Hidden Hazards: A Family Product Safety Guide

Our homes are filled with products containing potentially harmful chemicals that have long gone unregulated. Finally, progress is being made—but you still need to be vigilant about protecting your family. 

girl in room with caution tape Priscilla Gragg
When I was pregnant, I was pretty convinced that with research and savvy shopping, I could protect my baby from all the Big Bad Scary Chemicals in the world. After all, I had written a lot about how to "go green." How hard could it be?

Then my daughter was born—and, wow, was I naí¯ve. It turned out that the glass bottle I'd chosen didn't have a nipple she liked and, later, she thought the spout on the BPA-free sippy cup was too hard. As a busy mom, I just don't have enough time to worry about all the invisible chemical threats—even though I know that those risks are real.

The crisis with the water system in Flint, Michigan, is a scary reminder that toxins can be right under our roof. "There are more than 84,000 chemicals used in consumer goods today, but no law requires them to be tested for safety," says Parents advisor Philip Landrigan, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. "Studies have shown that many of these chemicals accumulate in our body and may play a role in our children's risk for problems including asthma, cancer, and developmental delays." High on the list: chemicals that are known to be endocrine disruptors, including BPA and phthalates, which can mimic hormones or interfere with the production of them—and are often not listed on product labels.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, points out that many chemical ingredients have benefits: "Chemicals are present in products because they provide characteristics that enable a product to perform better," says Jenny Heumann, director of product safety and stakeholder communications. "For example, the polystyrene used to line children's bicycle helmets provides crucial protection in case of an accident."

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) its authority to regulate chemicals in consumer products—but this law hasn't been updated since 1976, back before many chemicals even existed. Fortunately, reformed legislation to give the EPA more jurisdiction is working its way through Congress. At press time, different bills had passed in the Senate and the House, and now legislators need to agree on a reconciled bill for a final vote. Until we have stricter regulations, the responsibility falls on parents to evaluate options. Since you shouldn't need a Ph.D. in chemistry to pack a lunch or choose a cup for your kid, we'll give you the essential details. 

Parent Priorities

This is what you need to be most concerned about, according to leading children's- and environmental-health experts. 

WHAT GOES IN YOUR KID Feed your children lots of fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods because processed foods tend to contain more synthetic additives, some of which have been associated with negative effects, including an increased risk of cancer. Going organic as often as you can is your best defense, as produce farmed that way is much less likely to carry residue of pesticides. The potentially endocrinedisrupting chemicals in plastic cups, plates, and food-storage containers can also be ingested if they leach into your child's food. Try to trade plastic for glass, ceramic, or wood, and keep plastic out of the microwave and dishwasher.

WHAT GOES ON YOUR KID Any chemical that sits directly on your child's skin can be absorbed or ingested. Use the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database at ewg.org/skindeep to choose safer shampoos, lotions, and other personal-care products, and check "Best Buys" on page 120. Unfortunately, brands that have the best rating from Skin Deep often tend to be more expensive, in part because they are made by smaller companies and because safer ingredients generally cost more. If you need to prioritize, you might splurge on staples (such as lotion or sunscreen) rather than on specialty items. It's best to choose sunscreens that are made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which sit on top of the skin and create a physical barrier, over those made with ingredients that absorb into your child's skin, such as oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.

WHAT YOUR KID SITS (AND SLEEPS) ON If you're replacing your sofa or your child's mattress, shop around for a flame-retardantfree option, but don't feel pressured to replace all your foam furnishings and pillows. A more affordable strategy is to regularly mop and vacuum (with a HEPA filter if possible) to stay on top of dust, which is where chemicals accumulate, and for everyone to wash their hands before eating. If you have the option, choose hardwood floors over carpeting in the rooms where kids sleep and play. 

caution tape jacket Priscilla Gragg

Hard-Won Victories

While we've been waiting for Washington to get its act together, advances have been made at the state level.

