Sunday, January 08, 2006

House of horrors

Sperm counts are falling and cancer levels are rising. Something is very wrong somewhere, but what? The answer, says Hilary Freeman, may be uncomfortably close to home ...

Tuesday January 13, 2004
The Guardian


Yesterday, millions of Britons woke up to the news that our daily personal hygiene routines could be making us ill. A study at the University of Reading linked chemicals called parabens in underarm deodorants with a possible breast-cancer risk, after discovering traces of parabens - preservatives thought to mimic oestrogens - in human breast tumour samples.

This finding comes just a week after scientists revealed that men's sperm counts have fallen by almost a third since 1989. Again, exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals - including parabens - is thought to have played a large part.

Buying organic and filtering your water may make you feel more secure, but it does little to protect you or your family from environmental toxins. Forget traffic pollution: the average Briton's home is almost certainly swimming in a cocktail of chemicals, many of which have been linked to allergies, cancers and infertility. These chemicals line your walls, carpets and flooring. They emanate from curtains, PCs, toiletries, even children's toys. And, while the products that you rely upon to keep your home clean do wipe out bacteria and viruses, they also spread toxic chemicals across every surface.

Little by little, these toxins are seeping through your skin and lungs and into your bloodstream, building up in your tissues and organs like a time bomb. No one is sure what effect they might have on your health in years to come. It is thought, for instance, that some chemicals have the ability to bio-accumulate (an increase in concentration in a biological organism over time so it reaches levels far higher than in the environment). The result is that, unaware and without giving consent, we are all acting as guinea pigs in a giant chemistry experiment.

"We're just as likely to be exposed to pollution indoors as outdoors," says Helen Lynn, health coordinator for the campaign group the Women's Environmental Network (WEN). "Ironically, it is trying to keep our homes and ourselves ultra-clean and sweet-smelling that is probably increasing our exposure to risky chemicals. Some of the chemicals we use in the home end up living with us in the dust, or indeed in our own body tissue. For example, the comparatively new antibacterial agent, triclosan, has been detected in breast milk."

Last year, the environmental charity Greenpeace published a report revealing that "gender bending" and other chemicals that can damage reproductive organs, interfere with growth and development and damage the immune system have been found in babies in the womb. At the same time, Greenpeace released the results of independent tests on a sample of consumer products including children's pyjamas, toys and baby feeding bottles. Alarmingly, the same hazardous chemicals were found in these items. For example, Disney-branded pyjamas contained phthalates, which are banned from teething toys under emergency legislation because they can cause liver, kidney and testicular damage.

Many of the chemicals found in household goods have been used for decades without having undergone any safety checks. "When a drugs company manufactures a new drug they must show that it has been through stringent tests demonstrating its safety before it is allowed on to the market," says Mark Strutt, chemicals campaigner for Greenpeace. "But chemical compounds are not subject to the same rigorous testing. Chemical companies do not even have to produce any data if a substance was put on the market before 1981 - and that counts for over 90% of the chemicals in circulation."

We can only speculate about the connection between the widespread use of chemicals in the home and the concurrent rise in cancers, particularly hormonal cancers. What cannot be questioned are the facts: breast cancer rates have increased by more than 50% in the past three decades, while prostate and testicular cancer rates have almost doubled. Even when ill-effects are suspected or have been identified in laboratory tests on animals, there is often no conclusive proof of the effects of individual chemicals on human health, particularly in the long term. Still more worrying is the fact that nobody knows what happens when humans are repeatedly exposed to a cocktail of diverse chemicals.

According to Strutt, the chemical manufacturers use this lack of certainty to their advantage: "The industry demands proof of harm before a chemical is restricted. Even when it is established that a chemical is harmful, they fall back on the exposure argument - for example, will a child receive a big enough dose from the toy to cause harm?

"Legislators fall for this because current regulations are based on risk rather than precaution. In other words, if the estimated exposure of a child to a particular chemical means only one in a million will incur damage, that is an acceptable risk. We argue that no avoidable risk is acceptable."

This state of affairs is set to change. In October 2003, the European Commission announced radical plans to crack down on chemicals found in many household items. Under the new guidelines - known as Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) - chemicals will be subject to more stringent testing and companies will be forced to disclose basic information about all the chemicals they produce. Should the proposals become law in 2005, around 30,000 chemicals are expected to undergo safety tests.

Campaigners say the legislation does not go far enough. Substances identified as "of very high concern" will not automatically be banned. Instead the company producing such a substance will have to demonstrate "adequate control" over its circulation.

"The chemical industry will almost certainly argue that many substances we have identified as hazardous are 'adequately controlled'," says Strutt. "It will then take years to show they are not controlled, and the onus will be on environmental and health groups to do this."

The chemical industry is not happy with the Reach guidelines either. Judith Hackett, director general of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), says: "We don't want to replace one set of regulations that don't work with another that aren't right. Consumers want information on the substances of highest concern, not five years of tests on substances of little concern which will be looked at just because they're produced in high volumes. Reach does not yet prioritise enough.

"European legislation banning substances will not prevent them finding their way into our homes," she adds. "Take phthalates in children's toys. Most children's toys are manufactured in the far east. Who will police the toys coming into Europe and determine whether or not they contain phthalates? These phthalates are unlikely to be manufactured in Europe."

