Every day we eat, drink, breathe, and touch chemicals around us. Some of these chemicals can affect our health. Planned Parenthood Green Choices supports the creation of a sustainable world by helping you make choices for better health and a greener environment — for you, your family, and your community.
Click on each of the questions below to find out how your daily environment can affect your health and what you can do to reduce your risks.
What are Toxic Chemicals?
Not all chemicals are harmful, but studies show that toxic chemicals can affect our hormones and can cause cancer and Parkinson’s disease. They can also cause learning disabilities, reproductive problems, birth defects, and other health problems.
While some toxins occur naturally in the environment, most of the toxic chemicals we live with every day are manmade. Harmful pesticides can be found in fruits and vegetables. Artificial hormones can be found in meat and dairy products. Chemicals that can disrupt our endocrine system can be found in soap, shampoo, makeup, and other personal care products.
Because toxic chemicals are found in our daily environment, these chemicals affect people of all ages in all places. Pregnant women, children, and infants are especially at risk.
What are Pesticides?
Pesticides are used to kill pests such as insects, rodents, and weeds. They contain thousands of different chemicals and are used in many forms, including sprays, baits, crystals, gasses, liquids, pellets, and powders. Many pesticides are toxic to people. While the government monitors how pesticides are used, we all still come into contact with them in the foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and even the dust on our skin.
Excessive exposure to pesticides can disrupt hormones, increase a child’s risk of having birth defects and learning disabilities, and cause cancer and other health problems. In addition to the level of exposure, a pesticide’s harmfulness depends on its chemical makeup and your own susceptibility. Age and family history both affect how much exposure a person can tolerate. Fetuses and very young children are at the highest risk.
There are steps you can take to minimize your contact with pesticides:
- Buy organic food when you can. Some farmers grow food without using pesticides or other dangerous chemicals. This is called organic farming.
- Don't spray pesticides indoors, in the garden, or on pets.
- If you work with pesticides, change out of your work clothes before you enter your home.
- Control pests with baits and traps instead of pesticide sprays.
Here are some resources you can use to get more information about pesticide exposure:
- U.S. Department of Labor Occupatonal Safety and Health Administration
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – Office of Pesticides
- Beyond Pesticides
- National Pesticide Information Center
In an emergency, call the National Poison Control Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
Should I Eat Only Organic Fruits and Vegetables?
Eating fruits and vegetables is good for your health. However, most fruits and vegetables today have pesticides on them. Farms use pesticides to kill pests, such as bugs, rodents, and weeds. Pesticides are made with thousands of chemicals, and they can be harmful to your health.
In addition to disrupting hormones, pesticides can increase a child’s risk of having birth defects and learning disabilities. The amount of harm that pesticides may do depends on how harmful the pesticide is, how you come in contact with it, how long you are in contact with it, your family history, and your age — fetuses and very young children are at the highest risk.
The government keeps watch over how pesticides are used, but we all still come in contact with many in fruits and vegetables. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure to pesticides:
- Buy organic produce when you can. Some farmers grow food without using pesticides or dangerous chemicals. This is called organic farming. Organic fruits and vegetables that meet government standards will have the label shown here.
- Visit your local farmers’ market. Farmers’ markets may charge less than grocery stores for organic produce. Since organic produce can be expensive, consider buying selectively to avoid the conventionally grown produce that carries the most pesticide residue. The Environmental Working Group’s shopper’s guide can tell you what foods have the most pesticides. You can download it for free at Food News.
- Think about growing your own organic herbs and vegetables. You could start with a small patch or a window box.
- Wash, scrub, and peel produce before cooking or eating it.
Here are some good sources of information about pesticides and organic fruits and vegetables:
How Does Tobacco Smoke Affect the Environment and My Health?
