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#03 – Creating a Nontoxic Home, Eco-Friendly Nurseries, Greenwashing and the Tap Water Dilemma with Leigh Matthews

Are you concerned about your family’s increasing exposure to toxic chemicals? This episode is for you. From the kitchen to the bathroom to dining out and even your children’s bedrooms, learn practical tips you can use to make your lifestyle a little greener. 

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This Episode Covers:   

  • The most sensitive individuals to environmental toxins and chemicals [3:45];
  • PFOA and placental fluid, dangers of teflon and nonstick pans, greenwashing [5:40];
  • Cast iron skillets [14:05];
  • VOCs, paint, nurseries / newborns, car exhaust, SoCal neighborhoods and air quality [17:00];
  • Fertility, Phthalates, sunscreen and endocrine disruptors [27:00];
  • Roundup and pesticide in food [35:00]; 
  • Tap water vs. bottled water and water filtration systems [47:50]; 

Why are toxic chemicals an issue?

Every day, over 300 children in the United States ages 0 to 19 are treated in an emergency department, and two children die, as a result of being poisoned – often by household cleaners and medicines.

Many more children, and adults, suffer ongoing health issues because of toxic chemicals in household products, furnishings, tap water, and food, as well as due to poor indoor air quality.

Long term health issues associated with toxic household chemicals include:

  • Endocrine (hormone) disruption leading to abnormal growth and development in childhood and at puberty, and fertility problems
  • Cancer
  • Cognitive decline
  • Shorter lifespan
  • Nerve problems
  • Respiratory or breathing difficulties
  • Skin problems
  • Mood disorders.

Everyday items in your home, such as toiletries, clothing, bedding, your mattress and pillows, cookware, carpets and rugs, and sports goods like yoga mats, can all contain toxic chemicals.

Keep in mind that most scientific studies look at chemicals in isolation – they don’t account for the ongoing, cumulative effects of multiple chemical exposures. We pretty much know nothing about what happens when we’re exposed to a variety of volatile oil compounds, heavy metals, parabens, phthalates, and such decade after decade.

Five top toxic chemicals you’re likely to encounter in your home?

1. VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a large group of toxic chemicals that include:

  • Acetone
  • Benzene
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Formaldehyde
  • And
  • Methylene chloride

These all easily evaporate at room temperature – a process called off-gassing.

If a new item of furniture, new carpet, rug, clothing, yoga mat, mattress, or other household item smells ‘chemically’, chances are it is off-gassing some VOCs. VOCs are also present in paint, varnishes, and floor treatments.

Most of these VOCs are not regulated in any helpful way, other than formaldehyde in nursery furniture.

VOCs have been linked to eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, asthma, cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, and damage to the central nervous system.

Infants and children are more vulnerable to the effects of VOCs because they take more breaths per minute than most adults (around 40-60 vs. 12-16).

‘Nesting’ right before a new baby arrives can have detrimental effects on parent and child as VOC exposure can increase dramatically.

Some green certifications, such as Greenguard Gold and Oeko-Tex, offer strict standards for chemical use and VOCs in household products.

2. Phthalates, Parabens, Parfums

Parabens are a group of preservative chemicals commonly found in shampoo, conditioner, body wash, moisturizers, make-up, shaving cream, cleaning products, and more. If something contains water, it may, by law, have to contain preservatives. Many manufacturers choose parabens rather than looking for a safe, natural preservative, such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

Parabens are the most widely used preservative in cosmetics, with the David Suzuki Foundation noting their presence in around 75-90% of cosmetics. They’re easily absorbed through the skin and include known endocrine disruptors.

Parabens are sometimes ‘hidden’ in the ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ of a product, which is why I try to avoid any products that include this in the ingredient list.

Fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets, so manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients.

Phthalates are another group of chemicals that include known endocrine (hormone) disruptors.

Phthalates are primarily used as plasticizers in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), so they’re present in a heck of a lot of household products.

Phthalates are not chemically bound in PVC, meaning they can migrate from products.

Phthalates may be antiandrogen, meaning that they reduce the production or block the activity of male sex hormones.

Therefore, certain phthalates are limited in children’s toys and other products in the EU.

Phthalates are also commonly found in sex toys.

Other things can also lurk in the ‘parfum’ component of a product.

Scented candles are also a major source of toxic chemicals. They typically contain paraffin wax and parfum, which emit benzene, and alkans and alkenes – all known carcinogens – when burnt. Wicks are also liable to contain excessive levels of lead.

3. Non-stick chemicals PTFE, PFOAs

Non-stick cookware is typically coated with perfluorinated chemicals (or PFCs). These fluoropolymers repel oil and water.

Noon-stick coatings are also used in food packaging and pop up in some unlikely places, including:

  • Some types of dental floss
  • Microwave popcorn bags
  • Pizza boxes
  • Other food containers
  • Carpet treatments
  • Windshield cleaning solution
  • The non-stick insert in some rice cookers.

These coatings are generally made using poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is the most common, and PTFE was originally applied to cookware using solvents such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

After significant research showing undesirable health effects of PFOA, and a not inconsiderable lawsuit (R), DuPont, the maker of Teflon, and other manufacturers phased out their use of this chemical in the non-stick coatings.

This doesn’t mean non-stick coatings are now safe, though!

