The problem with a lot of ingredient lists on labels is that unless you have a higher-than-average understanding of science, you won’t know what a lot of the stuff means. That doesn’t mean that anything you can’t read or understand is bad for you, everything is composed of “chemicals”, you just have to learn which ones are not so great for regular use.
Some of the main culprits hiding in a variety of products we use everyday are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). They are difficult to spot because they come in many different forms with no additonal indication of the harmful effects that they may cause. They are added to numerous products to make life more convenient, safer or cleaner.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals cna have great potential to be harmful. Not all EDCs have been thoroughly tested but those that have have been shown to mimic hormones in the body, which can lead to unnatural growth, creating a variety of cancers in the body, reproductive abnormalities and more. Many of these EDCs have been banned from use in the UK and across Europe but still remain on the approved lists in countries like the United States and Australia.
There are a few well-known EDCs that have been banned voluntarily removed from many production lines, such as DDT and Bisphenol A (BPA). In instances like the removal of BPA, sometimes the chemical disruptor is just replaced by another similar but less well-known chemical. One of the first steps in understanding and avoiding EDCs is to learn where they might be used and why. This way, even if there is no list of chemicals used in production, you can understand when there is potential for EDCs to exist in a product.
As I mentioned, BPA is known to many and is used in the production of plastics. Number 7 plastic is a polycarbonate and may potentially contain BPA or another EDC. Many manufacturers voluntarily removed BPA from their products following customer requests but a plasticizer such as BPA would still be a necessary part of the formulation of these plastics.
Bisphenol A has been shown to leach into food or liquids stored inside items containing the chemical. When the plastic expands or contracts due to heat or cold, the hormone comes into contact with the food or liquid and can then enter the body through consumption of those items.
One of the other difficulties with EDC use is that the levels of chemicals necessary to cause a disruption in the body is in no way uniform so where one chemical may create a negative effect only after high levels of exposure other chemicals may cause a reaction with much less exposure. It is hard to say what the “safe” exposure levels of EDCs are because most have yet to be extensively tested.
Phthalates are very similar to Bisphenol A as they are used to lend the desired degree of flexibility to a variety of plastics from food wrap to reusable containers. Just like BPA, phthalates can also leach into foods. Phthalates are often found in umber 3 plastics.
Pesticides and herbicides also contain hormone disruptors and the products containing these can be a necessaryevil. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, is an insecticide or plant killer that is very effective but can have many negative side effects if used too heavily. Many effects of the use of DDT are still being felt in Austrlia which banned the chemical nearly 30 years ago. The predominant effect in the environment is the thinning of bird eggshells which leads to a decline in a variety of species due to the inability for birds to incubate their eggs without crushing them. Many insect repellants contain DDT as hit helps to contain malaria. In malaria-affected countries these repellants are necessary tools to fight the immediate and proven effects of malaria on an individual and community are much worse than the negative effects from DDT.
On the other hand, pesticides like Roundup, have been linked to disruptions in growth, sexual development and reproduction as well as cancer. Glyphosate and the “inert” chemicals used in Roundup (those chemicals which do not have a direct affect on insects sprayed with the product) such as surfectants are used heavily on genetically modified Round Up-Ready crops such as corn, soy, canola, cotton and sugar beet. Scientists from around the world have done a number of studies testing various concentrations of Roundup and found them to have negative affects on human and rat cells alike.
Concerns about germs and bacteria has led to an increase in the use of antibacterial soaps and hand washes in recent decades. The key ingredient to antibacterial products is triclosan, which is an EDC. Not only do these products contain potentially harmful chemicals, but they have also been shown to increase bacterial resistance. Triclosan is also used in many deoderants and cosmetic products as well to ward off bacteria within the product.
EDCs can enter the human body in many ways – through food, via our lungs and also by coming into contact with the skin. Many soaps, toothpastes, lotions, hair products and make-up contain one or more parabens. Propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, isobuyl-, and methyl-parabens all act as preservatives and have antibacterial and antifungicidal properties which is why they are so popular to use. Parabens have been used for decades without being positively linked to negative health effects. There has been some research linking paraben use to breast cancer cells which has sparked an ongoing debate over the last several years in the scientific community but thus far there is no concensus on the long-term effects of parabens on the human body.
The variety of uses for Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and the large number of chemicals in unique ways and while there is no clear evidence across the board that every single EDC will cause ill effects, the examples we’ve seen from DDT, BPA and glyphosphate does show that there is sufficient evidence to be concerned. Many believe, including myself, that the best method is prevention.
In the meantime, the easiest ways to minimize exposure (as a complete avoidance of potential interaction with EDCs would demand a complete overhaul of one’s life, both difficult and costly) is to avoid them in cosmetics and the like. We apply a number of creams, gels and powders to our skin every day and each use of a product exposes us to the variety of parabens. Plain old soap and water removes germs ad bacteria just fine a well.
While some people have chosen to forgo the use of plastics in their daily lives as much as possible, the usefulness and lightness of the material makes it hard to be denied. Plastics are much more economical to transport than glass, ceramic, or metal. Avoid heating and freezing in plastics as much as possible. Even if a products touts itself as BPA-free, it may still have EDCs of some kind. Microwave foods in ceramic or glass dishes, not plastic. Freeze foods in aluminum foil or even wrapped in baking paper first. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy have released information about using plastic, which types are safer and which types should be avoided. Here is a graphic created using that information which will help as a guide. The number of the plastic can often be found on the bottom of the item.
Minimize use of plastic food wraps, using reusable and washable beeswax-coated cloth instead. And a handy tip: if you can smell a strong odor coming from the plastic, usually in PVC plastics like inflatable and bendable plastics, it contains EDCs and inhaling the chemical smell should be avoided.
Next time I’ll have a list of recipes for making a variety of cosmetics and home items that are not only EDC-free but also cost-effective as many of the ingredients you most likely already have in you pantry!
http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2007/10/09/2054547.htm “DDT Environmental Effect” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, January 3, 2016
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/weed-whacking-herbicide-p/ “Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells” Scientific American, January 3, 2016
http://davidsuzuki.org/issues/health/science/toxics/chemicals-in-your-cosmetics—triclosan/ “Triclosan” David Suzuki Foundation, January 3, 2016
http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/ “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)” World Health Organization, January 3, 2016