3 Cancer-Causing Chemicals That May Be Hiding in Your Home

Knowledge is safety. Learn how to protect yourself and loved ones.

a young Black woman sleep peacefully on a bed on her side, with her fact turned toward the camera

Updated on February 16, 2024.

If you’re concerned about health and wellness, you might have thought about ways to avoid potentially dangerous chemicals in your life. The problem is, product laws and regulations often lag behind the science when it comes to cancer-causing chemicals, also known as carcinogens. On top of that, product labels are often misleading, so it can be difficult to tell which items are safe and which could carry hidden risks.

The hard work of researching and finding safer products often falls to consumers—and that can feel like an overwhelming task. Much needs to be done to reform the systems that allow unsafe products on the market. Until then, there are resources available to help you make more informed decisions.

The chemicals below are just a few of the many potential carcinogens found in household items. Their names don’t always appear clearly on labels, but there are ways to help identify and reduce your exposure to them. Read on for healthy shopping strategies, plus affordable swaps to help you protect your home and loved ones.

Avoid VOCs and off-gassing

You might have heard the term “off-gassing” while shopping for mattresses, furniture, flooring, and even new cars. In the past, certain off-gassing odors were marketed as a good thing, such as the “smell of fine leather” or “that new-car smell.”

Today we know better. Off-gassing refers to a process where products steadily release chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. There are different kinds of VOCs and many are associated with a range of health risks, including some cancers.  

What to know about mattresses and chemicals

A variety of products—from cleaning products to candles and more—can release VOCs. But it's especially important to try to avoid mattresses that off-gas, since you spend so much time in bed. In addition to VOCs, mattresses may contain:

  • Antimony, a type of flame retardant linked to lung cancer in animal studies
  • Phthalates, a type of “forever chemical,” so named because they are especially toxic and long-lasting. Phthalates are used to make plastic products soft and flexible. They are considered endocrine disruptors, which means they may change how hormones work in the body. Hormone changes can potentially lead to serious health issues over time, including certain cancers.
  • Mystery chemical “fragrances,” which are often added during manufacturing to hide other chemical odors. Chemicals used in “fragrance” can contribute to a range of health issues, including hormone changes.

You want to pay extra close attention to ingredients in mattresses made for babies and children, advises Roxana Amaya-Fuentes, MPH, Eco-Healthy Child Care Senior Program Associate for the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN). CEHN is a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that works to ensure that all children have healthy places to live, learn, and play, clean air to breathe, and access to safe food, water, and toys.

Babies and children are especially vulnerable to the health effects of off-gassing for several reasons, Amaya-Fuentes says. These include the many hours babies spend sleeping. Also, chemical exposures can have a bigger impact on smaller bodies that are still developing. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—a nonprofit organization that researches toxic chemicals in food, water, and consumer products—most crib mattresses “emit large amounts of VOCs” and may contain a broad range of toxic chemicals.

In search of a safer mattress

“You can choose safer mattresses and nap mats by looking for 100 percent organic cotton or wool materials,” Amaya-Fuentes says. “Look for the Global Organic Textile certification, which is the highest standard for non-toxic mattresses today.”

The EWG offers several additional tips. These include:  

Be choosy when it comes to foam-based products. That includes polyurethane and memory foams. These tend to release large amounts of chemicals, so look for a product that’s certified low-VOC. (Certification bodies include Oeko-Tex Standard 100 or Greenguard Gold.) If you want to eliminate the risk entirely, skip foam products.

Avoid flame-retardant chemicals. These have been made to resist catching fire or burning. The problem is, many flame retardant chemicals can harm your thyroid and make it harder for your body to regulate hormones. (The thyroid is a small gland in your neck that makes hormones and helps the body use energy.) If flame resistance is a feature that’s important to you, seek other options. The EWG notes that wool and polylactic acid (PLA) are good alternatives to chemical flame retardants.

Say no to anti-microbial additives. These chemicals are designed to prevent the spread of germs and are often marketed as “antibacterial” or “hypo-allergenic.” They might sound healthy, but they are often loaded with harsh substances that may do more harm than good.

While it can be expensive to buy a new mattress, retailers typically have big sales on holiday weekends like the 4th of July and President’s Day. Also consider contacting companies to see if any promotions will be available soon. Check out the EWG’s safer mattress guide before visiting stores.

What if I have a new mattress that’s actively off-gassing?

