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Toxic Chemicals and How to Avoid Them

UCSF Study Finds Evidence of 55 Chemicals Never Before Reported in People 

Scientists at the University of California San Francisco have detected 109 chemicals in a study of pregnant women, including 55 chemicals never before reported in people and 42 “mystery chemicals,” whose sources and uses are unknown. 

The chemicals most likely come from consumer products or other industrial sources. They were found both in the blood of pregnant women, as well as their newborn children, suggesting they are traveling through the mother’s placenta. 

Tracery J. Woodruff, Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at UCSF, said, “It is alarming that we keep seeing certain chemicals travel from pregnant women to their children, which means these chemicals can be with us for generations,” she said. 

A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist, Woodruff directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) and the Environmental Research and Translation for Health (EaRTH) Center, both at UCSF.

The 109 chemicals researchers found in the blood samples from pregnant women and their newborns are found in many different types of products. For example, 40 are used as plasticizers, 28 in cosmetics, 25 in consumer products, 29 as pharmaceuticals, 23 as pesticides, three as flame retardants, and seven are poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) compounds, which are used in carpeting, upholstery, and other applications. The researchers say it’s possible there are also other uses for all of these chemicals.  

The researchers report that 55 of the 109 chemicals they tentatively identified appear not to have been previously reported in people:  

  • 1 is used as a pesticide (bis(2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidini-4-y) decanedioate) 
  • 2 are PFASs (methyl perfluoroundecanoate, most likely used in the manufacturing of non-stick cookware and waterproof fabrics; 2-perfluorodecyl ethanoic acid) 
  • 10 are used as plasticizers (e.g. Sumilizer GA 80 – used in food packaging, paper plates, small appliances) 
  • 2 are used in cosmetics 
  • 4 are high production volume (HPV) chemicals  
  • 37 have little to no information about their sources or uses (e.g., 1-(1-Acetyl-2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidin-4-yl)-3-dodecylpyrrolidine-2,5-dione, used in manufacturing fragrances and paints—this chemical is so little known that there is currently no acronym—and (2R0-7-hydroxy-8-(2-hydroxyethyl)-5-methoxy-2-,3-dihydrochromen-4-one (Acronym: LL-D-253alpha), for which there is limited to no information about its uses or sources 


“It’s very concerning that we are unable to identify the uses or sources of so many of these chemicals,” Woodruff said. “EPA must do a better job of requiring the chemical industry to standardize its reporting of chemical compounds and uses. And they need to use their authority to ensure that we have adequate information to evaluate potential health harms and remove chemicals from the market that pose a risk.”


Why is PFAS important?

PFAS are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use daily such as cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellents. Most people have been exposed to PFAS. Certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. The most studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals. The most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:

  • low infant birth weights,
  • effects on the immune system,
  • cancer (for PFOA), and
  • thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).

PFAS can be found in:

  • Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
  • Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
  • Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
  • Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
  • Living organisms, including fish, animals, and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.

7 Steps to Avoid Toxic Chemicals

  1. Make Your Own Cleaning Products
    1. It’s cheap to make non-toxic cleaners from safe and effective ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.
    2. Certain chemicals in cleaning products have been linked to reduced fertility, birth defects, increased risk of breast cancer, asthma, and hormone disruption.
  2. Avoid Fragrance
    1. Shop for cleaners, laundry detergents, and personal care products labeled “fragrance-free” Warning: “Unscented” does not always mean fragrance-free!
    2. Fragrance can be made up of hundreds of chemicals, which companies are legally allowed to keep secret. Common fragrance chemicals include phthalates (linked to reproductive and developmental harm) and allergens.
  3. Give Your Personal Care Products a Makeover
    1. Read the label to avoid chemicals like parabens, sodium Laureth sulfate, and oxybenzone
    2. Personal care products contain a wide variety of chemicals, including some known to be of concern and many that lack research to prove safety for women’s health. These products are applied directly to our skin where they are easily absorbed into our bodies.
    3. Oxybenzone: An active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that accumulates in fatty tissues and is linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cellular damage. I recommend wearing skin-protective clothing and using natural minerals or zinc products.
  4. Go “BPA-Free”
    1. Ditch the canned foods when possible and opt for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead.
    2. Look for products packaged in glass or lined cardboard instead of cans.
    3. Don’t take paper receipts at ATMs, grocery stores, etc. unless you really need them.
    4. BPA has links to breast cancer, reproductive problems, obesity, asthma, tooth decay, early puberty, blood pressure, and heart disease. This chemical, which is commonly found in plastics, mimics the hormone estrogen, wreaking havoc on the body’s systems. What’s worse, studies show that more than 90% of Americans have BPA in their bodies.
  5. Quit the Quats
    1. Reduce your use of disinfectant products.
    2. Avoid antibacterial hand soaps, hand sanitizers, and cleaning products which contain quaternary ammonium compounds (quats). Check the front label and avoid products that contain ingredients that include “…onium chloride” in their names, like Benzalkonium chloride.
    3. Quats are skin irritants, can irritate your lungs, and have been linked to asthma, fertility issues, and reproductive harm. The overuse of quats can also lead to the promotion of antibacterial-resistant bacteria (“superbugs”).
  6. Choose Alternatives to Plastics (where possible)
    1. Use glass jars or ceramic bowls to store food.
    2. Never microwave plastic. Wash plastics by hand – not in the dishwasher.
    3. Avoid plastics with recycling symbols #3 (PVC), #6 (polystyrene), and #7 (other) which have greater potential to leach toxins and are difficult to recycle.
    4. Plastic products can contain toxic additives such as phthalates, heavy metals, and other compounds which leach out over time. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), known as poison plastic, is found in plastic products from toys and cookware to shower curtains.
  7. Ditch the Air Fresheners
    1. Eliminate odor – Identify the smell and eliminate or prevent it. Check out our tips for reducing odors around the home.
    2. Open a window – Ventilating your home with outdoor air has been shown to reduce symptoms associated with asthma, allergies, and infections.
    3. Set out a bouquet of fresh or dried flowers to add a floral scent to your home.
    4. Simmer herbs or spices on the stove. Try seasonal alternatives like pine cones, pine needles, or cinnamon.
    5. Air fresheners add unnecessary chemicals to your home including ones that may disrupt your hormones.

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