PFOA was certainly a major health concern associated with these non-stick coatings, but it wasn’t the only toxic fume released from PTFE.

PTFE starts to break down at about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, whereupon toxic fumes such as PFOA, as well as  are released into the air. This might seem like a very high temperature, but it only takes a couple of minutes of heating an empty pan for it to reach 500 degrees F.

Cooking a steak can require a temperature of around 600 degrees F.

So, even seemingly normal cooking conditions can easily lead to PFOA and other toxic fumes being released into the air from PTFE coatings.

PFOA is a greenhouse gas and has adverse effects on health, including being a probable carcinogen (R).  It is also a suspected hormone disrupter, with its effects made worse by the fact that it lingers in the body and in the environment. Most adults have some PFOA in their blood, and the chemical has also been found in newborns and in marine animals and polar bears (R).

PTFE-based non-stick coatings appear to be particularly troublesome for reproductive health:

  • Linked to a nearly two-fold increase in the risk of preterm birth (R).
  • Increased risk of low birth weight
  • Negative effect on blood glucose regulation in pregnancy, increasing the risk of gestational diabetes (R).

The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) was published in 2015 and signed by hundreds of concerned scientists from across the world:

“PFASs are man-made and found everywhere [and] are highly persistent, as they contain perfluorinated chains that only degrade very slowly, if at all, under environmental conditions. It is documented that some polyfluorinated chemicals break down to form perfluorinated ones” (R).

The scientists urged governments to better regulate PFSAs and scientists to investigate these chemicals further, and the signatories to this statement also suggested the individual consumer, “Whenever possible, avoid products containing, or manufactured using, PFASs. These include many products that are stain-resistant, waterproof, or nonstick.”

4. Pesticides

Just this week, Bayer’s Monsanto lost a court case and were ordered by a jury in California to pay $2 billion to a couple who claimed their glyphosate Roundup weed killer caused their cancer. This is their third big court loss in recent years.

Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide that’s been around since 1974. The use of these kinds of herbicides has increased 100- to 300-fold by volume since the late ‘70s.

In 2014, an estimated 113.4 million kilos of glyphosate was used on crops in the US.

Glyphosate is commonly used on food crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and beans, as well as coffee and conventionally grown cotton.

Glyphosate has been labelled as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Glyphosate may indirectly affect health by killing off beneficial bacteria and affecting host immunity. This is thought to be why the chemical is linked to colony collapse disorder in bee populations and the demise of earthworm populations.

The Environmental Working Group (a great resource!) published a report last year revealing the presence of glyphosate in 43 of 45 samples of conventionally grown oats. Almost ¾ of samples had higher glyphosate levels than the 160 parts per billion level EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health.

Also, around 1/3 or the 16 organic oat products the EWG tested also had glyphosate, although these levels were well below EWG’s health benchmark.

What to do? Buy organic, wash your fruits and veggies, and talk to your local farmers at farmers markets to find out how they grow their products.

Also, look for products that feature the Detox Project’s “Glyphosate Residue Free” label. This label offers extra assurance that a product does not contain glyphosate. Maybe we can put a link to the list of certified products in the shownotes? here.

And always buy organic cotton, or wash any new cotton items before use.

5. Heavy metals and other contaminants in water

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 1 in 12 Americans is exposed to potentially harmful microbes, pesticides, lead, or radioactive radon with every drink of tap water and every time they take a shower (R).

1 in 4 Native Americans living on tribal land don’t have access to safe water in their home.

The main reasons for water contamination include:

  • Crumbling water treatment infrastructure
  • Hazardous agricultural practices (largely animal agriculture and feed lots)
  • Fracking, pipelines, and other industrial activities
  • Failing environmental protections and oversight.

Installing a high-quality water filtration system is the best way to ensure safe drinking water in the home. Make sure the filter is National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) approved.

More on Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is best known for its use by undertakers, but it’s also present in a whole host of household goods including furniture, especially mattress supports in cribs and the bottoms of dresser drawers.

These furniture parts are often made with composite wood, such as plywood, particle board, or medium density fiberboard (MDF) where the glue that sticks the composite together contains formaldehyde.

For this reason, it is best to buy a crib (or other furniture) made of 100% solid wood.

Set up in 1992, the California Air Resource Board (or CARB; gotta love your CARBs) regulates formaldehyde emissions in composite wood. Look out for CARB II, a stricter standard for formaldehyde emissions from furniture.

Formaldehyde has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as “carcinogenic to humans,” based on nose and throat cancers in working populations.

Products mentioned in this episode:

Berkey water filter

Aquasana water filter


ProPur shower filter

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food. He is passionate about nutrition, genetics, and wellness and uses this blog to publish self experiments as well as some of the research that the Gene Food team does internally to highlight stories of bio-individuality.

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  1. Julia deVille says:

    Great podcast! There was a mention of a Leaf Directory but I can’t find it anywhere and I couldn’t see a link in the show notes. Did I imagine this?

  2. Markus says:

    Being in the process of building my own eco-friendly tiny house, this has been a primary focus of mine as of late. Like you mentioned, it is easy to get terrified and paranoid by all of the chemicals in regular household products nowadays. But in all of this I think we need to be discerning and focus on the most important factors and minimize our exposure as much as possible without getting obsessive.

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