A Clear & Plasic Danger
In Hollywood’s 1967 classic The Graduate, our floundering hero, recent law school grad Ben Braddock, wonders what to do with his life when a family friend offers him a surefire career tip: “I want to say one word to you—plastics.” While Braddock doesn’t follow that advice, it was indeed solid counsel for that era. In 2008, however, plastics face a far more troubled future. The crux of the problem? Endocrine disruption.
Endocrine disrupters are chemicals found in scads of widely used products. They resemble hormones in their chemical structure, leading many researchers to believe that the body treats them as hormones, too. Once inside us, endocrine disrupters interfere with normal hormonal processes, causing genetic damage, especially in developing fetuses and children. Among other things, the chemicals throw sexual development off course, make reproductive systems go haywire, and cause hormone- related cancers. While the only proof of harm comes from animal testing, the threat appears to extend to humans as well.
Endocrine disruption flared as a hot topic in 1996, sparked by the book Our Stolen Future (Penguin, 1996), by zoologist Theo Colborn and others. By tying some alarming research to some just-as-alarming human trends, Colborn demonstrated that major impacts from endocrine disrupters might already be affecting the human population. For instance, the authors suggested that breast cancer rates, which have risen sharply since the mid-20th century, might be related to the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides that contain hormone-mimicking chemicals. Studies at the Strang Cornell Cancer Research Laboratory showed that the chemicals appear to push estrogen metabolism in a direction that profoundly boosts cancer risk.
In the 12 years since Colborn published Our Stolen Future, the federal government has responded to research-based questions about endocrine disrupters mainly by protecting corporations that profit from them. Yet evidence that Colborn and her coauthors were right continues to mount.
For a microcosm of what’s been happening with endocrine disrupters in the US, consider the case of the widely used chemical bisphenol-A (BPA). Industry loves BPA because it makes polycarbonate plastic clear and nearly unbreakable. An extensive body of literature supports the view that this chemical, originally developed as a synthetic estrogen, can cause hormonal chaos. “We’re talking about hundreds of studies with large sample sizes by the world’s premier scientists in endocrinology, neurobiology, and developmental biology—published in the major journals in the world,” says University of Missouri-Columbia neurobiologist Fred vom Saal, a pioneer in BPA research. But the FDA has so far declared BPA safe, citing instead two tiny studies. Those studies, unlike the independent research that counters them, were funded by the chemical industry.
The government has also failed to act against phthalates—chemicals used mainly to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic soft and pliable—despite disturbing research that points to estrogen-related damage in both animals and people, including shrunken penises and impaired testes. As usual with profitable substances, the government claims that regulation is unwarranted until someone proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that phthalates cause harm. Relying on the same research available to US agencies, however, the European Union (EU) began enforcing a ban against phthalates in toys in 1999.
Fortunately, consumers are already protesting the use of BPA and phthalates—vociferous boycotts that could soon turn these industrial staples into worthless toxic waste. But until these chemicals get banned, you need to know where they lurk in your household, how they affect your health, and what you can do to protect you and your family right now.
Estrogen Gone Wild
To understand how widely phthalates pervade your life, imagine doing without the following: Soft vinyl toys; baby’s teething rings; your car’s dashboard (that “new car smell” is the phthalates off-gassing); perfume; makeup; nail polish; pomade; adhesives; PVC flooring; certain pesticides; various building materials and wire sheathing; medical tubing and IV bags; garden hoses; paints; raincoats and other plastic clothing; shower curtains; and footwear. Rubber products, too, including—sorry—sex toys.
BPA is found in, and leaches out of, the linings of canned foods and soft drinks, including canned infant formula; clear plastic baby bottles and sippy cups; refillable water bottles; food storage containers; and dental sealants. And, yes, even out of those composite dental fillings you chose in order to avoid exposure to mercury. As much as you might like to banish these chemicals from your life, you’ll quickly see it’s nearly impossible.
With products like these in such common use, nearly every one of us carries a significant load of endocrine disrupters in our bodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Women and children have the highest levels of both phthalates and BPA. (The main reason that women’s bodies show higher levels of the chemicals than men’s? Their indulgence in phthalate-laden cosmetics.)
“When [fetuses and children] are exposed during critical windows of development, the effects are permanent,” says vom Saal. Women’s BPA and phthalate levels worry scientists as well, because these chemicals pass through the placenta to the fetus during pregnancy or through breast milk. Scientists worry less about men because, as vom Saal notes, “In adults, it’s like taking a birth-control pill.” In other words, when a woman takes the Pill, her hormonal activity is affected while the chemicals are in her body. Once she goes off the Pill, her hormonal activity eventually returns to normal. So it is with endocrine disrupters: If adults end their exposure to the chemicals, they also end the effects.
