Playful, loyal, and utterly adorable, pets occupy a unique and special place in our lives. With the power to keep us healthy, active, social, and happy, our four-legged, winged, and scaly friends are so much more than amusing companions. They are considered members of the family, fulfilling such roles as best friend, snuggle buddy, guardian, child, and even therapist.
Because many animals share the same environment as humans, they can sometimes serve as an early warning system for chemical exposures and health hazards. Livestock, animals in the wild, and the companion pets that live alongside us often drink the same water, breathe the same air, and eat from the same food sources as we do.
Acting as unwitting sentinels, animals have been deliberately placed at work sites to identify human health risks. The most famed example of this is canaries in a coal mine, a species specifically chosen because of their heightened sensitivity to carbon monoxide.
In other cases, animals that became sick before the human populace did foreshadowed widespread risks to human health. During the mercury poisonings in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s, cats were the first to become ill from eating contaminated fish, exhibiting symptoms that have since been dubbed “dancing cat fever”.
Frequently, animals are the first to come into contact with harmful pollutants and contaminants – especially so in home environments. They have much more contact with floor surfaces, house dust, and soil. Their grooming behaviors also make it much more likely that they will ingest these pollutants. They tend to exhibit symptoms sooner than humans do because they have shorter lifespans, are smaller in stature, and have faster metabolisms.
Data derived from testing blood, urine, and tissue samples of companion pets can shed some light on the amount of toxins humans are exposed to around the home. As you may already know, the home is a major source of pollutants and indoor air pollution can be 2-5 times higher than it is outdoors.
But surely we don’t think of our pets as modern day canaries in a coal mine, tasked with alerting us to invisible dangers. As their caregivers, we are responsible for keeping our pets healthy, happy, and safe, as we would with any member of the family. By looking at the worst offenders when it comes to toxic chemicals present in and around the home, we can reduce the exposure of disease-causing pollutants for these beloved and vulnerable creatures, and at the same time, ensure our homes are healthier places for us too.
Used as a coating to make various products resistant to heat, oil, grease, stains, and water, perfluorochemicals (PFCs) are a class of artificial compounds that have been in use since the 1950s. Among the most notable trademarked PFCs is Teflon (and for a fascinating read on the origins of the PFOA chemical, its toxicity, and the subsequent corporate cover-up, see this article), but it is also commonly applied to carpets, clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, and dental floss.
PFCs are extremely stable and highly resistant to degradation. They persist in the environment, contaminating our water, food, soil, and air. In fact, studies have shown that nearly all people have PFCs in their blood and it takes an average of two to four years for PFC levels to go down by half, even when no new PFCs are introduced into the body. Associated with the development of liver disease, developmental delays, elevated cholesterol, hypertension, thyroid disease, and cancer, more research is still needed to definitively link PFCs with human disease.
In a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), PFCs found in the blood of dogs was nearly 3 times higher than that found in humans, while the amount found in cats was about the same as human levels. And although the PFC-human health link has yet to be determined, there’s evidence that PFCs disrupt normal endocrine activity in animals, damaging the liver, pancreas and other organs.
What You Can Do
- Filter Your Water – You can remove PFCs from your water supply by using an activated carbon filter.
- Be Mindful of Packaged Foods – Dog food bags are frequently coated in PFC, as are fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn bags.
- Don’t Use Non-Stick Cookware – Use cast-iron or stainless steel skillets instead.
- Avoid the “Stain–Resistant” Label – Carpets, furniture, and pet beds marketed as stain or water resistant should always be avoided. Choose natural fibers like cotton or wool.
- Know What to Look Out For – Brand names like Teflon, Gore-Tex, Stainmaster, and Scotchgard contain PFCs. When looking at a product’s ingredients, steer clear of items with “PTFE”, “perfluoro”, and “fluoro” listed.