Firsthand smoke is the smoke inhaled by a smoker. Secondhand smoke is the smoke we inhale when others smoke. It’s also called environmental tobacco smoke. When we breathe in either kind of tobacco smoke, we breathe in thousands of harmful chemicals. Smoke can cause heart disease, cancer, and breathing problems.
If a pregnant woman breathes in smoke, the baby she has could have breathing and lung problems, be very small at birth, get harmful chemicals from her breast milk, and even die from sudden infant death syndrome.
You can prevent many health problems if you avoid smoke. If you smoke tobacco, quit or reduce how much you’re smoking. Support others who are trying to quit smoking. Ask other people not to smoke in your home, and choose smoke-free restaurants, schools, daycare, and businesses. For more information, visit Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.
It’s not easy to quit smoking! Most people need help. You can ask your health care provider, friends, or family for help. When you’re trying to quit, it’s a good idea to:
- Hang out with non-smokers.
- Keep a list of reasons you want to quit.
- Breathe deeply and try to stay relaxed.
- Save the money you would have spent on cigarettes to buy something you really want.
For more ideas to help you quit, go to Smoke Free.
What Do Plastics Have to Do With My Health?
Not all plastics are the same, and some are made with chemicals that are harmful to your health. Different kinds of plastic are labeled with different numbers. The numbers are usually in a triangle on the bottom of the product. You can use the numbers as a guide for the effect the chemicals in the plastic may have on your health.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is in some of the worst plastics for your health. It’s often used to make hard plastic containers, such as water bottles, baby bottles, water cooler bottles, and sippy cups. BPA can disrupt your hormones, and it can seep out of plastic containers and into your body very easily. BPA is found in most plastics labeled 7. Many companies now make products without BPA — look for “BPA-Free” on the label.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is very harmful to your health. PVC is used to make all kinds of plastics, including vinyl products. The chemicals in vinyl may disrupt your hormones, and they may cause birth defects, sperm damage, and asthma. PVC plastics are labeled 3. Learn more at PVC: The Poison Plastic.
There are steps you can take to use plastic less often, and to reduce your exposure to hazardous plastics:
- Keep what you drink and eat in glass, ceramic, or metal containers, or use plastics labeled with numbers 1, 2, 4, or 5.
- Try not to microwave your food or drinks in plastic containers or with plastic wrap.
- Try not to buy food or other items in containers made of styrofoam.
Click here for Planned Parenthood's Green Choices information sheet on plastics.
Here are some good sources of information about plastics:
Are Personal Care Products Bad for My Health?
Think about the personal care products you use — deodorant, hairspray, lotion, lubricants, makeup, nail polish, sunscreen, shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. Many contain chemicals that may harm your health. These chemicals get into your body in different ways. You might breathe them into your lungs, swallow them, or absorb them through your skin. No government agency determines the safety of all the ingredients in these products.
Individual products may not contain enough harmful chemicals to affect your health. But using multiple products as part of your daily routine can cause many toxic chemicals to build up in your body over time. They may increase your risk of cancer, disrupt your hormones, make it harder for you to get pregnant, or cause other health problems.
You can protect your health by using fewer products, using them less often, and using safer products. Avoid products that contain
- Fragrance (phthalates) — used in all perfume and some deodorants, hair sprays, moisturizers, nail polishes, and shampoos
- Mercury (thimerosal) — used in eye drops, mascara, and eye ointments
- Placenta — used in hair relaxers, lotions, and toners
Many personal care products contain other harmful ingredients beyond what is listed above. Since many of them are unregulated, it can be difficult to tell whether a product is safe or not. Consulting the Cosmetics Database is a great way to find out whether or not a personal care product is safe.
To learn more about the safe use of personal care products, visit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Is it Okay to Eat Fish?
Fish is high in protein, and eating fish regularly is good for your health. However, fish can have a lot of harmful chemicals in them, chemicals that are most likely to harm developing fetuses, young children, and people who are sick.
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are two chemicals often found in fish. They can harm the health of a pregnant woman, the health of a developing fetus, and the mental development of babies and young children.