If you’ve recently purchased a mattress and you’ve noticed a strong chemical smell, it’s a safe bet the mattress is emitting chemicals you should not breathe. To help reduce your risk of exposure, consider the following steps:

First, leave the mattress in a well-ventilated area for at least a few days before sleeping on it. That might mean sleeping on the couch while you open bedroom windows and vents and run fans and/or air filters. While the smell is easing up, keep the bedroom door closed to minimize circulation of the chemicals to other areas.

Some experts suggest pouring baking soda onto the bed during this time to help absorb the odor. When the odor is gone, vacuum up the baking soda before using the bed.

Beware of BPA and related chemicals

BPA (bisphenol A) has been a go-to chemical for making plastics since the 1950s. Today, it can be found in thousands of household products, including baby bottles, water bottles, toys for kids and pets, lunch boxes, backpacks, and food storage containers. It’s also used to coat the insides of metal surfaces like cans, cookie sheets, and cupcake tins. Because BPA has been linked to health risks, many (but not all) manufacturers have phased it out of their products.

“It’s common to see ‘BPA-free’ labels because the public understands there is strong evidence to show BPA is a cancer-causing chemical,” says Morgan Barnes, MPH, Wellness Program Coordinator at the Center for Black Women’s Wellness in Atlanta, Georgia.

But just because a product is labeled “BPA-free” doesn’t mean it’s made from healthy materials, says Amaya-Fuentes. It is a common practice for companies to swap out BPA for similar chemicals like BPF (bisphenol F) and BPS (bisphenol S). Since these chemicals are related to BPA, they are often referred to as “BPA sisters.” Many of these BPA sisters are linked to similar health issues.

Some research identifies BPA sister chemicals as endocrine disruptors. This means they may negatively affect hormones, including those of the reproductive system. Other research suggests they may promote the development of cancer cells in laboratory samples.

“These chemicals, which are often found in children’s products, can be especially harmful to kids’ health because their bodies are more vulnerable to chemicals,” says Amaya-Fuentes. “And kids often put plastic items directly in their mouths.”

How to avoid BPA and sister chemicals

First, don’t depend on labels that claim a product is “free from” certain chemicals. With so many hazardous substances used in manufacturing in the United States, a product could contain another risky substance. Instead, make sure you know exactly what’s in it.

Whenever possible, scan labels for 100 percent “what you see is what you get” products. That means products made from stand-alone materials like stainless steel, organic tree rubber, silicone, or untreated wood. These are particularly good options for child and pet products.

“Most of us can’t afford to replace everything all at once,” says Barnes. “Start by throwing away any plastics that are scratched or frayed since little pieces could break off into your food.”

It can also help to avoid metal cans whenever possible. For example, instead of canned beans, opt for dried beans that you soak and cook yourself. “If you can’t avoid cans, at least be sure to thoroughly wash canned foods with filtered water,” Barnes urges.

“Never microwave or heat plastic containers, especially plastic baby bottles,” adds Amaya-Fuentes. “If you use plastic bottles for mixing formula, heat the milk or water separately before mixing it. Whenever possible, use glass baby bottles with silicone sleeves wrapped around the outside or use opaque plastic bottles, which are less likely to contain BPA sister chemicals.”

Don’t microwave take-out, fast-food, frozen meal, or meal-kit containers either. The same goes for grease-proof containers like pizza boxes, burger and sandwich wrappers, or microwave popcorn bags. These types of containers tend to contain “forever chemicals.” Remove your food from them as soon as possible after pickup or delivery.

If you are thinking about buying a plastic product for your kitchen, check the recycling codes, advises Amaya-Fuentes: “If the product is labeled with recycling codes 3, 6, or 7, they pose challenges in the recycling process because of their potential health and environmental risks.” These types of plastics are associated with potentially harmful chemicals, including phthalates (recycling code 3), styrene (code 6), and bisphenols (code 7). The exception, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, is if plastics are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” in which case they are derived from corn and do not contain bisphenols.

Eliminate benzene from your air and surfaces

Benzene, one of the most common chemicals in U.S. manufacturing, can alter bone marrow and blood cell production. It’s linked to reproductive issues, blood cancers like leukemia, and other serious conditions.

