Environmental Toxins in Your Home

Dangerous chemicals to be aware of, and how to avoid them

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Worrying about how chemicals in the environment affect your health used to be relegated to the fringe.

Now, thanks to research data too scary to ignore, I don’t know a single person who doesn’t know the letters B-P-A.

While the health effects of substances like lead, asbestos and mercury are, by now, known and regulated, many more cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting chemicals continue to lurk around us, their dangers unknown and/or uncontrolled.

How can we—busy people without time for full-blown chemistry lessons—stay healthy? Here’s a guide.


This colorless, odorless radioactive gas results from the decay of uranium or thorium, found in nearly all soils. It easily enters your home through cracks in the foundation, floors, or walls. An estimated one in 15 U.S. homes have elevated radon levels.

When radon breaks down, it emits radioactive particles, making it second only to smoking as a cause of lung cancer and resulting in about 21,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

What to do:

  • Use a test kit (it’s simple and cheap) to detect whether your home has elevated radon (if you use well water, have that checked, too).

  • If needed, implement radon mitigation, a process that effectively lowers your home’s level to the safe range.


Used in building materials and many household products, formaldehyde is a strong-smelling, highly flammable chemical linked to several cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.

Stuff around your house that might contain formaldehyde: pressed-wood furniture, plywood, glues and adhesives, and fuel-burning appliances like gas stoves and kerosene heaters.

What to do:

  • Use “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products.

  • Ensure adequate ventilation and moderate temperatures.

  • Reduce humidity with air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

  • Grow plants in your home.


About half of the benzene exposure in the U.S. results from smoking tobacco or from secondhand smoke, but this colorless liquid is also found in many products around your house and neighborhood: pesticides, synthetic fibers, plastics, inks, oils, detergents and dryer sheets.

Substantial data links benzene exposure to bone marrow abnormalities and leukemia.

What to do:

  • Don’t smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke.

  • Make sure your house is well-ventilated.

  • Use unscented laundry detergent.

  • Grow plants in your home.


Bisphenol A., or BPA, is a compound commonly used to make plastic for food and drink packaging, water, and baby bottles, metal can lining, bottle tops, and water supply pipes.

An “endocrine disruptor” that interferes with our hormones, BPA can seep from these products into our food and water, especially when plastic containers are washed, heated or stressed.

Low-dose exposure to BPA may lead to:

  • obesity

  • infertility

  • aggressive behavior

  • early onset of puberty

  • hormone-dependent cancers like prostate and breast cancer

  • lower testosterone levels and sperm production

According to a 2011 paper, more than nine in 10 aged children 6 and older have detectable levels of BPA in their urine, as do 96 percent of American women.

The same study offers good news: When participants avoided consuming canned and packaged foods for three days, their BPA levels decreased by 66 percent.

What to do:

  • Minimize use of plastic containers with the #7 or #3 on the bottom.

  • Don’t microwave plastic or put it in the dishwasher.

  • Reduce use of canned foods.

  • Opt for glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers and cups.

  • Look for toys and baby bottles labeled “BPA free” (better yet, use glass bottles).


Used to control weeds, insects, fungi, pathogens and rodents, pesticides are widely used in conventional food production, so you may be exposed through your diet.

While the health effects aren’t entirely clear, research from the National Institutes of Health shows that farmers who use insecticides experience an increase in headaches, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, hand tremors, and other neurological symptoms.

In separate research, people reporting regular exposure to pesticides had a 70 percent higher incidence of Parkinson’s disease.

What to do:


Found in products like plastic bottles, shampoo, lotion, nail polish, and deodorant, phthalates have been linked to adverse genital development and reduced masculine behavior in boys with prenatal exposure.

Women with high exposure to phthalates while pregnant report significantly more disruptive behavior in their children, and research has also found that phthalate exposure may lead to thyroid dysfunction in adults.

Like BPA, phthalates leave the body quickly once exposure stops.

What to do:

  • Minimize use of plastics with the recycling code #3.

  • Use plastic products that are PVC-free or made from polyethylene (better yet, opt for glass containers).

  • Don’t heat or microwave plastic.

  • Choose phthalate-free toys (look for polypropylene or polyethylene).

  • Choose safer beauty products by avoiding ones that list phthalates or “fragrance” as an ingredient.

When it comes to removing environmental toxins from your home, you don't have to do it all at once. Figure out which small changes you can commit to now and start with those. You can do more over time.


Environmental Protection Agency. A Citizen’s Guide to Radon.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – National Institute of Health

Rudel RA, et al. Food packaging and bisphenol A and bis(2-ethyhexyl) phthalate exposure: findings from a dietary intervention. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Jul;119(7):914-20.

Smith, MT. Advances in understanding benzene health effects and susceptibility. Ann Rev Pub Health. 2010;31:133–48.

Swan SH, et al. Prenatal phthalate exposure and reduced masculine play in boys. Int J Androl. 2010 Apr;33(2):259-69.

Braun JM, et al. Impact of Early-Life Bisphenol A Exposure on Behavior and Executive Function in Children. Pediatrics. 2011; 128(5):873-882 

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