Common health threats hiding in plain sight

By Connie Capone
Published August 17, 2020

Key Takeaways

Take a look around your home. Hopefully, it feels safe and sound. But though you might not think twice about the items surrounding you and your family, many could covertly be doing you harm. Even items that are supposed to support your health could be doing the exact opposite.

What are these items? The most common culprit for health risks at home is the food we eat. Between contamination, mislabeling, bold health claims, chemical substances, and plain old unhealthy treats, unsafe food causes more than 200 diseases—from diarrhea to cancer.

But there’s much more than food in our homes, and many of the other items that may be wreaking havoc on your health could be doing so unbeknownst to you. To help improve your and your family’s safety at home, we’ve identified six products you might want to consider limiting or banishing altogether.

Common household dangers

Mouthwash—Intended to fight bad breath and tooth decay, popular antiseptic oral rinses might not be worth their inherent risks, according to research. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that regular mouthwash use was linked to an approximately 55% higher risk of developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes—a connection that held up after adjustment for other major diabetes risk factors among the study subjects. Most mouthwashes have antiseptic properties that eliminate all types of mouth bacteria, even though some of those bacteria are helpful for a healthy oral microbiome. Some of the “good” microbes in our mouths produce nitric oxide, which helps the body regulate insulin levels—a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes. (What’s more, using antibacterial mouthwash may significantly reduce the blood-pressure-lowering effects of exercise.)

Hair dye and chemical straighteners—In a recent study of nearly 47,000 women, scientists at the National Institutes of Health found that those who use permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners had a 9% higher risk of developing breast cancer overall. The risk was particularly severe for African American women—those who used permanent hair dyes every 5 to 8 weeks or more experienced a 60% increased risk of breast cancer compared with white women, who experienced an 8% increased risk. The increased risk was associated only with permanent hair dye, as researchers found no significant increase in breast cancer risk for semi-permanent or temporary dye use. Data also suggested that women who used chemical hair straighteners at least every 5 to 8 weeks were about 30% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who didn’t use them. “While it is too early to make a firm recommendation, avoiding these chemicals might be one more thing women can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer,” said the study’s coauthor, Dale Sandler, PhD, chief of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Epidemiology Branch.

Shower curtains—Some shower curtains sold by major retailers are laden with toxins that are harmful to both you and the environment. A report issued by the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice stated that polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic shower curtains can contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals including volatile organic compounds, phthalates, and metals, which can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea. Researchers tested the chemical composition of PVC plastic shower curtains purchased from Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Target, and Sears, and found that a single curtain could release up to 108 different volatile organic compounds. Several of these chemicals have been identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous air pollutants, while others cause serious health effects that can harm central nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems.

Hand sanitizers—Certain alcohol-based hand sanitizers may be toxic, the Food and Drug Administration has warned. The agency recently stated that several hand sanitizer brands had tested positive for methanol contamination between 1% and 80%, even though methanol is not an acceptable ingredient in any drug, regardless of whether it’s listed on a product label. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin and life-threatening if ingested. Exposure to methanol can result in symptoms that range from nausea and vomiting to permanent blindness, seizures, and permanent damage to the nervous system. To ensure you’re using safe hand sanitizers, check your purchases against the FDA’s regularly updated “Do-Not-Use” list.

Dietary supplements—Taken in the form of pills, powders, capsules, gel tabs, extracts, or liquids, dietary supplements (such as vitamin D, probiotics, fish oil, and others) are used by more than two-thirds of Americans. But at what cost? One study published in PLOS ONE found toxic element contamination in many supplements, some of which surpassed the daily limit for mercury, lead, arsenic, and aluminum. Last year, the FDA seized over 300,000 containers of dietary supplements after finding they contained excessive lead, exposure to which can harm the organs, brain, and nervous system. In an article about the hidden risks in dietary supplements, C. Michael White, PharmD, a professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Connecticut, said, “consumers take real risks if they use diet supplements not independently verified by reputable outside labs.” Dr. White recommends checking purchases against trustworthy supplement endorsement laboratories like United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International, and

Plastic containers and toys—A host of chemicals found in the plastic products in your home can interfere with the body’s hormones. Known as endocrine disrupters, these chemicals cause health problems that impact the brain as well as reproductive and immune systems. Two common and dangerous endocrine disrupters are bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both of which are found widely in plastic food packaging. BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastics and has been shown to play a part in several endocrine disorders including infertility, early puberty, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and several metabolic disorders. Phthalates are used to make plastics more flexible and are commonly found in food packaging, children’s toys, and medical devices. Researchers have shown that some types of phthalates can affect laboratory animals’ ability to reproduce. While the science weighs heavily against BPAs, more research is needed to determine phthalates’ effects on human health. As a general rule, try to replace your plastic containers with glass to avoid exposure.

Where to start?

If you’re looking to live a less toxic life without living in constant fear of the products in your home, try to make small, sustainable changes that will help you exercise more control over the health risks you take with your purchasing decisions. It can be overwhelming and near impossible to know exactly what chemicals lurk in your home and whether they’re harmful or safe, so start with the science and stick to what’s proven before making assumptions—and your next purchase.

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