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Is Your Home Causing Breast Cancer?

By JOSIE SWINDLER, January, 2009

Filed Under: Green Living, New in Home

Robin Kay Levine, the founder and CEO of green cleaning products company
Eco-Me, started her business in 2005 when her 35-year-old sister, with no family history, was diagnosed with breast cancer. "How does this happen?" Levine wondered at about the same time she was overwhelmed by fumes her sister's housekeeper left behind. "When you start thinking about it, there are so many chemicals we use until the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep," she says. "But no government agency tracks the chemicals being used in these products. Who's looking out for the consumers?"

Instead of offering premade batches of cleaning supplies, Eco-Me sells kits so people can brew their own at home, with ingredients Levine says our great grandmothers used -- vinegar, baking soda, essential oils. How's her sister now? In remission with a new baby.

Levine is on to something. Experts say that even products that meet government standards aren't completely safe, and can contribute to a variety of ailments, including breast cancer, ADHD, and asthma. Read on to find out if your home is harboring any hidden dangers.

"Watch warning labels," says Robin Kay Levine, the founder of Eco-Me green cleaning products. No one expects consumers to be experts, however, or to know which funny-sounding chemicals are known carcinogens. Levine advises, "Look for products that give away the ingredients. Stay away from anything with a color in it. Labels that say 'keep windows open' and 'use in a ventilated room' are a dead giveaway.

"Foam containers are made of polystyrene, whose chemical ingredients can seep into food and your morning cup of coffee. Styrene has been blamed for skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue, decreased kidney function, and central nervous system damage. Xenoestrogens like styrene are suspected hormone disruptors, meaning that they mimic estrogen in the body and disrupt normal hormone functioning. They are found in many common home products, including plastics and cosmetics and could lead to breast and prostate cancer. You asked for a doggie bag -- not a health risk.

The slinky little sheets that keep clothes fresh are chock full of chemicals, including ethanol and chloroform. The ingredient benzyl acetate has been linked to pancreatic cancer and benzyl alcohol is known to cause upper respiratory irritation. When it reacts with ozone, the ingredient limonene can form formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. "We have gotten used to these wonderful lifestyles with 'better living through chemicals,'" says Kathy Loidolt, a consumer health advocate and author of the Shopper's Guide to Health Living. "But our bodies are being overloaded with toxins. We don't need to be scared of everything. We just need to get different habits."

Baby bottles (and other refillable hard plastic bottles and plastic flatware) are commonly made from polycarbonate plastics, the most common type on the market. Unfortunately, when washed and heated (say, in the microwave), these plastics give off bisphenol-a, or BPA. BPA is a hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen and has been tied to developmental and neurological problems for unborn children. In animals BPA has contributed to reproductive system abnormalities such as infertility, enlarged prostate, and abnormal chromosomes, as well as obesity and insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. Look for BPA-free alternatives when shopping for your next baby shower gift!

In addition to containing known controversial ingredients like ammonia, lye, phosphate, and chlorine, the majority of home cleaning products (just about everything under your kitchen sink) contain a vast array of chemicals, including toxic ethylene-based glycol ethers and non-toxic terpenes that become dangerous when they interact with ozone in the air. Experts say the single most important thing to remember about cleaning products is that you need good ventilation when using them.

Dr. Anne Steinemann, a professor of engineering at the University of Washington, has long warned about the effects of "second hand scents" in everything from air fresheners to laundry detergent, spray disinfectants to scented candles. In 2007, she performed a chemical analysis of 30 of the bestselling scented household products and found that they contained known carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals. (The study appeared in 2008 in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review.) The products she studied contained more than two dozen volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which the EPA says can cause nose and throat irritation, headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness. Together, the products Steinemann tested contained more than 100 different chemicals, none of which were listed on the labels. "The labels look benign," Steinemann says. "But some of these chemicals are classified as toxic under federal laws and can be affecting you even without your knowledge." She recommends making your home fragrant with scents straight from the source, such as mint leaves or cinnamon sticks.
Figuring out whether plastic containers are safe can be confusing: polyethylene is safe, polycarbonate isn't; polypropylene is safe, bisphenol-a isn't. After repeated reheating, polycarbonate, a chemical seen in several plastic storage products, can leak BPA, the dangerous hormone disruptor found in some baby bottles. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the chemical in most plastic soda bottles, leeks the hormone-disrupting carcinogens called phthalates after repeated use. Deli plastic like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can also release dioxins.
The color dyes that make soap more fun to use and frosting more fun to eat have been linked to increased hyperactivity in children. "What you put on your skin can go straight through to the bloodstream," says Loidolt, the consumer health advocate. It's the same reason she recommends avoiding perfume and chemical-packed lotions. Countless studies have produced countless opinions on exactly how great an ADHD irritant color dyes are, but there is some consensus that FD&C yellow #5 isn't something we'd prefer to eat -- or bathe in.

Superglue and other super-strength adhesives (you know, the kind that take two trucks to pull apart on TV) induce sensitization, according to Dr. Paul Blanc, a professor of medicine and chair of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and author of How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace. Exposure can start with allergies and lead to asthma. Other hobby materials can be dangerous, too; people who deal with leaded toys, the chemicals involved in stained glass making and amateur metal refining should be careful. "People think there's a magic wall between occupation exposures and home exposures, but in fact it's a spectrum," Blanc says.

Household bleach contains a concentrated form of chlorine. When people use chlorine bleach and an acid-based or ammonia-based cleaning product together, or even one after the other, they produce a cloramine gas that can be fatal. Short term effects of chlorine exposure include vomiting, difficulty breathing, coughing, and eye, ear, nose, and throat irritation. Dr. Paul Blanc, the professor of medicine, cautions against mixing bleach with other products and suggests avoiding aerosol sprays. It's unfortunate that consumers are having to do the legwork themselves, he says. "You shouldn't have to have a degree in chemistry before you go down the aisles of your supermarket buying a cleaner for your bathtub."

"A single fragrance typically contains several hundred chemicals," says Dr. Steinemann, who studied the fragranced home products. Fragrances and other beauty and personal care products often contain the man-made chemicals called phthalates, or plasticizers, molecules absorbed through the skin that have caused birth defects in male genitalia in animals and may cause lowered sperm count in boys and premature breast development in girls. These chemicals have been banned from baby toys, but not your perfume. "Most of our exposure to toxic chemicals comes from the products we choose to use, not chemical waste sites," says Steinemann.

"Watch warning labels," says Robin Kay Levine, the founder of Eco-Me green cleaning products. No one expects consumers to be experts, however, or to know which funny-sounding chemicals are known carcinogens. Levine advises, "Look for products that give away the ingredients. Stay away from anything with a color in it. Labels that say 'keep windows open' and 'use in a ventilated room' are a dead giveaway."

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