As consumers, we have almost no say in whether we expose ourselves to these potentially harmful chemicals. They are now found in dust particles and in rivers; they are part of our environment. And it is practically impossible to avoid buying products that contain them. Washing powders, cleaning products and toys do not have to list their full ingredients. Only cosmetic products must do so by law and commercial confidentiality protections allow them to leave out select ingredients.

"Until the law changes," says Helen Lynn, "we'd be better off throwing open the windows, cleaning our homes with lemon juice, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, choosing furnishings, cosmetics and toiletries that are as natural as possible and demanding products that are not just fit for their immediate purpose but are safe in all respects."

How your home may be poisoning you

1 Anti-perspirant deodorants: most brands of stick/cream/roll-on deodorants (not usually aerosols).
Problem ingredient: parabens. Parabens are a family of compounds widely used as preservatives in a range of cosmetics including shampoos, make-up, lotions and deodorants. Although they cannot yet be conclusively indentified as a cause of breast cancer, evidence now suggests they can act as oestrogen mimics. One, propyl paraben, has been shown to adversely affect male reproductive functions and decreased daily sperm production.

2 Toothpaste: most brands.
Problem ingredients: triclosan. Triclosan is a chlorophenol used in products such as toothpaste, soaps and body washes, including vaginal washes - as well as many household cleaning products, and even dish cloths and chopping boards - for its antimicrobial (bacteria-killing) properties. The human body is a home for many different bacteria, many of which are beneficial. However, triclosan will kill all bacteria that it comes across, irrespective of whether they are good or bad.

3 Dark hair dye
Problem ingredient: PPD (colouring agent). Hair dyes have been of concern since 1933, when they were found to contain p-phenylenediamine (PPD) and lead acetate. The darker the hair dye, the more PPD it may contain. PPD is also a suspected mutagen (a substance that causes changes to human DNA). Recent studies have suggested that those who have worked for 10 or more years as a hairstylist could have a risk of bladder cancer five times that of the general population. In 1995, more evidence linked frequent or long-term use of hair dyes by professionals to a higher incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and cancer of the bone marrow. Another recent study found that women who regularly dye their hair are at a higher risk of ovarian cancer.

4 Illustrated children's pyjamas: including Disney-branded Buzz Lightyear pyjamas.
Problem ingredient: phthalates (plus nonylphenol, see below). Phthalates are a group of synthetic chemicals used as softeners in the manufacture of PVC - they are used to make the soft, glazed, plastic design on the front of the pyjama tops. Phthalates have already been banned in teething toys. They are associated with liver, kidney and testicular damage.

5 "Rubber" bath duck toy (made from PVC): including Funky Bath duck by Chad Valley, from Woolworths.
Problem ingredients: nonylphenol (plus phthalates). Nonylphenol is used in the manufacture of PVC. Studies have shown that it can mimic the female hormone oestrogen and high levels have been found in rivers where male fish have developed female characteristics. Earlier this year, research showed that the chemical had adverse effects on mammalian sperm production. A 2002 study found that nonylphenol can damage the DNA of glands that produce antibodies to fight off diseases.

6 Baby feeding bottle: including Toys-R-Us decorated feeding bottle.
Problem ingredient: bisphenol-A. Bisphenol-A is used in the synthesis of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It has been shown to cause genetic damage in mice. A study published in Environmental Health perspectives found that it acts as a hormone mimic and can damage the mammary glands, uterus and male genital tract of animals. Although plastics not containing it are available, it is very hard for a consumer to tell the difference - try using glass feeding bottles as a safe alternative.

7 Some air fresheners: including Ambi Pur parfum d'interior.
Problem ingredient: artificial musks. Most fragranced products contain artificial musks (a known liver toxin), which are increasingly being found in breast milk. They can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin or on food. Some artificial musks have already been banned. Never spray air freshener in an enclosed space.

8 Upholstered furniture
Problem ingredient: brominated flame retardants (also found in home PCs and televisions) have been linked with hormone disruption and thyroid problems. A 1999 study found that three types induced intragenic genetic recombination in mammalian cells, which is known to provoke a number of diseases, including cancer. High levels have been found in breast milk. Safe alternatives are available. Ikea has eliminated brominated flame retardants from all its furniture. TV manufacturers Hitachi, Philips and Sony are all phasing it out.

2 Comments:

At 9:22 pm, Blogger sanika said...

Thanks for posting this Debbie...very sobering reading...it is however the reason why i use products from Lush/organic etc & i use white vinegar for cleaning/pot-puree/jistick/essential oils for clean smells in the home.basically i got sooooooo scared years ago with this type of news that i resolved to minimise the dodgy stuff & at least make my home as safe as poss........i always was a campainger ( worked for greenpeace & WEN b4 Iona )but becoming a mother made me more determined than ever.Allah (swt) has given us the role of caretakers of the planet....sad that so many people don't know that or do anything about it.

 
At 10:10 am, Blogger milkmumma said...

it is sometimes hard to make changes to begin with due to initial cost, but it is def worth it, and insha'Allah there is more barakah when we do it Bismillah. more barakah in food, in our homes, in our time, our health etc.....
i have found it makes living much more joyful, alhamdulillah.

 

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