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Ask Dr. Pete: A Breakdown of Reproductive Toxins
A product inventor, innovator, and sustainability expert, he’s the brains behind our Bio Laundry Detergent and was a founding member of The Sustainability Consortium. Last month he covered everything you need to know about cellulases and the real difference between synthetics and organics. This month he’s back with an in-depth explainer on cleaning products and the reproductive toxins most often found in their formulas.
I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about cleaning products and reproductive toxins. Are there specific ingredients I should look out for? How worried about them should I be?
Different from carcinogens that are more easily defined and regulated, many chemicals that carry reproductive toxicity concerns are less regulated, partially due to the lack of human clinical data connecting exposure dosage, time and frequency with the concerns. However, evidence from laboratory studies and consumer safety data on the reproductive toxicity from the chemicals in cleaning products have been increasing, which result in more public attention calling for proactive actions from governments and industry.
Let’s now take a look at those identified reproductive toxins and highly concerned suspects. The first group of concerned chemicals can be referred to as “xenoestrogens”. They mimic the estrogens and interfere with their functions in humans and / or animals, which causes alternation and damages to male or female’s reproductive systems, sperms and eggs, and fetus. Many of those xenoestrogens share one thing in common, i.e., that they are benzene and phenyl based, i.e., benzene derivatives with additional chemical functional groups attached to one or multiple benzene rings:
1) Benzene, an identified reproductive toxin that has been banned from consumer cleaning products. But it is widely used as an intermediate in many chemical manufacturing processes.
2) Toluene, an identified reproductive toxin that has been banned from consumer cleaning products. But it has many applications as a solvent and intermediate in many consumer and chemical product manufacturing processes.
3) Bis-Phenol A (BPA) and its derivatives are commonly used additives in plastics and resins. They are highly concerned for their potential reproductive toxicity, and under public pressure to be removed from consumer cleaning products and packaging. Consumers who care should look for BPA-free product claims or labeling as part of their purchasing decisions.
4) Phthalates are a group of chemicals as plasticizers for PVC and used as solvents and emulsifiers and fragrance binders in cleaning products. They are highly concerned for their potential reproductive toxicity and under public pressure to be removed from consumer cleaning products and packaging. Consumers who care should look for Phthalates free in product claims or labeling in their purchasing decisions.
5) Parabens are a group of chemicals commonly used as preservatives and insecticides in consumer cleaning and beauty care products. They are highly concerned for their potential reproductive toxicity and under public pressure to be removed from consumer cleaning products and packaging. Consumers who care should look for Paraben free in product claims or labeling in their purchasing decisions.
6) Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent and insecticide used to be very popular and commonly applied in the personal and household cleaning products. Recently passed regulations at US Federal, state and local government agencies have greatly reduced its use due to reproductive toxicity and bio persistency concerns.
Another group of chemicals harm the reproductive systems through different mechanisms. For example, the active oxygen from those chemicals listed below may bind and interact with the hydrocarbons and proteins in living organisms. As a result, they inhibit the metabolic processes and interfere normal functions of reproductive and development systems:
7) Ethylene Oxide: it is an identified carcinogen by US EPA. Based on animal testing results, it also has serious safety concerns for potential harmful effects on reproductive systems. Ethylene oxide is the reactant used to produce Polyethylene Glycols (PEG), PEG derivatives, and ethoxylated surfactants such as SLES and Laureth-N (N=6,7…). Certain PEG and ethoxylated surfactants may carry special claims to be ethylene oxide free, otherwise those chemicals are susceptible for potentially carrying residual amounts of ethylene oxide in the finished products.
8) 1, 4-Dioxane is an identified carcinogen by the US EPA. Based on animal testing, it may also carry certain degree of toxicity to developing fetus. 1,4-Dioxane is a byproduct during the use of ethylene oxide as a reactant to synthesize Polyethylene Glycols (PEG), PEG derivatives, and ethoxylated surfactants such as SLES and Laureth-N (N=6,7…). Certain PEG and ethoxylated surfactants may carry special claims to be 1, 4 dioxane free, otherwise those chemicals are susceptible for potentially carrying residual amounts of 1, 4-dioxane in the finished products.
9) Boric acid and its sodium salts, e.g., borate. Boric acid and its sodium salt, Borax are from natural mineral compounds. Boric acid and borax are widely used in cleaning products as laundry booster, chelating agent, preservative and insecticide. Borax and boric acid clean and bleach by converting some water molecules to hydrogen peroxide. In other chemical reactions, borax acts as a water softener and buffer, maintaining a stable pH at around 9. The active oxygens in boric acid and borax also inhibit the metabolic processes of many organisms. This allows them to kill germs and be used as preservatives and insecticides. This naturally sourced cleaning agent sounds perfect so far, but Boric acid and Borax carry significant safety concerns in potentially harming the reproductive systems, especially for males. They have been identified as the Substance of Very High Concerns (SVHC), and EU, Canadian and some Asian countries’ regulatory agencies have imposed very restricted requirements preventing the use of boric acid and Borax in consumer products without pre-authorization or special labeling such as “may damage fertility” or “may damage the unborn child”. In the US, no such regulations exist or apply. But concerned consumers should carefully review the product labels to identify if boric acid, borax and their derivatives exist in the products.