Because benzene is found in cigarettes and car exhaust, it can enter your home’s air if you live with a person who smokes or near a major road. Even if you don’t smoke, secondhand smoke can spread benzene and other chemicals. Thirdhand smoke is also a risk. It occurs when the residue from tobacco smokes settles on surfaces and fabrics. 

“Benzene is also found in many household products like candles, plug-ins, air fresheners, and disinfectants,” says Barnes. Common sources include:

  • Stove-top cleaners
  • Cleaning solutions
  • Home repair oils and lubricants
  • Paints and dyes
  • Glues
  • Certain art supplies

Ways to avoid benzene

Roughly half of all benzene exposure in the U.S. comes from cigarettes. E-cigarettes and vaping products contain a long list of dangerous and cancer-causing chemicals, as well. There’s no safe amount of exposure to smoking, secondhand, or thirdhand smoke. Using vents, opening windows, and smoking in just one area of the home won’t keep loved ones and pets safe.

If you or a loved one is a smoker or e-cigarette user who wants to stop, there are resources that can help with quitting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides quit hotlines you can call for free.

Given that the average U.S. family spends more than 90 percent of their time indoors, most households would benefit from using an air purifier. Certain types of air purifiers, such as those with activated carbon filters, can remove chemicals like benzene from the air. Meanwhile, if you live close to a major road or industrial area where exhaust fumes pollute your air, it’s worth running a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter if you can. These can help remove from the air some of the particles generated by car exhaust.

The EWG has a guide on how to choose a HEPA filter. If you can’t afford a store-bought HEPA filter, you can make an air purifier at home using products available for low cost at most hardware stores and major retailers. Follow these tips from the CDC to build your own air purifier.

Search for cleaner products

Aim to reduce the use of everyday products that contain benzene. Check the ingredients list on products like stove cleaners, paints, and glues. Whenever possible, opt for products that meet the “Safer Choice” standard from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This was created to help people easily recognize safer household products.

You can search products online through the Safer Choice registry or look for the Safer Choice label in stores. Barnes also recommends downloading the EWG’s Healthy Living smartphone app. It lets you search, scan, and assess the safety of products in real time when shopping.  

Meanwhile, consider homemade alternatives to common benzene-heavy products:

Skip the aromatic candles and plug-ins. Instead, simmer citrus peels, flowers, or herbs in your kitchen and let the aroma fill the home, recommends Barnes.

Avoid air fresheners. Instead, you can deodorize a room naturally by placing an open box of baking soda or a small bowl of vinegar on a high shelf, out of children’s and pets’ reach, suggests Amaya-Fuentes.  

Ditch store-bought fabric softener. Consider using white distilled vinegar instead. “You might ask, won’t that make my clothes smell like vinegar?” says Barnes. “The answer is no. It will just make your towels fluffy.” It’s best to use vinegar in washing machines only occasionally, however, as the acid in vinegar can damage some rubber components. Also be sure to check the EWG app when considering store-bought laundry products.

What to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed

“It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by just how common these chemicals are in our homes and lives,” says Barnes. It can also feel unfair that the burden of creating safer homes and environments is placed on everyday people instead of the companies that sell unhealthy products or the policy makers who are supposed to keep us safe. What’s more, women, children, and people of color are disproportionately exposed to unsafe products and the health effects that can come from their use.

But change can happen. When people speak with their spending, companies listen.

“You don’t have to change everything all at once,” Barnes says. “Start by gathering information and taking stock of the items in your home. Use an environmental health app while shopping and think about swapping out one item at a time.” The Healthy Living app from the EWG is a good place to start.

You can also share the information in this article and encourage loved ones to think about environmental risks, too.

Consider giving feedback to companies when you can, adds Amaya-Fuentes. Leave reviews, take surveys, and call or email the customer service department when you see harmful chemicals in products you use. At the end of the day, companies need to keep customers happy if they want to stay in business.

This article has been written in collaboration with the Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN), a national nonprofit with the mission of protecting all children from environmental health hazards and promoting a healthy environment, and the Center for Black Women’s Wellness (CBWW), a community-based, family service center committed to improving the health and well-being of underserved Black women and their families.

To learn about other risk categories like non-stick pans, candles, and plastic baby teethers, visit our Guide for Safe, Non-Toxic Gifts. For info on eliminating household dust (which can collect harmful chemicals) and choosing safer cleaning supplies, visit 10 Simple Cleaning Tips to Help You Breathe Better at Home.

Article sources open article sources

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