What Nicholas Kristof missed about toxics in our bodies

As a consumer health expert, I was glued to Nicholas Kristof’s recent New York Times op-ed, “What poisons are in your body?” Kristof has covered the dangers of toxic chemicals for years and instituted lifestyle changes to limit exposure to chemicals that worry him most. Among his top concerns are endocrine disruptors – which alter hormones and are associated with lower sperm counts in men, for example. Despite his knowledge and intentional lifestyle changes, his recent blood test results still came back with high levels of a variety of chemicals. Wow.

Kristof invites readers to take a survey identifying the common products they have used in the last month. The survey results tell you what chemicals you have been exposed to through these products as well as the health hazards associated with each chemical. It’s important that Kristof continues to shine a light on the issues of hazardous chemicals in products we use every day and the lack of oversight on the safety of these chemicals.

But, as I took the survey, my mind ran through a variety of products that I use fairly regularly yet weren’t present in the survey (e.g., cleaning products, haircare products, feminine care products). Of course, Kristof developed the piece based on his personal experience and test results and many of these products make sense for him. However, there are known and documented gender, racial, and age disparities in product usage. This means there are also disparities in exposure to the chemicals in these products.

The average woman uses 12 personal care products a day, while the average man uses 6. Women between the ages of 18 – 34 buy significantly more beauty products than other age groups. Women also tend to do the majority of cleaning. And the beauty industry predominantly employs women of color. The use of feminine care products by women is a given, but there are also racial differences in the use of these products that may contribute to the documented elevated levels of phthalates in the bodies of women of color.

Kristof lists 12 chemicals that are found in the everyday products in the survey. Many of the chemicals (and more) are also found in the products I just identified that women use more frequently and in greater amounts than men. Parabens and phthalates (often used as fragrance carriers), both of which are endocrine disruptors, are in haircare products, feminine care products, and cleaning products. Flame retardants (endocrine disruptors and potential carcinogens) are found in nail polish.

Think about all of the additional products that women may use in a given day and what this means for their levels of chemical exposure. And then account for the fact that these exposures disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income populations. There are very real and serious implications for women’s health: research indicates that women who work in nail and hair salons are at an increased risk of adverse birth outcomes and pregnancy complications due to exposure to chemicals in the products they use for work. It was hard for me to read Van Nguyen's story about the heavy bleeding and miscarriages she experienced during her pregnancies while working in a nail salon. Her doctors told her the complications were because of her work environment, but she couldn’t afford to stop working. Thankfully she is now working in a safer environment, but that is the exception and not the norm for many women.

It’s scary to think about. I consider myself a discerning consumer, and yet, just like Kristof, I know I cannot shop my way out of this problem. EDF is working to remove chemicals of concern form the products we use every day and to bring safer chemicals to market. How do we make sure that the products we use every day are made of the safest possible ingredients and that these products are available to everyone?

The solution requires a variety of approaches. EDF continues to support the science that allows us to understand the health impacts posed by chemicals of concern and to identify safer alternatives. The EPA faces concerning reorganization proposals that would seriously impact public health research. In addition, the EPA and FDA need the authority to regulate chemicals and ingredients. Though there have been promising developments on the state level, including increased transparency for cleaning products, efforts to implement federal level reform in a health protective manner have been dampened by the current administration.

Alissa Sasso, Project Manager, Supply Chain, EDF + Business

In the absence of strong federal oversight, EDF urges retailers and other companies to take more action to embed safer chemical practices in their businesses. We work with retailers like Walmart and Target to bring safer products to market, thereby sending a strong and consistent demand signal to the marketplace. Our Behind the Label initiative makes our learnings available for other retailers and product manufacturers. We also urge companies to demonstrate that products used by or around vulnerable populations are improving.

Systemic changes are necessary to ensure that safer products are available to all shoppers. But, as a consumer, what can you do in the face of a seemingly endless list of products that are harmful to your health? There are a variety of credible certifications that can help you identify products with safer ingredients, such as EPA’s Safer Choice label and the EWG Verified™ mark. There are also many retailers and companies who have made commitments to making safer products and to being more transparent with consumers. We created a list of company public commitments on increasing ingredient transparency in the personal care product and household cleaning sectors.

Business, government, and citizens – everyone has a part to play to make the world healthier.


Follow Alissa Sasso on Twitter.


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