Better living through chemistry. It may be an old joke, but it's the modern way of daily life in America.
You can't get away from chemicals if you try, and the truth is, in many cases you wouldn't want to.
Chemicals clean your clothes, help breakfast slide onto your plate, and make life a lot more convenient.
But a flurry of new research shows that some chemicals from food and household products are seeping into our bodies. While many are harmless, others may be downright toxic.
Dr. Phillip Landrigan: All of us, all of us in America are exposed to dozens, even hundreds, of chemicals our grandparents and our parents weren't exposed to … They're in blood, they're in urine, they're in breast milk, they're in the cord blood of newborn infants ... We really know very little about the toxicity of these chemicals and to me as a pediatrician, that's worrisome.
How do you live? What choices do you make? Are you just cozying up to chemical America without even thinking about it?
Scientists can measure the levels of toxins in our systems by analyzing our blood and urine in what are called "body burden" tests.
The tests are expensive, and not readily available to the public. But Dateline arranged to have the tests done on two families who were willing to share their results publicly and find out just how "toxic" they really are.
Meet our first family. We'll call them "the Greens." They live in Sonoma, Calif.
Andrea is a strict vegan, saying "I don't eat dairy. I don't eat eggs. No butter, of course. And I don't even use animal products. I don't wear leather or wool or silk."
Her husband Steve is a vegetarian, and they've raised their daughters, 13-year-old Marielle and 11-year-old Jordan, as vegetarians as well.
Josh Mankiewicz, Dateline NBC: Your girls have never had any meat?Steve: Never had any meat.Josh Mankiewicz: Any interest in it?Marielle: No.Jordan: No, not really.Josh Mankiewicz: No?Girls: Nope.Andrea: Well, maybe they had a little bit. I'm thinking when they were learning to crawl they did get into the cat chow once.
But it's not just the decision to leave the meat-eating to their cats that makes "the Greens" so green.
Andrea: Starting with household products, cleaning products … When we buy them, we buy more natural versions … We purchase food, mostly organic foods, anywhere from produce to dry pasta, our mustard. You know pretty much everything in our cabinets or 80 percent is organic.
This organic, all-natural approach even extends to the roof over their heads. Their home is solar-powered and built chemical-free.
Josh Mankiewicz: Do people consider you extreme? Nutty? Wacky? Are you guys those wacky Californians everybody makes jokes about?Andrea: We're the wacky Californians to the non-Californians...Steve: We've decided this is how we want to live our lives. And we think there are long term benefits to living our life this way. That, number one, we'll be healthier. That we potentially will live healthier, more vibrant lives, especialy as we get older.Josh Mankiewicz: But you're not really actively out there proselytizing for this?Andrea: I’ve started a Web site, greenworkinprogress.com. And it's you know for people who are interested...Steve: We're not knocking on doors and saying “Hi, we're the green people, here to help you live your life.” You know, we're never going to go that far.
Because they've put so much thought into their diet and their environment, "the Greens" are especially curious to see what a body burden test will show.
Josh Mankiewicz: I get the feeling that you guys are going to be a little disappointed--Steve: Yeah...Josh Mankiewicz: --if you're not at least a little bit lower than our other family.Andrea: We'll have to see. We'll have to see...
Meet "The Browns"
That other family, we're calling them "the Browns," are much closer to your average American family.
Josh Mankiewicz: What did you have for breakfast and what did you have for lunch?Dale: Breakfast, I had two eggs and two slices of provolone cheese, then for lunch I had top sirloin steak...Joan: I had an egg sandwich that Dale made me and for lunch I had a turkey sandwich and a tangerine and that's it.Robert: For breakfast I had a bowl of cereal and for lunch I had pizza with some orange soda.Chris: For breakfast I had a Balance bar and then for lunch I had two fish tacos.
Dale, Joan, 15-year-old Robert, and 18-year-old son Chris also live in California, and they say their hectic lives often lead straight to the drive-thru.
