Burdened by Chemicals

I read this report a few days ago about a family that underwent “body burden” testing which looks at the presence and levels of industrial chemicals in people. This is the first time that a nuclear family has undergone testing together. The results were pretty shocking.

…tests revealed that their children — Rowan, then 18 months, and Mikaela, then 5 — had chemical exposure levels up to seven times those of their parents.

Truly I am at a loss for words over the idea that a little person who has only been alive for 18 months could have levels that surpass that of his parents by several times. What does that say about the toxic substances that our children are exposed to on a daily basis? And what are those toxic chemicals and how can we get rid of them?

Most Americans haven’t heard of body burden testing, but it’s a hot topic among environmentalists and public health experts who warn that the industrial chemicals we come into contact with every day are accumulating in our bodies and endangering our health in ways we have yet to understand.

The list of chemicals that are hidden in products we use every day is daunting. It is easy to avoid some of the obvious things, but the phthalates (which are used to make plastic soft) hiding in shampoo, nail polish, and soft plastic toys have been shown to cause reproductive defects, obesity and early puberty in lab animals. It makes you want to throw your hands up in the air and swear off bathing, grooming and give your child a stick and rock to play with.

PBDEs, the chemical that makes things flame retardant, has been shown in lab animals to cause liver, thyroid and neurological damage and yet go to any store and you will find flame retardant pajamas on sale for children. Isn’t that just what you want to have touching your child’s skin for 12 hours out of each day? Why in the off chance that your toddler takes up smoking and falls asleep in his crib with a butt hanging out of his mouth?

Bisphenol A, makes plastic hard, and is commonly found in water bottles and baby bottles. It has been shown to cause an increase in female reproductive disorders. PFOAs, found in non stick pans, has been shown to cause liver problems and developmental disorders. Most troubling is that it is not easily eliminated from the human body. PCBs were banned in the US in 1970 but still are ever present in older appliances, are a known carcinogen.

So what do you do? Aside from living in a bubble, which probably would be made of soft plastic and therefore be laden with phthalates as well. Some offer easy solutions like replacing your baby’s bottle with a glass one or not putting him in flame retardant pajamas. And throwing away those non-stick coated pans.

But soon the choices become less obvious. Tear up your wall to wall carpeting and install hardwood flooring, but make sure that it is from a sustainable forest, because you know the environment is hanging in the balance too. After awhile you can make yourself a bit crazy, or crazier, as the case may be.

If you are like me you are probably sipping your fair trade coffee and thinking, ‘I already buy hormone free milk, organically raised beef, eggs from free range hormone free hens, chickens that were raised with love, hand fed, and coddled like pets until the fateful day they had their heads chopped off. I clean with vinegar and water, and wash my sweatshop free, organic cotton clothing in all natural soap that leaves my clothes just as dirty as they went in the low energy-low water usage washing machine. And now I have to worry about this too?’

Well, yes you do. But it is important as in all things to keep it in perspective. Even taking small steps can limit your exposure. Take baby steps eliminating one thing from your life at a time. Then it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable burden.

I will go on record here as saying I love bleach. I love it and it’s bacteria killing abilities. I love how it cleans the mold and mildew off of my bathroom grout and makes my toilet bowl sparkle. And honestly, I can not imagine giving it up. I joke that the tree huggers will have to pry it out of my cold, dead, yet thoroughly sanitized hands.

I tell you this bit of information to let everyone know that I do not hold myself out as some sort of example to follow. I am also struggling with information overload just like the rest of you. And where we go from here is a question for all of us to answer.

(cross posted at handipoints)

29 Responses to “Burdened by Chemicals”

  1. nabbalicious Says:

    Scary, indeed. But I’m with you. Give up bleach?? NEVER.

  2. whoorl Says:

    Crawling under my organic rock…

    I’ve been worrying about sippy cups lately. I need to find a phthalate-free version. Off to research…

  3. whoorl Says:

    Oh, and I SWEAR to you. Oxo-Brite is an awesome non-chlorine bleach alternative.

  4. chris Says:

    I like those stainless steel ones. Kleen Kantene I think they are called?

  5. Katie Says:

    I’m beginning to hate plastic. It’s everywhere!

  6. NoMasNinos Says:

    I remember searching for stainless steel sippy cups a long time ago, and couldn’t find anything. Thanks again Chris for the info.

  7. Brigitte Says:

    They have stainless steel sippies? Cool!

    Only semi-related, but I’ve been thinking lately about how plastics are derived from petroleum (somehow, I think), and thinking if the oil reserves get really low, won’t we start having to ration our plastic goods, maybe just for medical use or somesuch? I’ve been trying to remember what various things USED to be made of, glass, cotton, wood, etc. Nice wholesome stuff that’s even recycled easily, compared to plastic.

  8. Liz Says:

    If it makes anyone feel better, the way this test was done was to measure amounts of chemicals in the bloodstream. This does not necessarily mean that these chemicals are burrowing into this 18-month-old’s organs. There are a lot of intricate mechanisms that our body has to get things into and out of our cells; just because they are in the blood does not mean they are able to get into organs.

