Researchers are continually finding new evidence that common items in our kitchens, bathrooms and toy chests can make us sick. One of the most insidious substances is bisphenol A, a component of the light plastics used in baby bottles and many other consumer products. Over the past several years, scientists have reported that low levels of bisphenol A can disrupt cell division, leading to spontaneous miscarriages and birth defects such as Down syndrome.

In early 2007 a team led by Patricia A. Hunt of Washington State University found that small amounts of bisphenol A interfered with the growth of egg cells in developing female mouse embryos. As many as 40 percent of the eggs from fetuses exposed to bisphenol A had an abnormal number of chromosomes. This stunning finding showed that the chemical’s effects can run through three generations: the pregnant mother’s exposure damages the daughter’s reproductive cells, which in turn disrupts the development of the daughter’s own children.

The National Toxicology Program, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, is currently reviewing the safety of bisphenol A. In the meantime, some physicians advise pregnant women to avoid drinking water from plastic bottles, especially once the containers become visibly scratched or scuffed, which may indicate that they are leaching the hazardous chemical.

Toxic household items also pose a danger to the environment. Unused pharmaceuticals are a particularly serious threat because consumers often flush them down the toilet, sending the potent molecules into rivers and lakes. Discarded birth-control pills can trigger reproductive problems in fish, and surplus antibiotics can enhance the spread of bacteria that are resistant to the drugs. In an attempt to tackle this problem, the American Pharmacists Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement last year to launch a public-awareness campaign to change consumer habits. When people pick up their prescriptions, they will be advised to dispose of their unused pharmaceuticals through hazardous-waste collection programs. If such programs are not locally available, the next best option is crushing and diluting the medicines, then sealing them in plastic bags and dumping them in the trash. (Some narcotic drugs will be exempt from the recommendations because of the risk that addicts will retrieve the pills from garbage cans.)

An even better solution would be the establishment of incentives to encourage consumers to return their unused drugs to pharmacies. Pilot programs of this type are now operating in California, Washington State and Maine.
—Mark Alpert