Health Impacts: How Harmful Are Synthetic Chemicals That Are Found In US Products?

March 16, 2021

Synthetic chemicals, often termed ‘drivers of global change’, are present in consumer products worldwide. However, some of these chemicals have been proven fatal to humans with prolonged exposure and have been referred to as ‘chemicals of high concern’. In the United States alone, the harmful effects of certain categories of synthetic chemicals have doubled in the last five years. Let us take a closer look at this issue.

Health Concerns 

Endocrine-disruptors or EDCs

Some chemicals present in plastics, flame retardants, pesticides and other everyday products damage the endocrine system. Common EDCs in circulation are phthalates, parabens, bisphenol, etc. A disrupted endocrine system throws hormonal production into disarray, leading to various medical conditions. 

These conditions could affect babies in the womb to grown adults and include: 

The widespread emergence of such health risks has led to increased healthcare expenditure. An estimated $340 billion is spent a year in the United States to cover the healthcare costs of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances 

Another group of harmful chemicals in commercial products that negatively impact the human body is PFAs, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These ‘forever chemicals’ are a group of 4,700 synthetic chemicals that do not degrade and, therefore, persist in the environment. According to a survey, 97% of Americans show the presence of PFAs in their blood. People are mainly exposed to PFAs through drinking water, food and food packaging, dust, cosmetics, PFA-coated textiles and other consumer products. Recent studies have linked PFAs to various medical conditions, including the following:

In the wake of COVID-19

According to the US Center for Disease Control, coronavirus “hospitalisations were six times higher and deaths twelve times higher among those with reported underlying conditions (including cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and neurodevelopmental disabilities) compared with those with none reported.” The dots connecting exposure to EDCs, related health problems and vulnerability to COVID-19 are becoming increasingly apparent. 

Another eye-opener is the striking racial divide that exists in the vulnerability to coronavirus. Recent studies show that black and brown Americans are more likely to be infected, hospitalised, and more likely to succumb to the disease than white Americans. Among various factors, greater exposure to chemicals of high concern has been cited as a contributing factor to these heightened vulnerabilities. Black Americans are 75% more likely to reside in areas near facilities and factories producing harmful waste, resulting in health risks and higher mortality rates. Additionally, hair relaxers and personal care products used by Black women have been found to contain higher levels of EDCs than those marketed to any other group. 

How to address the issue

While measures have been taken to eliminate the usage of harmful chemicals and bans have been brought about, hazardous chemicals crop up every day to replace them. In the United States, the fight against PFAs continues, with the EDA and state agencies at the helm. With the recent conceptualisation of the Biden Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity, steps are underway to establish maximum contaminant levels and hazardous substance designations for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most widely studied PFAs. 

Several retailers and businesses are phasing out PFAs, bisphenols, ortho-phthalates, and other high-concern chemicals in products and packaging. Last year, Amazon phased out NMP and methylene chloride from paint removal products and expanded its safer chemicals policy to the European Union. Even though developing greener, i.e., environmentally friendly and highly efficient alternatives to the aforementioned categories of synthetic chemicals, is a costly investment, the results are rewarding. 

Companies are working with chemical suppliers and chemical importers to switch to cleaner alternatives. Businesses, large and small, are setting short-term and long-term goals to reduce their chemical footprint. Walmart, for instance, has set a goal to remove toxic chemicals from apparel manufacturing by 2025. Bed Bath & Beyond has set restrictions on a list of high concern chemicals in baby and personal care products. Companies like Panera Bread have replaced vinyl gloves containing phthalate softeners with polyethylene gloves, a safer option requiring no chemical additives. These are just a few examples indicating how businesses have stepped forward to address the issue. 

On a larger scale, there are campaigns like Mind The Store and the Chemical Footprint Project that challenge companies and retailers to eliminate toxic elements and adopt sustainable measures. These have been successful in bringing forth projects like Walmart’s Sustainable Chemistry Commitment. 

California Chemicals, one of the leading chemical companies in California, has been at the forefront of ensuring clean and high-quality products to the broader community. Reach out to us for any inquiries about chemicals management and supplies. 

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