All of the paranoia in recent years about the lurking dangers in our homes — found in household cleaners, personal care products, produce, etc — definitely made me turn a deaf ear to chemical free living.
It all seemed like a fad, and I’ve got an allergy to fads. Isn’t it every week we learn about something new that is killing us? In the case of chemical-free living, I thought the concern over-dramatized. I mean, really? Could all the articles and news release be right? Was there really danger I was unaware of? And why now, after years and years of product use? To top it off, every claim of danger I heard seemed to be from a natural-living enthusiast — and they rarely seemed objective. So I asked myself, what about a skeptic’s review on chemical-free living?
I’m a natural skeptic. Rarely do I believe something on the first exposure. That being said, I’m also a researcher. Blame my background with law enforcement, I like to find the dirt. So when I decided to look into this topic, I’ll admit the mountains of information one internet search produced seemed overwhelming. How was I going to find resources I could trust? More importantly, why was I going to dive in and try to find my answers?
My “why” was slow in coming.
Growing up, my mother was careful about what cleaners were allowed in the house. In fact if she was using something particularly noxious, my sisters and I were vanquished to the yard until the house out-gassed. Still, I didn’t put much thought into what I used to clean my house for another two decades.
Before having kids, my primary concern was for exposure to my pets. I thought animals were more sensitive than humans and needed more protection. So I was diligent with my cleaning supplies around my cats and horse. Still, I sprayed insect repellent on my horse in clouds without concern — even coating my hands with it to wipe onto his face and ears.
As for eating organic food, yeah…that wasn’t even a blimp on the radar. Thankfully I preferred to cook from scratch, so processed foods rarely made an appearance in my home. And fast-food? Nope, not an issue here.
Then…I talked to my midwife.
When I got pregnant with my first child, I knew I wanted to go a natural, non-invasive route for my prenatal care. So I worked with an independently owned, licensed birth center. During a routine prenatal visit somewhere around the middle of my pregnancy, my midwife and I got on the topic of chemical exposure.
She quoted a study where samples of cord blood were taken immediately after birth and tested for common chemicals found in household products. Of the chemicals tested, over 200 were found present in the cord blood.
I was blown away.
Sitting in that chair in the birth center, I remember letting the information sink in. I struggled to imagine I had already unknowingly exposed my unborn child to harmful substances — things like known carcinogens and endocrine (hormone) disruptors.
Remember how I’m a skeptic? Well, once my initial shock wore off, I went on a mission to prove — or debunk — what I had heard.
It didn’t take me long to find the article, Body Burden: Pollution in Newborns from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This excerpt was the most impactful part of the article for me:
The umbilical cord blood of these 10 children, collected by Red Cross after the cord was cut, harbored pesticides, consumer product ingredients, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage…Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.
Hmm…Yup, this confirmed what my midwife said. At this point, you bet the wheels started spinning my noggin. And I started seriously digging.
First off, I needed to know what exactly we were talking about when we say “chemicals.”
To be sure, I was a little belligerent when I approached this question. “Chemical” to me always meant something industrial that I had no contact with. Were we seriously talking about the stuff in my dish soap, lotion, make up and insect repellent?
In short the answer is: yes.
Here, the word “chemical” is used for any synthetic substance. In this case, a substance found in a daily product. You know, those things you don’t immediately recognize on a label.
Jesse Sholl has a great list of common chemicals in the post: 8 Hidden Toxins: What’s Lurking in Your Cleaning Products. Things like Phthalates, Perchloroethylene, Triclosan, Sodium Hydroxide and 2-Butoxyethanol, just to name a few. These are known endocrine disruptors, possible thyroid disruptors, cause respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis or asthma, pulmonary edema, and even liver or kidney damage.
To take it a step further, I happened upon information from the Top 10 Killer Household Chemicals Study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most common killers on the list were air fresheners, cleaning supplies and dish soap (and dishwasher detergent). Other items of caution include beauty supplies, personal care products, hairspray/gel and shampoo. Another hazard I quickly found was aluminum. Aluminum for example, has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease — and can be found in antiperspirants as well as vaccines (aside from the obvious of aluminum foil, cookware, etc).
