Risks to health and fertility from everyday chemicals: Legislation

November 22, 2010Carole 1 Comment »

Remember that great scene in the movie, The Graduate, where Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young man concerned about his future and he receives this memorable advice from one of his parent’s friends, Mr McGuire?

“Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: ‘Plastics.’
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.”

The Graduate was released in 1967 and Mr. McGuire was prescient in his advice. There was a great future in plastics. We still love our plastics today. Plastics are found in almost everything we buy for ourselves and our children. But our love and dependency on plastics has a down side. The teflon-coated pans we cook in and the plastic containers we store and reheat our food in everyday contain chemicals introduced during the manufacturing process that can leach out and can be hazardous to our health and fertility.

Scientists at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have studied 212 industrial chemicals that have been found in human blood and urine.  The fourth annual CDC report, the National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, is available for review. A FAQs sheet about the annual survey can be read here. The most common chemicals found in test subjects’ blood and tissue were three types of chemicals: bisphenol A used in plastics manufacturing, polybrominated diphenyl ethers used to make items like children’s sleepwear fire retardant, and perfluorinated chemicals used to make polytetrafluoroethylene, the Teflon coating on heat-resistant non-stick pans. These chemicals are so ubiquitous that the CDC found that 90%of people tested had these chemicals in their blood or urine. Some of these chemicals persist in the body because they are stored in fat depositis throughout the body.

Evidence over the last 43 years has been steadily accumulating that many environmental chemicals, particularly bisphenols used in plastics production have the capacity to disrupt normal reproductive function, causing early puberty or infertility. Bisphenol A can bind to the estrogen receptor and may disrupt normal endocrine function in early development. Bisphenol A is one chemical in a class of chemical compounds called “Endocrine Disruptors“.

The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA is the existing regulation of chemical companies in the US. Currently, it requires testing “of chemicals by manufacturers, importers, and processors where risks or exposures of concern are found”. So if a risk is found and harm is done, then testing is required. Seems a little out of order, doesn’t it? The TSCA also requires that manufacturers add new chemicals to the federal list of chemicals which currently exceed 83,000 chemicals. Approximately 63,000  chemicals were grandfathered in and placed on the list when the legislation was first enacted.

Reforms proposed for the TSCA. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and the group Safer Chemical, Healthy Families are trying to pass a new bill, introduced in April 2010, called the “Safe Chemicals Act,” which attempts to reform  TSCA. One provision of the proposed  bill would require companies to prove that the chemicals they use are safe before they use them, rather than presuming they are safe until proven dangerous. Basically, this bill is suggesting that chemicals be treated more like the drug industry which must prove to the FDA that drugs are safe before they are allowed to market them. In this case, the bill would give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more power. You can download the proposed bill and read it’s progress through the House and Senate here.

A summary of the suspected health damage from minimally regulated chemical manufacturing can be found on the Safer Chemical, Healthy Families site Toxic Chemicals: The Cost to Our Health. The scientific evidence that bisphenol which can bind to the estrogen receptor is an endocrine disruptor is well-proven. You can find more studies and clinical results on the dangers of endocrine disruptors on the National Institute for Environmental Health web site. The Endocrine Society has issued a scientific policy statement “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals” which for the first time identifies endocrine receptors as a public health threat.  According to Robert M. Carey, MD, president of The Endocrine Society, “In this Scientific Statement on endocrine-disrupting chemicals— developed by a group of experts in the field—we present evidence that shows endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid disease, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology.”

Any hope that this reform bill will pass pretty much evaporated after the mid-term elections. Although the bill is sensitive to the concerns of industry and has incentives for companies who pursue greener chemistry, there are many who are concerned about the economic ramifications of this bill. Cal Dooley, the president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, expressed his concerns, “”[W]e are concerned that the bill’s proposed decision-making standard may be legally and technically impossible to meet,” Dooley, interviewed in the NY Times article, “Sen. Lautenberg Introduces Chemicals Reform Bill, Saying Current Regulation ‘Is Broken’ continues, “The proposed changes to the new chemicals program could hamper innovation in new products, processes and technologies. In addition, the bill undermines business certainty by allowing states to adopt their own regulations and create a lack of regulatory uniformity for chemicals and the products that use them”.

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank is even more adamant when interviewed for a WebMD article “It is unlikely that it will pass,” he says. “It is not a priority for this Congress, and the next Congress won’t support it.” Stier blithely ignores decades of scientific research all pointing to the dangers of endocrine receptors as just scare mongering tactics.  Or as Mr. McGuire said, “There’s a great future in plastics”.

So what’s a person to do if they are concerned about their fertility and the health of themselves and their growing children? The Safer Chemicals Healthy Families has a very useful resource list of ideas for how to choose greener products and live a greener life.  Unfortunately in this economic and political climate, that may be the best we can do.

© 2010, Carole. All rights reserved.

One response to this entry

  • sara Says:

    Love your blog. Best of the best. I generally don’t follow blogs, but this one got me hooked. Because it is by an expert (not a patient) and it contains concise technical information and advice on specific topics (no emotional drama). Thanks Carole!

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