Making Informed Decisions: why it is important to know what's in the products you use

By Andrea DesJardins
© 2001, All rights reserved. This article may be printed for personal use. All other uses must retain this copyright notice, a link to our website (/index.html), and must not be reprinted for sale.

Of the thousands of chemicals used in the manufacture of consumer products, a relative few are actually found as ingredients in the final formulation.  While most chemicals are of little concern, a handful of toxic chemicals may be responsible for causing a number of avoidable human health effects.

There is value in knowing about the hazards of these chemicals, even if you never experience an adverse reaction, or the concentration of the chemical in the product is too low to be of major concern. Regardless of how dilute or infrequently used a product is, consumers have the right to know what is in the products they use.  Without this information the consumer is unable to make an informed decision about continuing the use of those products with toxic ingredients. 

It is the toxic ingredients in some consumer products that may be at the root of a host of common yet vague symptoms such as fatigue, headache, sinus irritation, sore throat and more.  Because so many products may cause these symptoms, some people may experience persistent symptoms that can be significantly relieved or eliminated by the simple act of eliminating the use of these products.

One of the great myths about consumer products is that there are laws and regulations that prevent hazardous products from reaching the market; that products available to the public are tested and deemed safe for consumer use.  This is only partially true.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is a 5 member panel responsible for overseeing over 15,000 types of consumer products, not including food, drugs, cosmetics, pesticides, automobiles, medical devices, certain radioactive materials and products that emit radiation (e.g. microwave ovens).  Because of this huge number of products, the CPSC must rely on manufacturers to voluntarily comply with federal consumer product safety laws.  These laws include the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, and the Poison Prevention Packaging Act.

The primary role of the CPSC is to protect consumers from products that are known to cause injury when used in the way they are intended by the population for whom the product is aimed.  There must be a clear cause and effect relationship.  By law the CPSC may not publicly raise concern about the safety of a product without substantive evidence that a product poses a significant danger to the public.  For this the CPSC relies on adverse reaction or injury reports filed by the public. 

The CPSC does not test products as a matter of course; manufacturers are expected to make sure their products either are not hazardous, or if hazardous they are labeled properly. Manufacturers are not required to have their products reviewed prior to offering it for sale to the public. The CPSC may investigate reports of injury caused by consumer products and take appropriate action as warranted, but rarely do they initiate their own investigations.

For many products -- particularly those used around the home as cleaners -- manufacturers are allowed to protect their formulations as proprietary and thus are not required to list ingredients on their labels; however, if there are hazards associated with the product then basic safe handling information must be provided.

Products are considered hazardous if they meet the criteria outlined in the Federal Hazardous Substances Act:

(f) The term ''hazardous substance'' means:
(A) Any substance or mixture of substances which (i) is toxic, (ii) is corrosive, (iii) is an irritant, (iv) is a strong sensitizer, (v) is flammable or combustible, or (vi) generates pressure through decomposition, heat, or other means, if such substances or mixture of substances may cause substantial personal injury or substantial illness during or as a proximate result of any customary or reasonably foreseeable handling or use, including reasonably foreseeable ingestion by children [emphasis added.  It is important to note that there is no definition for the term 'substantial.'].

(g) The term ''toxic'' shall apply to any substance (other than a radioactive substance) which has the capacity to produce personal injury or illness to man through ingestion, inhalation, or absorption through any body surface.

The absence of health and safety data does not exonerate a chemical.  Of the some 80-100,000 chemicals used in manufacture, only a fraction have been tested for safety, and an even smaller number have been studied extensively.  Additionally, because there are so many possible combinations of chemicals, very little is known about the effects of chemical mixtures, although there is some research which shows that the effects of mixtures can not always be predicted by evaluating the effects of the individual ingredients (that is to say, some mixtures may be far more toxic than the individual ingredients themselves because one ingredient may change the properties of another ingredient, making it more easily absorbed by the body.  For example, a chemical that may have a lower toxicity via the inhalation route because it does not readily evaporate, may become more toxic by inhalation when combined with another chemical, such as alcohol, that makes it evaporate more easily).

