Cats and Dogs, Sentinels in a Silent Spring


This year marks the 50 year anniversary for Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. The eponymous book that warned of the dangers of pesticides, a book many say prompted the environmental movement, led to the banning of the pesticide DDT a decade later.

What many people don’t realise is that today, 50 years after Silent Spring was published, we are exposed to more toxic chemicals than ever before, an estimated 8,000-12,000 chemicals continue to be introduced annually, with no requirement that human toxicity or exposure data be provided before the chemical is used.

“Like the constant dripping of water that in turn wears away the hardest stone,” she wrote in her 1962 book, “this birth-to-death contact with dangerous chemicals may in the end prove disastrous.”

Flame Retardants PentaBDE

A study published this week in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, “Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out,” reveals that 85% of couches purchased in the United States between 1985 and 2010 contain a multitude of chemical flame retardants. Studies show that these toxic flame retardant chemicals don’t stay in couches’ upholstery foam but migrate into household dust. Humans and pets ingest this dust and it accumulates in their bodies.

A previous study of flame-retardant PBDE levels in cats revealed that cats were 20 to 100 fold greater than median levels in U.S. adults. The study results support the hypothesis that cats are highly exposed to PBDEs; hence, pet cats may serve as sentinels to better assess human exposure and adverse health outcomes related to low-level but chronic PBDE exposure.

Bisphenol A and phthalates in pet toys

An as-yet unpublished study, one of the first to examine dog products as a potential source of exposure, revealed that dogs that chew on plastic training devices and toys may be exposed to hormone-altering chemicals, according to researchers. The researchers found that bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates – ingredients of hard plastics and vinyl  – readily leach from bumper toys, which are used to train retrieving dogs. “Some of the dogs are exposed to plastic bumpers from the time they are born until the day they die,” said Smith, co-author of the study.

“A lot of plastic products are used for dogs, so to understand the potential for some of the chemicals to leach out from toys is a new and important area of research,” said veterinarian Safdar Khan, senior director of toxicology research at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Poison Control Center.

BPA is also the chemical commonly used to line the tins of pet food. Scientific reports have suggested  harmful carcinogenic, neurological, reproductive effects at exposures common to humans. No one really knows for certain as studies on the effects of BPA on pets have ever been done.

A previous study by the Environmental Working Group found that dogs’ blood and urine contained the breakdown products of several phthalates at levels ranging from 1.1 to 4.5 times higher than the average found in people.

It stands to reason, however, that if humans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies, pets do as well. Think of the incredible number of items pets come into contact during their lives: plastic food and water bowls, plastic drinking fountains, pet food storage containers, litter boxes, plastic pet toys, plastic pet doors, and of course the ubiquitous lining in canned pet foods.

After the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and child sippy cups, plastic manufacturers eliminated it, only to replace it another chemical. How toxic is the binder chemical they replaced it with? The answer: we simply don’t know.

Safe Chemicals Act

Essentially, consumers and animals are the living experiment on which these chemicals are tested. Once in the environment, it often takes a decade or more of exposure and research before we have evidence that a chemical may be toxic. When that happens, the offending substance is removed from manufacture only to be replaced by another chemical that we know even less about.

The Safe Chemicals Act which is working its way through the Senate this year will reform the antiquated and woefully inadequate 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The bill, if passed, gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the tools it needs to require health and safety testing of toxic chemicals and places the burden on industry to prove that chemicals are safe.

Under current law, the EPA can call for safety testing only after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous. As a result, EPA has been able to require testing for just 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States, and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances. Congress needs to modify the outdated, inefficient chemical safety laws. Meanwhile, find out if your representatives support the Safe Chemicals Act. If they don’t, urge them to. We can’t wait another 50 years for change.

Poisoned Pets Suggests

  • When buying furniture, I recommend pre-loved, pre-owned, pre-1980 vintage, antique or retro items made natural fibers like down, wool or cotton fillings, which are unlikely to contain flame retardants. My Biedermeier chairs are stuffed with horsehair, but if that creeps you out, there are companies that specialize in non-toxic, alternative bedding and household furnishings.
  • Do not buy plastic toys
  • Do not buy rubber toys
  • Do not buy tennis balls
  • Do not buy painted toys
  • Do not buy toys made with unsafe dyes
  • Do not buy toys that could be shredded, torn or swallowed
  • Do not buy toys from discount stores & Big Box stores
  • Children’s toys are not safe substitutes for pets even though many look similar are not designed to be chewed on by dogs or cats.
  • Do not buy anything made in China. Period. Full stop.
  • Do make you own pull & chew toys out of old T-shirts or sweatshirts.
  • Do make your own cat toys with organic catnip and fabric trim or infant socks
  • Do up-cycle an old suitcase or a wicker basket as a pet bed, fill it with a covered down pillow or sheepskin.
  • Do visit Martha Stewart for oodles of adorable DIY upcycled pet crafts for toys, beds, play-houses, scratching posts & accessories for inspiration and ideas
  • Do buy hand-crafted non-toxic toys from environmentally conscious artists and craftspeople who care about animals, like the Etsy for Animals artists, for example.

Read more about it
Dog bites BPA: Chemicals leak from plastic training toys
Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out

Elevated PBDE levels in pet cats: sentinels for humans?


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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.


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