Josh Mankiewicz: How many of the dietary choices you make every day are made because you got a job, you got a job, you're in college, and you're in high school and everybody's in a hurry?Dale: We work 40 to 60 hours a week. You know, my wife works at least that much. The boys are involved in athletics, so even when we're not working more than an eight hour day at work, we're going off to some sporting event after that. By the time you're home, it's 8, 9 o'clock at night frequently.Josh Mankiewicz: And you want to grab whatever's most convenient?Dale: Right. There's no time to prepare and put the effort there.Josh Mankiewicz: What about home products? Soap, detergents, lotion, cosmetics, stuff to get out stains. Who buys those things in the family?Dale: I buy all those.Josh Mankiewicz: Do you worry about what's in them? Or do you just worry about how effective they are?Dale: I worry about how effective and cost.Josh Mankiewicz: And the reason for that is what? That if it was really harmful it would say so on the bottle or if you're not, I’m not eating it, I’m spraying it on the rug?Dale: Correct. It's not something we're ingesting.Josh (to the boys): Do you ever think about “Gee, what's in that detergent? Or what's in hand soap? Or what's in that orange soda I had?”Chris: No. I always think those things are probably, like soap especially, will probably be like safe because it cleans your hands and stuff.Josh Mankiewicz: You've by now heard about the other family that we're talking to that sort of lives green. All four of them are vegetarians. Their mom is a vegan. The kids have never had any meat in their whole lives and they're very careful about what products they buy and bring into their home.Dale: God bless 'em...Josh Mankiewicz: How do you think you'll stack up relative to the other family?Dale: I’m not that concerned.Joan: Well, I'm hoping we'd be the same, but all you hear about on the news is about the chemicals and how your body's absorbing the chemicals from makeups and bottled water and everything, so there could be a difference.Josh (to Dale): You're not worried?Dale: I’m not worried on that one.Joan: I hope your blood results can back that. (laughter)
We sent both families' blood and urine samples to Axys analytical labs in Canada to see how many toxins have literally become a part of them.
We tested for 76 different industrial chemicals.
And now the results are in.
Josh Mankiewicz: Family A has 43 chemicals and family B -- that's you -- has 42 chemicals.Steve: Yeah, we won! (laughter)
Not so fast. This is more than a numbers game.
The amount of each chemical in your body can be much more telling than how many chemicals you have overall.
Perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, are found mostly in non-stick, stain-proof and grease-proof coatings on cookware, furniture, clothing and fast food containers.
Dale: Ah, that pan, I’ve got to stop using it!
For Dale, who does most of the cooking for "the Browns," hearing that his beloved non-stick pans were a likely source of PFCs was frustrating.
Dale: As soon as the pan has obviously started losing its coating, we replace it because I am concerned. But clearly even though we've done that, it's still in my system.
The “Brown” family had three times as much PFCs as the “Green” family. To Andrea, it's a no-brainer.
Andrea: We purposely avoid Teflon pans. We were shopping the other day and it was hard to find ones without it. But it's better. It may take a little more elbow grease, but it's worth it...Josh Mankiewicz: No Teflon, no Gore-Tex, no Scotchgard?Andrea: Goodness, no! Josh Mankiewicz: “Goodness, no”?! Those are the things that made America great! Andrea: Better living through chemistry, right? (laughs)
Next, we tested for parabens -- chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetics and products like moisturizers, shampoos, shave gel and toothpaste.
Long before we got any results back, Joan -- from the “Brown” family -- was questioning what's in her personal care products.
Joan: I’ve been reading in the news lately about lotions and makeup and things and all the chemicals in those products. And there's a little concern.Josh Mankiewicz: And does it worry you?Joan: A little bit...Josh Mankiewicz: Do you wear makeup every day?Joan: Yes.Josh Mankiewicz: And do you ever think when you’re putting makeup on, "Maybe I’m giving myself some sort of hazardous chemical that's not going to go away?”Joan: (laughs) Well...Josh Mankiewicz: Or do you think to yourself "I hope this is the right shade."Joan: I think to myself, “I hope this is the right shade!"
Both moms, Joan and Andrea, were in the moderate range -- but Joan had more than four times Andrea’s levels. And both moms had more than either of the dads or the kids.
Joan: I don't think I can get away from using lotions and things like that. It's in everything, it looks like.
Phthalates are hard to spell, but easy to detect in virtually every American -- and in every member of both our families.
They're used to make plastic products from water bottles to children's toys to shower curtains, and are also a key ingredient in paint, cosmetics, and anything with fragrance.
Robert and Chris, the “Brown” kids, had the highest levels of phthalates of any member of either family. In fact, their levels were higher than 76 percent of people who have ever been tested for phthalates by the Centers for Disease Control.
But they don't know why.
