The Truth about Toxics

Black mold. Pesticides. Mercury. Radon. The list of toxics in our environment can seem endless and overwhelming. But which risks are real and which are overblown media creations? Two experts say that’s a question worth asking, and they’ve set out to provide some answers.

Black mold. Pesticides. Mercury. Radon. The list of toxics in our environment can seem endless and overwhelming. But which risks are real and which are overblown media creations? Two experts say that’s a question worth asking, and they’ve set out to provide some answers.

Gary Ginsberg and Brian Toal have spent a combined 35 years assessing the risks of everyday toxics and addressing the public’s concerns. Their new book, What’s Toxic, What’s Not, provides a single reference source for the average person who wants to cut through the myths and mixed messages and get to the truth about toxics. ENN sat down with Ginsberg and Toal to tap their expertise.

Environmental News Network: What do you consider to be the biggest myth or misconception about household toxics?

Ginsberg & Toal: Toxic mold is largely a media creation. In the 1990s a study by the CDC drew an association between black mold and lung bleeding in infants in Cleveland. This study was widely reported, and started a panic that mold was a toxic insult to the lungs. What hasn’t been reported is that this study has since been retracted. Once an impression is publicly on the loose it’s hard draw it back in.

The fact is that yes, mold can be a health problem for people who are sensitive. But in general, it’s not earth shattering to have some mold in your house. There’s a little bit of mold everywhere. Humans evolved with mold in caves and straw huts. When you find a source of mold in your home, don’t panic, just remove it physically by scrubbing and maybe using a little bleach solution.

ENN: On the flip side, is there anything out there that you feel presents a greater danger than we’re generally aware?

G & T: Most people don’t pay enough attention to their drinking water. Private wells can present big issues and problems can sneak up on you suddenly.

Lax industrial practices in the past can have an adverse impact on well water for decades. Some water-soluble chemicals live for a long time in groundwater and move into neighborhoods gradually over time. You also have to consider what’s going on in your neighborhood. If the guy down the street spilled a little gas on the ground as he was refilling his lawnmower that alone can be enough to cause problems in your well water.

Having a private well is particularly dangerous because there are no local or federal statutes requiring you to test your water. You have to keep on top of it yourself. When you move into a house with a well, you test the water for a bare-bones set of parameters including bacteria, nitrate, iron, and acidity. This is very important, but doesn’t account for risks from things like pesticides, old industrial solvents, and gasoline. People really should request a full scan when they move into a house with an existing well. Run a radiation scan for uranium, heavy metals, and test for arsenic as well. After that it’s wise to follow up on a regular basis with testing. Someone with no sources of contamination within half a mile should re-test in five to 10 years. If you are nearer than that to a gas station or other known source of contamination, testing every two to three years makes good sense. In addition, if you notice a change in the taste of your water, or if there are changes in your neighborhood, test more often. People really should see their drinking water a precious resource that takes vigilance to protect.

ENN: How does bottled water hold up under scrutiny?

G & T: People shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security about bottled water because it’s often just urban tap water or from a public water supply that has been distilled or filtered. There can be bacteria, trace levels of organics and metals. In fact, less testing is required of bottled water than city water, so it’s not necessarily any better for you than tap water. By getting a carbon filter at home for your water intake, you’re just as safe refilling your own water bottle and saving yourself some money!

ENN: The potential health issues attributable to living in close proximity to power lines has been in the news on and off for years. Are the risks real or overstated?

G & T: The risks are uncertain but potentially significant ”“ and the level of risk may actually be on the rise as the population grows and development puts pressure on the land. Building projects have been creeping closer to power lines, which are being upgraded to carry more current. This vicious cycle threatens to expose more children to high levels of EMF. Fortunately, more regulators are beginning to recognize a childhood leukemia connection. Since no one wants to unnecessarily expose kids to EMF from high voltage lines, potential health issues are beginning to influence siting decisions in some locales.

ENN: How about appliances like heating pads and electric blankets?

G & T: These fall into the same category as power lines, as do appliances like computer monitors and TV sets. You don’t want your kids playing right behind your TV, for example. Sitting a few feet away from the front of the screen is fine.

One appliance that some people worry about more than they probably should is microwaves, which today don’t leak radiation like they might have in the distant past. But it’s still prudent to stand a foot or more away when it’s in use to play it safe.

Cell phones are a newer concern. There’s some evidence linking heavy cell phone usage 10 or so years ago to the development of acoustic neuroma ”“ slow-growing tumors of the inner ear. However, the technology has changed so fast that the science of testing for effects can’t keep up with the technology. So it’s hard to tell how safe today’s cell phones really are. We can say that cell phone towers don’t present a real risk.

ENN: If you could identify a few relatively simple things that homeowners could do to reduce their exposure to toxics in their households what would they be?

G & T: Radon is one of most significant ”“ but most preventable ”“ household hazards. Exposure does cause lung cancer. But it’s easy to test for and easy to fix.

Carbon monoxide is another. Every house should have a carbon monoxide detector.

Anyone with small children in older ”“ pre-1978 ”“ housing should be concerned about lead paint. Even if it’s buried under layers of lead-free paint it can be chipped off and cause a hazard. Window well paint, in particular, doesn’t hold up well, and wind blows paint dust right into the house. Keep window wells clean and free of paint chips, and get children tested for lead at the ages of one and two.

We’ve already discussed drinking water, but again, good general advice is to be aware of your supply. If you are on a public supply, your water company is required to send out a Consumer Confidence Report each July. Read yours to keep abreast of what’s going on in your water. We describe how to interpret these reports in the book.

At the back of the book we’ve included a homebuyer’s guide, which provides a comprehensive checklist of things like these to consider.

You can take a Home Toxics Test on our website,, as well as get more details on the book.

ENN: Look for What’s Toxic, What’s Not on

About the Authors of What’s Toxic, What’s Not:

Dr. Gary Ginsberg is the senior toxicologist at the Connecticut Dept. of Public Health where he helps set pollutant standards for air, water, and soil and develops health advisories for fish and consumer products. He has an adjunct faculty appointment at the Yale University School of Medicine and is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

Brian Toal is the supervisor of the Environmental and Occupational Health Assessment Program in the Connecticut Department of Public Health. He is project manager on grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on surveillance of environmental disease and assessment of community risks from contaminated sites.

Commentary: Toxics in Perspective: Risk Assessment at the Biomonitoring Crossroads
Radio Interview: What's Toxic, What's Not

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