Exposed: How to avoid harmful chemicals

One of the most common questions we’re asked is, “How can I avoid harmful chemicals?” With thousands of toxic substances pumped into our air, dumped into our soil and water, and put into our food, clothes, products, homes and workplaces, it’s not easy.

Which toxic chemicals should we be worried about? Which are linked to the most health harms?

While there are no easy answers to these questions, we have tried to simplify it with a list of chemicals that are known to harm pregnant people and children that include lead, flame retardants, and chemicals from plastics, including BPA and phthalates (see visual).

Pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable time for toxic exposures

During pregnancy, a growing fetus is at a higher level of risk from health and developmental effects of toxic chemicals, such as low birthweight, birth defects, and neurodevelopmental harms. These are among the reasons why the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) counsels pregnant people to avoid harsh cleaning products, plastics, and mercury-contaminated fish like tuna and swordfish, among other recommendations.

We’ve gathered these and other evidence-based recommendations into a handout for the pregnant women who participate in our research. The materials were developed based on a project we created with the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). The good news is that there is a lot we can do as individuals to reduce harmful exposures, including to check product labels, avoid plastic – including never microwaving food in plastic – and leave outdoor shoes at the front door of our homes. But probably the most important thing we can do is work to improve policy to prevent chemical exposures in the first place.

Prevention through policy

When it comes to air, food, and water, individuals need the government to step in and create policies that keep harmful chemicals out of our environment.

For example, before lead was banned from gasoline, a parent couldn’t protect their child from lead in the air from auto emissions. Lead in homes and dust, a result of lead being used in gasoline and paint and other consumer products, can result in blood poisoning, stunted growth, a failure to thrive and can damage the brain of a developing child leading to lower IQ, ADHD symptoms, and difficulty in focusing/behavior. People needed the government to step in and remove the lead. And despite being banned from paint, lead remains in older homes and buildings, where it continues to poison children, even at low levels. Policy intervention is needed to remove the lead safely and equitably.

In other words, people can’t do this alone. We need to work together to reduce harmful chemicals from contaminating our food, water, and products BEFORE we consume or use them.

Environmental justice is vital

It’s important to note that most of these harmful exposures are not by choice. Living near polluting industrial facilities, which are typically situated in low-income or communities of color, near highways or in urban areas, which have higher levels of smog and harmful particulate matter (PM2.5), or near agricultural fields expose people to higher levels of toxic substances. This makes people more susceptible to health harms such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, and reproductive health problems such as infertility and low birthweight babies that can fuel a never-ending cycle of health inequity.

Sometimes the disparities belie a simple explanation: one of our recent studies revealed that Latinas who live in Fresno, California, had higher levels of chemicals linked to fragrances than those who live in San Francisco. We’re still trying to figure out why.

Toxic whack-a-mole

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was updated in 2016 to make it easier to ban or limit harmful chemicals, has still allowed a system by which we play toxic “whack-a-mole” – discovering chemical harms after they are already put into commerce, whether BPA in plastic water bottles, pesticides or phthalates in processed food, PFAS in cookware and clothing, or lead or mercury in toys – but this is no game.

So, while we will continue to translate the science to share what individuals can do to avoid harmful chemicals, we must always ensure that strengthening chemical policy and regulatory processes with the most up-to-date science, best scientific methods, health-protective decision-making, and a serious commitment to environmental justice is part of the prescription. Policy change has the widest impact and is the most efficient way to protect all of us from toxic exposures.

Our handout is available for download in both English and Spanish.

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