The Body Toxic

As you can probably tell, I’ve been reading a lot lately.  I just finally have the time to tackle some subjects I’ve always wanted to read more about.  One of those topics I’m very passionate about is toxic chemicals in our environment and how to best avoid them.  If that is interesting to you too, then I highly recommend you read The Body Toxic.  The 230 page book was written by a journalist in 2008 and covers five major chemicals in a chapter each:

  • Atrazine — most commonly sprayed agricultural pesticide/herbicide, commonly found in ground and stream water.
  • Phthalates — a group of chemicals that make plastics like PVC flexible, also found in personal care products, detergents, soaps, food packaging, building materials, inflatable toys, and medical equipment like IV tubing.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) — a family of flame retardants used since the 1970s that are chemically very similar to the now banned PCBs, found in upholstered furniture, mattresses, carpet padding, vehicle upholstery, and electronics.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) — a chemical building block for polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, found in canned foods, food and beverage containers, PC (usually #7 plastic), and even some dental sealants/composites.
  • Perflourinated chemicals — chemicals that resist water, grease, and stains, found in products with names like Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, and GORE-TEX, and also found in nonstick cookware, stain resistance clothing/shoes/furniture, waterproof outerwear, some dental floss, microwave popcorn bags, and fast-food packaging.

I love how Nena Baker dives deeply into a handful of the most toxic chemicals and really gives her readers the low-down on how long the chemical has been around, where it is found, its half-life, what researchers have found out about its effect on humans and the environment, the politics surrounding it, etc.  Her focus is one I’ve not seen before in other similar books–she clearly thinks policy change is in order.  The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 is horribly ineffective and Baker shows us how strikingly different the EU’s REACH policy is.  While I want to know what I can do now to reduce my family’s exposure to these substances, Baker convincingly argues that what’s really needed is new legislation to regulate the chemicals that are widely produced.  More than 30 years after the TCSA was enacted, the EPA has used its authority to test fewer than 200 of the 62,000 chemicals grandfathered in by the TCSA and presumed safe.  The TCSA is toothless.  She does include a brief section in the appendix about what to do to reduce exposure, but this is not the focus of her book.

I know that many of you are interested in the book, but do not have the time or will to read the whole thing.  So as usual, I’m including some of my favorite excerpts and facts so that you can get a taste of what the book covers:

  • Number of full-time FDA positions in 1980: 978.  Number in 2008: 400.
  • Existing chemicals are considered safe until proven guilty.
  • The EPA cannot take any regulatory action regarding a suspected harmful substance until it has evidence that is poses an “unreasonable” risk of injury to human health or the environment.  The barriers to action are so high that, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, the EPA has given up trying to regulate chemicals and instead relies on the chemical industry to act voluntarily when concerns arise.
  • Since the implementation of TSCA, the EPA has attempted outright bans on only two chemicals.  The EPA has not attempted to ban a toxic chemical is 1989.
  • The TSCA gave blanket approval to 62,000 chemicals in commerce prior to the legislation’s implementation in 1976.  No questions were asked.  No hazard data was required.  Therefore, 99% (by volume) of chemicals used today are older substances that were grandfathered in under the toxics act.  Chemical manufacturers are responsible for reporting any potential problems they discover about these products.  This makes EPA chemical risk management dependent on information volunteered by industry, and industry has little incentive to look for damning problems or to disclose all it knows.
  • Dr. Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician and professor, and an assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances from 1993 to 1998 has said:  “As soon as chemical manufacturers identify a new problem with a chemical, then that chemical becomes vulnerable to regulation.  And so if you were sitting there worried about protecting shareholder value, would the first thing on your mind be to go out and find more problems with your product that will then be subject to more regulation?  It would not, because the more regulations, the less likely your customers are to want to purchase the chemical from you.  And so in the way the laws are structured, there’s a perverse incentive not to look.  The financial incentive is that as long as you don’t look, if you have no data about hazards, no data about exposures, then there is no risk assessment and then there is no risk, which is, of course, not actually true.  But that is, in effect, how it works.”
  • It’s not that chemicals are bad per se…. it’s that costly societal problems often arise because we know so little about so many chemicals.  And in the time it takes to learn what harm a substance is doing–to people, to animals, to places–the genie is long out of the bottle.  (Examples:  DDT, PCBs).
  • Margot Wallstrom, European Commission vice president, has said “We need to shift the responsibility for chemical safety to the chemicals industry itself.  Taking responsibility for your own products is standard practice everywhere…  Why should the chemicals industry industry be treated in a different way?”
  • The EU has passed a policy, known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical Substances) which will require manufacturers to produce risk and exposure information on about 30,000 chemicals.  REACH promises to close the knowledge gap on chemicals, reverse the burden of proof so that manufacturers must demonstrate a product is safe before it gets to market, and make more information available to consumers.
  • About 10,500 ingredients are used in the product category of cosmetics…. yet the FDA has banned or restricted only 9 ingredients in the seven decades it has monitored cosmetics safety.  By contrast, the European Union explicitly prohibits the use of more than 1000 ingredients in beauty-care products.
  • In 2008, the Washington Toxics Coalition released a report showing that playthings the group purchased from Toys “R” Us, Walmart, and Target contained phthalates at levels ranging from 28% to 47.5%.
  • At least five different phthalates are present in cosmetics and personal-care products, according to the FDA, and scores of products that do not list phthalates as a separate ingredient contain them anyway.  That’s because fragrance formulations, which are heavily dependent on phthalates, are listed simply as “fragrance” on ingredient labels.  And any ingredient claimed as a trade secret is also exempt from labeling.
  • Research by the University of Washington, published in Pediatrics in February of 2008, found that infants under the age of eight months, who are the most vulnerable to potential adverse effects because of their still-developing endocrine and reproductive systems, are the most highly exposed to phthalates.
  • Polybrominated diphynyl ethers (PBDEs) act as flame retardants when blended into products like car trim, carpet pads, mattresses and televisions.  High heat or flames trigger these PBDEs to release bromines that rob the air of the oxygen that fires need to stay alive.
  • In the three decades since manufactureres began adding PBDEs to plastics and foam, these chemicals have contimanted people, animals, and places all over the world.
  • Levels of PBDEs in human fat, blood, and breast milke in North America–the largest user of these flame retardants–are 10-100 times higher than those reported for Europe and Asia.  Levels are continuing to increase.  “We have now seen PBDE concentrations in some people higher than where we have seen effects in experimental animals,” said Linda Birnbaum, director of the EPA’s Experimental Toxicology Division.
  • Infants receive the largest exposure to PBDEs through breast milk, but toddlers, children, teens, and adults get their biggest doses of PBDEs through inadverant ingestion of house dust.  A 2004 study anazlyed floor dust and dryer lint and found PBDEs in every sample at concentrations ranging from 700 to 30,100 nanograms per gram.
  • Swedish researchers discovered by accideant that PBDE levels were increasing in breast milk by a jaw-dropping sixty-fold increase between 1972 and 1997 (with concentrations doubling every five years).  In 1999, the government submitted a proposal to prohibit the use of PBDEs.  Immediately after Sweden discontinued using PBDEs, total levels in breast milk began falling, dropping 30% between 1997 and 2000.
  • Canadian researchers found PBDE levels in breast milk were doubling every 2.6 years, compared to five years in Sweden.  In the U.S., a 2003 study of nursing mothers in Texas, found that levels of flame retardants in breast milk were as much as 100 times higher than levels seen in Europe.
  • Penta and Octa PBDEs are no longer produced (the company disconinued the two substances in 2005 after the EU and California instituted bans), but Deca is.  At first, Deca was not suspected of building up in human tissues as it was thought that the larger molecules were to stable to be a toxic threat.  But PBDE exposures are rising so rapidly that researchers began to wonder if Deca was somehow contributing to the problem.  Now, a growing stack of scientific studies suggests that Deca can break down, or degrade, into more toxic and bioaccumulative forms of PBDEs like the ones no longer in production.  About 80% of all Deca is used in housings for televisions sets and computers.
