Chemicals to Avoid in the Environment


That chemicals in our environment are connected to cancer and other health issues has become more and more of a serious concern. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel put out a 240-page report that concluded that a) the government isn’t doing enough to protect us from these chemicals, and b) our risk of getting cancer from them has been underestimated. (Read our post for more.)

The American Cancer Society disagrees, stating that the panel’s conclusions were unbalanced, and that only an estimated six percent of cancers are related to environmental causes. The truth is that so far, we just don’t know how dangerous these chemicals are, as we don’t have enough research on the subject. Meanwhile, we continue to pump these chemicals into the world around us with little regard for their effects on the human body.

Until we have better safety guidelines on environmental hazards, you can take steps to reduce your toxic exposure by choosing products that are safe for you and your family, and increasing your awareness of potential harmful elements around you. We’ve given you a good place to start with the following list of things to avoid in your environment.

  1. Benzene, like carbon monoxide, comes from forest fires, and is also a part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. It’s also used in the manufacture of plastics, resins, nylon and other synthetic fibers, rubber, dyes, paints, detergents, and pesticides. It’s classified as a carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program because long-term exposure can cause leukemia.1 Even short-term exposure to high levels can affect breathing and the central nervous system. You risk higher exposure when you’re near gas stations, hazardous waste sites, or industrial facilities; when you’re handling paint or glue or furniture wax; when you’re near someone who’s smoking; or if you work in a facility that makes or uses benzene.
  2. Carbon monoxide comes from car exhaust, wood burning, forest fires, cigarettes, and space heaters. This dangerous chemical reduces the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the tissues and organs like the heart and brain, and can create carbon monoxide poisoning, which can lead to headaches, irritability, loss of consciousness, and aggravation of heart problems. When you exercise, your heart rate increases and you take in more air, so exercise either in a well-ventilated indoor gym, or at a park or nature walk away from exhaust. Avoid cigarette smoke, and steer clear of smoky areas during fire season. If you live in the city, consider an indoor air purifier.
  3. Decks and play sets built before 2005 may be coated with an arsenic pesticide, according to the Environmental Working Group.2 Replacing arsenic-treated wood with safer alternatives is the best long-term solution, but you can also seal the wood at least every six months with a standard deck treatment, or replace only sections like handrails and steps that are most likely to touch your skin. Avoid pressure washing and use soap and water instead. Avoid sanding as well, and use a wash instead to prepare the deck for sealing.
  4. Energy-saving light bulbs contain mercury, which if the glass is broken, can create a health hazard. Worse, when switched off, these bulbs give off poisonous materials like phenol (irritating to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes), naphthalene (linked to a higher risk of cataracts, linked with cancer in animal studies, and classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen), and styrene (linked with an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma, and classified as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer). Experts warn that more studies need to be done, but for now it’s best to use these bulbs sparingly, always in ventilated areas, and definitely not in close proximity to your head. Read our post for more.
  5. Formaldehyde is widely used to manufacture building products, other chemicals, and household products. Formaldehyde synthetics are often used in composite wood products, which are, in turn, largely used in the manufacturing of mobile homes. Formaldehyde is released into the air by burning wood, automobiles, natural gas or kerosene, and cigarettes. The chemical can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, breathing difficulties, asthma attacks, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. It’s also classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), with risk the highest for those who live or work around the gas for ten or more years.3 Though most people are at risk for exposure indoors (from pressed wood, non-laminated furniture, some carpet backings and paint preservatives), risk of exposure also increases around automobile exhaust, cigarette smokers, and fuel-burning appliances like gas and wood-burning stoves.
  6. Medical tests that involve radiation like CT scans and nuclear medicine exams can quickly pinpoint internal bleeding and kidney stones, but also expose you to a good amount of radiation. New studies show that the use of tests like these in the U.S. has increased almost 600 percent from 1980 to 2006.4 The more radiation you’re exposed to, the higher your risk of related disease. Even simple x-rays have been classified as carcinogens by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These tests can be lifesavers when you really need them-just be sure they’re absolutely necessary. In addition, try to use a facility accredited by the American College of Radiology, as the accreditation means the machines are surveyed and calibrated to use the correct level of radiation.
  7. Pesticides are not only dangerous in foods (as mentioned on our Ingredients to Avoid in Food page), but can also contaminate the air, soil, and water when used on lawns, gardens, and crops. The danger is serious-studies have shown a link between common household pesticides and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children.5 Grow your food organically in your garden, and avoid pesticide use on your flowerbeds and lawns. If you have pests and want to get rid of them, try preventative and non-toxic alternatives, such as those created by Earth Easy. Read our post for more.
  8. Radon is a naturally occurring colorless and odorless gas that is produced as uranium decays. It’s radioactive, and is the number-one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers-the second leading cause of lung cancer overall-according to the EPA.6 Nearly one in three homes checked in seven states and on three Indian lands had levels over the EPA recommended safety limit. Since uranium is found in nearly all soils, the gas can move up through the ground into the home through cracks and holes in the foundation. The home traps it inside, where it can build to unsafe levels. Radon can also be present in the ground, in ground water, building materials, underground work areas like mines and buildings, tunnels, power stations, caves, and in public baths and spas. To reduce your exposure, have your home tested, use radon-resistant features when building a new house, seal cracks and openings in the foundation, keep your home well ventilated, and use a water filter.
  9. Secondhand smoke is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe, or cigar, and the smoke exhaled by a smoker. According to the EPA, it contains over 4,000 substances (like benzene, carbon monoxide, cyanide, and formaldehyde), several known to cause cancer.7 In fact the organization has concluded that secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in adults who don’t smoke, and also increases the risk of heart disease. Even worse, it can cause asthma in children, increase risk of death from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and increase a child’s risk of pneumonia, bronchitis, and ear infections. Smoke can linger in the air for hours, cling to clothing, furniture and carpets, creating a lasting danger. Don’t allow smoking in your home or vehicle, choose smoke-free facilities, and keep your distance from smokers.
  10. UV rays are the invisible ultraviolet A and B rays that can cause sunburn, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer. Always wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and reapply it every two hours or after swimming or sweating; avoid tanning beds; use protective clothing like sunglasses, hats, and long sleeve shirts and pants; use your visor while driving in the car; and avoid going outside when sunlight is the most intense, between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.


  1. “Benzene,” Tox Town, National Library of Medicine.
  2. “All Hands on Deck: Nationwide Consumer Testing of Backyard Decks and Playsets Shows High Levels of Arsenic on Old Wood,” August 2002,
  3. “Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk,” The National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet.
  4. Roni Caryn Rabin, “With Rise in Radiation Exposure, Experts Urge Caution on Tests,” The New York Times, June 19, 2007.
  5. “Common Household Pesticides Linked to Childhood Cancer Cases in Washington Area,” Georgetown University Medical Center Press Release, July 28, 2009.
  6. “Health Risks: Exposure to Radon Causes Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers and Smokers Alike,” The Environmental Protection Agency.
  7. “Health Effects of Exposure to Secondhand Smoke,” Environmental Protection Agency.
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