To avoid toxic chemicals, you avoid secondhand smoke, buy organic, and stay away from processed meats.
But chances are that there are also plenty of carcinogens lurking on the shelves and in the cupboards of your kitchen—in the products and containers that you likely use every day.
Scientists have found that some of these common chemicals contribute to cancer, as well as chronic conditions like heart disease and obesity. They also increase your risk of a host of ailments prevalent among older folks, such as diabetes, dementia and loss of muscle strength.
And the kitchen is a bad place to be exposed to these kinds of toxic chemicals. They can leach into our food, where we directly ingest them, says Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a biophysical chemist. “Even a small amount can affect our bodies.”
The chemical connection
Bisphenols and phthalates are two of the most common chemicals, generally found in most hard plastics—the kind used for storage containers, cooking utensils, and old water bottles.
Other toxins are often found in storage wrap, pots and pans, and even cleaners and soaps.
The problem is especially acute when you cook or use the microwave, since heat breaks down plastic and causes the chemicals to seep out.
Why you need to go green
The good news is that many manufacturers are now paying more attention to these issues. For example, one type of bisphenol, BPA, was commonly found in the lining of most canned foods, but most large manufacturers have now phased out its use.
But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Studies have found that even plastic products labeled as BPA-free contain chemicals that mimic hormones.
The good news is that there are a plethora of products on the market that you can use to replace problematic items, for relatively low cost. For those you can’t easily replace, you can stick to “greener” practices to reduce your chemical exposure.
And it doesn’t take long to make a difference to your health: “When we stop using products that contain phthalates, levels decrease within days,” Blum says. Here’s how to start.
What to buy (and ditch)
In terms of priorities, you may want to focus on food storage containers first, especially if you’re looking to heat or clean them in the dishwasher.
Containers. Ideally, you should get rid of your Tupperware and other plastic containers, and opt for glass or silicon instead (you can clean out and re-use the glass jars you buy for things like pickles, salsa and sauces instead of buying new). If you want to use some plastic for refrigerator storage, make sure you transfer the food to glass bowls before you heat in the microwave.
Aluminum foil and plastic wrap. You likely know that putting plastic wrap on food when you cook or re-heat it is a no-no, but aluminum isn’t an ideal choice either, says Gittleman. “Aluminum can compromise digestion, blocking the absorption of key minerals like magnesium, phosphorous and calcium, and putting you at a greater risk of osteoporosis,” she says. Instead, opt for parchment paper whenever possible.
Utensils. Besides bisphenol, some black plastic kitchen utensils like ladles or large spoons contain flame retardants, a recent study in Europe found. Safer utensils include those made from stainless steel, wood or bamboo.
Pots and pans. Most nonstick pans are coated with polytetrafluoroethylene, or Teflon, which has gotten a bad rap for many years. Now, however, Teflon is generally safe since most manufacturers have stopped using PFOA, a suspected carcinogen, says Blum—as long as your pan isn’t scratched, and you don’t use it at ultra-high temperatures.
Still, to avoid chemicals altogether, look for enamel-coated cast iron or high-quality clay pots like Romertopf (from $50 to $80), says Ann Louise Gittleman, a nutritionist and expert in functional and integrative medicine.
Soaps and cleaners. Our skin is our biggest organ, absorbing anything we put on it. Traditional hand soaps can contain phthalates, parabens, and sulfates, while cleaning products can contain solvents, which can be carcinogens.
If you’re up for making your own, Gittleman likes to mix white vinegar, baking soda and tea tree oil to make a kitchen cleaner. Or if you’d rather go to the store, the Environmental Working Group lists dozens of options for safer and more environmentally friendly products.