Ask Eartha: New products on the market and the chemicals they contain |

Ask Eartha: New products on the market and the chemicals they contain

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Dear Eartha,

I find myself skeptical of a lot of new products and the chemicals they contain. Am I being paranoid or is there a reason to be concerned?


Summit Cove

Carl, you have every reason to be skeptical of new products and the chemicals they contain. When a new product comes on the market touting how it will make our lives more convenient or even safer, we are often all too willing to try it without considering its unintended consequences on our health and the health of the environment. Additionally, we don’t think about the harmful impacts involved in the manufacturing of a product.

Unfortunately, we cannot entirely leave it up to the government to regulate the safety of materials in the products we buy. If we want to protect the health and safety of the environment, our families, and ourselves we have to be engaged and knowledgeable consumers. To prove my point, I would like to give you a brief history of five materials that were allowed on the market, once quite popular among consumers but have gone terribly out of favor environmentally.

DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane)

If you grew up in the 1950s, you may have run behind the DDT trucks enjoying the fog. Little did you know at the time, this pesticide is classified as a probable human carcinogen, accumulates in fatty tissues, and persists in the environment (persistent organic pollutant). DDT was the first modern synthetic insecticide. Even though it was effective in combating insect-borne human diseases such as malaria, many insects have developed a resistance to it. Fortunately, Rachel Carson wrote her famous book “Silent Spring,” bringing awareness to the harmful effects of DDT.

CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, remember the scare about the depleting ozone layer in the stratosphere? Because the ozone layer absorbs most of the sun’s UV radiation, skin cancer became a predominant concern. Chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants, propellants and solvents were to blame for the ever-increasing hole in the ozone layer. Chlorofluorocarbons are synthetic organic compounds that contain carbon, chlorine and fluorine. Freon is the popular chlorofluorocarbon brand name registered by DuPont. Luckily, on Jan. 1, 1989, an international treaty called the Montreal Protocol was entered into force. The treaty was designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the manufacture of ozone depleting substances.

PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyl

Also a persistent organic pollutant, this is another synthetic organic compound made of chlorine and biphenyl. They were used in making carbon paper, coolants, electrical insulating materials, and cutting fluids in machining operations. According to the EPA, they cause cancer in animals and very likely to cause cancer in humans. They were banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s.

Fire retardants in children’s pajamas

Thought to make children safer from fire, chlorinated tris or TDCPP was added to children’s pajamas in the 1960s. It is an organophosphate found in polyurethane foam and upholstery. Because it was a suspected carcinogen and mutagen, it was banned in pajamas in the 1970s. Arlene Blume, a biophysical chemist and director of the Green Science Policy Institute, was a major contributor to the elimination of flame-retardants in children’s pajamas and continues to fight for the elimination of harmful and unnecessary flame-retardants in furniture, upholstery and baby products.

BPA or Bisphenol A

This is a more recent chemical that has fallen out of favor environmentally. How could we have known that our nalgene bottles, so useful for backpacking and camping trips, would contain yet another cancer-causing substance? Bisphenol A, a carbon-based synthetic compound, has been in commercial use since 1957. Employed to make certain plastics and epoxy resins lining food and beverage containers, BPA is a known endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and is thought to have adverse effects on fetal and infant brain development.

Humans have the greatest exposure through food packaging because BPA can leach into our food and drinks from the containers. The FDA officially banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula containers. To avoid BPA, look for “BPA free” and avoid #7 plastic in water bottles and other plastic beverage bottles.

A disadvantage of living in a modern industrial society is the constant exposure to chemicals. Not all chemicals are harmful, but we have a responsibility to be informed about the potentially unfavorable consequences from the prolific use of a substance that has not been tested.

Of course, we cannot all be biophysical chemists like Arlen Blume, but we can educate ourselves about the use of chemicals. A great website to check out is It contains webinars and readings about six classes of harmful chemicals found in everyday products.

So by all means, remain skeptical of new products that come on the market and their materials. Another good resource is the Consumer Product Safety Commission that contains recalls, reports and alerts. As consumers we need to make more informed and better choices about the products we buy and demand more regulations and chemical policy reform.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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