There are virtually thousands of chemicals in the environment that have not been properly assessed for safety, and in many cases there is evidence, whether direct or indirect, that they can have harmful effects on health. Many chemicals are fat-soluble and remain in the body for decades, sometimes for life, and can even be passed from generation to generation after being removed from circulation. A typical example of this is DDT, which continues to turn up in people’s tissue samples, decades after being banned.
Other chemicals are rapidly eliminated from the body and become harmful only through daily exposure. Because they don’t stay in the body for long, avoiding them can lead to quick health benefits or at least limit any damage that has already been done. Two classes of chemicals that fall in this category are phthalates and parabens.
Phthalates are known as plasticizers that are used to make plastic soft and pliable. The softer the plastic, the more phthalate it contains. Because they are only loosely bound to the plastic they readily leach out into food and drink and can even be absorbed through the skin for example by wearing latex gloves.
These chemicals have strong estrogenic activity and have been linked with estrogen-dependent health conditions including endometriosis in women, and low sperm counts and infertility in men. They have also been associated with low birth weight babies and sexual malformations in baby boys, conditions which have become epidemic.
However, avoiding these substances or at least reducing our exposure to them is relatively easy. It involves avoiding plastic water bottles and using glass or metal whenever possible, as well as avoiding food that is wrapped in plastic and using plastic in microwaves.
Parabens are antimicrobial compounds that are widely used in personal hygiene products like deodorants, as well as in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and some foods and beverages.
These chemicals are also estrogenic, although their estrogenic activity is much weaker than that of phthalates. Because of this they were considered safe until recently researchers found them to promote the growth of breast cancer cells in laboratory experiments. More disturbingly, they have been found to be concentrated in breast cancer tissue to a much higher degree than in surrounding tissues. It has also been observed that breast cancer is turning up increasingly in the upper outer quadrant of the breasts, in close proximity to where paraben-containing deodorants are often applied.
There is no magical trick to avoiding these chemicals, however they can be found on ingredient lists and good quality products with paraben-free substitutes are becoming increasingly available even without having to go to health food stores.