understanding exposure

We all come into contact with chemicals every day. Some chemical exposure is safe and some is not safe. People respond to chemical exposure in different ways; some may have extreme sensitivities and a greater body-burden while others are seemingly unaffected. We are all affected by toxics exposure. Oftentimes, health outcomes due to toxics exposure have a latent expression, which means health problems may not show up right away and are expressed later in life. 

Harmful chemicals or toxics can get into your body through what you eat, drink, and/or come into direct contact with. It is best to be informed and understand how we are exposed, what we can do to reduce exposure, and best practices for eliminating toxics in our daily lives.

exposure & health outcomes

There are many factors to consider regarding toxics exposure and health outcomes, including:

  • Type of chemical or toxic exposure

  • Route of exposure

  • Length, type, frequency of exposure

    • How were you exposed?

    • How much?

    • For how long?

  • General health and nutrition

    • gender

    • reproductive status

    • age

    • lifestyle factors

    • genetic disposition

    • previous sensitization

    • previous exposures to other chemicals or toxics

routes of exposure

There are 3 routes of exposure:

  • Ingestion (what we eat, drink, and put into our bodies)

  • Inhalation (what we breathe)

  • Direct Contact (what touches our skin, scalp, eyes)

Toxics exposures of Major Concern

Heavy Metals

(cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic)

  • high acute toxicity includes death

  • alterations of epigenetic signatures in the DNA (DNA methylation) of the placenta and newborns

  • reduced IQ

  • increased risk of emotional problems in 7-8 year-old boys

  • alterations in genomic methylation

  • impaired neurodevelopment

    • decrease in cognitive function and performance

    • decreased intelligence quotient

    • increased incidence of attention-related and antisocial behaviors

    • decreased hearing measured in children

    • reduced intellectual development

  • reduced psychomotor outcomes

  • neurobehavioral deficits

  • difficulty breathing and swallowing

  • anemia

  • increased risk of skin, liver, bladder, and lung cancer

Persistent Organic Pollutants 

(DDT, Aldrin, Dieldrin, Endrin, Chlordane, Heptachlor, Hexachlorobenzene, Mirex, Toxaphene, Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Dioxins, and Furans)

  • immune dysfunction

  • neurological deficits

  • reproductive anomalies

  • behavioral abnormalities

  • carcinogenesis

  • reduction in population of natural killer cells (lymphocytes)

  • rates of infections 10-15 times higher

  • inner ear infections

  • trans-placental and lactational transfer of maternal burdens


(BPA, triclosan, parabens)

  • female reproductive toxicity (recurrent miscarriage, infertility)

  • aggression and hyperactivity in female children

  • impaired behavioral regulation (anxious, depressive, and hyperactive behaviors) in girls ages 3 years

  • reduced neonatal thyroid-stimulating hormone TSH in boys

  • decreased thyroxine concentrations

  • estrogenic activity

  • long-term exposure associated with cardiovascular disease, kidney, liver, and lung damage

  • when ingested in food, water or by accident, causes gastrointestinal damage, muscle tremors, difficulty walking, and even death

  • respiratory irritation

  • skin irritations including burns and blisters


(butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), dibutyl phthalate (DnBP), di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), di-butyl phthalate (DBP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), diisobutyl phthalate (DiBP), diisononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), dipentyl phthalate (DPP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP), di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), di-isohexyl phthalate, dicyclohexyl phthalate (DcHP), and di-isoheptyl phthalate)

  • shortened gestational age

  • male reproductive tract development (reduced anogenital distance)

  • male fertility issues

  • impaired neurodevelopment

  • reduction in executive function at age 4-9 years

  • endocrine disruptor

  • asthma

  • attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

  • behavioral issues


(rocket fuel, fertilizers, fireworks, flares)

  • altered thyroid function in newborns


(Aldrine/Dieldrin, Atrazine, Chlordane, Chlordecone, DDT, DDE, DDD, Endosulfan, EndrinEndrin aldehyde, Glyphosate, Heptachlor/Heptachlor Epoxide, Hexachlorobenzene, Methoxychlor, Methylene Chloride, Pentachlorophenol, Polychlorinated Biphenyls PCBs, Pyrethrins and Pyrethroids, Toxaphene)

  • impaired fetal growth

  • impaired cognitive function

  • impaired neurodevelopment

    • increased risk of pervasive developmental disorder at age 2

    • increase in attention problems and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder behaviors at age 3

    • reduction in working memory capabilities and IQ at age 7

  • increased susceptibility to testicular cancer, breast cancer into adulthood

  • childhood cancers (leukemia & brain tumors)


(benzene, gasoline, ethyl alcohol, methanol, phenol, styrene, toluene, trichloroethylene, and xylene)

  • spontaneous abortion and fetal loss

  • decreased fetal and birth weight

  • congenital malformations

Common Household Toxics


What It Is: A naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral

Found In: Housing insulation, drywall, artificial fireplace logs, toys

Health Hazard: Mesothelioma, a fatal cancer

What You Should Know: Asbestos in products is not always labeled, and while most manufacturers have abandoned it or reduced its levels, it's still not banned by the U.S. government

Bisphenol A (ABA)

What It Is: A chemical used in plastic production

Found In: Water bottles, baby bottles, plastic wraps, food packaging (type 3 and 7 plastics)

