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Unseen Toxins Really Do Affect Us: 3 Disturbing Headlines

Unseen Toxins Really Do Affect Us: 3 Disturbing Headlines

While scanning the “Indoor Air Pollution” headlines, I recently came across three that caught my eye.  In the US, consumers have access to an amazing number of products manufactured everywhere in the world.  In stores and online, we can purchase virtually everything from nutritional supplements and cosmetics to home decor to automotive parts.  What are all these products made of?  Unless its a food–and even some food ingredients are kept secret–most components are undisclosed.  This wonderful banquet of products is coming back to bite us, the consumer.  Here is what I found.

  1. Uterine fibroid growth activated by phthalates, chemicals found in everyday products

I’ve written about phthalates before, and in today’s society, it’s very difficult to avoid them.  According to the National Institute of Health, Phthalates are a family of man-made chemical compounds developed in the last century to be used in the manufacture of plastics, solvents, and personal care products. They are colorless, odorless, oily liquids that do not evaporate easily and do not chemically bind to the material they are added to. The everpresent use of phthalates as an additive to PVC (polyvinyl chloride) products to make them flexible and to personal care products to make fragrances last longer in the past 50 years has resulted in widespread general population exposure.

Some examples of phthalate use is in vinyl shower curtains, plastic toothbrushes, plastic food storage containers, plastic wrap, nail polish, perfume, shampoo, lotions, scented cleaning products, vinyl gloves…(toxicfreefuture.org) The list is long and chances are that unless you work very diligently to exclude them, your home has many sources of phthalates in it.  This chemical is not banned in the US. 

Although there have been many studies on what phthalates do to animals, human data is less common.  For the first time, scientists at Northwestern Medicine have demonstrated a causal link between environmental phthalates (toxic chemicals found in everyday consumer products) and the increased growth of uterine fibroids, the most common tumors among women. Up to 80% of all women may develop a fibroid tumor during their lifetime, Bulun said. One-quarter of these women become symptomatic with excessive and uncontrolled uterine bleeding, anemia, miscarriages, infertility and large abdominal tumors necessitating technically difficult surgeries.  The new study found women with a high exposure to certain phthalates such as DEHP (used as a plasticizer to increase the durability of products such as shower curtains, car upholstery, lunchboxes, shoes and more) and its metabolites have a high risk for having a symptomatic fibroid. (sciencedaily.com)  To put it in perspective, one quarter of 80% is equal 20% of women (1 out of 5 women) will have a symptomatic fibroid, causing a lot of pain and/or health problems.  This is significant–and all because phthalates are used as an ingredient in many, many products.  Women in reproductive age seem to be more exposed to phthalates than men, probably due to the use of cosmetic and personal care products.  (National Institute of Health)

  1. In utero exposure to flame retardants increases anxiety symptoms in adolescents

Let’s start with what these flame retardant chemicals are.  Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were used as flame retardants for products like furniture foam padding, wire insulation, rugs, upholstery, computers and appliances. Exposure to PBDEs during early brain development has been associated with cognitive deficits, reduced language skills and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and the chemicals were banned in the United States in 2004, but realistically, they were probably not completely eliminated from products until several years later.   

The article describes a study which enrolled 468 pregnant women in the Greater Cincinnati region from 2003-2006 and continued to follow up with their children up to 12 years later.  Blood samples from their pregnancies were correlated with test results of the adolescents.  The tragedy of the results is that each time the PBDE levels doubled in a pregnant mother's blood sample was associated with increased anxiety scores in the adolescents, suggesting PBDE exposure during pregnancy may be a risk factor for developing anxiety symptoms in early adolescence.

The children who were affected by PBDEs are now in their teenage years and older.  They are entering highschool, college or starting a career, and may have no idea why they suffer from these problems, now including depression and anxiety.  It’s tough enough to be a young person nowadays without hidden chemicals that affect your brain and hormones!  

  1. Neurotoxicity of Ortho-Phthalates: Recommendations for Critical Policy Reforms to Protect Brain Development in Children

Although the PBDE class of chemicals has been banned, phthalates are still around and also have negative effects on children.  The strongest associations have been found with hyperactivity, aggression, defiance, emotional reactivity, delinquent behaviors and other signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, after exposure to phthalates, according to Project TENDR, a unique collaboration of leading scientists, health professionals and children’s and environmental advocates. (CNN.com)  

Phthalates are readily transferred from mother to fetus during pregnancy (study published by the National Institute of Health), and soon after birth, babies continue their exposure through plastics all around them.  Plastic food containers and packaging, medical supplies and medication, personal care products and household cleaners, as well as building materials for homes all continue the barrage of phthalates on childrens’ neurological and other developing systems. Unfortunately, economically disadvantaged children and communities of color have been shown to have the highest exposures to these chemicals. 

Although the headlines seem depressing, there is some good news.  Because of the phthlates’ health risks, Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation that outlawed three of the most hazardous phthalates in children’s toys and products in 2008. (National Resources Defense Council)

Toxicfreefuture.org tested many samples of vinyl flooring in 2015, finding high levels of phthalates in them.  Armed with test data, this organization was able to convince many of the top retailers of vinyl flooring to exclude phthalates from these products, and within 3 years (2018), tests of the same types of flooring showed no detectable levels of phthalates.  There’s hope!

If you are concerned about phthalates for yourself or your family, this article is an excellent place to start.  Written by an environmental scientist who takes her own advice, you can avoid some of the negative health outcomes from phthalates just by knowing what to look for in the products we use.  It’s worth a shot to protect yourself and your children!