Especially tough questions we sometimes get

Q1: If phthalates/heavy metals/flame retardants/BPA were really poisonous, wouldn't we all be dead?

We think “dead” is too high a threshold to meet before removing hazardous chemicals from products. But we understand the point—that if you are healthy, and your kids are healthy, it’s easy to think there’s nothing to worry about. And we don’t want people to spend their lives fretting or obsessing. We are all part of this unwitting experiment. We want consumers to:

  1. Become aware that they are chronically exposed through consumer products to several classes of chemicals that do not lead to immediate, obvious health problems. These chemicals are suspected of--and in some cases implicated in--contributing to problems such as learning difficulties in childhood, fertility problems, and cancer.
  2. Understand that the combinative effects of the low-dose chemical cocktail we take in are just starting to be scientifically studied, and the actions of chemical combinations in the body can be different than the action of one isolated chemical.
  3. Have access to information through healthystuff.org about which products are likely safer to buy.
  4. Tell companies they want safer products and they want to know what materials and additives are used.
  5. Make purchases mindfully, consider the lifecycle of a product and how soon it may end up in a landfill, and look for longer-lasting products.


Q2: Everything is toxic in high enough doses, even water. Why worry about trace amounts of chemicals?

Here’s how we turn the question around. Are you confident that the concentrations of flame retardant chemicals, plasticizers, heavy metals, and other substances measured in the bodies of babies, children, and adults are safe doses?  The old adage in toxicology is "the dose makes the poison.” Some substances, both natural and synthetic, are dangerous in extremely small doses, some only in higher doses. Some build up and are stored in body tissues; others are rapidly eliminated.

It’s reasonable to ask, "How much of chemical X are we being exposed to, and how much does this increase our risk of negative health effects?" The fact that these questions are hard to answer is not a reason to give industry a pass to expose untold numbers of people to chemical X. Whose responsibility should it be to make sure the doses we receive through daily living have no negative effects? Often, no one has this responsibility. In the United States, chemicals used in consumer products are essentially innocent until proven guilty. We feel this is backwards, and the burden of proving a chemical’s safety should be on manufacturers.

Humans are exposed to hundreds of industrial chemicals at doses that cause no apparent immediate effect. Yet many have been found to disrupt one or more of the body’s systems, causing gradual changes that can lead to disease. Minimal exposure to any one of these chemicals might not appreciably increase your risk of cancer or liver damage or cognitive deficits or other problems, but repeated exposure to many different chemicals may lead to a significant risk. Indeed, recent research in environmental health tackles this complex question and finds an unfortunate synergistic effect of low-dose exposures.

Infants and children are particularly vulnerable because 1) their brains and body systems are growing and changing, 2) they breathe and metabolize at faster rates, 3) they play close to the floor where there is more dust, 4) they mouth objects and put their hands in their mouths frequently.

A few chemical hazards are fairly well characterized: For example, lead exposure in childhood has a permanent effect on IQ, reasoning ability, and impulse control. No safe level of lead in a child's blood has been established. The "acceptable" level has been lowered from 10 ug/dL to 5 ug/dL in recent years based on newer research. Yet lead was removed from gasoline and paint in the United States only after millions of children had been poisoned, after many decades had gone by and countless homes and tons of soil were contaminated, ensuring that children continue to be damaged by lead long after those uses were banned.

The history of lead is an example of why chemicals should be demonstrated safe before being released to the market—even when “only” trace amounts enter our bodies.


Q3: If manufacturers have to demonstrate safety, won’t that cost time and money?

Yes. We believe allowing humans to grow up and live uncompromised by chemical exposure is more important.

Consider, too, the far-reaching costs of low-dose hazardous chemical exposure in a population. (For example, additional assistance for children with learning disabilities, government benefits paid to people with chronic health problems, lost productivity, costs of cancer treatment.) A recent analysis looked at these kinds of costs for endocrine-disrupting chemicals.


Q4: As long as my baby doesn’t eat his car seat (or toy, or floor, etc.), there's no problem. Right?

This is a response we get to our studies on a fairly regular basis. We wish the “Just don’t eat it” quip were true. Problem is, flame retardants and phthalates and other chemicals added to products don’t stay put. They are mixed with the polymer that makes up the product but not strongly bound to it. So they migrate out, stick to dust, enter the air and then your body via breathing or eating.

