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A Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

A Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure – There are over 9 million known chemicals – many of which are man-made. In the United States, there are some 90,000 chemicals licensed for use; In Canada and the European Union – that number is around 25,000.

There can be great discrepancies country by country, in terms of how these chemicals are regulated. As we saw in the previous article about pesticides and the “forever chemicals’ used as fire retardants, it can take time to document adverse effects. The needed regulations are thus implemented too slowly, often exacerbated by industry delay tactics.

Health effects from toxic chemicals are especially consequential in the following circumstances – a) from occupational exposure – farm workers, firefighters, factory workers; b) from proximity exposure – living in an area near heavy industry and thus dealing with contaminated water and air; and c) living in a city with highly polluted air – cities in China and India are ranked the worst.

Most of us, especially in developed countries are not facing such consequential exposures and therefore may not be all that concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals. This is valid to a point. Unfortunately, many dangerous chemicals can be closer to home than we think. They are present in everyday products such as furniture, clothing, food, water, hygiene products etc.

Here are some examples of our day-to-day exposures – not necessarily in any particular order and without specific details about health effects; each bullet point below could be the subject of a full article. To be clear – the information presented is not meant to be alarmist. It is likely that the health risks for many are minimal. But the health risks are also not zero. A little knowledge about these exposures will be useful especially for parents with young children.

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

  • Air pollution – Globally, air pollution causes about 7 million premature deaths a year. For the most part, this is due to the inhalation of particulate matter (PM2.5) – less than 2.5 microns (about 1/30th the width of a human hair. These tiny articles can also “carry’ toxic chemicals such as by-products of combustion. Air pollution is mostly prevalent in heavily industrialized cities in China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. However, due to the increasing prevalence of forest fires in North America, Russia, Europe and Australia, exposure to PM2.5 is increasing even in rural communities.
  • Smoking – The dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke are very well documented.
  • In the kitchen – Cooking with natural gas produces nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and formaldehyde (CH2O or HCHO). All these pollutants are health risks. As such it is critical to use a hood fan when cooking. Also of concern is PFAS (yes them again) when cooking with Teflon coated cookware. It should not be a big concern if the pans are newer than 2015. See a previous blog on this web site.
  • Indoor air – As discussed in the previous article, fire retardants are everywhere in our homes. PFAS – scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been called ‘forever chemicals’ because they take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. Exposure to these chemicals can be in the form of breathing in off-gases but also microfibers that can flake off furniture and carpeting.
Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), have been called ‘forever chemicals’ due the fact they take hundreds of years to break down. There are over 4700 different PFAS molecules.

  • Tap water – PFAS – a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit advocacy organization, reveals a widespread problem: the drinking water of most North Americans likely contains traces (parts per trillion) of PFAS – because they are so widely used. The problem is widespread in Europe as well, but efforts are underway to ban many of these substances.
  • Tap water – Lead – Another concern in water, is lead exposure – the lead leaching from galvanized pipes. Flint, Michigan was a recent example that was widely covered by the media.  Flint changed its water source from treated water from Lake Huron to water from the Flint River without adequate use of corrosion inhibitors. Water samples tested in a number of Canadian cities, including Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, and Prince Rupert, were found to contain elevated lead levels. Lead in drinking water is regulated and should thus be frequently monitored
  • Tap water – by-products from chlorination – The vast majority of drinking water systems use chlorine to disinfect the water supply. Natural organic material such as tannins and lignins, when present in the surface waters, reacts with chlorine which can create chemicals called ‘trihalomethanes’ including chloroform – a banned chemical. Trihalomethanes in drinking water are regulated and must be routinely monitored.
  • Canned food – the aluminum cans used are lined with plastic films – some (or many formulations of which contain Bisphenol A, or A 2017 study carried out in California tested a variety of canned products. Forty percent showed detectable levels of BPA. An earlier Canadian study revealed similar findings. BPA exposure is linked to multiple health effects including fertility issues, altered brain development, cancer, and heart complications. It is thus banned for many uses – especially baby products.
  • Bottled beverages – Most bottled water as well as other beverages are sold in plastic #1, also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Research shows that PET may be an endocrine disruptor, altering our hormonal systems. Although this type of plastic is BPA free, phthalates (plasticizers) in bottles can still leach into the water, especially when exposed to high temperatures or stored for an extended period of time. Basically, phthalates are practically in all products stored in plastic. Also of note – bottled water can contain significant amounts of microplastics.
environment matters
environment matters

It’s shocking how widespread the PFAS contamination is across many types of makeup products – especially considering obvious ingestion of these chemicals when used in  lipstick and lip gloss.