    The brain is specially protected with it’s blood-brain barrier, a special layer of cells that permits entities of certain size and charge into the brain tissue.

    It may be that these chemicals are indeed able to get into organs, even the brain. But this study has not proven it to be the case. Blood tests are a good place to start, but they do not warrant any widespread panic.

    They DO warrant further study–maybe taking a look at organ tissues too, not just blood, or establishing a clearer relationship in lab animals (the amount that makes a 500-gram rat sick is probably not the amount that makes a 10-kilogram child sick)

    . I might make this my pet project for my course (I’m in med school right now) on evidence-based medicine.

  9. Shelly Says:

    Here’s a link on sippy cups…


    A great site in general for child products.

  10. Karen Vogel Says:

    The young ones can have higher levels because, one, they are smaller and two, if they breastfed (and I am pro-breastfeeding, don’t get me wrong) they were exposed to concentrated amounts of chemicals which tend to be stored in the mother’s fatty tissue, which breaks down and enters the bloodstream as the mother loses weight postpartum. Even a bottle-fed baby (on dairy formula) could ingest a lot of chemicals this way, considering what cows are fed these days.

  11. Elaine Says:

    I do what I can and what I feel God would have me do for my children’s and family’s well being. There is only so much we can do and I refuse to jump on every band wagon just because in a few years some scientist comes along w/new info that refutes the previous. I can’t live as a yoyo.

  12. cristen Says:

    I am so far behind the curve on this one–not even using environmentally friendly cleaning products yet, and really only started recycling this past summer! blame it on living in Mississippi…but I did start buying organic milk for my 1 1/2, 3, and 5 yr-olds, and organic chicken. It’s all so daunting. Liz’s comments did make me feel better. Please do make it your pet project, and let us know what you find!

  13. Belinda Says:

    I still feel guilty every time I give my child even organic dairy products–I can’t get the words of my doctor out of my head, when he was telling ME to give up dairy for the sake of my health, and I whined, “Even organic, hormone-free milk?”: “Belinda, it doesn’t matter if it’s organic. It’s still cow’s milk. It’s still a concentrated hormone formula designed to optimize the growth and development of baby cows.” I think his point was that there’s no such thing as “hormone-free” milk.

    Who am I kidding? I feel guilty about almost every decision I make as a mother, because there’s always “something better.”

  14. gorillabuns Says:

    this is why i drink. to drown away the guilt of everything i do. at least that is what i tell myself.

  15. jody Says:

    Organic rice milk here, although my oldest boy is a milkaholic.

    Plastics…yup, a problem. Bill used to be an industrial hygiene engineer, and knows much about all of those mentioned above. We don’t heat anything in plastic, only glass. I started using cast iron and steel pans. The kids drink out of glass cups, but we do have some small plastic ones.

    My biggest worry is the chemicals on veggies and fruits etc. And those in drinking water. Where we used to live, there were 2 cases of primary lung cancer in women in their 30’s (so vrey rare in non-smoking women), and 3 children diagnosed with the same type of brain tumor. Not to mention several cases of lymphoma. I just have to wonder what was in that well water everyone was drinking.

    Will have to check the steel sippy cups.

  16. Liz in Australia Says:

    I’ve been reading up about the chemicals in plastics and kitchenwares recently and was thoroughly depressed at the amount of stuff I would have to replace (if that were even possible) in order to get rid of all the culprits in my house. The stuff is insidious.

    At least I can feel virtuous about my non-use of toxic cleaning chemicals. Although not perhaps about the state of my house.

  17. Maddy Says:

    I think people like to feel in control and that they are doing the “right” thing for their family. But I think it’s an illusion. Even still, of course I fall prey to this as well. We all want to keep our kids safe.

    I love my Chlorox cleanup (bleach-based). Without it I wouldn’t feel safe cleaning my kitchen after cooking raw chicken, etc. But I realize many would say it is environmentally unsound and I shouldn’t use it. I just have more faith in bleach than many new chemicals that supposedly kill germs.

  18. Brandi Says:

    Ha! I’m with Liz in Australia, I used non-toxic cleaning products but I cannot feel smug about the non-clutter-free state of my house.

  19. Liza Says:

    I’m so in love with my toddler’s SIGG cup that I bought two more adult size versions. They’re attractive, indestructible, and 100% leach-free.

  20. Daisy Says:

    Using glass in the microwave is my “baby step” toward minimizing chemical exposure. I love my wood floors, too, but I can’t take credit for them; they came with the house (built 1890).

  21. Cathy Says:

    long time reader me… yesss it is on all of our minds.
    I just went to a Norwex party, and they have microfibre cloths that apparently (the sales person says) are used in Norwegian hospitals where they DON’T use chemicals to clean. Chemicals kill, but don’t remove the bacteria - some get left behind that are resistant and this is why we have those pesky super bugs that are resistant to bleach, and all cleaners. I am going to give the stuff a try and report back. Her whole schtick is “chemical free” you clean with WATER and the cloths trap the bacteria. I asked about poop and pee, YES she said. If it is good enough for hospitals, it should be good enough for my house. what do you think?