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A type of chemical plasticizer, phthalates are used in products to make them softer and more flexible. From PVC and plastics (shower curtains, vinyl flooring, raincoats, medical tubing, medication capsules, and plastic wrap) to personal care products (soap, shampoo, cosmetics, skin moisturizers, perfume, and nail polish), phthalates are so ubiquitous that most of the U.S. population has a measurable amount of it in their bodies.
Entering the body through food, drink, and airborne particles, phthalates are thought to pose a risk to health. Though more research is needed, they are “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” according to the National Toxicology Program. Phthalates have also been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive issues, and birth defects.
In an effort to protect children from this chemical, in 1999 Congress banned three types of phthalates (DEHP, DBP, and BBP) in the manufacture of children’s toys as well as for child care products that are aids for sleeping, feeding, and teething. Even so, phthalates are still found in house dust and can leach out of plastics and into the product itself as, for example, in the case of baby shampoo.
For our beloved pets, the situation is bleaker still. Since there is virtually no government regulation on plastic pet products like chew toys, many phthalate chemicals have been found at high levels in canines especially. Testing for phthalates in dog urine, the EWG found DEHP, DBP, and DEHP (the same phthalates banned in children’s toys) to be at elevated levels as compared with humans. Because dogs chew and mouth their plastic toys, the wear and tear stresses the chemical bond which allows more of the toxins to leach into their mouths.
What You Can Do
- Avoid Fragrance – Most of the time, if the product is labelled with “fragrance” or “perfume”, it probably contains phthalates. Opt instead for products that are naturally scented with essential oils.
- Look at Recycling Codes – Products with recycling codes 3 and 7 are likely to contain phthalates. When buying plastics, choose those marked with recycling codes 1, 2 or 5.
- Purchase Pet-Safe Toys – Certain retailers, like West Paw Design, make toys for pets that are BPA and phthalate-free.
- Go Certified Organic – Phthalates are also used in pesticides so another way to avoid them is to start eating organic foods.
- Store Food Safely – In lieu of plastic containers, store your leftover food in glass or stainless steel. And never microwave food while it’s in a plastic container!
- Know What to Look Out For – Stay away from products with “phth” in the ingredients: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), phthalic acid, phthalic anhydride, phthalic glycols.
Flame Retardant Chemicals
Added to home furnishings, textiles, building materials, and electronics, chemical fire retardants have been used on consumer products for decades, but unfortunately, they don’t offer much protection from fire and actually make the fumes from a fire more toxic. In spite of this, furniture continues to be treated with flame retardants, to the detriment of the environment and human health.
Although one of the earliest flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), was banned in the US in 1977 when it was discovered to be cancer-causing, it is still quite prevalent in the environment. Entering the air, water, and soil, it can still be found in lighting fixtures and electrical appliances that are 30 years or more old.
Another fire retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) is a major environmental pollutant that is chemically similar to PCBs, and poses a serious risk to human health. Associated with thyroid hormone disruption, permanent brain damage, and cancer, PBDEs are still a common additive to a vast array of consumer goods. Only a handful of states have placed regulations on this toxic chemical.
In the EWG study, cats fared much worse than their canine cohorts. While total PBDEs in humans averaged 42.1 ng/g lipid weight in blood serum, felines were pegged at a stunning 986 ng/g and dogs measured in at 113 ng/g.
While PBDE exposure has been associated with inhaling house dust and consuming contaminated seafood, the increased level in cats could be partially explained by the very feline proclivity to laze about on upholstered furniture and bedding. One study has already linked PBDE exposure with an uptick in feline thyroid disease.
What You Can Do
- Educate Yourself – Get to know the 7 common flame retardant chemicals and don’t be shy about asking retailers whether these toxins are present in your prospective purchases.
- Shop Flame Retardant-Free – You can find shopping guides for where to purchase flame retardant-free furnishings here, here, and here. Look for cushioning or padding that uses materials like wool, cotton, down, and polyester (and NOT polyurethane foam), since these are unlikely to have been treated with flame retardants.
- Vacuum with a HEPA Filter – Because flame retardant chemicals are found in house dust, vacuums fitted with a HEPA filter can trap 99.97% of airborne particles. You may also wish to purchase a HEPA air purifier.
