Common Toxic Chemicals — And How To Avoid Them

For better or worse, synthetic chemicals have become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Despite their many useful applications, plenty of these substances also have an extensive history of causing harm. Researchers suspect a good deal more of having similar negative effects, but have not conducted a sufficient number of studies to fully understand their levels of toxicity.

Though the exact danger of many of these chemicals is still unclear, the fact that they are getting into our bodies is undeniable. Indeed, a recent study by the CDC found that over 200 environmental chemicals were present in many Americans. Examples of such chemicals include arsenic, cadmium, pesticides, flame retardants, PFOAs, and perchlorate, all of which scientists have proven to be toxic. They, and many others, may be at least partially responsible for the sharply rising rates of autism, attention deficit disorders, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.

For the most part, these toxins are of concern due to their carcinogenicity (tendency to cause cancer) or potential to disrupt the endocrine system. The latter class of effects can be particularly harmful for fetuses, infants, and young children. Even minor disruptions in the endocrine system of these groups can cause massive problems down the road. Issues with the structure and functioning of the reproductive system, drops in IQ, and other cognitive problems, have all been linked to toxin-related endocrine disruptions.

These effects can be greatly exacerbated if exposure happens early in life. In fact, there are some toxins that will do relatively little to child, but can have huge consequences for the development of an early stage fetus. Therefore, pregnant mothers should take great care to shield themselves from dangerous compounds.

While it can be unsettling to learn and think about the dangers chemicals may be putting us in, doing so can help protect your health, and the health of your family. Thankfully, you can avoid exposure to many of the most common toxins through a few very simple measures.

It is, of course, difficult to avoid something if you don’t know where it is. Fortunately, ever more information is coming out about the products and materials that may contain these compounds, and which safe alternatives you can use as replacements.

The list below includes some of the most common toxins, along with potential routes of exposure, and precautionary actions you can take to avoid them.

Polyvinyl Chloride

  • Polyvinyl chloride contains phthalates (discussed later on) which were actually banned from being used in the production of children’s toys in the U.S. It can also contain lead and cadmium.
  • If you want to reduce exposure, minimize contact with PVC products, and make sure that your children do the same. PVC is still used in some school supplies such as lunch boxes, backpacks, and binders. Products containing it often carry the label “vinyl.” It can also be worth testing water that may run through PVC pipes to insure it does not contain excessive levels of the substance.
  • The recycling number 3 indicates that a product contains PVC.
  • For more info on how to spot and avoid PVC, click on the links below…

Fire Retardants


  • Dioxins can disrupt the endocrine system, cause cancer, and create issues with the reproductive system. Fortunately, their use has been greatly reduced in the past several decades.
  • They are a common byproduct of burning many materials, including those that may be seemingly innocuous, such as wood. Once released, dioxins flow through the environment and can bioaccumulate in living organisms.
  • To reduce exposure, refrain from burning trash and cut down on the consumption of fish.
  • To learn more about dioxins, click here…


  • Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, is an industrial chemical that is frequently used in the production of plastics and resins.
  • Food containers, particularly cans and bottle tops, often contain the BPA.
  • There are concerns about the effects that BPA may be having on the brain and prostate gland of young children and fetuses. Research has also indicated a possible link between BPA exposure and increased blood pressure.
  • To reduce your exposure to this chemical, try to select containers marked BPA free, cut back on your consumption of canned foods, and avoided heating polycarbonate products (you can do this by not putting them in the microwave and or dishwasher.) Also bear in mind the fact that containers marked “BPA free” might still contain bisphenols, such as bisphenol S, which have also been shown to be potentially harmful.
  • Receipts often contain BPA, so try to avoid touching them if you can.
  • For more information on BPA, click on the links below…


  • This toxic element can be found in food, drinking water, and tobacco leaves. It is both an endocrine disruptor and a carcinogen, and has been linked to weight gain, immunosuppression, insulin resistance, growth retardation, and skin, bladder, and lung cancer. You can reduce your chances of exposure by filtering your drinking water and refraining from smoking.
Credit: Kelly Michals, FlickrCC


  • Estimated to cause over 20,000 deaths from lung cancer per year in the U.S alone, this airborne toxin is a serious problem. Opening windows and sealing cracks are a great way of reducing exposure.
  • You can also order a radon test kit to determine whether levels in your house are out of the safe zone.
  • To learn more about radon, click here…


  • Manufacturers use teflon to coat non-stick cookware.
  • Exposure to this substance has been associated with several health issues. Though regulations have made teflon safer in recent years, many are still concerned that it could be having deleterious effects. If you’re concerned about exposure, consider switching to stainless steel or cast iron cookware. If you use non-stick pans, it’s probably a good idea to not use them for cooking at temperatures above 570 degrees Fahrenheit (The temperature at which Teflon coatings begin to break down and percolate into the air.)
  • To learn more about Teflon, click here…


  • Though just about everyone knows that lead poisoning can cause issues, there is less knowledge about ways in which you can reduce your exposure to this heavy metal. Some good strategies include testing your water for lead and filtering it if lead is present, only using lead free paint, and making sure to buy only lead free toys for your children (lead is still used in the manufacture of some toys, particularly those from foreign countries.)
  • To learn more about the symptoms of lead poisoning, the long term health problems it can cause, and more ways in which you can avoid it, click here…

Polyfluorinated Compounds

  • These substances have rightly been experiencing a rising amount of coverage in the media. This is largely due to their nearly ubiquitous presence in human bloodstreams, and links to diseases such as heart disease and testicular cancer. One of the best known ways in which you can reduce your potential of being exposed to dangerous amounts of these substances is by filtering your drinking water.
  • You can test your water for PFCs.
  • You can learn more about the current body of knowledge on PFCs by clicking here…


  • Studies have shown that adding fluoride to a water supply can reduce rates of tooth decay, and fluoride can actually be found in natural water. However, studies have also shown fluoride to be a neurotoxin, and indicate that it can lead to tooth discoloration and bone problems. Though care has been taken to insure fluoride levels in water are at safe limits, there are other sources of fluoride in the environment that could be pushing your levels past the safe zone.
  • You can reduce your exposure levels by filtering your tap water before drinking it (Or drinking spring water), using non-fluoride toothpastes, eating more fresh and organic food, drinking less bottled black tea (which often contains high fluoride levels), and not cooking with non-stick Teflon pans.