Fewer Flame-Retardants In 2014, California updated its flammability standards after years of legislative efforts. (Regulations there affect all of us: Companies don't want to make separate sets of products to sell in different states.) To meet the requirements of the previous law, the foam cushioning in crib mattresses, changing pads, and nursing pillows, as well as chairs and sofas, were treated with flame-retardant chemicals.

However, decades of data have shown that the chemicals pose health risks to humans— including decreased fertility and an increased chance of cancer and obesity—and they provide questionable fire-safety benefits. The new California law doesn't ban flame-retardants, but manufacturers are able to meet the flammability standard without using them. However, the new law makes children's products exempt from flammability standards, so many products are likely to be flame-retardant-free. Labeling for flame-retardants is not required, so to make sure a product is flame-retardant-free, check with the manufacturer. Car seats must comply with a motor-vehicle standard and continue to contain flameretardants. Furniture companies including Crate & Barrel, IKEA, La-Z-Boy, Pottery Barn, and The Futon Shop now stock flameretardant-free options.

Clearer Ingredient Labels In 2013, retailers Target and Walmart began disclosing the ingredients of many personalcare products on their websites to encourage manufacturers to remove questionable chemicals. Although the products must list ingredients on the label (often in tiny type), there is one gray area: fragrance. "The scent can contain dozens of chemicals that are considered a trade secret," says Richard Denison, Ph.D., a lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Household cleaning products aren't required to tell you much about what's in them. SC Johnson (which owns brands like Glade and Off!) now lists ingredients for air-care products on its website and will add other product categories. Clorox lists on its site any ingredients identified as allergens by the European Union. In general, try to avoid any product with "fragrance" as an ingredient. 

Chemical FAQs

Q. I want to paint my baby's room, but I'm worried about the fumes while I'm pregnant. Which paint is safest?

A. Women who are pregnant (and children) should leave painting to others. Then choose a low- or noVOC paint to avoid volatile organic compounds—chemicals that keep paint in a liquid state during application. They evaporate as the paint dries—and off-gas right into the air you breathe, probably for weeks or even months. VOCs have short- and long-term effects, including eye irritation; respiratory problems; loss of coordination; headaches; nausea; damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Even no-VOC paints aren't completely toxin-free (many contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen), so be sure to open the windows. Choosing the right paint is only half the battle. "Every year we see a few cases of fetal lead poisoning because new parents have scraped down the nursery walls and exposed old lead paint," warns Dr. Landrigan. "The results are devastating." If your home was built before 1978, consider hiring a professional who is certified in lead-paint removal. 

Q. Does "BPA-Free" mean my son's sippy cup is safe? A. Not necessarily. The chemical BPA (Bisphenol-A) is used to make the plastic in many cups and plates, as well as in food-storage containers. 

A. It became a symbol for the saferchemicals movement after studies linked it to asthma, fertility problems, and cardiovascular issues. Many manufacturers have ditched BPA, but experts aren't sure the chemicals used instead are much safer because studies haven't been done on them yet. "Most brands use Bisphenol-S, which may also be an endocrine disruptor and pose many of the same risks," says Dr. Landrigan. For food purposes, it's better to limit your use of plastic and melamine altogether.

Q. My daughter's body lotion says it's "organic." What does that mean?

A. If you also see the USDA's organic seal, at least 70 percent of the lotion's ingredients should be certified organic (and likely plant-based), which means no pesticides were used to grow them. However, you still don't know what's in that other 30 percent. Odds are good that a brand using some organic ingredients is making an effort to formulate a clean product, but it's still worth checking it out in the Skin Deep Database. 

Steer Clear

The Environmental Working Group recommends buying products with a shorter list of ingredients and avoiding these listed here:

  • Benzisothiazolinone
  • Boric acid
  • 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol
  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
  • Butylparaben
  • Cocamide DEA
  • DEA
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Hydroquinone
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Isobutylparaben
  • Isopropylparaben
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • Methylisothiazolinone
  • PEG
  • Propylene glycol
  • Propylparaben
  • Quaternium-15
  • Sodium borate
  • Sodium laureth sulfate (SLS)
  • Toluene
  • Triclocarban
  • Triclosan
  • Triethanolamine (TEA)