  • Cosmetics – There is such a variety of cosmetics on the market with products coming from around the world. In general, the cosmetics industry seems to be very poorly regulated. Indeed, toxic substances may not even be listed in the ‘ingredients” panel. Here are some examples – formaldehyde in hair straightening products and nail polish // coal tar in eye shadow // parabens in skin and hair products // dioxane in dyes and shampoos. Of particular concern is the use of PFAS (AGAIN) -to make lipstick, lotions, cosmetics, and hair products more water-resistant, durable and spreadable as well as the use of benzene, despite the fact it’s a banned carcinogen
  • Pesticides in food – For the most part – pesticide use in the USA, Canada, and Europe, is well regulated. However – According to a recent (2019) study by the Environmental Working Group, there were several fruits and vegetables that contained detectable levels of pesticides – such as strawberries, spinach, kale, peaches, etc. Although, the levels detected, were below published health guidelines, this may not be of comfort to those wanting to completely avoid exposure.
  • Antibiotics and other chemicals in Meat – Industrial agriculture to supply the world’s growing demand for meat protein involves animals ‘farmed’ under very crowded conditions. This then, requires the use of antibiotics used in ‘sub-therapeutic’ doses to prevent disease. This in turn raises the risk of transmitting drug-resistant bacteria to humans either by direct infection or by transferring resistance genes from agriculture into human pathogens. A separate issue with meat is caused by grilling – no doubt a favourite way to cook meat.  Meat cooked this way exposes us to by-products of combustion – chemicals called Poly-aromatic hydrocarbons – PAH
  • Fish – Mercury – Different types of fish and other seafood contain varying amounts of mercury. Larger fish such as tuna usually contain higher levels. They eat many smaller fish, which contain small amounts of mercury. As it’s not easily excreted from their bodies, levels accumulate over time. This process is known as bioaccumulation.
Daily Dose of Chemical Exposure
  • Fast food – PFAS (again!!) – A variety of PFAS compounds are commonly used to keep your burger from sticking to its fast-food wrapper, your salad from turning its fiber-based bowl into a soggy mess, and your popcorn bag from bursting into flames in the microwave.
  • Household products – cleaners, paints, paint thinners, etc. are generally toxic and must be used in accordance with the instructions. Of particular concern are paint strippers. The active ingredient in the most effective paint strippers is dichloromethane, also called methylene chloride. Dichloromethane has serious health risks including death, is likely a carcinogen, and is banned in some countries for consumer use.
    This list is not exhaustive. There are more ways in which we can be exposed to toxic compounds. This area of environmental science is indeed understudied. It can certainly seem overwhelming with almost no options to avoid exposure. As well, it is not possible to comment adequately on the various health risks as there is insufficient data to prove (or disprove) the risks.

In the next article (Part 3), I will outline the challenges in linking illness to exposure and thus ensuring adequate regulations. Buy it is not as bad as it seems. 

In the final article (Part 4), I will outline options for avoiding, or at least minimizing risks.

Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals – Part 1

It’s likely that all of us have detectable levels of these 2 classes of forever chemicals in our blood – DDT and fire retardents.

Toxic Exposure - Forever Chemicals

The phrase “Better Living Through Chemistry” is a variant of an advertising slogan DuPont adopted in 1935. The slogan was later changed to – “The miracles of science”. But some such “miracles” came back to haunt us.


Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals.

There are more than nine million known chemicals (man-made and natural) including hydrocarbon fuels, proteins, fats, sugars, cellulose, pesticides, dyes and individual elements like lead and mercury. We are exposed to man-made chemicals through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the products we use – plastics, furniture, food wrap, cookware, cans, carpets, shower curtains, electronics and hygiene items. They are pretty much everywhere around us. Unfortunately – many are toxic.  Scientists and researchers are concerned that many of these chemicals may be carcinogenic or wreak havoc with our immune and endocrine (hormone) systems.

