5 Health-damaging household toxins

May 16, 2012 at 6:31 p.m. ET

National Women’s Health Week is a great reminder for women to take charge of their health. But this goes beyond a healthy diet, more exercise, less stress and more sleep.

Sick woman at home

Every day we are exposed to a number of dangerous toxins that lurk in our very own home and put us at risk for certain cancers, fertility issues and other health problems. We talked with Dave Wentz, author of the New York Times bestselling guide The Healthy Home: Simple Truths to Protect Your Family from Hidden Household Dangers, to find out the most common household toxins and ways we can avoid them.

Your home can be haven or harmful

It's scary to think that the seemingly safe products and even food in our home can increase our risk of certain cancers and contribute fertility or pregnancy issues. Toxins can turn our homes from haven to harmful. "Never underestimate the impact the environment can have on your health, and never forget that the most important environment of all is in your very own home," says Wentz, who is also the CEO for USANA Health Sciences. "From hormone-mimicking plasticizers and foods sprayed with pesticides to air fresheners and hair spray, there are dangerous environmental pollutants in every single room of your home, no matter how 'clean' you may think it is."

The most common and dangerous toxins in the home

nail polishPhthalates

According to Wentz, phthalates are a class of chemicals that is used in products throughout the home to make plastic more flexible and to keep personal-care products like nail polish from becoming too stiff.

The danger: Studies have shown that certain phthalates may cause a variety of problems, including reproductive and developmental harm, organ damage, immune suppression, endocrine disruption and even cancer.

Safer alternatives: "The easiest way to minimize your exposure to these dangerous chemicals is to eliminate your use of personal-care products that contain phthalates," advises Wentz. "You’ll find phthalates listed on your product labels as Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP) or dibutyl phthalate (DBP)." He adds that it is also a good idea to reduce your use of fragrances -- from perfumes to air fresheners -- as phthalates are often used to “fix” scents.


Pesticides are rampant in our food supply and can be found on everything from fresh produce and grains to beans, nuts and seeds.

The problem: "The chemicals applied to the foods we serve our families and to the yards where we play with our children may cause a host of health problems, including memory deficits and delayed motor reflexes (for children born to mothers with a high pesticide burden)," Wentz warns.

Safer alternatives: Though we can’t completely avoid pesticides, as they are extremely persistent in the environment and are often airborne, we can control the foods we buy and the chemicals applied to our own yards and gardens. In addition to going green in our backyard garden by avoiding the use of any harsh chemical pesticides, Wentz suggests we purchase organic meats, fruits and vegetables. "These small actions will go a long way toward lowering your toxic burden and improving your health and the health of your family," the health expert adds.

waterHeavy metals

Toxic metals like lead and mercury accumulate over time in our fatty tissues, which include the brain and the reproductive organs. Possible sources of heavy metals in the home include tap water, food, paint and personal-care products.

The danger: Symptoms of toxic buildup include nausea, sweating, headaches, and sudden or severe cramping.

Safer alternatives: There are a number of things you can do in your home to reduce your exposure to heavy metals. Watch your fatty fish intake, especially if you are pregnant. That's not to say you should avoid fish, but be sure to choose safer seafood. Wentz also suggests having your home tested for lead paint, especially if you live in an older home (built before 1978), and have the lead-based paint removed. In addition, he recommends installing a reverse osmosis (RO) water purification system under your kitchen sink. "Your tap water may not make you ill with infectious disease, but that doesn’t mean the water is pure," says Wentz. "RO systems eliminate heavy metals, pesticides, dry-cleaning chemicals, chlorination byproducts and hundreds of other contaminants that are likely in your city’s tap water right now."


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include many environmental toxins. Common examples include fresh paint, hairspray, perfume and scented candles.

The problem: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the effects of VOC exposure are eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidneys and the central nervous system.

Safer alternatives: According to Wentz, we can easily minimize the VOCs in our home by simply opening a window or two. He adds. "A few other useful tips: Use a low-VOC or no-VOC paint on walls; don’t use aerosol hairspray; and opt for essential oils for fragrance instead of using scented candles."


Most beauty products -- such as shampoos, lotions and serums -- are also made with chemical preservatives to give them a longer shelf life.

The problem: Wentz says that personal care preservatives present a risk to the integrity of our skin cells, and when these preservatives are absorbed into the bloodstream, they become hazardous to the rest of our body.

Safer alternatives: We can cut down on toxic preservatives by replacing personal care products that sit on your skin all day -- like moisturizers -- with more natural, preservative-free alternatives.

More health tips for women

6 Alarming health threats to women
Why women don't take care of their health
8 Surprising secrets to live longer and look better