  • There is a tremendous amount of misinformation on the electromagnetic waves put out by cell towers, wifi routers, and other common emitters. Hardcore believers in the dangers of EMFs frequently promulgate false articles that greatly exaggerate the risks these energies pose. Conversely, hardcore skeptics often claim EMFs are undeniably safe and that there is simply no cause for concern. In reality, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
  • Fortunately, plenty of moderates are conducting quality research on the topic, and rationally analyzing the existing data. The evidence they have compiled strongly suggests that EMFs are not entirely innocuous, and that they warrant further investigation.
  • To reduce your exposure to EMFs, you can keep your phone on airplane mode when it’s in your pocket and turn your wifi router off at night.
  • Click here to watch a talk on the scientific evidence pointing to the dangers of EMFs, delivered by Dr. Devra Davis, at The University of Melbourne…


  • This common herbicide leaches from fields into drinking water has been strongly linked to hormonal irregularities. From the feminization of frogs, to the disruption of periods in midwest women, atrazine has been having serious effects on both human and animal life. A study comparing period regularity between women in Vermont and women in Illinois (where the chemical is regularly applied to cornfields) found that women in the latter state were five times as likely to report period irregularities. It also found that the more water the midwest women drank per day, the less likely their periods were to be regular.
  • If you’d like to reduce your exposure to atrazine, consider buying organic, wash all your produce, and filter your drinking water.
  • The following links provide additional information on atrazine…



  • Phthalates are a class of compounds used in the manufacture of plastics. In recent years, there has been a tremendous amount of concern about their potential links to issues such as low IQ, diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, impairment to the male reproductive system, autism spectrum disorders and type 2 diabetes.
  • Unfortunately, it is very hard to avoid phthalates. The fact that they are harmful has only recently become well known, and they are still present in many products. However, you can limit your exposure by avoiding any food product packaged in a container made from “recycling code-3” plastic, and products with the vague word “fragrance” in their list of ingredients. Putting effort into buying food products stored in glass containers is another good measure.
  • To learn more about phthalates, click here…


  • Perchlorate is a compound comprised of four oxygen atoms bound to one chlorine atom. It has a wide number of industrial applications and is also a likely carcinogen and proven endocrine disruptor. It can be present in both food and water, and is now found in the bloodstream of nearly every living person.
  • Unfortunately, water filters that can remove perchlorate are difficult to find. If you’d like to reduce your exposure to the substance, consider researching whether it is present in your local water supply, and sourcing water from something other than your tap if it is.
  • Factoring a sufficient amount of iodine into your diet can help to reduce perchlorate’s negative effects.
  • To learn more about perchlorate, click here…

Glycol ethers

  • Manufacturers often add these substances to cleaning products due to their solvent properties. Exposure to small amounts of glycol ethers can damage the kidneys and liver. Long term exposure can negatively affect the blood, and can also lead to neurological issues.
  • Glycol ethers are present in some cleaning products and cosmetics.
  • To reduce your exposure to these substances, use caution when working with substances that have 2-METHOXYETHANOL, 2-ETHOXYETHANOL, and 2-BUTOXYETHANOL, in their ingredients list.
  • To learn more about glycol ethers, click here…

 Key Takeaways and Additional Tips

  • Installing a water filter is one of the best things you can do to reduce the number of toxins entering your body. For a list of top rated water filters from Popular Mechanics, click here…
  • Buy a houseplant; they act as air filters. According to CNN, a houseplant can remove up to 90% of common toxins (Such as VOCs and formaldehyde) present in indoor air.
  • Have your water tested.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
  • Open your windows. Off-gassing from products such as furniture and curtains greatly lowers the quality of indoor air. In general, outdoor air is cleaner. Opening your windows is a simple and easy way to improve the quality of the air inside your home. Remember to do this even in the winter, when pollutant levels in indoor air are at their highest.
  • If you enjoy burning candles indoors, go with beeswax. Conventional candles often release toxins, such as benzene and formaldehyde into the air when burned.
  • Use certified green cleaners, or alternative natural cleaners such as baking soda and vinegar.
  • Invest in a high quality air purifier.
  • Be careful of chemically treated woods.
  • Vacuum and wet dust your home. Doing so will stop pollutants in dust from becoming airborne and being inhaled.
  • Take your shoes off before going into your house. Shoes can track toxins such as herbicides, pesticides, lawn fertilizer, and road oil onto your carpet. This is especially an issue if you have a young child who frequently touches the floor.
  • If you have an old plumbing system and no filter, you might want to consider letting the sink run for a minute or two before drinking from it.
  • Don’t eat burned meat. Burning meat creates carcinogenic compounds.
  • When purchasing the products listed below, do some research on the chemicals they might contain, and look for green alternatives when appropriate…

Cookware and Food Containers

Water Bottles


Hygiene Products


Building Materials

Cleaning Products