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About Persistent Toxics

Persistent Toxic Chemicals

Persistent toxic chemicals (sometimes referred to as persistent bioaccumulative toxics or PBTs) include dioxin, mercury, PCBs, lead, PBDEs, and many others.

They represent a specific class of chemicals which are:

  • Persistent — they are long lasting in the environment, wildlife and in peoples’ bodies.
  • Bioaccumulative — they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain.
  • Toxic — these chemicals are extremely toxic, even in tiny amounts, and they cause health problems in humans and wildlife, such as birth defects and cancer.

Because these chemicals are very persistent and break down very slowly, they are found virtually everywhere in our environment. They are circulated through our food chain, our oceans, and our atmosphere, so that they are even found in wildlife and people living in remote Arctic regions. Persistent toxic chemicals are passed to children in the womb and through breastfeeding, impacting them at the most vulnerable time of their lives.

 

Learn more about toxic chemicals in our bodies -

see our Pollution in People web site

Where do these chemicals come from?

Consumer Products - Persistent toxic chemicals are released from the use and disposal of many consumer products like toys, electronics, batteries, light bulbs, chemically treated textiles and furniture. Flame retardant chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) are used in a wide range of products, including furniture, electronics, and cars. PBDEs are chemical cousins of the now-banned PCBs and have been found to cause health problems in laboratory animals, including memory and learning impairment. <learn more about PBDEs>

Cosmetics and Personal Care Products - Many of the products we use on our bodies every day - such as shampoos, body lotion, make-up, and nail polish - contain a variety of potentially harmful chemicals including phthalates, acrylamide, metals, parabens, and formaldehyde. <learn more about safer cosmetics>

Medical Products - Many medical devices and products are made of plastics which can leach out harmful chemicals over time, creating risks for both patients and health care workers. Materials of particular concern are polyvinyl chloride plastic (also know as PVC or vinyl) and phthalates, such as DEHP, that are used to soften PVC. <learn more about clean health care>

Building Materials - building materials made from polyvinyl chloride plastic (also known as PVC or vinyl) <learn more about healthy buildings>

Industrial Sources - Persistent toxic chemicals are released into our environment by a range of industrial sources, including: pulp and paper mills, mining facilities, cement factories, refineries, incinerators, wood-treating plants, and other industrial sources.

Environmental Exposures - As a result of consumer and industrial activities, persistent toxic chemicals are in our air, our water. and the food we eat.

How serious are the health and environmental risks posed by persistent toxic chemicals?

Many scientists and government agencies have concluded that levels of persistent toxic pollution in the environment, in wildlife, and in our bodies can cause health problems including reproductive failure, hormone disruption, cancer, birth defects, as well as learning and behavioral disorders.

Consider the following:

  • According to the National Academy of Sciences, 60,000 children each year may suffer brain problems as a result of exposure to mercury in the womb, affecting their ability to learn, remember, and pay attention.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that as many as one in one thousand people in the United States will develop cancer from exposure to dioxin, with the current average daily intake of dioxin at more than 200 times the amount considered safe by the agency.
  • Puget Sound’s declining orca whales have become one of the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, in part because of PCBs found in the Puget Sound food chain. PCBs are known endocrine disruptors, which become highly concentrated in the fatty tissues of top predators.

For these reasons and many others, persistent toxic chemicals are among the most dangerous substances on the planet.

How are we exposed to persistent toxic chemicals?

There are several ways in which people are exposed to persistent toxic chemicals. For example, these chemicals accumulate in the bodies of fish and animals, where they are stored in fatty tissues. They are passed on to humans when we eat fish, meat, or dairy products from an animal that had been exposed to or consumed persistent toxic chemicals during its life. These chemicals are passed on to children while in the womb and through breast milk.

Recent studies of dust have revealed the presence of persistent toxic chemicals in our homes, schools, and offices. This suggests that we breathe or ingest some persistent toxic chemicals from the ambient environment.

Children's exposure to persisten toxic chemicals is of particular concern. Kids receive a higher dose, or body burder, of chemicals due to their lower body weight. Small children inhale or ingest more contaminated dust or soil because they spend their time closer to the ground and they tend to place their fingers and items in their mouths frequently.

The Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition conducted a "body burden" study of ten Washingtonians to determine the levels of some of these chemicals in their bodies. <learn more>

Washington State PBT Program
After many years of work by member organizations of the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition, the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) has created a first-in-the-nation policy and plan to eliminate dioxin, mercury, and other persistent toxic pollution. <learn more>

What can you do to help eliminate persistent toxic chemicals?

  • Educate yourself: Explore the websites of coalition steering committee members to read more about persistent toxic chemicals, how they affect our daily lives, and how we can prevent their harming our environment and our health. www.watoxics.org, www.pugetsound.org, www.washpirg.org, www.wpsr.org, www.healthybuilding.net, www.breastcancerfund.org, www.wsna.org.
  • Visit our Pollution in People web site to learn more about toxic chemicals in our bodies.
  • Be a smart consumer: Purchase products which do not result in persistent toxic pollution, such as chlorine-free paper, non-PVC plastic, and mercury-free thermometers. See our Pollution in People web site for tips on safer food and consumer products. see Safer Alternatives
  • Join our coalition: If you work with a public interest group, a small business, or local government, consider supporting our coalition as a member or being an ally. <Join Us>
  • Volunteer for the coalition: Write or call if you would like to volunteer your time.
  • Donate to our campaign: If you can’t volunteer your time, help make our work possible by donating to the organizations leading this campaign.
  • Contact us: Call or email Margaret Shield, Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition Coordinator, for more information, mshield@toxicfreelegacy.org 206-632-1545 ext. 123.
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