Alright, so that gives us a tiny look into what’s out there. Now I wanted to know how these things would get into my body.
For years, my lack of concern for exposure came from a plethora of high school and college anatomy courses. I had an over-abundance of confidence in my body’s ability to block topical exposure (thanks to our largest organ, the skin) and filter out toxins (hurray for the liver!). It didn’t help that I felt even more justified by the fact that I used very few products on a regular basis. After all, there were only a couple cleaners in my house and I didn’t lather my skin with synthetic cocktails or beautifying treatments. Mascara itself could be a rare occurrence!
But exposure wasn’t as hard as I thought. I was humbled to learn after inhalation, chemicals can be found in the heart, liver and thyroid within three seconds. Three. Seconds. That’s barely enough time for me to recognize what exactly I’m smelling.
And my high praise for skins’ ability to form a physical boundary of protection? Well, the common result is after 26 seconds, chemicals enter the blood stream. Soaps, shampoo and conditioner, lotion, cleaners…traceable in my blood in less than half a minute. Oh yeah, and that insect repellent I mentioned clouding all over my horse? Livestock insect repellents are chock-full of harmful substances that require warning labels like “do not allow contact with skin,” “do not use on domesticated animals,” or “if contact with skin, flush with water for 10 minutes and contact local poison control.”
But I digress…
So if these substances are so harmful, I needed to know why they are allowed in our products.
I didn’t like the answer.
It all comes down to volume. On average, there are 100,000 chemicals on the market that make an appearance in our daily products. Back in 1976, many of them were grandfathered in by the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). In short, there simply isn’t funding or manpower to conduct safety testing on each and every chemical. So it hasn’t been done. In fact, because of TSCA trade laws, manufacturers don’t even have to disclose everything on the label.
Now, what about products labeled “green” or “organic?” According to the EWG, even “green” cleaning products can still be dangerous. And as for organic, toxicologist Dr. Marland Dulaney points out in order for any plant to be labeled as “organic” has to be farmed in soil not treated with pesticides for at least 36 months. But many pesticides can stay in the soil for more than three years, so residual absorption is common.
Dr. Dulaney also says it’s impossible to live truly chemical-free. It comes down to saturation; thanks to our modern culture, the overuse of hormones, pesticides and toxins is rampant. But he does say it is worth taking the extra step to help our bodies out. We can do that by living as cleanly as possible — limiting exposure and eating cleanly to help our bodies eliminate toxins.
Now, I’m barely scraping the surface of this topic.
I could spend hours dictating my findings. But since you’re an intelligent individual; I know if you’re still questioning the danger of mainstream chemicals, you’ll do your research or reach out to ask more questions. Or you’ll try playing the “dangers of” game — pick an ingredient from a bottle of something under your sink and do an internet search with the words “dangers of” in front. Read articles, maybe spend some time on the EWG’s web site, do some interviews…get creative in your research. It is worth knowing what you are allowing into your home.
Have you made the chemical-free step? What has your experience been? I’d love to hear! Or, are you not sure where to start? Reach out — I’d love to help you find the right resources.
Body Burden: Pollution in Newborns, EWG 2005. https://www.ewg.org/research/body-burden-pollution-newborns
8 Hidden Toxins: What’s Lurking In Your Cleaning Products, by Jesse Sholl, 2011. https://experiencelife.com/article/8-hidden-toxins-whats-lurking-in-your-cleaning-products/
Solving the Alzheimer’s Puzzle: New Research Confirms Aluminum’s Key Role in the Epidemic, by Celeste McGovern, 2018. https://thetruthaboutcancer.com/solving-the-alzheimers-puzzle/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare
It’s Impossible To Live Free Of Chemicals, the Clarion Ledger 2014, https://www.clarionledger.com/story/life/2014/05/26/impossible-live-free-chemicals/9604285/