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Uncovering the toxins in our daily lives

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Spring

Contents

A new book by a lecturer in public health describes what’s safe and what’s not in household products.

Toxicologist Gary Ginsberg, Ph.D., has good news about the environmental contaminants we encounter in our daily lives. “One of the major myths is that the environment is worse than it’s ever been,” said Ginsberg, the senior toxicologist at the Connecticut Department of Public Health and a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health. “As a matter of fact, a lot of things are better now than they ever were.”

For instance, pesticides used in farming are less hazardous and less persistent than the banned chemicals of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Paint and gasoline no longer contain lead. Asbestos has been phased out of building materials, and intact asbestos can be safely left in place. And although a staggering number of people are worried about mold in homes and schools, Ginsberg said that humans have lived with mold for millennia, and the fungus is unlikely to cause lung damage. “It’s a crop you don’t want to grow in your house, but it’s something you shouldn’t freak out about.”

Still, research and reporting regularly bring to light serious risks from toxic chemicals, said Ginsberg, “and the headlines don’t answer the specifics of your situation.” To help the public distinguish between major and minor risks, Ginsberg collaborated with health department colleague Brian Toal, M.S.P.H., to write a guide, What’s Toxic, What’s Not, published in 2006.

“Rather than answer questions one phone call at a time, we decided we would try to put it all together in a somewhat encyclopedic but accessible way,” said Ginsberg. He and Toal considered a range of potential hazards: hormones in hamburgers, carcinogens in bubble bath, toxic fumes from overheated Teflon and volatile chemicals in toilet cleansers and drain uncloggers. (Ginsberg said that using harsh cleaners is “like using the atom bomb to clean the bathroom.” He recommends hot water and detergent instead.) The authors discuss power lines, toxic waste dumps and cancer clusters.

Ginsberg cites the top five risks Americans face as radon gas, indoor air pollution, mercury in fish, lead paint and carbon monoxide. The book advises readers to test for carcinogenic radon gas at home and to vent appliances and woodstoves properly, to burn only dry hardwoods and to clean chimneys regularly. Because most fish contain mercury, the book suggests no more than two fish meals per week, with only one containing farmed fish. People living in houses more than 30 years old should watch for chipping paint, especially on windowsills. Occupants of houses built before 1987 should test their drinking water for lead, and all children should get blood tests for lead at ages 1 and 2.

Ginsberg himself buys such products as dish soap and shampoo at the health food store rather than the supermarket. Dangers in supermarket items include volatile organic compounds in cleaning products as well as reproductive toxins and carcinogens in cosmetics. “There’s no gatekeeper at the supermarket, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn’t regulate these things,” Ginsberg said.

With each new headline in the media, Ginsberg gets new questions. For example, consumers have begun worrying about plastic baby bottles and water bottles containing Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used since the 1950s to make polycarbonate plastics that was developed in the 1930s as a synthetic estrogen. Recent animal studies have shown that BPA can disrupt the endocrine system. The Canadian government announced in October 2008 that it is banning polycarbonate baby bottles containing BPA. To provide information about such emerging issues, Ginsberg has established a website: whatstoxic.org. He also hosts a radio show, Greener Living with ‘Dr. G,’ which can be heard (locally or on the Internet) on WTIC-AM, Saturdays from 4 to 6 p.m.