skin and eyes on contact, and whose vapor can burn lungs. Ammonia and petroleum distillates are also sometimes mixed in, as well as dichlorodifluromethane, a neurotoxin. This can make drain cleaner fatal if swallowed.

As is recommended on the packaging for these products, they should be used with caution, avoiding contact with the skin and eyes and using adequate ventilation.

Pesticides

Fruits and VeggiesPesticides, insect killers and weed poisons have long been a subject of suspicion, as they are commonly used around foods in order to eliminate pests. Public concern over the possible presence of toxic residues on the food we eat has given pesticides an unshakable stigma.

The rumors say:

Foods that are protected by insect, fungus and weed pesticides contain residual amounts of harmful pesticide, making them potentially unsafe.

Research says:

True, in part.

According to the New York chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-NY), the pesticides used in modern farming practices can include toxic substances such as chlorinated hydrocarbons (DDT, dieldrin), organophosphates (parathion), carbamates (carbaryl aldicarb), and other pesticides made from copper, lead, arsenic, or mercury. Organophosphates in particular are seen as highly dangerous, having the ability to disrupt the function of the body’s nervous system -- this is why this category of toxin was used as a nerve agent during World War II.

However, the use of these pesticides is controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets standards for the effects of the chemicals used in pesticides on human health. The EPA registers for use only the pesticides that meet its standards, and if new research shows that one does not meet its standards, the EPA will cancel its registration or modify its use.

According to the EPA, each new pesticide (or registered pesticide being used for a new purpose) undergoes over 100 studies and tests to determine its risk to humans and to the environment. The EPA also sets tolerances for the amount of the pesticide that is allowed to remain in or on foods after marketing. Tolerances are set based on the EPA’s finding a "reasonable certainty of no harm" from the residual chemical, considering its toxicity, how much of it is used, and how much of it remains by the time the food is marketed. Thus, the residual amounts of these chemicals present in marketed food is shown to produce no toxic effects, in the opinion of the EPA. Of course, rinsing fruits and vegetables is a simple way to reduce the risk as much as possible.

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References

Environmental news service

TruthOrFiction.com: Dioxins

Snopes.com: Plastic-Tac-Toe

About.com: Urban Legends

Environmental Protection Agency: PFOA

Bio-Medicine: Pan’demonium over non-stick pans

NaturalPath: Teflon coating

PlasticsInfo.org

SmilePage.com: News archive

Guide to Less Toxic Products

EPA pesticides

NOFA-NY

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