Ruthann Rudel walks up to the shelf in a Cambridge Rite Aid pharmacy and picks up an “Arm and Hammer Essential Naturals” deodorant stick . The bright yellow package has jaunty lettering and a green leaf on the label and announces that it offers “Aluminum Free — Paraben Free Natural Protection.”
But, Rendel – a scientist who studies chemicals in everyday products– said she checked the ingredients before buying it and was surprised to find triclosan.
“It’s way worse than paraben,” she said of the antibacterial additive. Triclosan is a hormone mimic under review by the FDA, which reports that it improves some products but offers little improvement over conventional soaps and body washes.
Rudel is part of a team that has been looking much more systematically into the presence of suspect or untested additives and ingredients in everyday products. In a peer-reviewed paper published today in the journal “Environmental Health Perspective,’’ she and her fellow researchers from the Silent Spring Institute in Newton report that tests of everyday household products found traces of 55 different hormone disruptors, as well as chemicals linked to asthma, many not listed on the label.
And, they didn’t just stick to the shampoos, sunscreens and cat litter in CVS. They also had a shopping trip at Whole Foods and tested what one might expect to be bonefide natural products. Of the 44 “alternative” products they tested, 32 included their target chemicals. All of the “conventional products” had some of the target chemicals.
“It is impossible to control exposure to them,” Rudel said. “Everyone is exposed.”
They looked at 50 different product types, including make-up, sunscreen, wet mops, perfume, vinyl shower curtains, hand sanitizer, diapers and glass cleaner.
At the Whole Foods store next door to the CVS, lotions and shampoos have names like “Nature’s Gate” and products come with a label that promises “the safest, most natural body care product.”
“Even if you pick these alternatives, you are still going to be exposed to a pretty large number of our target chemicals,” Rudel said.
Still, more than fifteen years after the book Our Stolen Future laid out the possible risks of hormone mimicking chemicals, the impact on human health remains unclear. Animal studies link the substances with breast cancer; data from humans is harder to come by.
“Most of these endocrine disruptors are very, very difficult to study in humans,” Rudel said. “There are so many different chemicals, we don’t know how to measure all the exposures, we don’t’ know how to add them up or which ones are acting together.”
It may be years before the full impact of hormone disruptors is well understood. In the meantime, Rudel thinks that some people may not want to take their chances. There are ways to avoid them – by using soap and water instead of chemical cleaners. And in some cases, like triclosan, they don’t offer much of a benefit, so it won’t be much of a loss.
The abstract concludes: “Common products contain complex mixtures of EDCs (endocrine disrupting compounds) and asthma-related compounds. Toxicological studies of these mixtures are needed to understand their biological activity.
For epidemiology, findings raise cautions about potential confounding from co-occurring chemicals and misclassification due to variability in product composition. It appears that consumers can avoid some target chemicals—synthetic fragrances, BPA, and regulated active ingredients—using purchasing criteria. More complete labeling would enable consumers to avoid the rest rest.”
At some point, the impact on human health will be clearer, Rudel said.
“Scientists are working hard to understand what endocrine-disrupting chemical we need to be concerned about.”
Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-AssociatedChemicals in Consumer Products
Robin E. Dodson, Marcia Nishioka, Laurel J. Standley, Laura J. Perovich, Julia Green Brody, Ruthann A. Rudel
Online 8 March 2012