Lots of people are concerned about how the use of toxic chemicals in our consumer products is affecting our health, but how are these chemicals also affecting our environment and wildlife?
Chemicals in Our Homes
Hundreds of harmful chemicals end up in the products we buy and use every day, including hormone-disrupting chemicals in cleaning products and cosmetics as well as brain damaging chemicals in children’s clothing, personal care products, and toys. Of the over 84,000 chemicals registered for commercial use in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has only required safety testing on 200.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) has designated nine priority chemicals as particularly harmful and likely to expose children, because of their toxicity and wide use, including hormone-disrupting phthalates, bisphenol-A (BPA) and toxic flame-retardants, carcinogenic formaldehyde and the brain toxins, cadmium and lead.
Household Chemicals in Minnesota Waters
While people routinely experience personal exposures to household product chemicals, either directly or via house dust, there are numerous opportunities for chemicals to be released into the broader environment along the product life cycle, from manufacturing, to consumer use, to disposal. Chemicals in everyday household products can end up in landfills, wastewater, incinerator emissions, surface water, groundwater, soil, and subsequently build up in wildlife and humans.
A large Minnesota study looked at hormone-active chemicals present upstream and downstream of 25 wastewater treatment sites across the state of Minnesota. The study found triclosan, nonylphenol (NP), BPA and other chemicals, as well as pharmaceuticals in wastewater, surface water and sediments. BPA and NP and several other substances were detected in upstream locations, indicating that wastewater is not the only source of contamination. The mix of hormone-active chemicals in Minnesota water was found to cause genetic changes in fish, even at the low concentrations detected in the study.
Harm to Aquatic Life
Chemicals in our waters are placing the reproductive health of fish and other aquatic organisms at risk. Many aquatic species are extremely sensitive to chemical exposure, especially chemicals that disrupt hormones. Triclosan, phthalates, BPA and certain flame retardants interfere with hormones and can adversely impact survival and reproduction in fish. Male fathead minnows exposed to nonylphenol ethoxylates similar to those in wastewater effluent were found to be feminized, as were walleye and other fish species downstream of sewage treatment plants.
In the long run, the health and vitality of fish populations and other aquatic organisms could be placed at risk from chemical contaminants. While improvements in wastewater treatment technology are needed, preventing toxic chemicals from entering the waste stream and the environment is the best strategy. We need to find and use safer alternatives to toxic chemicals in our products, our homes, our communities and our factories both through regulation and business leadership.
One comprehensive example on how to reduce chemical exposure is through the reduction in the use of coal tar sealants. Coal tar sealants are products that are effective at sealcoating asphalt. Unfortunately, they also have high levels of toxic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which can cause tumors and reproductive problems in fish and increase human cancer risk from exposure to its vapors or sediments. PAHs from the sealcoat over time wash into storm-water ponds, streams and lakes. “An MPCA study found that about 67% of total PAHs in the sediments of 15 metro-area stormwater ponds were from coal tar-based sealants. “
Because of widespread contamination, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) worked with businesses to reduce use of these products, helped enact a ban on their use by state agencies and educated consumers on safer alternatives. Home improvement retailers, Lowe’s and Home Depot pulled these products off their shelves, and 75 sealcoat contractors signed a pledge not to apply coal tar in Minnesota. These voluntary initiatives were followed by a Minnesota ban on the sale and use of coal tar sealants for asphalt driveways, trails and parking lots effective January 2014. MPCA provides information on safer alternatives.
This combination of regulation and business leadership can be applied to other chemicals of concern. For example, Minnesota recently passed a ban on four toxic flame retardants in upholstered furniture and children’s products. At the same time, major furniture manufacturers are phasing them out of their products. In addition, Minnesota banned triclosan in personal care products for consumer cleansing uses, which will help reduce future levels of this contaminant in Minnesota waters.
Every toxic chemical we use and dispose of puts the health of our environment, its wildlife and our own health at risk. Fortunately, better regulation and substituting safer alternatives provide effective solutions for addressing these problems.
See Chemicals in Minnesota Waters fact sheet for more information and citations.