Do we have to choose between being clean and being healthy?


On Saturday, March 5th at the McCarren Play Center, Dr. Stephen Dahmer of the Center for Health & Healing and Lead Physician for the Freelancer’s Union led a presentation on the effects that everyday chemicals are having on our (and our children’s) health, and what we can do about it. He was invited by the Human Impacts Institute as part of its series on health, toxins, and consumer advocacy. Links to his presentation and handout can be found here and here.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: Who’s got the most toxic beauty products of all?

The bad news: there are lots of chemicals in lots of products, and most of them haven’t been fully tested for health and human safety. Below are a sampling of the most common known offenders:

  • PHTHALATES: a group of chemicals used to soften and increase flexibility of plastic and vinyl; different variations of phthalates can be found in everything from vinyl shower curtains to shampoos to detergents. Some of these are endrocrine disrupters, and some are known carcinogens

  • CHLORINES: many products (like Clorox brands) use chlorine derivatives (PVC is one example, household cleaners another); and can increase the risks of asthma

  • GLYCOL ETHERS: a group of solvents found in many household cleaners; prolonged inhalation can lead to kidney and liver damage

  • FORMALDEHYDE & TOLUENE: found in many nail polishes and nail salons, as well as spray deodorizers; are suspected carcinogens

  • BUTYL CELLUSOLVE: found in all-purpose cleaners (like Windex); damages bone marrow, kidney, and liver

  • BPA: a chemical used to make hard plastics and resins; is labeled as #7 plastic or 'PC'; is a known endocrine (hormone) disruptor.

While there is growing evidence on how these toxins interact with our bodies, most of these chemicals are new and haven’t been fully tested. So it can be difficult even for a doctor to know how they will affect you, what amounts are safe, and what the cumulative impacts can be. And unfortunately, we do know that children are especially vulnerable: their love of exploring can lead to touching, tasting, and breathing in toxins at a greater rate than adults. This is especially troubling because critical developmental processes can be easily disrupted. Even schools can present dangers: the air can sometimes be 2-5x more contaminated than outdoor air.

What We Can Do About It

The good news (yes, there is good news!) is that there’s a lot we can do. As Dr. Dahmer noted, the human body is amazingly resilient and adaptive, and does a lot of the work for us in filtering out toxins - if we chip in 20%, the body can likely do the rest. Below is a quick checklist of dos and donts (and you can find more tips here):

  • Sign up for a CSA

  • Learn how to dispose of medications properly

  • Buy plants for your home (they filter out all kinds of toxins)

  • Buy an (inexpensive) HEPA filter

  • When possible, use a wet mop to clean instead of dusting

  • Take off your shoes when you come inside

  • Open your windows (not during rush hour)

  • Make it yourself! (DIY)

  • Consider limiting kids’ bath times

  • Be/come an activist (Conscientious Consumer)

And learn more at:

If you have additional questions, feel free to contact Dr. Stephen Dahmer at

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