The Most Dangerous Chemicals Lurking in Your Home to Avoid at All Costs

family on sofa at home

Have you heard the term “body burden?”

Body burden refers to the total accumulation of toxins and chemicals in your body. Your body is equipped with its own natural detoxification mechanisms, but, in today’s world, your exposures to chemicals may far outweigh your body’s natural ability to process them all.

Because the everyday products you bring into your home—things you use to eat, wear, play with, store food, or even sleep on—could be exposing you to an overload of toxic chemicals.

In the “Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals,” the CDC reported that the average person in the United States has at least 212 chemicals in their blood and urine. Seemingly innocuous substances like non-stick coating, fire retardants, baby products, and plastic food containers all contain some level of chemical contaminants that contribute to body burden. 

Want to reduce your own body burden and limit your exposure to toxic chemicals in the home? Here are some of the most dangerous chemicals lurking in your home and the products they hide in.

Formaldehyde 

Formaldehyde, the embalming chemical, is one of the sneakiest and most prevalent chemicals in your home. It turns up in places you may never suspect, such as:

  • Paint
  • Adhesives
  • Cardboard
  • Particleboard/ pressed wood furniture
  • Disinfectants
  • Cigarette smoke

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, but that doesn’t stop it from appearing in nearly 1 in 5 cosmetic products, according to data from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The U.S. government and World Health Organization have classified formaldehyde as carcinogenic when its fumes are inhaled. It is also a potent skin sensitizer and allergen. When left unchecked, exposure to higher levels of arsenic can cause some pretty horrific side-effects like bronchitis or, worse, ulcers in your mouth, stomach, and esophagus

Limit your arsenic exposure by purchasing solid wood furniture, limiting cardboard consumption — take those boxes out to the recycling bin ASAP, and ban smoking in and around your home.

You may not find formaldehyde labeled as such on your personal care products, instead, cosmetic and personal care companies tend to use “preservatives” that are formaldehyde releasers: when mixed with water, these chemicals slowly decompose and become molecules of formaldehyde.

You can avoid formaldehyde and chemical formaldehyde releasers by looking for certified-organic versions of your favorite products or checking the EWG cosmetic database for safer personal care products.

Flame Retardants

Some of the items in your home are highly flammable—like your furniture and mattresses made from polyurethane foam (aka memory foam). 

As a result, petroleum-based materials, like furniture foam, are often treated with chemical flame retardants.

These synthetic chemicals are used in: 

  • Electronics
  • Upholstery
  • Carpets
  • Textiles
  • Insulation
  • vehicle and airplane parts 
  • children’s clothes and strollers
  • Mattresses 
  • and many other household products

There is growing evidence chemical flame retardants can accumulate in people and cause adverse health effects — interfering with hormones, reproductive systems, thyroid and metabolic function, and neurological development in infants and children. 

Research has also provided the first strong evidence that maternal exposure to a widely used type of flame retardant, known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), can alter thyroid function in pregnant women and children, result in low birth weights, and impair neurological development.

Although the federal government and various states have limited or banned the use of some of these chemicals, recent test of consumer products and a study in Environmental Science & Technology revealed use of these chemicals continues to be widespread and that compounds thought to be off the market due to health concerns continue to be used in the U.S. in children’s products such as crib mattresses, changing table pads, nursing pillows, and car seats.

Chemical flame retardants are primarily used in products with highly flammable base materials, such as petroleum-based foams. If you can find organic or OETEK-100 certified alternatives, you can cut your exposure to these chemicals. 

For example, an organic mattress made from natural latex, wool, and organic cotton is far less flammable than a memory foam mattress and can pass rigorous flame-tests without the use of added chemical flame retardants.

Dioxins

Dioxins are a byproduct of the industrial manufacturing of chlorinated products, like some herbicides and—another one of the most common household chemicals—bleach.

But, it’s not just chlorinated products you need to watch out for. 

Dioxins can sneak into your home in other ways.

The burning of papers, leaf litter, wood smoke, and cigarette smoke are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to dioxin exposure.