Excessive exposure to PCBs may also raise your risk of cancer. And the pesticides found in some fish may raise your risk of cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
You can’t tell if a fish has a lot of harmful chemicals in it just by looking at it or tasting it. However, there are some steps you can take to eat fish more safely:
- Don't eat king mackerel, shark, swordfish, or tilefish.
- Eat smaller fish, such as anchovies, herring, sardines, and smelts.
- Eat smaller portions, especially of fish that may have a lot of chemicals, such as bluefish, dark tuna, and orange roughy. The recommended serving of fish is about the size and thickness of the palm of your hand. Give children smaller servings.
- Broil, bake, or grill your fish.
- Trim the fat from fish to remove some PCBs and pesticides.
- Be careful with tuna. Enjoy canned tuna sometimes, but not every day. Tuna steaks often have more mercury than canned tuna, so don’t eat them as often.
Here are some other resources you can use to learn more about safe ways to enjoy fish:
How Can I Protect Myself From Lead Poisoning?
Lead is a very harmful poison that can be dangerous even in tiny quantities. Just a small amount of lead poisoning can cause brain damage, and increase your chances of having a heart attack, stroke, or miscarriage. Young children are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning. Even very small amounts of lead can make it hard for them to learn and pay attention, and larger amounts can lead to serious organ damage or even death.
Lead can be in the paint in and outside of your home, especially if it was built before 1978. Lead can also be in certain types of home plumbing fixtures, like lead pipes. Some products also may have lead in them, including hair dye, lipstick, and metal jewelry.
It’s possible to protect yourself and your family from lead poisoning. Here are some steps you can take:
- Wash toys and all surfaces in your home each week.
- Wash children's hands often and always before they eat.
- Feed your children low-fat meals high in iron, calcium, and vitamin C.
- Contact your local lead poisoning prevention program before painting or remodeling a home.
- Don’t put food in dishes that are handmade, older, or imported — unless you’re sure they don’t contain lead.
Here are some resources you can use to get more information about lead poisoning:
- Find your local lead poisoning prevention program: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- To avoid toys that may have lead, go to Healthy Stuff
- To avoid personal care products that may contain lead, go to Cosmetics Database
- For questions about lead you can call The National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-5323
Are Cleaning Products Bad for My Health?
Some cleaning products contain chemicals that could increase your risk of cancer and other health problems. Products that are most likely to be harmful include drain cleaner, oven cleaner, and toilet bowl cleaner.
Some cleaning products can disrupt your hormones, which can change the start of puberty in young teens. If you’re a woman, disrupted hormones may make it harder to get pregnant, change your menstrual cycle, and increase your risk of miscarriage and breast cancer. If you’re a man, disrupted hormones may lower your sperm count and increase your risk of testicular cancer.
Making your own cleaning products is one way to avoid using products that can harm you. You can use the following recipes:
- Oven Cleaner: Mix 5 tablespoons baking soda + 3 drops dish soap + 4 tablespoons vinegar. Apply paste to walls of oven. Scrub, wipe clean, and rinse.
- Drain Cleaner: Pour ½ cup baking soda down the drain. Then pour ½ cup white vinegar down the drain. After the foam settles, rinse drain with boiling water.
- Toilet Bowl Cleaner: Sprinkle bowl with baking soda. Spray with white vinegar. Scrub with toilet brush.
- Shower Mold and Mildew Remover: Mix ½ cup 3 percent hydrogen peroxide + 1 cup water. Spray on area.
- All-Purpose Cleaner: Fill a spray bottle with 1 part vinegar and 1 part warm water. Shake, spray, and wipe with cloth. You can also add a few drops of essential oil to reduce the smell of vinegar.
Keep cleaning products away from children and pets, and call the National Poison Center (1-800-222-1222) if anyone has an accident with one.
Here are some resources you can use to get more information about cleaning products: