Chemical Toxins in Everyday Products

by Lucie Lavoie

Originally published in the Chronicle Journal in November, 2013.

What does your perfume have in common with your child’s rubber ducky?  Hard to imagine at first, but both likely contain phthalates, a chemical often used in plastics and personal care products.  And phthalates can harm the environment and your health.  The European Union considers phthalates to be ‘endocrine or hormone disruptors’ because they can affect hormones in people and animals, and can interfere with normal development.  In fact, laboratory experiments show that exposure to phthalates can lead to developmental defects, changes in the testes and prostate, and reduced sperm counts.  Phthalates can also be very toxic to aquatic organisms.   Health Canada has recognized the potential impact on children’s health and announced regulations restricting the use of six phthalates in soft vinyl toys and child care articles.  But phthalates are still used in countless other consumer products such as many cosmetics, detergents, food products, textiles and household cleaners.

     Phthalates are only some of the tens of thousands of man-made chemicals found in products we use every day. At least 800 of these man-made chemicals are known to interfere with the hormone system of people and wildlife.  Yet the vast majority of the chemicals used in everyday products have never been tested at all, so there are potentially many more chemical pollutants all around us that can interfere with our hormones.

     Many of the reproductive, developmental, growth and behavioural changes resulting from exposure to hormone disruptors were first noticed in fish and wildlife. Even at the low doses found in the environment, some of these chemicals affect the hormone systems of animals. Lots of the chemicals in our consumer products do not easily break down, or sometimes break down into more harmful products that pollute water, soil, and wildlife.

     Research has been done on different types of hormone disruptors at the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, including the flame retardant DecaBDE. Flame retardants are found in many household products such as electronics and upholstery fabric. Research at the Experimental Lakes Area showed toxic breakdown products from DecaBDE were found in sediment, invertebrates, and fish after 1-3 months.  This research contributed to Environment Canada and Health Canada’s 2010 plan to phase out the import of this chemical.

     There are many things you can do to reduce your exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals—choose greener cleaners and safer personal care products, reduce the plastics in your life and choose unprocessed and organic foods to reduce exposure to harmful food additives and pesticide residues.  Visit the Programs- Chemicals and Health webpages at for more tips on reducing your exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, Rick Smith, well-known environmentalist and bestselling co-author of ‘Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health’ will tackle these questions head on in an entertaining and straightforward way at a Science Café hosted by Science North in partnership with Environment North and EcoSuperior. 

Join us on November 12th at 7p.m. at the Finlandia Club, 314 Bay Street.  Rick’s prescription for better living is surprising and within reach! 

Lucie Lavoie is a project coordinator at EcoSuperior.