It's hard to consume the news these days without stumbling upon another strange ingredient or contaminant that's been implicated in a host of health risks. Consumer Reports readers know a key reason for this: Too few chemicals are thoroughly tested for safety before being added to consumer products. Once in products, they can get into the body and leach out into the environment. Even if the government does decide to remove a chemical from the marketplace, it isn't easy to get it out of the environment and there isn't a systematic way to ensure that the ingredient used to replace it doesn't pose a risk of its own.
To change that, many organizations are advocating for changes to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), to give the Environmental Protection Agency greater authority to regulate new and existing chemicals, as well as synthetic biological substances under development.
Until this happens, concerned consumers should make an effort to learn about new hazards as they are discovered and what they can do to minimize risks. To help you get started, here's a glossary of toxins in the news.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
An ingredient of polycarbonate (one of the plastics that may have the number 7 recycling mark or the letters PC on the bottom), BPA has been linked to developmental and reproductive problems, prompting some states, municipalities and manufacturers to take steps to stop using it for children's products and materials that come in contact with food.
A group of compounds used as plasticizers and as ingredients in some pliable plastics, some perfumes and personal care products, phthalates mimic the hormone estrogen in ways that are linked to certain birth defects and reproductive problems.
This chemical is present in solid and liquid rocket fuel that has been dispersed in the environment in certain areas of the country. Perchlorate can disrupt thyroid functions, inhibiting the gland's ability to absorb iodine. This can potentially interfere with the production of hormones necessary for early development and normal metabolism.
Melamine and cyanuric acid
These nitrogen-rich compounds have been used to artificially (and illegally) boost the apparent protein content of various human and animal food products. The adulteration of pet food and infant formula in China with melamine led to critical illnesses and numerous deaths when the compounds crystallized in the urinary tract, causing severe kidney problems, particularly in infants.
These chemicals are used in a variety of non-stick coatings and stain repellents that have been found to accumulate in the human blood supply and the ecosystem and have been linked to reproductive and developmental effects in laboratory animals and recent human epidemiology studies. Contrary to popular belief, our tests suggest non-stick pans aren't a big source if not overheated.
Brominated flame retardents or Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)
These common fire retardant chemicals are used in polyurethane foam, electronics, and other materials. PBDFs have been finding their way into the ecosystem and human blood and breast milk, accumulating to levels that can potentially affect thyroid function, fetal and child development, fertility, and liver function.
Tiny substances like carbon nanotubes are being engineered at the nanometer scale for dramatic new chemical and physical properties. Some 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, nanomaterials can be more reactive, more toxic, and more accessible to critical organs, such as the brain, than their larger counterparts.
Volatile organic compounds
VOCs are a group of carbon-containing compounds that are released into the air from a variety of sources including automobile and other combustion sources, paints, coatings and adhesives. Some VOCs are potentially carcinogenic; others contribute to ozone and smog formation and are linked to respiratory illnesses and memory impairment.
Toxic metals and minerals
Mercury and lead are probably the most familiar and among the most toxic metals. As are asbestos and arsenic. These inorganic substances (meaning they don't contain carbon atoms) persist in many older homes in the form of insulation (asbestos), old paint and plumbing (lead), pressure treated decks (arsenic) and in the environment through the food chain (mercury in fish). Though many uses of these substances have been banned or phased out, some, such as lead, continue to turn up in cheap imports like kid's jewelry. Some applications, like mercury in dental amalgams and fluorescent light bulbs, have yet to be completely eliminated.