In this video adapted from Contaminated Without Consent, participants in a national study talk about the toxic chemicals—including phthalates, BPA, and brominated flame retardants—found in dust samples from their homes. Scientist John Warner discusses the possibility of safer alternatives using green chemistry: the science of how to make materials in an environmentally responsible way.
Household chemicals are a contemporary fact of life. There are chemicals in stain-proof rugs, flame-resistant curtains, foam pillows, and plastic toys. Most people assume that the chemicals in their everyday products are safe. But are they? Scientists have begun to question how pervasive these chemicals are in our homes and bodies, and whether they are doing any harm.
Clean Production Action, an environmental advocacy group, decided to investigate this question by looking for hazardous chemicals in common household dust. They took dust samples from vacuum bags in 70 homes, and analyzed the samples for six classes of well-known hazardous chemicals. Their findings were disconcerting. The researchers found chemicals from all six classes in the household dust. Among the chemicals found were phthalates, which are used primarily as plasticizers in vinyl, but also in nail polish, shampoo, and various other products; polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are used as flame retardants; and pesticides. All these chemicals are known to be hazardous. Phthalates can be toxic to the reproductive system and are linked to increased childhood asthma. Flame retardants can disrupt the nervous system. Many pesticides are linked to disruption of the endocrine and reproductive systems and are suspected carcinogens.
While the dust study confirms that these chemicals exist in homes, it does not conclude that the chemicals, in the amounts detected, are causing harm. No one can say for sure what effects such chemicals have on humans. However, there is concern that these chemicals may be contributing to an increase in cancers, asthma, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and to observed changes in fertility, such as earlier onset of puberty for girls. While some advocacy groups are pushing the federal government for stricter regulations, others are promoting a technological fix: green chemistry.
Green chemistry reduces hazardous substances used in chemical processes and products. Also known as sustainable chemistry, green chemistry results in products that are less harmful to both humans and the environment. From the design of a product, through its manufacture, use, and disposal, the concept of green chemistry can be used to create safer, more environmentally friendly products. Furthermore, green chemistry can make business sense by reducing costs. For example, removing hazardous materials from production eliminates costs related to the disposal of hazardous waste. Although some companies have begun using safer chemicals in their products, there is still a shortage of green alternatives for consumers who hope to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals.
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