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When the gales blow across the Windy City, residents may have more to worry about than mussed hair. According to a new study led by Keri Hornbuckle from the University of Iowa, chemicals found in a myriad of personal care products are polluting Chicago’s air. Known as cyclic siloxanes, these compounds have been found to be toxic in aquatic life as well as posing a possible threat to other organisms. The airborne chemicals in downtown Chicago were recorded at levels ten times higher than in West Branch Iowa, and four times higher than in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. No studies have been completed yet to determine whether or not breathing the substances is harmful to humans, but their concentrations might be cause for concern.
Each year, the United States produces or purchases between 200 million and one billion pounds of cyclic siloxanes. Odorless, colorless, and smooth to the touch, they are found in a number of personal care products and durable goods. A chemical called D5 was found to be a major source of contamination both indoor and outdoors. The persistent chemical is found primarily in soaps, shampoos, and lotions. Samples taken inside the University of Iowa labs were 30 and 70 times higher than the outdoor samples of Cedar Rapids and West branch where D5 made up 95% of the mass. Another compound they identified was D4, contained in detergents, polishes, sealants, plastics, and adhesives. Researchers have seen evidence that D4 is toxic to certain species of wildlife including water fleas and rainbow trout, and it has been shown to cause tumors, reproductive problems, nervous and immune system complications, and estrogen-like effects in lab mice.
D4 and D5 are not regulated, although the US EPA stated last year that it would evaluate D4 under the Toxic Substances and Control Act. However, EPA will be focusing primarily on aquatic exposure instead of the atmosphere. A science panel on the European Commission in 2006 ruled that there was not sufficient data to assess the safety of the chemical for use in cosmetics. In 2007, California panels expressed concern over D5 and its long half life in humans as well as persistence in the environment. In 2009, Canada declared both the chemicals toxic. The strange structure of the molecules make them difficult to study, but there has been evidence out of Norway, England, and the US that have recorded levels of the contaminants accumulating in the food chain. We’re only just beginning to understand how they interact with the our bodies and the places where we live. The Great Lakes are one of the world’s largest sources fresh water, and pollution by these pervasive chemicals should be a major cause for concern.