Chris: I used to paint houses, and I used sealants on decks and stuff. And I drink lots of bottled water.Josh Mankiewicz: You probably don't think of that affecting your health?Chris: No...Josh Mankiewicz: And you?Robert: I drink a lot of bottled fluids and I microwave a lot in plastic.Joan: Oh gosh...Josh Mankiewicz: You don't look happy...Joan: No...Josh Mankiewicz: You were afraid of this ... I’m thinking you probably don't perceive plastic containers as anything more than a convenience.Dale: Correct.Josh Mankiewicz: If you have health concerns, it's probably more what's in the container than the container itself.Dale: Never thought of the container. You're absolutely right.
Last year, California banned phthalates in baby and children's products, and Europe outlawed it in cosmetics, too. Andrea’s ban is even older.
Andrea: From a very early age, we took in very few plastic toys. The girls played with wooden blocks. I mean, there were plastic toys -- we don't live in a bubble -- because bubbles are made of plastic (laughs) but it's always been a conscious effort.Marielle: If you go somewhere, like if we were little and went to a friend's house, there could have been toys that had it.Jordan: Or if we went to someone else's house and they had different soap, or a public bathroom...Josh Mankiewicz: And your parents don't say don't wash your hands at someone else's house--Jordan: Definitely not!
When we tested for triclosan, a pesticide found in most anti-bacterial liquid hand soap, the “Greens” showed barely a trace. The browns were in the low-to-moderate range.
Josh Mankiewicz: Joan and Robert are low. (To Robert:) You've never done a dish a day in your life so that I understand. (laughter, then to Joan:) You, I don't understand.Joan: I wear gloves!
The “Greens” wage war on dirt the old fashioned way.
Steve: We eat healthy and create strong bodies with good immune systems.
The “Browns” depend on a little extra help.
Josh Mankiewicz: You go out of your way to buy antibacterial soap, don't you?Joan and Dale (nodding): All the soaps have it now.Josh Mankiewicz: This is an example of something families buy not because it's convenient but because they think it's actually going to help them. In this case you might even spend a little extra money to buy something you think is killing more germs.Dale (and Joan nodding): That's absolutely the truth with the dish soap.
If you're keeping track, it may seem the “Green” family is coming out way ahead, but our next two tests left them nearly speechless.
Bisphenol A is a toxin and possible carcinogen found in recycled and reusable plastics like baby bottles. In metal food cans lined with plastic, it can leach out of the container and into your food.
The “Brown” family had levels so low they were barely detectable.
But for the “Green” family, dad Steve and daughter Marielle had moderate levels, and youngest daughter Jordan was actually in the high range.
Josh Mankiewicz: In this case, you are higher than the other family. Steve: No way! (laughs) This is surprising... Josh Mankiewicz: You eat a lot of canned foods?Andrea: We eat a lot of refried beans and I don't make those from scratch. Josh Mankiewicz: What?Andrea: I know... Josh Mankiewicz: Don't you care about your family? Andrea: I’m sorry! (feigns crying) I’m sorry! Josh Mankiewicz: What are you doing? Andrea: Yeah, we do use a lot of cans.Josh Mankiewicz: You're surprised by that? Andrea: My mind is racing I’m thinking where is it? How do I get rid of it?
And in our final test, another shock for "Team Green": both Steve and Andrea’s blood tests found lead in their systems, and at substantially higher levels than Joan or Dale.
Steve: We didn't grow up in some house where we were eating paint off the walls.Andrea: Maybe we did that when we were infants. You remember?Steve: I guess I can't remember because of all the lead in my body. My brain's not functioning! (laughs)
So, neither family gets an "A" on this test, and although the green family has fewer toxins, there's no real winner.
Each family has at least 40 of the 76 different industrial chemicals we tested for.
No one has high enough levels of anything to cause concern, but no one -- not even the "Green" kids -- is living toxin-free.
Andrea: It doesn't surprise me. They're in the air we breathe and even though we try to bring in products with fewer chemicals, it's just the nature of the society we live in.Dale: You hear so often in the press that certain items are bad, then six months later you hear maybe they're not so bad and this is what's bad and you tend to get a little complacent and distrustful of the news when you first hear it. But when you actually get tested and you see the results and you see it's in your system, regardless of whether or not you know that risk will cause you to be ill later, it's prudent to live as safely as you can.Dr. Phillip Landrigan: What they have to do next is pay more attention to the products they use to clean their homes, to the personal care products they use … They should think about the plastics they use in their house and minimize use of plastics, switch to glass in some instances, switch to stainless steel drinking canteens for walking around town. In short, families can become smart consumers.
So make your own choice of how green you want to live. But know this:
In this country, like in a lot of the industrialized world, avoiding chemicals is almost as hard as avoiding your family. Like it or not, both are going to be a part of your life for a long time.