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The ABCs of Some Common Household Toxins


Formaldehyde is a smelly, colourless, flammable gas classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the IARC. It is known to cause cancer in humans and animals. It can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and trigger asthma. Formaldehyde emissions generally decrease over time (i.e. off-gas), but it can take seven years just to reach minimal levels. Unfortunately, the let-it-get-old method of harm reduction doesn’t apply to everything that may contain formaldehyde. Old shampoo isn’t any safer than the new stuff.


Lead is a highly toxic heavy metal that persists in the environment and can bioaccumulate (keeps accumulating in our bodies). Exposure to even a small amount can be hazardous to health. Young children are particularly at risk and during pregnancy it can pass through the placenta to the fetus. Exposure to lead has been linked with hyperactivity, lower IQs, neurocognitive disorders such as ADHD, and can damage kidneys, blood, muscles, and bones, and is likely carcinogenic. Our lead exposure has decreased thanks to environmental regulations on coal burning, emissions and the use of lead in consumer products such as paint and gasoline.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs include a wide-range of carbon-based chemicals that easily vaporize (off-gas) from numerous household sources. VOCs can cause immediate health issues, such as headaches, and some have been linked to long-term health effects, including cancer. VOCs react quickly and concentrations will usually decrease over time. Airing new things outside can significantly decrease exposure, but significant amounts can still off-gas from products for many years. Many VOCs have an odour and the “sniff test” can alert you to their presence.

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

POPs are a major problem for you and your child — and for the polar bears. They remain in the environment and our bodies for a LONG time, perhaps a lifetime. They travel far and like to accumulate in cold places like the polar region — yes, way up there in the “pristine” parts of Canada — where they get stuck. Small amounts can cause big problems, including nausea, learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, thyroid problems, hormonal disruption, and cancer. Most POPs fall into four categories: pesticides, industrial chemicals, brominated flame retardants, and unwanted byproducts. Dioxin is a POP, those nonstick substances on your frying pan are POPs, and so are those chemical flame retardants in your child’s foam mattress.

Many countries regulate their POPs as part of the 1972 Stockholm Agreement. The original POPs targeted by that agreement e.g. DDT and Agent Orange have been substantially reduced in the environment and humans. Unfortunately, we’ve been developing lots of new POPs.

Chemical Flame Retardants

Some of the most toxic chemical flame retardants are brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) and the phosphate esthers (Tris), including TDCP and TCEP phosphate. PBDEs, TDCP, and TCEP have been linked to serious health problems, including neurological disorders, hormonal disruption, organ damage, thyroid disorders, fertility problems, and may be linked to cancer. Young children are still one of the groups most highly exposed to Tris flame retardants, though it was banned in 1977 from children’s sleepwear when it was discovered to mutate children’s DNA. PBDE levels are 75 times higher in American women than their European counterparts, likely because of a California law requiring flame retardancy for items old in that state. Both the United States and Health Canada have asked manufacturers to phase out certain PBDE compounds, but PBDE—as well as Tris— are still on the market and common in children’s product. As well, many of the new chemical flame retardants are not much safer.

Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs)

PFCs are used to make things stain, oil, or water resistant. They are used in stain guards to magically keep red wine from staining your white couch, make cookware nonstick, and make clothing water-proof. PFCs are also used in grease-resistant food packaging such as hamburger wrappers, chip bags, and microwave popcorn packages. It can even coat your dental floss. Two of the most infamous are PFOA and PFOS. Both have been found in nearly every human studied and levels in children are often higher than in adults. PFCs have been linked to cancer and birth defects. Because of the known health concerns associated with PFOA and PFOS, they are mostly being phased out in the United States and Canada, but are often replaced with other PFCs that are nearly as bad.


Dioxin is formed as an unintended by-product of many industrial processes involving chlorine including the manufacturing of pesticides, the production and incineration of PVC plastics, and paper bleaching. Dioxin was a major ingredient in Agent Orange. Dioxin is often referred to as a super-toxin and the IARC considers the most potent dioxins to be Group 1 carcinogens. It is linked to birth defects, infertility, reduced sperm counts, endometriosis, diabetes, learning disabilities, immune system suppression, lung problems, skin disorders, and numerous cancers. Traces of dioxins can be found in air, water, soil, and—from there—they work their way up the food chain and into fish, animals, and humans. Diet, particular meat and dairy, is considered our primary source of exposure.


Phthalates are found in plastics and cosmetics. They are considered likely hormone-mimickers and have been linked to preterm birth, infertility, and cancer. A CDC study found 75 percent of participants had detectible levels of phthalates in their bodies. The six phthalates considered most hazardous have been banned in the EU since 1999. The United States and Canada have also banned some of phthalates in some children’s products and toys, but not in personal care products.

Toxic Plastics

Plastics are everywhere. They can do amazing things, unfortunately many, if not most, of them come with some big health costs, including exposing us to chemicals that mimic estrogen. Some of the worst offenders:

PVC aka vinyl contains lead, phthalates, and releases dioxin. It is linked to neurotoxic effects and endocrine problems. It is found in soft, pliable plastic products like crib mattress covers, bath toys and, though it is supposed to be banned from them, some teething toys.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is one of 39 bisphenol-containing chemicals which are known or suspected endocrine disruptors. BPAs may cause problems of brain and hormone development, decreased sperm counts, erectile dysfunction, heart disease, diabetes, liver abnormalities, and breast cancer. It is found in hard plastic items such as baby bottles and is in the lining of canned goods, including baby formula.

Melamine is a chemical byproduct of industrial processes and is added to some plastics (and some foods, such as in the baby formula scandal). It is linked to kidney failure. Melamine products may also release the toxin formaldehyde. It is found in many children’s plates and cups that are sold as “BPA-free” or “shatterproof,” and looks like hard plastic.
Polystyrene or Styrofoam contains the toxic substances Styrene and Benzene, suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins that are hazardous to humans. Hot foods and liquids, alcohol, oils, acidic foods, and red wine all cause the Styrofoam to release toxins into the food or drink for us to consume.

4 responses to “The ABCs of Some Common Household Toxins”

  1. […] don’t have to paint the nursery, don’t. If a fresh layer of paint is necessary, use No or Zero VOC  paints (which can still have VOCs particularly after colour has been added). Or use paints made […]

  2. […] don’t have to paint the nursery, don’t. If a fresh layer of paint is necessary, use No or Zero VOC  paints (which can still have VOCs particularly after colour has been added). Or use paints made […]

  3. […] have received the most rudimentary safety testing. And even when we know that these are bad, take Formaldehyde–a Level One Known Human Carcinogen–they are still released in one-out-of-five beauty […]

  4. […] in the blood of newborn babies as well as in adults. The most common of these chemicals include heavy metals (which are known neurotoxins), formaldehyde (known to cause cancer in humans, asthma at very low […]