In the past, environmental concerns focused mostly on the acute effects of pollution. These concerns helped result in a ban on DDT pesticides, and the removal of lead from gasoline and paints. According to Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, authors of the bestselling Slow Death By Rubber Duck, we have transitioned from mostly local and acute environmental threats to more global and largely invisible threats. Chronic exposure to low levels of toxins means the effects of pollution can accumulate and contribute to chronic disease. Toxic chemicals are found to varying degrees in everything from cosmetic and skin care products to cookware and children’s toys. Because the human body metabolizes these pollutants and eliminates them in the urine, measuring urine metabolites is an effective way to assess the level of exposure to the various pollutants.
Parabens are chemical preservatives that prevent growth of bacteria and mold and increase the shelf life of numerous consumer products. It is estimated that parabens are present in 75 to 90% of skin products including: moisturizers, cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, sunscreens, perfumes and toothpastes. Parabens easily penetrate the skin and can mimic estrogens. Their weak estrogenic effect has a potentially disruptive effective on the endocrine system of both men and women. Allergic skin reactions to parabens have also been reported.
Phthalates are a class of chemicals commonly used as plasticizers (softening agents) in the manufacture of soft vinyl (also known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVCs are used to make many consumer products, including soft vinyl children’s toys and child care articles. Phthalates do not bind to the soft vinyl, but are present as mobile components of the vinyl. The harmful effects of phthalates are directly related to the amount of phthalates that leach out of soft vinyl and are absorbed into the body. [Health Canada] Another phthalate, diethylphthalate (DEP), is added to skin products to help lubricate other ingredients, allow lotions to penetrate and soften the skin, and improve the longevity of added fragrances. Exposure to phthalates has been linked to asthma, birth defects, hormonal changes, thyroid irregularities, skin allergies and increased risk of diabetes.
Also known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, volatile solvents include chemicals like xylene, toluene, styrene and benzene. These chemicals are found in household products like: paints, varnishes, paint stripping products, and adhesives. VOCs are air borne particles that contribute to poor air quality and are a major contributor to smog. Vapors from photocopiers and printers, automobile exhaust, cigarette smoke, fingernail polish and fuelling stations are a few common sources of exposure. Exposure can also occur as a result of out-gassing of solvents from building materials, furniture, packing materials, shoes and other manufactured products.
All VOCs are toxic to the nervous system, and some are carcinogenic. The health effects of different VOCs range from damage to the reproductive, neurological and respiratory systems to birth defects and impaired kidney and liver function.
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