- Look at the Label – Until very recently, Californian law required all upholstered furniture to be treated with flame retardants with the label “Technical Bulletin 117” or “TB 117”. If your furniture has this tag, you’ve got chemicals. As of January 1, 2015, a new law went into effect which allowed manufacturers to produce goods without flame retardants and are labelled “TB 117-2013”. See examples of the new labelling system here.
- Sign the Petition – Are you hopping mad yet? Sign the petition to take the toxic chemicals out of your couch.
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Despite being a known human carcinogen, formaldehyde is a common chemical used in everything from building materials and insulation, composite wood products, paints, lacquers and finishes, glues, fabrics, fertilizers and pesticides, and as a preservative for medicines, cosmetics, fabric softeners, and dishwashing liquids – to name just a few places you’ll find this colorless, pungent-smelling gas.
Classed as a volatile organic compound, formaldehyde is released into the air when kept at room temperature. Inhaled, absorbed through the skin, and consumed via foods treated with fumigants, fertilizers, or preservatives, human and animal exposure to formaldehyde is fairly pervasive. It is considered toxic to all animals, regardless of how one is exposed to it. And yet, this noxious substance hasn’t been outright banned.
What You Can Do
- “Off-Gas” New Purchases – Formaldehyde readily breaks down when exposed to fresh air. New purchases (such as upholstered furniture, permanent press fabrics, carpets, and anything containing pressed wood or particle board) should be set outdoors for several hours before bringing them into the home.
- Open Your Windows – Keep the home well-ventilated, especially when painting or during renovations.
- Scrutinize Product Labels – Formaldehyde can be found in shampoos for humans and pets. You’ll want to stay away from products that contain Quaternium-15, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, and Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
- Opt for Other Materials – Rayon, cotton, wool, metal, solid wood, and stainless steel are unlikely to contain formaldehyde.
- Smoke Outside – If you smoke cigarettes, do it outdoors.
- Maintain Moderate Temperatures – More formaldehyde will be released when home temperature and humidity are consistently high.
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Killing off weeds, insects, and other unwanted organisms, chemical pesticides are so powerful that their continued and widespread use has been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, neurological deficits, and hormone disruption in humans. Released into the air and soil, pesticides have been found in streams, wells, groundwater, and rain, and have had a deadly impact on bird, bee, fish, and amphibian populations.
Pets are often the first to come into contact with a freshly treated garden or lawn, exposed to herbicide chemicals by direct inhalation, absorption through the skin, consuming treated grasses, and ingesting it when they lick their paws. Leading to higher rates of bladder cancer, researchers found 19 of 25 dogs tested had lawn chemicals in their urine.
Even if you don’t spray your lawn with pesticides, the chemicals from a yard treated up to 50 feet away can “drift” into your own backyard and spread to your pet. Once a companion animal is exposed, they can track the chemicals indoors which heightens the exposure for the entire household. And while the study noted that pesticides remained on lawns for more than 48 hours, just how long they linger is still unknown.
Even more troubling is the incidence of pet poisonings from flea and tick medications. It’s easy to assume that insecticides used on pets in the form of shampoos, collars, and topical treatments would be rigorously tested and deemed safe for animals before being so readily available in stores. Sadly, many of the chemical ingredients in flea and tick products – pyrethroids, organophosphates, and carbamates – are “likely” to be carcinogens, resulting in pet illnesses and sometimes death.
What You Can Do
- Natural Treatments – There are plenty of ways to combat weeds and garden pests and insects and fleas without the use of chemicals.
- Clean Paws – Especially when your cat or dog is free-ranging, be sure to clean their paws thoroughly before letting them inside your home.
- Choose a Lawn Alternative – Requiring less energy and resources to maintain, check out these smart alternatives to grass.
- Talk to Your Neighbors – Even if you don’t use lawn chemicals, your neighbors might. Here are some tips on how to discuss second-hand pesticides in a friendly, non-threatening way.
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