This lack of knowledge makes it difficult to assess the true health risk associated with common consumer products.  It is generally assumed that exposures to the hazardous substances will be low under 'customary handling or use' because most people are only using these products for a short period of time.  This assumption does not take into account that many products evaporate into the air, are absorbed into porous surfaces and textiles, or used in combination with other products.  Also, it may not take into account that particles of the product are aerosolized during use, making them more readily evaporated into the air.  Further, it does not take into account that most modern homes do not have adequate fresh air inflow, and as a result the indoor air may be as much as 10 times more polluted than outdoor air.  What this means is that cessation of use of a product does not necessarily equal cessation of exposure to the ingredients when a product is used indoors without full ventilation.

Since it is so difficult to assess the true health risk associated with consumer products, the next best option is to review the health effects of the ingredients and make the assumption that the product is at least as toxic as its most toxic ingredient.  In the scientific world this would be an unreasonable assumption, but in the real world the lack of data leaves the consumer with little choice.

When evaluating the toxicity of a chemical, it must be understood that exposure to a chemical does not automatically mean that a person will experience the listed symptoms of exposure.  In fact, most healthy adults will notice little, if any effect because the body has developed a rather efficient system for eliminating foreign chemicals before they have a chance to cause symptoms.

But not everybody is equal in their ability to fend off the effects of chemicals, and some chemicals (alcohols, for example) affect nearly everybody regardless of health.  In those cases the degree to which symptoms are experienced is the variable.

The more susceptible populations include:
·    People with allergies
·    Children
·    Pregnant women
·    People with chronic disease in any organ (lungs, liver, kidneys, etc.)
·    Cancer patients
·    People with migraines or asthma
People with allergies, regardless of the allergen, are more sensitive to irritants because allergy reactions produce a protein called 'nerve growth factor' which in turn makes nerve cells more sensitive to irritation from chemicals and particulates. [Read more about it].  Virtually every toxic chemical used in consumer products is an irritant in one way or another.

Children are more susceptible to the toxic effects of chemicals for several reasons.  First, their bodies are not as well developed as adults, and their organs responsible for detoxification are not as efficient.  Second, their smaller size means that it will take less of an exposure for their system to be overwhelmed.  Finally, their proximity to the floor and frequent hand-to-mouth activity increases the likelihood that they will be more heavily exposed to chemicals that have settled into carpets, on furnishings and on toys.

Pregnant women are not necessarily more susceptible because of their pregnancy, but their child may be exposed to chemicals that cross the placental barrier, and that exposure may increase the potential for fetal harm.  Most organic solvents are capable of crossing the placental barrier, but one of the greatest concerns for pregnant women are products containing alcohol.  Even if the mother is simply inhaling alcohol fumes, her child may still be affected as if she had consumed an alcoholic drink.

People who have chronic disease in any of the major detoxification organs (i.e. liver, kidneys) are more susceptible to the effects of toxic chemicals because their detox pathways are not working as efficiently as people with healthy organs.  As a result, chemicals in the bloodstream of these individuals will remain in their blood for a longer period of time and will thus have a greater likelihood of producing an adverse effect.  The hidden issue here is that the body’s most important detoxification organ, the liver, can lose as much as 70% of normal function before symptoms of liver disease surface.  This means that there may be many individuals who are unaware that they may have malfunctioning detoxification systems.

Cancer patients are more susceptible to the effects of chemicals because their bodies are simply overwhelmed by the disease process and the treatments used to slow the progression of their disease.

People with migraines, asthma or other chronic neurological or respiratory problems are generally more susceptible to certain effects of some chemicals, though there can be a variation of susceptibilities among individuals.  For some the irritating component may be a factor, while for others the central nervous system effects may cause a reaction. 

There is a great deal of variation of adverse effects caused by toxic chemicals, but fortunately most of the effects are generally reversible when exposures are kept to a minimum.  Totally healthy individuals are not likely to have permanent health consequences as a result of judicious and careful use of consumer products around the home, but for people who are particularly susceptible to adverse effects--and that may be a larger proportion of the population than one would think--even conservative use of toxic products may have long term consequences.

The good news is that there are simple ways to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals around the home.  Many products have low or non-toxic alternatives, both on the market or made in the kitchen.  And for those products that simply can't be replaced in any practical fashion, good ventilation and cautious use can go a long way towards reducing risk.

Knowing what is in the products you use not only makes you a better consumer, it also makes you better able to identify and eliminate products that might be contributing to your unexplained symptoms.  In this case, knowledge is definitely a powerful ally.

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© 2001Health & Environment Resource Center, all rights reserved. This article may be printed for personal use, but rebroadcast in any form is not permitted without consent of the author.