The Chemicals We Live In (Part II)

Jan. 1, 2008

Continuing the discussion about how chemicals impact our health and what we can do about it.

By Keri Luly, LEED AP

It's time to pick up where we left off and continue the discussion from Part I (which appeared in the October/November issue of I&S) regarding how chemicals impact our health and what we can do about it. Part I of this series explained:

  • Everything in our world has chemical content, and we need to understand how synthetic chemicals impact us.
  • Dosage can make the difference between a harmful and a helpful chemical.
  • Applicable chemical terminology for A&D professionals.
POISONS, PATHWAYS AND PRECAUTIONSWhen the smell of our morning toothpaste or the gasoline we are pumping into our vehicles hits our nasal receptors, their chemical components are already on their way to our lungs. Inhalation is one of our three major "pathways of exposure" to chemicals that today's toxicologists study.

Toxicology is the study of the adverse effects of chemicals on living organisms. For centuries it's been referred to as the study of poisons, with poison being defined as any agent capable of producing injury or death when ingested or absorbed. Hippocrates experimented with poisons and dosages in 400 B.C. Centuries ago, scientists realized that all substances were poisons, and it was the dose (and the pathway of exposure) that differentiated between poison and remedy.1 

Today's toxicologists are certainly a long way from the professional poisoners of ancient Rome, but they still have the job of determining the positive and negative impacts of chemicals. They have become more structured in their testing procedures to better understand dosage and pathway, so we rely on them to determine "safe" levels of exposure to chemicals. The work of an environmental toxicologist is complicated by the fact that:

  • We can't test chemicals directly on people.
  • Our size, age, gender and individual health influence chemical effects on us.
  • Our constant exposure to many chemicals at the same time (and different ones in different environments), makes sorting out the impact of one chemical difficult.
  • The dose (amount) of any particular chemical we're exposed to influences how it impacts us.
  • The pathway of exposure through our airways, our skin, and/or our mouths influences whether the chemical is poison, helpful or without impact. Chemicals can behave differently through different pathways. For example, a chemical that is unsafe when inhaled may present no problem if it contacts our skin.
  • Whether our exposure is "chronic," over a long period of time (e.g. the potential accumulative effects of food additives we eat over many years) or "acute," having an immediate effect (e.g. the effects on a child accidentally swallowing a poisonous household product).

For those with environmental concerns, we must also look at the impacts of these chemicals on the planet. As you might guess, with so many different issues to consider and evaluate, toxicologists will likely have differing opinions as to the impacts of certain chemicals. It also means that we are on a continual learning curve. We know a lot more now than we did 50 years ago and expect to know more as time goes on.

We're fortunate that we don't have to tackle a graduate toxicology text for answers since there are now other resources available. (If you're motivated toward research, first try The Dose Makes the Poison2). It is smart to evaluate before you buy and apply the "Precautionary Principle" in your professional and personal life.

So what is the Precautionary Principle? Originating with "forecaring" (what a terrific term!) in Germany in the 1970s, the concept was discussed to protect forests from acid rain, even though scientists hadn't absolutely proven the
relationship between power plant emissions and acid rain. The concept was first publicized in the United States in the 1998 Wingspread Statement, and basically states that when we don't have absolute proof of effects, we should be careful in our actions. Sort of like "an ounce of prevention."

The ability to be "precautionary" is becoming easier day by day. We have access to research-such as the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED® credits for indoor environmental quality-that can provide guidelines for choosing interiors products, even in our own homes. Natural Homes magazine and others provide ideas presented in a more
practical style for homeowners. At, we can search for The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality3, a good, plain language guide prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

For me, it has led to the advice I use and share in my daily life: actively think about what you're buying and its potential pathways to your well-being. Read labels and ask if it makes sense to buy an item or if it might need to be handled carefully. Consider the following:

  • The inhalation pathway. Think about all the things we seal ourselves in with in our energy efficient buildings: air fresheners, insect sprays, cleansers, finishes, glues, furnishings, etc. If you really need that product (e.g. paint) and you know it will emit, is there a low-VOC option for it? Can you air it out somehow? Is the new car smell something I really want to breathe? If a product smells of lilacs, it is due to real lilac essential oil or a synthetic chemical that mimics that scent?
  • The dermal pathway. Think about what we apply to ourselves: permanent press clothing (which uses formaldehyde), personal products-cosmetics, the dyes in our bed linens where we put our faces and skin for several hours a day, dry (chemical solvent)-cleaned clothing ... is there a better version? Do we know how/if it was tested? Can we air out the dry cleaning outside? Are we willing to pay more for organic linens, clothing and cosmetics? Will they impact our skin even if they're organic? (Recall that nature produces some very toxic chemicals too).
  • The ingestion pathway. Think about the synthetic chemicals we put into our bodies: food additives, pesticides on foods, artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives ... do we really need those things? Most often, they're in processed foods that are quick and easy to prepare-can we find the extra time to make meals that don't have those things? Do we spend a bit (or a lot) more for organic food?

It all adds up ... all those synthetic chemicals we live in, so it makes sense to try to decrease the amount we're exposed to where we can, as a precaution. It may be worth it to pay a little more for a product with fewer synthetic chemicals and less impact on us. Doing so will tell the marketplace that we want more of these types of options-resulting in increased competition, which should bring prices down in the future. I don't advise throwing out everything in your house that might offgas, but think about those next purchases before they get into your shopping cart. Do a little homework in advance. Maybe open the windows to let in some fresh air. And keep on "forecaring!"


Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally pro-active organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected Co-op America, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1982 to harness economic power-the strength of consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace-to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society. Its "Living Green," "National Green Pages," and "Shop and Unshop" programs help consumers make green purchasing decisions for the health of people and the planet. For more information, go to

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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