In my experiences over the years of my career in this field, I have concluded that there are many cases in which:

1) The chemicals have been introduced without proper assessments;

2) They are sometimes used in dubious applications; and

3.) Many are not adequately regulated.

Moreover, consumers are often unaware of the degree of human exposure. This next 4-part set of articles will hopefully provide useful information on this topic.

Part 1 – two introductory stories that exemplify these points.


In the late 1930s, Paul Müller, a research chemist at the firm of Geigy in Basel was searching for an insecticide to kill clothes moths. Some of his experiments involved a compound known as dichloro-diphenyltrichloroethane, (later shortened to DDT) originally made by a German chemist in 1874. The experiments demonstrated this compound’s effectiveness to kill insects even when applied in small doses.

DDT, the most powerful pesticide the world had ever known, was highly effective initially but also exposed nature’s vulnerability. It first distinguished itself during World War II, clearing South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for U.S. troops while also being used as an effective delousing powder in Europe – earning the Nobel Prize for its inventor in 1948.

DDT was considered a ‘Godsend’ in the 1940s and 1950s. It was thought to be effective and totally safe. In 1948, Life Magazine showed a photo of children playing in the fog of a DDT spray.

Toxic Exposure - Forever Chemicals

Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals

Then came the fallout. DDT use was killing wildlife and endangering human health and it did not take too long for this to become obvious. The information shock was mainly administered by the biologist and author – Rachael Carson who wrote the powerful book – Silent Spring. This iconic book became one of the key foundations of the environmental movement.  The book presented mounting evidence of the pesticide’s declining benefits plus its highly negative environmental and toxicological effects. The book stimulated widespread public concern over the dangers of improper pesticide use and the need for better pesticide controls. DDT was clearly shown to be very persistent in the environment, to accumulate in fatty tissues (and thus bioaccumulate) and to travel long distances in the upper atmosphere.

One phrase in the book stood out “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals from the moment of conception to death’. In fact – this prompted me to examine exposure in my own family. By the 1970s, I had access to the equipment needed to measure DDT and thus tested the concentration of DDT in my wife’s breast milk during the time she was breast feeding our youngest child. It was indeed detected but below the WHO safety level (which was of little comfort).

Despite a storm of push back from industry, DDT was banned in most countries by 1972. Today, DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and international authorities.

After the use of DDT was discontinued in the United States, its concentration in the environment and animals has decreased, but because of its persistence, residues of concern from historical use remain.

The DDT story clearly demonstrates the dangers of rushing to market a chemical product and to promote its indiscriminate use. It could be argued that the issues around the longer-term environmental issue may have been challenging to predict in those days. But two of the product’s shortcomings should have been obvious.

  1. Firstly – it is a full spectrum pesticide and thus kills indiscriminately – including pollinators and insects that fish need for food.
  2. Secondly, insect resistance to pesticides was well established knowledge. It was only a matter of a few years before subsequent generations of mosquitoes became resistant to the effects of DDT.



It began in the early 1970s when regulators pressured tobacco companies to manufacturer self-extinguishing cigarettes. The goal was to reduce the risk of fires in homes, offices and elsewhere caused by negligent smokers. Tobacco companies did not want to change their products’ desirability and instead changed the narrative by working with the chemical industry.

Chemical manufacturers and tobacco firms launched an extensive media campaign. It encouraged furniture manufacturers to use flame retardant chemicals in their products to reduce the risk of fires. The campaigns and high-level lobbying worked and it soon became regulated that furniture, carpets, children’s pyjamas, car seats, and other household and office items were required to be treated with fire retardants.


Now let’s look at what these flame retardants are. DDT is an example of a very stable and often toxic chemical that is created when carbon and chorine are combined. When carbon binds with fluorine atoms many of the resulting compounds are even more stable with most now called “forever chemicals”. Hundreds of everyday products are made with fluorinated chemicals called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Teflon is a PFAS.

Toxic Exposure - Forever Chemicals

Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals in the home. 

Fire retardants are everywhere in our homes. Exposure can be in the form of breathing in off-gases and microfibres, etc.

For years, scientists and environmental advocates have been concerned about persistent forever chemicals which break down very slowly and can contaminate the environment. It is likely that there are about 4,700 varieties of PFAS chemicals in use. Virtually all of us have detectable levels of PFAS in our blood. Very small doses of PFAS are linked to cancer, as well as harm to reproductive and immune systems.

