Successful Aging: Long-term risks of environmental toxins |

Successful Aging: Long-term risks of environmental toxins

Angelyn Frankenberg
Angelyn Frankenberg
Staff Photo |

When my husband and I shopped for a sofa last week, agreeing on the style and fabric and talking about delivery was just a warm-up for me. I then launched a series of questions about toxic chemicals that might be used in the sofa.

The saleswoman did not know the answers, but I understand that she did not get that information in her training. Very few customers ask. Perhaps she had a good laugh about me with her co-workers. Maybe she thought I was a paranoid old lady.

But I am fine with a little paranoia. Products that we all use regularly contain numerous toxic chemicals. Some of these are associated with neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that we associate with advancing age. Others contribute to acute or chronic health issues such as respiratory problems, skin irritations, and difficulties with concentration and learning that affect people of all ages.

But all of these issues are concerns for those of us who want to age successfully. Our bodies can take a great deal of abuse because we have biological processes to protect us from outside and self-inflicted assaults. The longer we engage in unhealthy habits — smoking (anything), drinking excessively, eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), being sedentary — the greater the risk because damage can be cumulative and protective systems can break down with long-term exposure.

The same is true for environmental toxins. Scientists have started considering the effects of “gerontogens” — factors, including toxins in the environment, that can accelerate the aging process.

Unfortunately, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed in 1976, does not control toxic substances. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council:

• The law allowed 62,000 chemicals to remain on the market without testing when it first passed.

• In more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has required testing for only about 200 of those chemicals, and has partially regulated just five.

• For the 22,000 chemicals introduced since 1976, chemical manufacturers have provided little or no information to the Environmental Protection Agency regarding their potential health or environmental impacts.

Following the money reveals the reasons for the dismal performance of this and other regulations that many of us think protect us. But probably the biggest flaw in the TSCA is that it puts the burden of proof in the wrong place. Instead of requiring a company to prove a product is safe before bringing it to market, we let the “innovators” run wild. Then, if problems occur, citizens and their representatives must demonstrate that a particular substance causes a particular disease. That can take years and, in many cases, a one-to-one relationship cannot be proven.

But that does not mean these substances are safe. Often, the real problem is interactions. Most diseases and disorders — especially those that increase with advancing age — are the result of multiple factors.

So we have:

Phthalates: hormone-disrupting chemicals used in flame retardants and plastics to make them more flexible, but also in soaps and shampoos.

BHA and BHT: suspected endocrine disrupters that may be carcinogenic and are harmful to wildlife, used as preservatives in moisturizers and makeup.

Triclosan: used in antibacterial soaps, toothpastes and household cleaners, they are useless in preventing disease and are almost certainly contributing to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

And thousands more. These descriptions are full of words like “suspected,” “probably” and “almost certainly.” but, even if some of them are perfectly safe — which I doubt — many of them are perfectly toxic.

It would be easy to give up or go crazy trying to avoid them all. These chemicals are everywhere and in everything, and getting manufacturers to change their ways is daunting. So is it silly to even try?

Not at all. In “Slow Death By Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things,” Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie describe their experiments with products such as shampoos, soaps and household cleaners. They reported measurable increases in blood levels of toxic chemicals with increased, but still realistic, use.

But there is good news. They also learned that using products that do not contain such substances caused a decrease in blood levels.

So it pays to read labels on household and cosmetic products just as seriously as you read food labels.

This is work in progress. All of my household cleaners and laundry products are “green” (and I am wary of that label; I read the labels and research the ingredients). My mani-pedis do not include nail polish (dibutyl phthalate) and my hair color is free of resorcinol and parabens, and sometimes you can see my gray-tinged dirty blonde roots. Being a low-maintenance woman is not just easier; it’s healthier.

And the sofa? It is not perfect but we are going to buy it instead of something from the “reasonably priced” line at It is not chemically treated for stain resistance and I will use Citra Solv for spot removal, not the manufacturer-recommended petroleum distillate product.

My purchasing decisions will not change the world, but they are changing the way I — and maybe a few other people — look at the products we buy, from everyday items to major purchases. Smith and Lourie talk about the benefits of people “being a little bit careful about what they buy … a little bit better about reading labels.” If more of us get a little bit paranoid about the toxic marinade of our modern conveniences, more of us will consider potential health effects when deciding which ones to buy. Living in less toxic surroundings will help us all live healthier and age well.

Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music. Reach her at

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