Published November 22, 2013
A recent independent toxicology report conducted on the body of the late Brittany Murphy revealed a potentially astonishing discovery that could provide some clues as to how the star died. According to the report, the actress’s body contained abnormally high levels of the toxic metal Barium, along with arsenic, lithium and tin – leading many to speculate that she may have been poisoned.
The analysis was done on a sample of Murphy’s hair, which resulted in the detection of “ten heavy metals at levels above the World Health Organization high levels recommendation,” according to the toxicology summary. However, since the report’s release, some health experts have argued that the metals aren’t evidence of foul play – but rather an indication of Murphy’s heavy use of hair care products.
While Murphy’s cause of death is currently in dispute, her case highlights a very real issue that we all face on a daily basis: exposure to chemicals from household items. Either through the use of various beauty products or just by eating and drinking, people are constantly coming into contact with a variety of chemicals – both organic and inorganic – that can potentially lead to adverse health effects over long periods of time.
“We’re exposed to chemicals every single day,” Victoria Richards, a pharmacologist and assistant professor of medical science at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University, told FoxNews.com. “We eat chemicals."
Here are some of the common chemicals people are most frequently exposed to – and how you identify them.
Lead exposure and contamination continues to be a concern for many in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 4 million American households have children living in them who are being exposed to high levels of the metal.
If too much lead builds up in the body over a period of time, lead poisoning can occur – leading to some very serious health effects. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead exposure, as it could potentially interfere with their brain development.
“It’s a developmental toxin,” Richards said. “Depending on the age an individual is exposed, it can cause cognitive deficits. There can also be systemic effects, like if it’s consumed, you can have effects in the gastrointestinal tract. But with respect to lead and developmental issues, the concern is to minimize exposure in young children or pregnant patients.”
Lead-based paints were banned from all new housing construction in 1978, yet houses built before 1978 might still contain some lead-based paint. While the United States strictly monitors the amount of lead that can be used in certain products, Richards noted that toys and products manufactured outside of the U.S. may sometimes have higher lead contents – since some countries may not necessarily monitor for the metal.
Phthalates are a group of organic chemicals that are primarily used as plasticizers – ingredients added to plastics in order to make them more flexible. However, phthalates can also be found in a wide range of merchandise, including anything from scented products – like soaps, shampoos and perfumes – to adhesives, vinyl flooring and more.
Numerous studies have found phthalate exposure to be associated with a range of health problems. Known as endocrine disruptors, phthalates have been found to interrupt some forms of hormone production in mammals – which can sometimes lead to cancer, birth defects and developmental disorders.
“One of the better-studied chemicals, there’s an association with low sperm count and low reproductive capacity in adult males,” Dr. Mary Snow Wolff, professor of preventive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told FoxNews.com. “We’ve seen associations with prenatal exposure and poor development in children, including executive type function associated with behavior. These are things that may or may not be reversible, but you definitely want to avoid them.”
Wolff noted that one of the problems with phthalates is that they are not always listed on the labels of products. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure. Some products containing phthalates abbreviate the chemical name, listing it as DBP, DEP, DEHP BzBP, or DMP, and many scented products or “fragrances” often contain a combination of compounds that usually includes phthalates.
A naturally occurring element, arsenic can be found in combination with either inorganic or organic substances to form a variety of compounds. Inorganic arsenic can be found naturally in the soil or groundwater, while organic arsenic can mainly be found in sea creatures, such as fish or shellfish.
“Arsenic is in the earth, so if there are things that are grown in high levels of arsenic, it’s likely to be incorporated in the food,” Richards said.
Water contaminated by natural sources of arsenic is one of the leading causes of arsenic toxicity throughout the world, while meat, fish and poultry account for the majority of the population’s dietary exposure to arsenic. Rice has also been found to contain relatively high levels of inorganic arsenic, prompting many to voice concerns over the consumption of various rice products. However, a review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that the amount of detectable arsenic in rice is too low to cause any acute health effects.
Organic arsenic is not generally associated with health problems, but high levels of inorganic arsenic can disrupt the body’s production of ATP, which is responsible for transporting energy between cells. This can lead to a range of health conditions, including skin disorders and increased risks for diabetes, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer, according to the CDC.
“We can be exposed to low levels, but when you start seeing an accumulation, you can see effects in musculoskeletal system – such as muscle weakness and even paralysis,” Richards said.
Phenols are a class of organic chemical compounds that can be manufactured industrially. The most notable phenols include parabens, triclosan and bisphenol A (BPA).
Used in many polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, BPA has come under scrutiny within the past decade, after various studies have found associations between high levels of the chemical and a variety of possible health effects. According to the Mayo Clinic, some research has shown that BPA can seep into foods stored in containers made with BPA, potentially causing adverse effects on the brains of developing children.
In order to avoid BPA, Wolff said consumers should try to eat out of glass rather than plastic dishware. Also cutting back on canned foods or buying products that say “BPA-free” can help to lower a person’s exposure.
Parabens are widely used as preservatives in many lotions, yet increasing evidence has linked this class of chemicals with an increased risk of breast cancer. Most beauty products list parabens on their labels, so be on the lookout for all of its types – including ethylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, and butylparaben.
Finally, triclosan is an organic compound found in many antibacterial soaps, body washes and toothpastes. While the FDA has not found triclosan to be hazardous to human health, many animal studies have found that the chemical may alter hormone regulation – prompting the FDA to conduct an ongoing review of triclosan. Consumers worried about possible health effects should check the labels of all antimicrobial products, as triclosan must be listed as an ingredient if it is used.