10 Harmful Chemicals to Avoid

Many chemicals today are known or suspected to be links to cancer, early puberty, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, autism, and other serious health issues. "As we look at protecting children's health, we need to look not just at nutrition, diet, and physical activity, but also exposure to chemicals," says Jason Rano, director of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. The Safe Chemicals Act, which passed out of committee for the first time this year, would require chemical companies to prove that their products are safe. "In the U.S., we are a toxic dumping ground for unsafe products," says Katy Farber, founder of Non-Toxic Kids (Non-ToxicKids.net). "Many parents are exhausted by trying to keep up with what to avoid and what to do. The Safe Chemicals Act would shift the burden to where it belongs." Your family doesn't have to live like ascetics to minimize your children's exposure to chemical dangers; there are simple ways to reduce contact.


Arsenic is a known carcinogen that has been linked particularly to skin, bladder, kidney, and lung cancers. Certain foods contain organic and inorganic arsenic, and the latter usually raises the risk of cancer and other health problems. Both types of arsenic are found in apple and grape juice and in rice and rice products, which are contaminated by both naturally occurring arsenic and arsenic-containing pesticides that leach into the groundwater where it is grown. Arsenic is found in pressure-treated wood made or manufactured before 2003, when the industry agreed to stop using arsenic-treated wood for residential purposes.


Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (it has been linked to nasal squamous cell cancer) and a skin irritant that can cause allergy-like reactions including watery, burning eyes and throats, stuffy noses, and skin rashes. Allergic skin rashes can occur as a result of contact with products that contain formaldehyde, which can also cause respiratory symptoms, headache, fatigue, and nausea. It is commonly used as an embalming fluid, but is also used to preserve a number of household products that contain a higher concentration of urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. It can be found in pressed wood medium density fiberboard (MDF) furniture (used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops), permanent press clothing and draperies, as a component of glues and adhesives, and in cleaning and beauty products, including some brands of baby wipes.


Exposure to mercury impairs neurological development, and recent research has linked high levels of mercury to ADHD. Because neural development happens rapidly in pregnancy and early childhood, it is important to eliminate exposure where possible. Mercury enters the environment through air pollution and industrial waste. When mercury enters water, fish absorb it through their gills. For people, the primary exposure to mercury is from consuming shellfish and large, older, and predatory fish, which accumulate higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh. Older thermometers also contain mercury.

Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates

Both BPA and phthalates are endocrine disrupters, products that mimic natural hormones and can affect reproductive development and health. BPA is linked to early puberty in girls and phthalates are linked to low testosterone and to male reproductive problems. BPA and phthalates are additives in plastics; BPA creates a rigid plastic and phthalates make plastic more flexible. Even though major manufacturers are no longer making baby bottles and children's drinking cups with BPA, it can still be found in the lining of food and beverage cans, in bottled formula, and even on shopping receipts. And even though three types of phthalates have been banned in toys for young children, they are still used to soften vinyl plastics (raincoats, backpacks, shower curtains, blow-up toys) and preserve scents (soaps, lotions, and perfumes).

Flame Retardants

A type of flame retardant called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) is particularly worrisome. Exposure to even small doses at critical points in development can damage reproductive systems and affect motor skills, learning, memory, and hearing. Flame retardants are nearly ubiquitous in upholstered furniture, including couches, pillows, mattresses, and carpet padding. Because the chemicals are not bonded to the foam, they can be released easily in dust as the furniture ages. PBDEs are most likely to be found in polyurethane foam products manufactured before 2005. They are also present in some electronics, though they will no longer be used starting 2014.


Despite its positive effect in reducing cavities, too much fluoride can cause health problems, including discolored teeth, pits in tooth enamel, brittle bones, and, some studies suggest, neurotoxicity. The trick with fluoride is getting enough to reap the benefits without ingesting too much. Experts believe that drinking water should be fluoridated to 0.7 parts per million, but even at this level, as many as one in five kids are occasionally getting too much fluoride. Fluoride is naturally occurring chemical, found in soil and groundwater, but it is commonly added to municipal water supplies as a public health measure. Fluoride is found in many toothpastes and mouthwashes.


Potentially carcinogenic pesticides have been linked to Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia in children, and they have been shown to have negative effects on neurobehavioral development. Primarily sprayed on treated produce and on outdoor lawns and gardens to kill insects and weeds but they can leak into the groundwater supply. Given their body weight and the food and water they drink, infants and small children can have increased exposure to pesticides. A recent review by the USDA found unacceptable levels of pesticide residue even in some baby food.


Lead poisoning can cause nervous system damage, stunted growth, kidney damage, and delayed development. Lead was a common additive to paint prior to 1978, when federal law banned its use in household paint. At the same time, the use of lead was banned in products marketed to children. It can still be found in older houses and in some imported toys, jewelry and even candy.


High doses can interfere with iodine absorption into the thyroid gland; this interferes with thyroid hormone production needed for growth and development. Naturally occurring perchlorate is found in arid states in the southwestern U.S., but it is also an industrial chemical contaminant used in rocket fuel, fireworks, explosives, bleach, some fertilizers, and flares. It is present in groundwater, surface water, drinking water, and irrigation water around the country, and it can also be found in food.