Lead in older vinyl mini-blinds and in old paint, for example, has caused severe lead poisoning in babies too young to have ever put blinds or paint in their mouths. How? It’s in the air the babies breathe. The plastic of the blinds and the chipping paint release tiny particles containing lead into the air. A similar process releases flame retardant chemicals from televisions, computer housings, and upholstered furniture.

There are other routes of exposure in addition to breathing. For example, the vinyl covering on your phone charger cable looks like a stable piece of plastic, but plasticizer molecules get on your fingers every time to touch it. The plasticizer dissolves in fatty liquids, so it enters the oils on your skin. You may ingest a little when eating. Some chemicals can also be absorbed through your skin.

Q5: Why should we think studies using animals are relevant to humans?

Dismissing studies because they use animals instead of people is a common tactic. No one can ethically do a case-controlled study of chemical toxicity using people, which is why animals and cell cultures are often used. Animal and cell models aren’t perfect, but have been validated through decades of research on many topics (that’s how cigarette hazards first came to light, for one).

Even though researchers can’t do a study where they purposely expose people to a chemical, they can and do measure chemicals that have unintentionally ended up in people’s bodies and check for correlations to various health outcomes. This kind of study has turned up many likely consequences of the chemicals healthystuff.org focuses on.

For an example of how of all these study methods--animal, cell, human, and computational--can be integrated, check out this article about how the flame retardant mixture known as Firemaster 550 stimulates fat accumulation and bone loss.

The rapidly evolving field of computational toxicology uses many sources of information to develop computer-based models to predict negative health effects caused by chemical agents.


Q6: Don't flame retardant (FR) chemicals protect us from fires? Isn't that a good thing?

Chemicals used as flame retardants are added to petroleum-based materials that are highly flammable, such as furniture foam, polyester fabrics, and some solid plastics. The added chemicals slightly slow the spread of fire through a material. Although the intent is to prevent injury and death from fires, this benefit has not been demonstrated. Extensive research has not shown a meaningful fire safety benefit from FR chemicals [pdf] in cars, furniture, and other household goods. Many people are therefore questioning whether contaminating life across the entire globe with extremely persistent and hazardous chemicals is worth the questionable benefit of using these chemicals.

Not long ago, companies manufacturing FR chemicals formed a now-defunct group (Citizens for Fire Safety) and hired the same PR firm that tobacco companies used a few decades ago to cover up research results and convince the public that cigarette smoking was safe. This PR firm used the same strategies they had employed to confuse and mislead about cigarettes. They cited fake research about flame retardants and paid at least one doctor to repeatedly give fake testimony to fight proposed regulations. Check out the Chicago Tribune 2012 series “Playing with Fire” for the full history. Here is another recent revelation about the American Chemistry Council's shady tactics. 

Consumer confidence in the effectiveness and safety of FR chemicals can at least partly be traced back to this group’s propaganda.


Q7: What should car seat companies do instead of adding FR chemicals?

Our 2015 car seat report outlines a number of proposed design changes to cars that can both improve our chances in a fire and eliminate added FR chemicals. (See p. 17 in the Technical Report, http://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff/hidden-hazards.)  One major goal of our car seat studies is to push manufacturers and regulators to consider these changes.


Q8: I read there’s no evidence [insert chemical of concern] is actually harming anyone. How do you respond to that?

“No evidence” in this context often means one of two things: 1) There is no evidence because so little research has been done or 2) Research has been done, showing reason for strong concern, but not enough to prove causality because proof is such an exceedingly high standard. The “no evidence” claim is often used in these weaselly ways: It makes people think the chemicals have been well-studied and found to be safe, when the near-opposite may be true.

It is extremely time-consuming and costly to demonstrate a causal link between a specific chemical and a specific health outcome that may occur years down the road. This difficulty is abundantly exploited by those with a vested interest in claiming said chemicals are safe.

In our regulatory system, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. We feel this is backwards, and the burden of proving a chemical’s innocence, so to speak, should be on manufacturers.

Published on October 4, 2016

IMPORTANT NOTE: HealthyStuff.org ratings do not provide a measure of health risk or chemical exposure associated with any individual product, or any individual element or related chemical.