  • Penta and Octa are in products that people keep around for a long time (sofas, mixers, TVs, cars).  Penta can account for as much as 30% of a product by wieght and Octa by as much as 18%.  And because of the way they were blended in during the manufacturing process, they leach our during a product’s entire life cycle–from manufacturing, through the years spent in a home or car, and finally, when the poor old thing is put to rest in a landfill or incincerated.
  • Companies like Dell, IKEA, Apple, Sony, and Hewlett-Packard have for years demonstrated their ability to meet fire safety standards without the use of Deca.  However, the move away from Deca hasn’t been quite as thorought for televisions (exceptions include Sony and Panasonic).
  • 95% of humans have blood levels of bisphenol A (BPA) within a range that is predicted to be biologically active, based on animal studies conducted with low doses of the chemical.  There is essentially no difference in the way that mouse and rats cells respond to BPA and the way human cells respond to it.  The adverse effects include breast and prostate cancer, increases in urogenital abnormalities  in male babies, a decline in semen quality in men, early onset of puberty in girls, metabolic disorders including Type 2 diabetes and obesity, and ADHD.
  • Since 1997, industry has sponsed 13 large-scale studies on low-does effects of BPA.  None found problems.  By comparison, out of 163 low-dose studies funded by government and principally carried out at universities, 93% found evidence of harm.
  • BPA does not produce a linear dose-response curve (with higher doses causing more harm than lower doses).  Instead, BPA, like other endocrine-disrupting compounds, produces a strange appearing dose-response curve, shaped much like an inverted U.  This curve shows that medium doses of BPA–though still trace amounts–produce effects not predicted by the toxicology models relied on by regulators.
  • There are studies of BPA that show effects in animals at 200 times below the levels found in humans.
  • Even paper towels and food take-out containers contain BPA.  Studies show recycled paper product contains higher levels of BPA than that made with virgin material because of how the chemical is used in paper production.
  • Research at Washington State University discovered that exposure to BPA while pregnant can affect future grandchildren.  Because females form their eggs with still in their mother’s womb, not only is the fetus exposed to BPA but also the eggs that will produce the next generation.  And eggs exposed to BPA in utero are found to have greater chromosomal abnormalities–ones that are the leading causes of miscarriage, congenital defets, and mental retardation in humans.
  • The fetus is protected from the high levels of estrogen in the mother during pregnancy with the help of a sex-hormone-binding globulin.  This globulin blocks natural estrogen from entering cells.  However, the great majority of man-made estrogen-mimicing chemicals are not inhibited from entering cells.  They go right past this barrier system, and the receptor in the cell that causes changes when estrogen binds to it is, unfortunately, very responsive to BPA.
  • Effects of BPA have been noted at levels as small as 2 parts per billion.
  • A 2008 study found that low levels of BPA caused normal, noncancerous human breast cells to express genes characteristic of aggressive breast cancer cells.
  • For decades, scientists and regulators assumed perflourinated chemicals were not toxic and, because they were incorporated into polymers, biologically inert.  This was incorrect.  Instead, the substances represent a new type of persistent organic pollutant that, well, redefines persistence.  PFOA, PFOS, and closely related substances are virtually indestructible.  They owe their muscle to a carbon-flourine bond that is among the strongest in organic chemistry.  A chemistry professor at the University of Toronto who is one of the world’s leading researchers on these chemicals, Scott Mabury, said “You take DDT, the thing that Rachel Carson was concerned about, and PFOA makes it look ephemeral.  DDT has a half-life in soil of ten years.  Put these in soil and you will never see them degrade under any conditions.  You simply can’t predict what the half-life would be.”
  • Unlike most persistant organic pollutants, perflourinated chemicals bind to blood proteins and blood-rich areas such as the liver.  Traditional risk assessment models are not sufficient in characterizing these chemicals, which makes the work of EPA scientists very slow going.  To understand the properties, sources, and pathways of exposure requires new research that can take years to complete.
  • Companies that use PFOA in their products include Rug Doctor, Stanley Steamer, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, California Pizza Kitchen, Levi Strauss, ConAgra Foods, Gap, Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, W.L. Gore & Associates, Walmart, Sears, Norstrom, and Dillard’s.
  • The biological half-life for PFOA is 3.8 years.  For PFOS, it’s 5.4 years.  98% of the population has perflourinated chemicals in their blood, averaging 5 parts per billion per kg of body weight.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Charli on December 28, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Thanks for your very detailed account of your findings – very informative. I think making industrial chemicals safe is something we can all get behind. To ensure that we really fix this problem we must include modern science language, which necessarily utilizes non-animal methods, in this bill; otherwise we’ll have another outdated TSCA on our hands.

    Currently, many toxicity tests are based on experiments in animals and use methods that were developed as long ago as the 1930’s; they and are slow, inaccurate, open to uncertainty and manipulation, and do not adequately protect human health. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. More importantly, the current testing paradigm has a poor record in predicting effects in humans and an even poorer record in leading to actual regulation of dangerous chemicals.

    Alternatives to animal testing exist in a powerful way and many scientists advocate them. Chemical reform should not only modernize policy, but modernize the science that supports that policy. Let’s ensure Kids-Safe uses all the necessary tools to truly make our children, our environment, and animals safe.

    Reply

  2. I love your blog – super effort!

    Reply

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