The theory about how damage from endocrine disrupters transpires goes like this: As vom Saal points out, the cells in babies and children depend upon signals from hormones to determine how they should develop. The wrong signals produce the wrong result. Because both BPA and phthalates resemble estrogen, they can mimic or block estrogenic effects in the body. Females exposed to messed-up estrogen-like signals early in life may develop breast and other reproductive system cancers later, research suggests. If males are exposed at crucial developmental stages, they may develop female characteristics and/or have poorly developed male ones. Other possible consequences include testicular cancer, reduced sperm counts, smaller penises, and undescended testes.
The chemical industry and its allies argue that no one has ever proved phthalates and BPA harm humans. While technically true, you wouldn’t want to bet your baby’s life on it, says vom Saal—especially given the overwhelming amount of research pointing toward serious human risk. For instance, when rodents are exposed to phthalates before birth, males often emerge with a shortened distance between their anus and genitals—a sign of feminization caused by too much estrogen. In one of the few human studies of phthalates, University of Rochester researcher Shanna Swan found that baby boys born to women with high phthalate levels tended to have shorter ano-genital distances, just like the rodents, as well as malformed genitals.
Vom Saal has worked exclusively on rodent studies, but he’s used breeds that respond to estrogen in a similar manner as humans. In 2006, an expert panel including vom Saal suggested that BPA may factor in such known human trends as increases in abnormal penises and urethras in males, early female puberty, decreased sperm counts, prostate and breast cancers, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, obesity, and type-2 diabetes. BPA led to all those conditions in rats.
In a sense, one large-scale human study of estrogen mimics has already been conducted—and the results weren’t pretty. From about 1941–71, millions of US women were given a synthetic estrogen called DES to prevent miscarriages. Their babies seemed healthy at birth, but vom Saal notes, “as teenagers, the girls started developing uterine cancers that had never been seen in women under 60.” These same girls, now grown women, have hyper rates of breast cancer, too. “They looked OK from the outside,” vom Saal says. “But their internal systems were completely deranged.”
The Cosmetics Industry’s Dilemma
How did the endocrine disrupter situation get so out of hand? The US was the first nation to aggressively regulate chemical pollution in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. But as other industrialized nations began following our lead, an antiregulatory backlash—fueled by corporate lobbyists and their political allies—took over at home. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t banned a single chemical in 17 years and has only banned five—including dioxins and PCBs—in its entire history. In fact, it has allowed 95 percent of chemicals to be used with no testing whatsoever. Note, too, that one of the most dangerous sources of phthalates—cosmetics—is barely regulated at all, thanks again to the industry’s lobbying efforts.
Meanwhile, places like the EU, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and even China now set the pace in protecting their citizens from chemical harm, so much so that the US is now the dumping ground for products considered unsafe in these other nations. Why is the EU more protective of its citizens than the US? Part of the difference is philosophical, says investigative journalist Mark Schapiro, author of Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power (Chelsea Green, 2007). The EU operates under the “precautionary principle,” he explains, meaning that even incomplete data that strongly suggests harm to humans motivates governments to act. “In other words, the risks of not acting are seen as outweighing the risks of acting, even in the face of scientific uncertainty.”
The US, in contrast, considers chemicals innocent until proven guilty, Schapiro says, and then demands a level of proof that many scientists consider impossible to attain. For instance, even when animal studies and so-called observational studies like Shanna Swan’s seem to condemn a chemical as harmful, industry will protest, often successfully, that harm to rats isn’t the same as harm to people—or that observational studies don’t prove that the chemical caused the problem. But this ignores an obvious ethical dilemma that industry exploits for its benefit.
“You can’t give phthalates in a randomized manner to pregnant women and see what happens the way you can to a rat,” Swan explains. “We’ll never be able to get around that.” That’s why scientists developed the alternative approach that Swan’s work exemplifies. Scientists test chemicals on rats with genetic and molecular systems that respond like their human counterparts. They then look for similar effects in humans exposed to the same chemicals in their daily lives.
The EU is more intellectually honest about why science relies on animal tests, says Schapiro. Plus, consumer protection better suits its political climate. “There are no corporate campaign contributions in the EU,” he points out, “so companies don’t have this powerful lever that US industry has.” Also, he says, the EU countries have national healthcare systems, so government has a huge stake in preventing the expensive, long-term health effects that chemicals can cause.
