Modern life contains many hazards, but you would think that a tin of tomatoes would be a 100 per cent healthy option: all that lovely lycopene, plus one point towards your five daily portions of fruit and vegetables. However, research suggests that when the tin has a white lining, the chemicals in the epoxy resin used to make such lining can contaminate our bodies, and this is just one of a host of seemingly innocuous household products - from sofas to televisions - that emit such harmful chemicals. Although scientists are not unanimous over the exact effects of these chemicals, it has been suggested that they can affect unborn babies and wildlife, disrupt hormones, and even cause cancer.
In the West, we are constantly surrounded by chemicals in the home and the workplace, in appliances and furniture, in carpets and the products we use to clean them. Dr Giles Watson of WWF believes that these are more detrimental to our health than we realise. "The plastics are not as benign as we were originally led to believe. They are everywhere, even in places that we wouldn't normally think of, from medical tubing used in hospitals to vinyl flooring, fast-food packaging, and even products we use daily, like shampoo."
The WWF, funded by the Co-operative Bank, pioneered a project whereby the blood of 155 individuals and family members from 12 locations around the UK were tested for the number and concentration of toxic chemicals in their bodies. The results of the tests showed a number of surprising trends. Those volunteers who ate organic and vegetarian foods did not necessarily show lower concentrations.
As Dr Watson says: "People assume that pesticides are the worst as they are what are usually associate with harmful chemicals, but they are often not aware of all the chemicals contained within household products."
Another surprise was that some of the younger participants tended to have levels of toxicity as high as, if not higher than, adults, even though they have not been exposed to the chemicals for as long. "Modern lifestyles don't discriminate between communities or age groups," says Dr Watson. "In fact, WWF chose to look at household products because even children have surprisingly high concentrations of chemicals in their bodies already."
Tests for 78 chemicals were carried out on 155 participants, and a total of 72 chemicals were found. The number of chemicals found in any one person ranged from 20 to 49, the median average being 27. The tests, carried out by scientists at Lancaster University, tested blood from the volunteers for three types of chemicals: organochlorine pesticides, PCB congeners, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Dr Watson explains that "the organisation chose to test for the chemicals that we feel pose the greatest threat to the environment, to wildlife and to humans". So, what exactly are all these unwanted substances doing to us? At present, a number of the chemicals are thought to mimic, block or interfere with hormones such as oestrogen, androgen and thyroid, affecting wildlife as well as humans. The chemicals can disrupt biological processes, causing neurological, behavioural or sexual defects. Some endocrine-disrupting chemicals accumulate in humans and animals and can be passed from mother to offspring, hindering the development of the young. Some experts claim that the disruption of hormone-sensitive organs, such as the reproductive organs, may only come to light in adulthood.
With exposure to these substances so widespread, the exact effects are hard to quantify. But environmentalists believe that they may be responsible for some of the predominantly Western afflictions such as cancer, neurological and thyroid disorders and falling sperm counts.
One of the most worrying discoveries is the difficulty with which these chemicals are broken down and the distances they can travel through the air, rivers and seas. Some organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, were banned over 20 years ago, but even so, says Dr Watson, "their residues remain in the environment, and other pesticides made with the same OCPs continue to be used to treat our fruit and vegetables. Tuna, a fish high in the food chain, and salmon have both been found to contain an accumulation of these OCPs and even mercury."
These man-made chemicals are consumed or absorbed through the skin of humans - and also that of wildlife living hundreds of miles from the chemicals' original source, including birds, whales, frogs, fish, snails, and even polar bears in the Arctic, who have never been near a television, let alone a tin of tomatoes.
Need to know
* Buy organic produce whenever possible and wash or peel fruit and vegetables before you eat them as pesticide residues can build up on their skins.
* Avoid using pesticides in the home and garden by checking the ingredients of products and choosing organic.
* Avoid canned foods with white linings, as the cans can contain toxic epoxy resins.
* Avoid microwaving food in plastic, or using PVC to cover food as chemicals can leach into the food.
* Use non-polycarbonate baby feeding bottles.
* Consider replacing your non-stick cookware, as these surfaces can release toxins when hot.
* Open your windows instead of using air fresheners, and use environmentally friendly cleaning products or traditional remedies, such as water mixed with vinegar to clean glass.
* Buy soap, shampoos and cosmetics that are free of sodium laureth sulphate, which can irritate the skin and build up in the body's organs.
* Use paints, varnishes and glues with a low VOC (volatile organic compound) content, or those that are water-based.
What's your poison? How a blood test revealed the hidden truth
JILL EVANS, 44
Lifestyle: eats an omnivorous diet
Number of chemicals: 33 (above average)
"I was really shocked by my results, especially seeing the number of chemicals in my body. I thought it might have something to do with the fact that I live near a landfill site. But then I realised that everyone else had high toxicity levels, too. I'm much more aware now when I'm buying household products. For example, when I'm buying air freshener I always check the ingredients first."
ANNE TURNER, Lives: Gloucestershire
Lifestyle: eats largely organic diet
Number of chemicals: 22 (below average)
"I was surprised and concerned by my family's results, especially those for my young granddaughter, who had 34 chemicals in her body. It proved that these chemicals can build up in children, too. We don't know what has been used in household products. I think we should revert to old-fashioned methods such as vinegar and water for cleaning windows, and other simple but effective alternatives."
SIMON YEATES, 44
Lifestyle: eats omnivorous diet, exercises regularly
Number of chemicals: 23 (below average)
"I was concerned rather than surprised at my results as I have always considered myself to be pretty healthy, so to find out that I have a cocktail of chemicals in my body came as a shock. What was really surprising, however, was the discovery that sofas, carpets and even televisions can give off so many chemicals. And it is all especially worrying as I have two children."Reuse content