Health Hazards: Known endocrine disruptor. The government's National Toxicology Program has concluded that there is some concern about brain and behavioral effects on fetuses and young children at current exposure levels

What You Should Know: Switch to glass products when possible

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

What It Is: An additive that preserves fats and oils in food and cosmetics

Found In: Chewing gum, snack foods, diaper creams Health hazard May promote cancer in lab animals

What You Should Know: BHA is hard to avoid in foods, but the government limits its levels

Decabromodiphenyl Ether (DECA)

What It Is: A flame retardant

Found In: Electronics, furniture, carpets

Health Hazards: Permanent learning and memory deficits; hearing defects; decreased sperm count in animals

What You Should Know: Following EPA advice, the industry began phasing out the chemical in December 2009


What It Is: A form of the basic element fluorine

Found In: Toothpaste, tap water

Health Hazards: Neurotoxic and potentially tumorigenic if swallowed; the American Dental Association advises that children under 2 not use fluoride toothpaste

What You Should Know: Government studies support current fluoride levels in tap water, but studies on long-term exposure and cancers are ongoing

Heavy Metals

What It Is: Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements that have a high atomic weight and a density at least 5 times greater than that of water. Mercury, arsenic, lead, aluminum, nickel, thallium, cadmium.

Found In: Multiple industrial, domestic, agricultural, medical and technological applications. Mercury is most often ingested by eating fish. Old homes still have lead-based paint. Mining and smelting operations run-off into water sources.

Health Hazard: Toxicity depends on several factors including dose, route of exposure, and chemical as well as the age, gender, genetics, and nutritional status of exposed individuals. Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury are considered stem toxicants are are known to induce multiple organ damage, even at lower exposure levels. They are classified as human carcinogens (known or probable) according to US EPA and International Agency for Research on Cancer.


What It Is: Fungi that are found in humid areas. 

Found In: Common to residential houses

Health Hazard: Most mold spores are benign, however large amounts can lead to respiratory concerns and reactions, especially for those with weakened immune systems or immunodeficiency syndromes.

What You Should Know: Keeping levels of moisture and temperatures regulated in a home should minimize mold growth. Clean the HVAC ducts, attic, and crawlspaces in your home to remove mold. Add air ventilation in attics and crawlspaces to ensure adequate airflow and minimize mold-growing environments.  


What It Is: A chemical used in cosmetics

Found In: Sunscreens, lip balm, moisturizers

Health Hazards: Linked to hormone disruption and low-birthweight babies

What You Should Know: About 97% of Americans have the compound in their urine, but current exposure levels have been deemed safe


What They Are: Synthetic preservatives

Found in: Products like moisturizers and hair care and shaving products

Health Hazards: Causes hormone disruptions and cancer in animals

What You Should Know: The FDA has deemed current levels in cosmetics safe, but paraben-free products are available


What It Is: An oxidant in rocket fuel (salt compound obtained from perchloric acid)

Found In: Drinking water, soil, some vegetables Health hazard Disrupts thyroid's hormone production

Health Hazard: Chief hazard is its ability to block iodine uptake, which is linked to thyroid and hormone ailments. They are especially harmful to unborn fetuses.

What You Should Know: Environmental groups are urging the government to lower perchlorate levels in drinking water

Perflourooctanoic Acid (PFOA)

What It Is: A component of Teflon nonstick coatings

Found In: Tap water, nonstick pots and pans

Health Hazards: Has been found to cause hormone disruption and reproductive abnormalities in animal and human studies

What You Should Know: The EPA is urging makers to stop using PFOA by 2015. Until then, avoid heating empty Teflon cookware to high temperatures


What They Are: Chemicals (esters) that give plastic its resilience and flexibility

Found In: Toys, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, detergents, food packaging, shampoos

Health Hazards: Studies show reduced sperm counts and reproductive abnormalities in newborns (especially males with undescended testes); evidence of a link to liver and breast cancers in humans and is a known endocrine disruption.

What You Should Know: Limit exposure, especially when pregnant. Avoid using products that use the word “fragrance” in the ingredients. Limit use of type 3 PVC plastics. Congress passed legislation in 2008 to ban six phthalates from toys and cosmetics. 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

What It Is: Volatile Organic Compounds are varied, numerous, and ubiquitous. They include both human-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds. Most scents or odors are of VOCs

Found In: cleaning fluids, carpets, paints, acetone, formaldehyde, turpentine

Health Hazard: Sick Building Syndrome

What You Should Know: VOCs have a high vaporizing pressure and a low boiling point which causes them to easily evaporate in room temperature conditions. This is also known as off-gassing.

Need the facts?

"Health Effects of Chemical Exposure" by Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, Division of Health Assessment and Consultation, CDC   LINK

"The Hazards Lurking at Home: Top 10 Common Household Toxins" by Alice Park, Time LINK

"Heavy Metals Toxicity and the Environment" by Paul Tchounwou, Clement Ydjou, Anita Patlolla, Dwayne Sutton for National Institutes of Health LINK

"Top 10 Most Dangerous Environmental Toxins in the US" by Dave Dickinson LINK

“Prenatal and infant exposure to ambient pesticides and autism spectrum disorder in children: population based case-control study” LINK