10 Harmful Chemicals to Avoid

Here's a look at some of the most dangerous chemicals lurking in your home -- and how you can reduce your child's exposure to them.
Chemical Safety

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Many chemicals today are known or suspected to be links to cancer, early puberty, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obesity, autism, and other serious health issues. "As we look at protecting children's health, we need to look not just at nutrition, diet, and physical activity, but also exposure to chemicals," says Jason Rano, director of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. The Safe Chemicals Act, which passed out of committee for the first time this year, would require chemical companies to prove that their products are safe. "In the U.S., we are a toxic dumping ground for unsafe products," says Katy Farber, founder of Non-Toxic Kids (Non-ToxicKids.net). "Many parents are exhausted by trying to keep up with what to avoid and what to do. The Safe Chemicals Act would shift the burden to where it belongs." Your family doesn't have to live like ascetics to minimize your children's exposure to chemical dangers; there are simple ways to reduce contact.


Arsenic is a known carcinogen that has been linked particularly to skin, bladder, kidney, and lung cancers. Certain foods contain organic and inorganic arsenic, and the latter usually raises the risk of cancer and other health problems. Both types of arsenic are found in apple and grape juice and in rice and rice products, which are contaminated by both naturally occurring arsenic and arsenic-containing pesticides that leach into the groundwater where it is grown. Arsenic is found in pressure-treated wood made or manufactured before 2003, when the industry agreed to stop using arsenic-treated wood for residential purposes.

How to Avoid

  • The Food Drug Administration (FDA) has tested apple and grape juices and determined that they can be consumed in small amounts, but guidelines for an arsenic threshold have yet to be established. Instead of juice, parents can offer water, milk, and whole fruits.
  • Consumer Reports advises parents to limit the amount of infant rice cereal to no more than one serving a day, on average, and to offer cereals that contain significantly lower arsenic levels (wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits). If you eat rice, you may be able to reduce exposure to inorganic arsenic by rinsing it thoroughly before cooking, using a ratio of six cups water to one cup rice for cooking, and draining excess water. If you remove rice from your diet, the FDA advises families to consume a variety of whole grains as part of a well-balanced diet.
  • Daily rice drinks for children under age 5 are not recommended. If possible, avoid rice-based foods, such as rice milk and rice flour rice syrup.
  • Avoid older pressure-treated wood, which might be found in sandboxes, playgrounds, swing sets, and decks. Pressure-treated wood can usually be identified by the numerous short slits cut into the surface.

"Because harmful chemicals such as arsenic enter children's bodies at such a higher rate relative to their body size, it is especially important to reduce their exposures," says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group.


Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen (it has been linked to nasal squamous cell cancer) and a skin irritant that can cause allergy-like reactions including watery, burning eyes and throats, stuffy noses, and skin rashes. Allergic skin rashes can occur as a result of contact with products that contain formaldehyde, which can also cause respiratory symptoms, headache, fatigue, and nausea. It is commonly used as an embalming fluid, but is also used to preserve a number of household products that contain a higher concentration of urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. It can be found in pressed wood medium density fiberboard (MDF) furniture (used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops), permanent press clothing and draperies, as a component of glues and adhesives, and in cleaning and beauty products, including some brands of baby wipes.

How to Avoid

  • Avoid any furniture made of pressboard or MDF. If you do buy formaldehyde-treated furniture, get it well before you intend to use it and air it outside or in a well-ventilated garage or basement. Or use "exterior-grade" pressed wood products that contain a lower concentration of phenol-formaldehyde resins.
  • Avoid household and personal care products that have these ingredients or materials: quaternium 15, bronopol (also written as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol), diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.


Exposure to mercury impairs neurological development, and recent research has linked high levels of mercury to ADHD. Because neural development happens rapidly in pregnancy and early childhood, it is important to eliminate exposure where possible. Mercury enters the environment through air pollution and industrial waste. When mercury enters water, fish absorb it through their gills. For people, the primary exposure to mercury is from consuming shellfish and large, older, and predatory fish, which accumulate higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh. Older thermometers also contain mercury.

How to Avoid

  • Eliminate large fish such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish from your family's diet. The American Pregnancy Association has a complete guide (americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/fishmercury.htm). Children, pregnant women, and women trying to conceive can have different amounts of tuna, depending on their weight. It's safe to eat other kind of fish, which are still a healthy source of protein and essential nutrients. "The omega-3-fatty acids in some fish can offset some of the mercury issues," Lunder says.
  • Check advisories before consuming shellfish and seafood if you are unsure about their mercury content.
  • If you have mercury-filled glass thermometers, replace them with newer models that do not contain mercury.

Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates

Both BPA and phthalates are endocrine disrupters, products that mimic natural hormones and can affect reproductive development and health. BPA is linked to early puberty in girls and phthalates are linked to low testosterone and to male reproductive problems. BPA and phthalates are additives in plastics; BPA creates a rigid plastic and phthalates make plastic more flexible. Even though major manufacturers are no longer making baby bottles and children's drinking cups with BPA, it can still be found in the lining of food and beverage cans, in bottled formula, and even on shopping receipts. And even though three types of phthalates have been banned in toys for young children, they are still used to soften vinyl plastics (raincoats, backpacks, shower curtains, blow-up toys) and preserve scents (soaps, lotions, and perfumes).

How to Avoid

  • Do not microwave food in plastic containers because they can release BPA and other harmful or unstudied additives into food.
  • Avoid buying canned food or food storage containers unless they are marked "BPA-free."
  • Look for children's raincoats and backpacks that are marked "PVC-free."
  • Avoid personal care products for children with "fragrance" listed in the ingredients, which may indicate presence of phthalates.

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