But do they really work? Recent studies are showing that flame retardants often delay ignition for only a few seconds and can make fires more dangerous due to increased smoke and toxic gases. When flame retardants are present, fires produce halogenated dioxins and furans, which may contribute to elevated rates of cancer in firefighters. Many now conclude that self-extinguishing cigarettes would have been the correct course of action.

“Firefighters are like the canary in the mine. If there is a problem with these chemicals, we’re going to get it.  We’re exposed to the highest level.” (Jay Fleming – a senior firefighter in Boston as quoted in an article on this topic in The Guardian) —

Firefighters are at an especially high risk of chemical exposures and are thus advocating for fire retardants to be either banned entirely or to be significantly curtailed in their use. However, they face a powerful lobby – especially the American Chemical Council (ACC).  Out of 16 states which tried to pass flame retardant bans between 2017 and 2019, 12 failed. The ACC was registered to lobby state representatives in 10 of those 12 states.


The European Union (EU) has recently prohibited the use of halogenated flame retardants in plastic enclosures and stands of electronic displays and introduced several new labelling requirements for some hazardous substances. The new regulation took effect starting March 1, 2021. The chemical industry has launched legal proceedings as a result.

Toxic Exposure – Forever Chemicals

These 2 stories clearly demonstrate the challenges society faces in dealing with toxic man-made chemicals that – in my view – are introduced without proper assessments along with heavy-handed resistance by industry, to enhanced regulations. Upcoming articles will clarify the scope of these challenges.

PART 2 – OUR DAILY DOSE OF TOXICS – the ways in which we come into contact with man-made and often toxic compounds in our everyday lives.

PART 3 – RISKS TO HUMAN HEALTH – the challenges of linking illness to chemical exposure – with some notable legal actions

PART 4 – REDUCING OUR RISKS – the actions we can take as individuals to minimize our exposures.


This article is in response to frequent comments I receive acknowledging the usefulness of the science around environmental breakdown but also a feeling of helplessness as to what each of each of us can do.


After a devastating year, a looming question emerges – can environmental collapse still be prevented? The answer!  The world as we now know it – the age of fossil fuels – must come to an end. There is no time to waste.

The past year left no doubt: Climate change is dangerously impacting societies the world over. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) projects a record of 275 million people will need humanitarian aid in 2022 – a rise of over 60 % from last year. As forests burn and cities drown, as crops wither and people die, it becomes clearer than ever before: The deadly flaws of our economic structures have been ruthlessly exposed.

It can be easy to despair at the climate crisis, or to decide it’s already too late. But that does not have to be the case. We have the knowledge and the technology to transform our energy structures. As well, there is a rapidly growing awareness worldwide about the severity of the numerous crises we face, especially among the vocal youth. Some in positions of power are listening. There was progress at the last COP (Conference of the Parties) held in Glasgow. At a minimum there was a decision that the COP meetings would now be held every year instead of every 5 years. However, it was clear that most national leaders were held back by vested interests and “their own attachment to the status quo – and thus the profits from continued destruction” (Rebecca Solnit – Dec 2021).

The anxiety that is building concerning the looming environmental crises and the institutional inaction, is best met by having a clear understanding of the facts and the possibilities for a truly sustainable future. Here are a few thoughts and suggested readings.





TWO NUMBERS – 51 billion and zero. The former is the number of tons of greenhouse gases typically added to the atmosphere each year because of human activities. The latter is the number of tons we need to get to by 2050 to avert a climate crisis.

What this means is that carbon emissions must be halved by 2030 and halved again by 2040 to achieve the goal of net zero by 2050. It also means that deforestation must stop immediately. As well an international agreement on preserving biodiversity must be signed before next year’s COP meeting and thus be integrated into the international pledges.

Moreover, there is a dire need to ensure that justice and equity are at the heart of these massive campaigns. After the COP conference, some of the harshest condemnations were reserved for wealthy countries, which have released the bulk of greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere but have resisted mandates to provide financing for developing nations.  It is well documented that poorer nations, despite very low carbon emissions, are more heavily impacted by climate change. Critical financing is thus needed to help these nations address loss and damage, adaptation, and damage mitigation.

Addressing these over-arching goals is massive – but as individuals we are left exasperated as to what we can do.