  22. Rayven Says:

    Its so interesting, as a mom who is totally into organics and making good toxin choices (not perfect choices, but good choices) how there is such a divide in this country over whether toxins “matter”.

    There are still so many people who don’t get it that our generation, and our children are being experimented on.

    Plastics, flame retardant, chemicals in our food, heavy consumption of homogonized and pasturized cow’s milk, and “enriched” white flour are all “new” inventions….and we are starting to see the effects of prolonged exposure.

    Take those baby steps! Make them habits. Its only by doing this that we can stop it!

    Oh, and I’m not perfect either. I don’t do bleach, but we have our vices. But I do think about limiting our exposure. I started with food (up to about 50% organic) and cleaning supplies but am looking forward to replacing clothing and the like soon.

  23. Lotus Carroll Says:

    I’ve been trying to get Braden to give up the cancer sticks for months, but he’s afraid he’ll “get fat.”

  24. Mary Says:

    Chris - speaking of chemical burns I was just emailed an advisory on Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser severly burining children’s skin when they were given the eraser to help erase crayon marks.

  25. Helen Says:


    Hi, I thought this was a good article and wanted to share!

  26. carrien Says:

    I have heard that essential oils, lavender, lemon, oregano, are a toxin free alternative when it comes to sanitizing and cleaning. That’s why they are included in a lot of the natural cleaners.

    This is timely for me. I spent this week evacuated to my HUsband’s grandmother’s house and I used her spray’n'wash which did wonders for the ashy soot stain on my kids clothes and stuff after being so near to the SOCAL fires. I was even thinking of buying a bottle and abandoning all my more natural alternatives, which don’t work as easily I can tell you that. Now I”m remembering why I don’t use it. But my grandma’s cure all, yellow soap, does a pretty good job. I only resort to bleach if I’m dealing with mold becuase nothing else works.

    The transition to glass and stainless steel continues at our house, slowly, one item at a time. Sigh, am I the only one who sometimes feels that being a luddite would be an attractive alternative?

  27. Kathy Says:

    What a noble and difficult problem to tackle. I too read that article and immediately wondered how I could have it done on my own family! I have only recently started becoming more “green” since I had my son 19 months ago, but I am pretty thrilled by the baby steps we have made.
    We do use the Norwex and other microfiber rags and I totally love them. I have thrown out all chemical cleaning products except one with Tilex with bleach (seems to be a vice for a lot of us!) for those times when I don’t get a jump on the shower mildew and occasionally for toilets. I have learned in my research that tea tree oil and vinegar will kill basically all strains of mold, but it won’t take the discoloration away–hence the tilex.
    I have also switched to Klean Kanteen bottles for my son and I (the sippy cup is great!). I can’t quite get my husband to switch from plastic, but I’m still working on it. I am trying to use plastic as little as possible everywhere else especially for anyting warm. I have also removed any non-stick cooking equipment.
    We used cloth diapers because the amount of chemicals in those is just staggering!!
    Our bodies are amazing and have been crafted in such a way to be able to elliminate a lot of bad things, so if we are doing what we can to rid the chemicals from our environment and also doing our best to maintain healthy immune systems (via nutrition and such like) I think we can feel confident as we continue with our baby steps toward a healthier environment.

  28. Fairly Odd Mother Says:

    At one point, I was making my own cleaners with all-natural, safe ingredients. And, then I got lazy again. Sigh.

    Kleen Kanteens are great though. I also threw away all my plastic forks/spoons for the kids, and am looking for good glasswear (or even wooden cups? What the heck do we use instead of plastic with toddlers???) to replace their drinking glasses.

    I am nowhere near “ideal” in this area, but I agree that every tiny little baby step helps.

  29. Lady Godiva Says:

    Well, a late post. =)

    We have made a number of choices of in our high-tech household. Some good, some prolly not so good. But we try.
    1) Cloth diapers - I figure this is a biggie - hits landfill issues, and toxin issues. Two birds.
    2) Cloth sanitary napkins - two birds again.
    3) Recycling - we recycle everything we can. And choose what to buy based on whether or not it can be recycled.
    4) Joined a CSA - local organic produce once a week. Only better if I grew it myself!
    5) Nitrate-free meats
    6) Use washcloths and towels instead of baby wipes and paper towels (except on car trips of 10 hours or more)
    7) Organic cleaners - mostly use vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Never had a problem with mold. If there is staining I use a hydrogen based cleaner, or lemon juice, both of which have natural bleaching action. Also organic laundry soap. Same price at my local grocers (independant)
    8) Reusable coffee filter, and roast our own coffee while we are at it.
    9) Use recycled paper for our printer, view bills etc online, pay online. When we do print, we use 2 pages per one layouts and both sides of the paper.
    10) New England Maxim - use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.. is a part of how we live. its not perfect of course. But I have repurposed slacks as shorts, socks as dust rags and toys, etc. Every little bit helps.

    Every year I try to have a green goal. Last year it was to only have organic food while pregnant and nursing, while tough, I think we hit that one about 85%. I haven’t decided on this next years goal.

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