Gaming The System
In 1996, the US did make what first appeared to be a serious attempt to evaluate the risk in endocrine disrupters. In the wake of Colborn’s book, Congress passed a law ordering the EPA to create animal tests that assessed whether pesticide chemicals were having a hormonal-like effect in people. The law also empowered the EPA to test chemicals in consumer products. Although the law mandated that testing begin by 1999, the EPA has yet to even decide on which research methods to use. It has even proposed testing on a breed of rats known to be unresponsive to low doses of estrogen, which would rig the results in industry’s favor. The EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances acknowledges that some scientists have raised concerns about the rat testing, but claims its own information shows that the breed responds appropriately.
Another controversy in the government’s approach to testing concerns the amount of chemical considered harmful. Government agencies use methods drawn from the science of toxicology, otherwise known as “the dose makes the poison” camp. “Toxicologists look at the highest dose you can administer without causing a harmful effect,” Colborn notes. “They use adult animals and crude indices like body weight, organ weight, and litter size.” Colborn and vom Saal point out that hormone disrupters work differently. Their greatest damage occurs at dose levels thousands of times less than what the government would term poisonous. To EPA toxicologists, an animal getting a “safe” dose may look fine. But an endocrinologist sees the damage lurking below the surface in the form of genetic time bombs.
“A toxic chemical kills cells,” vom Saal explains. “An endocrine-disrupting chemical alters gene function. And when it does that during development, it leads to cancers and kills the organism later on in life—a totally different concept.” But a concept that terrifies the industry because the only way to prevent low-dose effects is to ban a chemical completely.
The good news: At least some consumer protection is in sight. On the regulatory front, California passed a ban on phthalates for children under 3 in 2007 and Washington passed an even tougher ban—better protecting children over 3—in 2008. Ten states have similar bills in their legislative pipeline.
Meanwhile, Canada became the first nation to regulate BPA when it banned it in baby bottles in April. On Capitol Hill, a bill has been introduced into the Senate to get the BPA ball rolling here. In addition, corporate influence on chemical regulation, including the FDA’s reliance on those industry-funded BPA studies mentioned above, is now the subject of two separate Congressional investigations. Market forces in the global economy are also pushing things in a positive direction. Major US companies such as Mattel, Hasbro, and Toys ‘R’ Us that sell to the EU have removed phthalates from their toys for young children to meet EU standards. REI, Nalgene, Wal-Mart, and Playtex announced they were going BPA-free even before Canada’s ban went into effect, hoping to avoid the wrath of their Canadian customers.
Companies already offer good alternatives to phthalates and BPA. Austin, Texas–based ThinkBaby makes a BPA-free baby bottle out of PES, a plastic borrowed from the medical industry, while its sister company ThinkSport makes adult sport bottles out of the same material. Meanwhile, Japanese companies lead the way in food canning, having reformulated can linings to limit BPA-related problems.
Beyond buying safer products, you should take other steps (see “8 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure” below) to minimize the harmful plastics in your household. While no one is suggesting that you attempt the impossible task of going plastic-free, it is definitely advisable to lighten your endocrine-disrupter load. Given the evidence, it’s a simple case of better safe than sorry.
Alan Reder is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.
8 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure
The following practices will help protect you—and most importantly, your children—from harm caused by endocrine disrupters. Learn more about endocrine disrupters at Theo Colborn’s site: www.endocrinedisruption.com.
1. Drink out of and store food in glass, stainless steel, porcelain, or BPA- and phthalate-free plastic.
2. Don’t wash plastic items in the dishwasher, which can cause endocrine disrupters to leach onto other items. Wash plasticware in warm, soapy water instead.
3. Never microwave plastic—the heat may drive endocrine disrupters into food.
4. Throw out scratched or hazy-looking plastic containers, which are more prone to leaching chemical nasties.
5. Limit or eliminate canned foods, especially baby formula. Acidic foods such as tomatoes are more likely to absorb the BPA in the can linings.
6. Make coffee or tea some other way than running hot water through a plastic appliance. Good alternatives: a glass and stainless-steel French press or a stainless-steel percolator.
7. Search the chemical content of toys at www.healthytoys.org. PVC content is listed (phthalates are not), but toys made with PVC generally include phthalates.
8. Go to www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org/Pages/PhthalateFree.html for a list of phthalate-free cosmetics.
Safer Plastics by the Numbers
To avoid the most dangerous plastics, look at the number in the recycling triangle located on the bottom of the container.
1-Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, PETE): Used in soft-drink and single-use water bottles. Can leak the heavy metal antimony.
3-Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Contains phthalates.
7-Other: This catch-all category includes bisphenol-A.
2-High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
4-Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)