Everything we do, from having a shower, eating a hamburger, driving to work, to buying things, has an environmental impact. With the clarity of this understanding, we can lessen our impacts – at least to a degree. To be clearer, over-consumption is at the root of the planet’s environmental crisis. We (globally) are using up the planet at a rate of 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. If everyone consumed at the rate of the average American or Canadian it would be 5 times faster. Consuming less is a must. Also – how we consume such as knowing the source of the product, is a factor. For instance, at present, buying meat produced in Brazil will most certainly be associated with destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Much of what comes from China is manufactured using energy from coal.

There is a multitude of sources that provide information on reducing environmental impacts of our lifestyles. They all, more or less, emphasize the same steps – buy less, avoid unnecessary packaging, eat less meat (or better still no meat at all), eliminate food waste, ensure home energy is not wasted, reject bottled water, drive less, ditch big cars (or better still drive a low or zero emission vehicle), recycle properly, fly less, etc.

For those interested, here is one link among many that can be viewed online that present ways we can lessen our impacts.


Youth climate strikes – from National Geographic – 2021


Consumer choice and individual action are needed and can make a definite impact. But climate change policies, from the local level to the global level, often collapse on the lack of “political will” — the unwillingness or inability of governments to enact policies that will reduce carbon pollution at the scale and speed required. Public will, especially as expressed through citizen activism, therefore becomes crucial.  Global climate change is a massive collective action issue. 

Author Rebecca Solnit – posted recently on her Facebook page the following about Bill McKibben a well-known American environmentalist, author, and journalist:  “ I was sitting on the floor of an auditorium in Paris with Bill McKibben, while the Paris Climate Summit was in session. Someone wandered up to him and asked him, “What’s the best thing I can do as an individual, for the climate?” He replied, as he often has with the best possible answer, “Stop being an individual.”

By this he meant join something, support something, look for the strength in numbers and coalitions and organizing. Alone, most of us can’t do much, and can feel helpless; together we have the capacity to change the world for the better. Some thoughts:

Informed Discussions –  Read documents, watch documentaries, or read books and discuss these with family members and friends. Some recommended reading is listed at the end of this article. As well, there is a link to a short video that is informative.

Vote for our future –  Politics matter. Consider the 4 wasted climate denial years of the Trump administration resulting in the USA exiting, for a time, the Paris Accord. Brazilians will do the world a big favour by ousting the environmentally disastrous Jair Bolsonaro as their president. Simply put – I recommend that one of the highest priorities in casting a ballot should be based on the candidate’s stance on environmental protection.

Advocate Write letters to political representatives and inform them to take action or they will lose your vote. Or better still, take part in some form of activism. Collective action works. There have been many mega projects cancelled or put on hold due to collective action. Here are some:

Donate I realize there are many organizations worthy of donations and it is difficult to choose which ones to support. However, given the various crises we are facing, it is well worth considering supporting organizations that are lobbying to eradicate fossil fuels, revolutionize agriculture, call for a halt in deforestation and loss of habitats, or are advocating loudly for climate justice.

One area of great interest to me is the use of the courts to hold governments and industry to account – much like what was achieved to fight ‘Big Tobacco’. Recently, climate change activists won a big legal victory against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. A Dutch court ruled that the company must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030, based on 2019 levels. This could set a precedent for similar lawsuits against huge oil companies that operate across the globe. See also the link below about the organization – Urgenda holding the Dutch government to account.


Pictures of plaintiffs fly outside the court in The Hague, Netherlands, before a ruling ordering Royal Dutch Shell to rein in its carbon emissions. Thousands of citizens joined the suit charging that Shell’s fossil fuel investments endanger lives. Peter Dejong/AP

In summary – we do not have to feel helpless facing the threats of environmental collapse. The knowledge and technology are there but politics is being unduly influenced by big industry. We can take our own steps but also join the voices of many to demand change.

The following is a few of many sites and literature sources for those interested.


a few that I use

Friends of the earth

League of Conservation Voters

Union of Concerned Scientists

The Urgenda Climate Case against the Dutch Government was the first in the world in which citizens established that their government has a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change.


I find The Guardian to be one of the best – it’s international edition has a section devoted to climate change and publish new items each day. It’s very current and fact based. I also like Science Daily.