But, what can dioxins do to you? 

Nothing short of damaging your immune system and disrupting hormone production. 

Dioxins are part of a group of poisonous chemicals known as persistent environmental pollutants (POPs) and can remain in the environment for a long time.

Prolonged contact with dioxins has also been linked to cancer, infertility, and birth defects.

How can you limit your exposure to dioxins?

Chlorinated products are everywhere in your home and even personal care products. Swap out your cotton sheets for organic cotton or bamboo sheets that haven’t been treated with chlorine bleach. (We love Cozy Earth’s organic bamboo sheets. The natural bamboo fibers provide a beautiful white sheet without the use of chlorine bleach. And hey, they’ve made Oprah’s list of favorite things for being the world’s softest sheets!)

Women can reduce their exposure to chlorine by reaching for organic menstrual products, too.

And reach for non-chlorine bleach or bleach alternatives for laundry and household cleaning.

Lastly, be sure that no one is smoking in or around your home and that you keep your windows shut during those backyard bonfires. 

Phthalates

Phthalates are a family of industrial chemicals — like PVC — used to soften plastic.

Phthalates are found in so many things, from IV bags to shower curtains, children's toys, and car seats.

They’re even in food storage containers and perfumes.

Long-term exposure to phthalates has been linked to male infertility and a myriad of reproductive abnormalities. Not only can they damage men’s reproductive systems but they can also cause damage to:

  • Liver 
  • Kidneys
  • Lungs

Infants, toddlers, and pregnant mothers are at the biggest risk of harm from phthalates.

Avoiding this one might seem overwhelming, if not impossible, but there are things you can do to limit your exposure.

The easiest ways to cut back on phthalate exposure is to pass up foods in the grocery store that come in plastic containers with 3, 6, or 7 in the recycling symbol and to keep an eye out for materials like DEHP and PVC listed on other household products you buy.

Weed Killer

From school campuses to public parks and even your own backyard, the chemical used to kill pesky, unsightly weeds could be causing serious health harm.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient used in many weed killers (herbicides). 

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization’s international agency, classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans,” noting:

  • Animal studies – specifically, studies of mice and rats – demonstrated a possible link between glyphosate and cancerous tumors.
  • Laboratory studies of the damaging effects of glyphosate on DNA showed “mechanistic evidence” that the weed killer can indeed damage DNA in human cells upon exposure.

Glyphosate can cause a type of skin irritation known as photocontact dermatitis if it comes in contact with uncovered hands, arms, or legs while using the weed killer. If used in spray form, it could also get into the nose, mouth, or eyes, where the effects could be more severe.

Ingestion of glyphosate can be even more harmful: damage from swallowing glyphosate includes burns to the mouth, throat and esophagus, permanent liver damage, or even death. 

Avoid glyphosate by hand-weeding or trying a glyphosate alternative to keep weeds under control.

Dry Cleaning Chemicals

Did you know that your dry cleaning can pollute the air inside your home?

The chemicals used in dry cleaning contain solvents known as glycol ethers.

Glycol Ethers are also found in glass cleaners, carpet and floor cleaners, and even in oven cleaners.

Exposure to glycol ethers have been linked to:

  • Lethargy
  • Nausea
  • Anemia
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Severe liver and/or kidney damage at high levels
  • Miscarriage
  • Infertility in both men and women

We don’t know about you, but it might be time to rethink those “dry clean only” items in your closet. 

Just like your gas cans, it’s best to keep these kinds of products stored away from living areas — like in the garage or a shed. 

If you must dry-clean clothing, seek out green or eco-friendly companies use chemical-free alternatives.

Cut the Chemicals

We don’t need to say it, you already know. 

Overexposure to harmful chemicals can be putting your health at risk.

But, with so many chemicals and toxins sneaking their way into your daily life, banishing all of them can seem like a losing battle. 

But you have a secret weapon on your side now: awareness. 

You might not be able to rid your environment of every source, but making small, incremental changes to intentionally reduce your chemical exposures could help reduce your own body burden.