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The 8 Known Carcinogens That Lurk in Most Of Our Homes

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Limited daily exposure to toxins is tough in a pretty toxic world, but it’s a reasonable expectation that we all want to kick known carcinogens out of our homes. To that end, we asked Cara Bondi, a green scientists at Seventh Generation, to explain what’s on the top of her list. “It’s important to give context around how things are determined to be carcinogens and how they’re classified,” she explains. “The two classifications that we pay attention to are compounds that are known to be carcinogens—definitively proven, there’s no question about it—and then probably carcinogens. These are ingredients or chemicals that are reasonably anticipated to be carcinogens, they just need a little bit more data to push them over the edge. So for context, we lump those together.” Below Bondi explains what carcinogens can commonly be found in most homes. (For more on kicking toxins out of your home, see The Dirty on Getting Clean.)

1. Formaldehyde

“Formaldehyde is added to a lot of things, but the tricky thing is that when you look at an ingredient list, you’re not going to see formaldehyde. This is because there are a class of preservatives that are known to be formaldehyde-releasers. They way these preservatives work is that you put them into the formula, they go through a series of chemical reactions, and then they release formaldehyde into the formula. It’s the formaldehyde that does the preserving and that’s what kills the bugs—it’s a known human carcinogen that’s in the formula without most people’s knowledge. They are very common: They’re in body care, face care, makeup—especially mascara and liquid foundation—hand washes, body soap, room spray. It goes on and on. It doesn’t feel good to know that those are approved for us.”

LOOK FOR: DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, hydroxymethylglycinate, Bronopol, which is a trade name, which sometimes shows up as 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol. And then there’s a related compound, 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane.

2. Glyphosate

“This is a new addition to the list of known human carcinogens—it was added in March 2015, and there has been a ton of pushback from the makers of this chemical and from big agriculture. It is very contentious. But the International Agency on Research for Cancer deemed this a known carcinogen and that is a very big deal. Glyphosate is an herbicide and it can be found in most garages, but beyond that, because it’s one of the most commonly used herbicides in agriculture it’s probably on or in any food in your house that isn’t organic. It’s just kind of everywhere. Beyond that, when you think about tampons, if you’re using tampons that have cotton that isn’t organic, well, you have the potential to introduce glyphosate to a very sensitive area of your body. There are lots of places this herbicide can show up. I’m not sure what the residues look like in textiles, but there’s also the potential for textiles to be contaminated with it, depending on what it is.”

3. Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), and Triethanolamine (TEA)

“The ethanolamines are sort of like formaldehyde-releasers—in of themselves, they are not carcinogens. They have some environmental issues, but in of themselves, they’re not harmful. But what happens is that ethanolamines can interact with other ingredients in the formula—and if those ingredients have nitrates, they can then form nitrosamines, which are known human carcinogens. It’s another tricky one. They’re very common in personal care products because they’re used as emulsifiers, i.e. to make the oil and water ingredients come together and stay together. They’re also used to adjust the pH balance.”

4. 1-4 Dioxane

“This is a possible/reasonably-anticipated-to-be-a-carcinogen—not quite up in the known. Ethoxylated surfactants, through their processing, can be contaminated with 1-4 dioxane, which then becomes a part of the formula. Surfactants are literally in anything that makes a bubble, whether it’s laundry soap, dish soap, personal care products, or what you wash your car with. Again, it’s one of those things that you won’t see on the label: You have to know and care about it to be sure it’s not in your products.”

5. Styrene

“When you hear styrene, you might think Styrofoam containers, but styrene is actually a very commonly used ingredient in fragrances. And it’s a known human carcinogen. Here’s the thing about fragrances: Most manufactures do not list the content of their fragrances. There isn’t transparency in fragrances because they’re proprietary to the fragrance house, and they often contain up to 200 ingredients. But we know that styrene is in many fragrances because IFRA (International Fragrance Association) releases a list of every ingredient their membership is using, from the biggest houses to the eensiest manufacturers, and styrene is on the list. It is important to buy products that don’t have “fragrance” or “parfum” listed on their label—buy products that disclose every ingredient in their fragrance.”

6. Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB)

“There has been a lot of regulation around PCB’s because people are aware of them: They were used in children’s pajamas as a flame-retardant, which is not commonly done anymore. But there’s still some of it. A few research studies came out recently showing that PCBs are still showing up in consumer products, primarily in things with a yellow pigment, like yellow clothing, and yellow paper. They found a fair amount of PCBs, and believe it’s related to the pigments. If it’s in textiles, in particular, you’re wearing it, you’re sleeping in it, you’re wrapping your baby in it. I’m not saying to not buy anything yellow, just be mindful of the fact that PCBs could be in there.”

7. Lead

“There have been a lot of stories in recent years about how lead is in lipstick, and, as we know, lead is in old paint. Lead is very commonly found in colorants, as it’s a naturally-occurring element. So when you’re looking at products that are painted, or coated with a colorant, look for a no-heavy-metals type of communication. While there’s some research to suggest that it’s a probable human carcinogen, the real problem with lead is that it’s a neurotoxin that can lead to learning disabilities and developmental disorders.”

8. Benzene

This is another ingredient that is not intentionally added, but it pops up in solvents, rubber cement, adhesives, and degreasers, i.e., things you might have under your kitchen sink or in your garage. It’s a known human carcinogen. It won’t show up on the label, but many companies are aware of the issue and are making No-Benzene claims on their packaging—you can also call them to ask.

On the Watchlist:

BPA: “This is a tough one because it’s not on any list as a carcinogen, though there’s emerging research that certainly suggests that it is. We avoid BPA because of its hormone-disrupting nature. As far as being carcinogenic, though, it’s not one I’d put on the list just yet.”

PVC: “The same is true of PVCs—commonly found in products like toys and shower curtains—they’re on-deck to be added to the known carcinogen list.”

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