Toxic homes: Are Our Pets Becoming Polluted?

The danger posed by toxic chemicals in the environment has been a widely recognized and extensively studied public health issue for decades. But only recently have the possible effects of these chemicals on pet health been seriously studied.

A New Report Raises New Concerns

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit research organization, recently issued the results of what it describes as "the most comprehensive investigation of the chemical body burden of companion animals conducted to date.''  In the study, 23 dogs and 37 cats were tested for the presence of 70 industrial chemicals. The report provides important information on the extent of potentially dangerous chemical exposure in pets. These were some of its findings:

  • The animals tested showed contamination with 48 of the 70 chemicals tested.
  • Forty-three of the chemicals were found "at levels higher than those typically found in people.''
  • Blood and urine samples taken from the dogs studied were found to be contaminated with 35 chemicals, including 11 carcinogens, 31 chemicals toxic to the reproductive system, and 24 neurotoxins.
  • Samples from the cats contained 46 chemicals altogether, including 9 carcinogens, 40 chemicals toxic to the reproductive system, 34 neurotoxins, and 15 chemicals toxic to the endocrine system.

Chemicals? What Chemicals?

Most pet owners are diligent when it comes to monitoring their pets' diets and general health. So, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are literally scores of chemicals -- some of them known to be toxic or potentially carcinogenic -- to which our pets are exposed on a regular basis. The list reads like the index of a chemistry textbook, and includes: polybrominated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs), phthalates, oxytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), ethoxyquin, propylene glycol, bisphenol A (BPA), and perfluorochemicals (PFCs).

Where Do They Come From?

According to the EWG report, the sources of industrial chemicals found in the pet environment are many, and include substances widely used in consumer and pet products:

  • PBDEs are fire retardants commonly used in foam furniture and bedding manufactured before 2005.
  • Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly used as softeners in many plastic items, including pet chew toys.
  • PFCs are found in food bag coatings, house dust, stain-proof furniture, cat beds, carpets, as well as non-stick cooking utensils.
  • Mercury compounds, from a variety of industrial sources.
  • Garden insecticides and herbicides, such as the commonly used 2,4-D.

How Serious Is The Danger?

The EWG report points out that because pets age more rapidly than humans, they develop health problems from toxic chemical exposure much more rapidly. That is of particular concern where the carcinogenic -- cancer causing -- chemicals are concerned. According to the EWG report, between 20 and 25 percent of dogs die of cancer.

In the case of cats, the report cites endocrine (hormone) system toxins (PBDEs) as being of particular concern. These are associated with  thyroid disease a leading cause of illness in older cats. The report also cites studies that suggest a link between hyperthyroidism in cats and exposure to the plastics chemical BPA, which is found in the linings of pop-top cat food cans.

Not The Last Word

Although the EWG study is an important milestone in pet environmental safety, some researchers have expressed doubts concerning the conclusions of the study. In a recent May 2 article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Nancy Szabo, PhD., an analytical toxicologist at the University of Florida, was quoted as saying that more research is needed and that chemicals are less of a threat to pet health than not keeping them vaccinated and out of the street.

How Can I Protect My Pet?

Although not the final word on the subject, the EWG findings suggest that some sensible precautions by pet owners are appropriate. The EWG suggests a number of steps that will reduce the level of pets' chemical exposure:

  • Don't use chemical pesticides and herbicides on your lawn.
  • Select pet foods that are free of preservatives and dyes.
  • Replace foam pet beds and furniture with ones using natural materials.
  • Avoid flea and tick collars, which deliver a constant dose of pesticide to your pet; consult your veterinarian for alternative flea and tick treatments.
  • Avoid optional stain-proofing treatments on furniture, carpets, and auto upholstery.
  • Use filtered tap water in your pet's water bowl.
  • Use metal food and water bowls, rather than those made of plastic.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.

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