Demand for products marketed “organic” and “chemical-free” is surging these days, as cautious consumers are worried about chemicals in everything from apples to wrinkle removers. But does “chemical-free” actually mean something is safer? Neuroscientist Alison Bernstein, PhD, says no. “People say ‘chemical-free but it’s really meaningless since everything, technically speaking, is a chemical.”
In the past, highly toxic chemicals, like the pesticide DDT, were once regularly used by farmers and pest control specialists in the US. Thanks in part to the efforts of the environmental movement, which in turn led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, most of these worrisome chemicals have since been replaced by less toxic alternatives. But it’s not uncommon to see headlines today claiming our food is awash in poisonous chemicals or that something as beneficial as sunscreen could cause cancer. Pesticides, sunscreen, flame resistant pajamas, even BPA-free plastics all contain chemicals. So, which products are safe and which are best avoided?
Just because something is a ‘chemical’ doesn’t mean it’s dangerous.
By definition, virtually everything is a chemical, which is why Bernstein thinks the term “chemical-free” is meaningless and “pure marketing.” Take organic produce. It isn’t chemical-free or pesticide-free. The organic label indicates these crops are grown with natural pesticides rather than synthetic ones, but that doesn’t mean the food is safer or even more nutritious. The USDA tests conventional produce every year to ensure that pesticide residues meet their safety standards, and year after year these tests show pesticide residues across a wide range of crops to be well below established safety markers.
Natural doesn’t always mean safe.
Whether a chemical is natural or synthetic tells you nothing about its toxicity. Almost anything can be toxic — what really matters is the dose — that’s why the basic principle of toxicology is “the dose makes the poison.” When evaluating the health effects of chemicals, Bernstein urges people to “be aware of our biases in favor of the natural and against the synthetic.” Cyanide, for example, is perfectly natural — but it can definitely kill you.
Myth: All chemicals build up in your body and cause you harm.
All chemicals aren’t created equal. Even though concerns abound about glyphosate, the active ingredient in the pesticide sold under the brand name RoundUp, it’s actually less acutely toxic than caffeine. Glyphosate is water-soluble, which means it does not bioaccumulate (most of it is flushed out when you pee) or build up in the body over time. According to Bernstein, water-soluble chemicals, “including pesticides like RoundUp, household cleaners, even vaccines, don’t build up in your body because they don’t have the kind of chemical structure that causes a chemical to accumulate.”
There’s no such thing as ‘chemical-free’ sunscreen.
Sunscreen is another product you don’t need to fret over. In fact, be wary of paying more for something labeled “chemical-free,” since organic, natural and mineral sunscreens all contain chemicals. Though environmental health organizations like the Environmental Working Group have warned against ingredients found in “chemical” sunscreens such as retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone, the scientific evidence doesn’t support that advice. Most scientists and physicians agree that, as long as the SPF is appropriate, mineral or so-called “chemical” sunscreens are both safe and effective. In other words, just wear your sunscreen. As Bernstein cautions, you face a “much larger, very real risk of melanoma if you choose to avoid sunscreen altogether or use [something “natural” like] coconut oil, which does not block UV light and is [still] made of chemicals.”
That doesn’t mean all chemicals are safe. High exposure can mean higher risk.
That’s not to say all chemicals are safe. Chlorpyrifos, an insecticide banned for home use but still used in agriculture, is far more toxic than Roundup. Studies of agricultural communities and other groups with high exposures have linked chlorpyrifos to neurodevelopmental problems and poor birth outcomes. The EPA recently completed a review of chlorpyrifos and, despite concerns raised by environmental groups and EPA scientists, declined to ban the pesticide.
Whether organic or conventional, wash your fruits and vegetables.
So does this mean you should be panicking about eating fruits and vegetables treated with chlorpyrifos? Well, probably not. Lori Hoepner, DrPH, is an environmental health scientist who researches environmental impacts on maternal and fetal health, including chlorpyrifos. She reminds us that most of the worrisome research on this pesticide looked at communities with high exposures to the chemical, primarily farm workers and their families.
Whether you eat organic or conventional produce, the National Pesticide Information Center says you can reduce pesticide exposure by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables (to avoid exposure to any single pesticide), washing produce under cool running water (don’t soak), scrubbing firm fruits and vegetables, removing the outer layer of leafy vegetables and peeling fruits and vegetables whenever possible before eating.
Skip fire-resistant pajamas and furniture.
One group of chemicals Hoepner says should definitely be avoided, especially if you’re a parent or pregnant, are flame retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, primarily used in children’s pajamas and upholstered furniture. To avoid these, parents should look for pajamas labeled “not fire resistant.” Many furniture companies are phasing out use of PBDEs to comply with stricter California regulations, but exposure could still be an issue in older upholstery, so think twice about used furniture made after the 1970s. Also, if you’re buying new furniture, Hoepner recommends you check with the company for its policy on PBDEs. You can also follow the EPA’s tips to reduce PBDE exposures: wash your hands and your children’s hands frequently, especially before eating, vacuum and dust frequently with a moist cloth and be sure to repair tears in upholstery. More tips can be found here.
News isn’t science.
Scary-sounding headlines about many of these chemicals can cause unnecessary worry, so keep your fear in check with this great bit of advice from Bernstein: There’s a difference between news and science. The results of one study might make news, but generally won’t change science, so be skeptical of over-the-top sounding headlines. “It’s highly unlikely that the results of one study would be enough to persuade you to change your behavior, especially if that single study is inconsistent with most other studies,” Bernstein says.
Marketing isn’t science either. For example, most BPA-free plastic products on the market are actually made with a very similar chemical known as BPS or Bisphenol S. Bernstein says: “companies gave consumers exactly what they wanted – BPA free products. Unfortunately, they replaced BPA with BPS, a nearly identical chemical with a very similar toxicological profile that scientists have a lot less data on.”
The best things you can do are check your facts, exercise and eat your vegetables.
Above all else, Bernstein reminds us what’s really important is “eating lots of fruits and healthy vegetables, reducing sugar and salt intake…getting regular exercise, getting a few minutes of sunlight each day but wearing sunscreen for longer exposures, and not smoking. Often all of these things have a better net benefit than any of these exposures have a net harm.” If you have concerns, pay attention to the EPA and regulatory changes that are underway, avoid truly toxic and worrisome chemicals like flame retardant chemicals in clothing and furniture, but also remember that some of the simplest actions are actually the most effective.