Toxic compounds we should avoid

Toxic compounds we should avoid

It has been nearly three years since the release of the movie, “Dark Waters.” The film was based on the true story of lawyer Rob Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), who for nearly 15 years pursued legal actions against chemical giant DuPont. DuPont was responsible for polluting the drinking water of citizens in the Parkersburg, West Virginia area.

DuPont produced compounds called polyfluoroalkyl substances. These compounds are known for their resistance to high heat and are used in products like nonstick pans, stain-repellent carpeting and fire-fighting foam. There are nearly 4,500 compounds in this class of chemicals that contain carbon chains with fluorine atoms hooked to them. The most famous is C-8 used in Teflon pans.

Often called “forever compounds,” these chemicals last indefinitely and bioaccumulate. Invented in the 1930s, they became popular in consumer products as they repel both water and grease.

One of their most prevalent uses is for fire-fighting foams. Drinking water sources all over the U.S. are contaminated with the compound, especially areas around military bases, airports and fire-training facilities.

The Environmental Working Group estimates over 1,500 water-drinking systems are contaminated, affecting 110 million Americans. As of August 2021, 2,854 locations across all 50 states and two territories are known to be contaminated. I googled their map, found at, and saw contaminated sites outside Canton between Massillon and Navarre, one north of Dundee and one in Cambridge.

GenX, a substitute for C-8, was developed to be a safer form of PFAS. However, the compound, which is now contaminating the Cape Fear River, is more toxic than previously thought.

Cape Fear residents’ drinking water contains eight parts per trillion of GenX. Studies show PFAS have negative effects on fertility and cholesterol, are linked to thyroid diseases, and damage the liver and kidneys. They also are linked to suppression of the immune system and may make vaccines less effective in young children.

Some other sources of PFAS contamination are landfill leachate and fracking fluids. In Vermont, the liquid wastes from landfills, leachate, have tested positive for PFAS. Leachate forms when rain, snow or runoff seep into the decomposing garbage. This liquid is drawn off and taken to wastewater treatment plants, but most treatment plants cannot remove the PFAS from the liquid.

A report from Physicians for Social Responsibility said fracking fluids from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming contained PFAS from 2012-20. They said, “The use of PFAS and of chemicals that break down into PFAS in drilling and fracking should prompt governments to prohibit drilling, fracking and disposal of related wastewater and solid wastes in areas that are relatively unimpacted by oil and gas pollution and to increase protections in already impacted regions.”

Just as PFAS have been tagged as the “forever chemicals,” phthalates are known as the “everywhere chemicals.” These plasticizers have been around since the 1920s and are used in plastics to impart flexibility and durability. They are found in thousands of products including food packaging, toys, medical devices, construction materials, textiles, cosmetics, fragrances and soaps.

As pointed out by Dr. Shanna Swan in her book, "Count Down," these compounds can cause endocrine disruption, fertility issues, attention deficit disorder and obesity. The EPA has started to regulate these compounds under the Toxic Substance Control Act, and some are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and also the Clean Air Act.

California and Washington have now prohibited the use of phthalates in consumer products as of 2020. I researched as to whether or not Ohio had any regulations in place on phthalates and found that currently Ohio has no state regulations. Ohio’s only regulation, specifically on DEHP, was removed in 2006. This compound is listed as a hazardous air pollutant by the EPA and also is an endocrine disruptor.

A USA Today post on Oct. 27 reported on a study that found phthalates in fast foods. The study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology secured 64 food samples from McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Taco Bell and Chipotle. They found over 80% of foods contained DnBP and 70% had DEHP; both are endocrine disruptors.

The products containing meats and chicken have higher levels while cheese pizza had the least amount. It was noted people in low-income areas tend to eat more frequently at fast food places and thus are getting a higher exposure.

In general, the pandemic has caused more people to order take-out food, and levels of phthalates in people tested were higher during the height of the pandemic. Ironically, the phthalates were not in the food ingredients but were transferred from plastic gloves, tubing and conveyor belts used in fast-food establishments.

A study in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Pollution, said, “Daily exposure to phthalates could lead to hundreds of thousands of early deaths each year among older adults in the U.S.”

The study relied on urine samples from 5,000 adults age 55-64 and compared risks of early death over a decade. The study controlled for pre-existing diseases, eating habits, bisphenol A and physical activity. They found exposure to phthalate compounds could contribute to 91,000-107,000 premature deaths per year and could result in economic losses of $40-$47 billion.

The CDC said 98% of Americans have PFAS in their bodies. A major source is food packaging. Those microwave popcorn bags and take-out food wrappers contain PFAS.

Some ways to avoid PFAS: Don’t buy stain-resistant clothing or carpeting, don’t buy Teflon nonstick cookware and use activated carbon or osmosis filters for your drinking water.

Some ways to avoid phthalates include using unscented products like lotions, laundry detergents and cleaning products; manufactures do not have to reveal what chemicals are used in the “fragrance” label. Avoid plastics as much as possible, especially in food packaging. Instead use glass, stainless steel, ceramics and wood for food storage. Cook at home and avoid overly processed foods. Never put plastics in microwaves or dish washers as the heat leaches out the phthalates.

If you want to learn more about plastics and their health effects, I am presenting a program at the Wilmot Wilderness Center on Nov. 13 from 10:30-11:30 a.m. on Plastics in the Environment. It will cover the history of plastics and the chemistry, health effects and alternatives to plastics. The cost is $5 to cover hand-outs.

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