The biggest window of vulnerability to chemicals occurs in utero, during infancy and early childhood, experts say.
Putting the next generation of brains in danger
by Saundra Young / February 17, 2014
The number of chemicals known to be toxic to children’s developing brains has doubled over the last seven years, researchers said. Dr. Philip Landrigan at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Dr. Philippe Grandjean from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, authors of the review published Friday in The Lancet Neurology journal, say the news is so troubling they are calling for a worldwide overhaul of the regulatory process in order to protect children’s brains. “We know from clinical information on poisoned adult patients that these chemicals can enter the brain through the blood brain barrier and cause neurological symptoms,” said Grandjean. “When this happens in children or during pregnancy, those chemicals are extremely toxic, because we now know that the developing brain is a uniquely vulnerable organ. Also, the effects are permanent.”
The two have been studying industrial chemicals for about 30 years. In 2006, they published data identifying five chemicals as neurotoxicants — substances that impact brain development and can cause a number of neurodevelopmental disabilities including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, dyslexia and other cognitive damage, they said. Those five are lead, methylmercury, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and toluene. Banned in the United States in 1979, PCBs were used in hundreds of products including paint, plastic, rubber products and dyes. Toluene is in household products like paint thinners, detergents, nail polish, spot removers and antifreeze. Now, after further review, six more chemicals have been added to the list: manganese; fluoride; tetrachloroethylene, a solvent; a class of chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or flame retardants; and two pesticides, chlorpyrifos, which is widely used in agriculture, and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. “The continuing research has identified six new chemicals that are toxic to the developing human brain,” said Landrigan. “We’re turning up chemicals at the rate of about one a year that we’re discovering are capable of damaging the developing brain of a human fetus or human infant.”
To examine fluoride, which is in tap water in many areas, Landrigan and Grandjean looked at an analysis of 27 studies of children, mostly in China, who were exposed to fluoride in drinking water at high concentrations. The data, they said, suggests a decline on average of about seven IQ points. There’s another big concern: “We are very worried that there are a number of other chemicals out there in consumer products that we all contact every day that have the potential to damage the developing brain, but have never been safety tested,” Landrigan said. “Over the last six or seven years we are actually adding brain toxic chemicals at a greater speed than we are adding toxicity evidence in children’s brains,” Grandjean said. “At least 1,000 chemicals using lab animals have shown that they somehow interfere with brain function in rodents — rats and mice — and those are prime candidates for regulatory control to protect human developing brains. But this testing has not been done systematically.”
At greatest risk? Pregnant women and small children, according to Grandjean. According to the review, the biggest window of vulnerability occurs in utero, during infancy and early childhood. The impact is not limited to loss of IQ points. “Beyond IQ, we’re talking about behavior problems — shortening of attention span, increased risk of ADHD,” Landrigan said. “We’re talking about emotion problems, less impulse control, (being) more likely to make bad decisions, get into trouble, be dyslexic and drop out of school. … These are problems that are established early, but travel through childhood, adolescence, even into adult life.”
It’s not just children: All these compounds are toxic to adults, too. In fact, in 2006 the pair documented 201 chemicals toxic to the adult nervous system, usually stemming from occupational exposures, poisonings and suicide attempts. The American Chemistry Council, meanwhile, called the review a “rehash” of the authors’ first review. “This iteration is as highly flawed as the first, as once again the authors ignore the fundamental scientific principles of exposure and potency,” said council spokesman Scott Jensen. “What is most concerning is that the authors focus largely on chemicals and heavy metals that are well understood to be inappropriate for children’s exposure, are highly regulated and/or are restricted or being phased out. They then extrapolate that similar conclusions should be applied to chemicals that are more widely used in consumer products without evidence to support their claims. Such assertions do nothing to advance true scientific understanding and only create confusion and alarm.”
Landrigan and Grandjean now say all untested chemicals in use and all new chemicals should be tested for developmental neurotoxicity. This is not a new concept. In 2007, the European Union adopted regulations known as REACH — Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals — to protect human health from risks posed by chemicals. REACH covers all chemicals, placing the burden of proof on companies to prove that any chemicals they make are safe. “We are behind right now and we’re falling further behind,” Landrigan said. “… I find it very irritating some of the multinational manufacturers are now marketing products in Europe and the U.S. with the same brand name and same label, but in Europe (they) are free of toxic chemicals and in the U.S. they contain toxic chemicals.” The best example of this, he said, is cosmetics and phthalates. Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products from cosmetics, perfume, hair spray, soap and shampoos to plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, miniblinds, food containers and plastic wrap. You can also find them in plastic plumbing pipes, medical tubing and fluid bags, vinyl flooring and other building materials. They are used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl.
In Europe, cosmetics don’t contain phthalates, but here in the United States some do. Phthalates previously were used in pacifiers, soft rattles and teethers. But in 1999, after a push from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, American companies stopped using them in those products. “We certainly have the capability, it’s a matter of political will,” Landrigan said. “We have tried in this country over the last decade to pass chemical safety legislation but the chemical industry and their supporters have successfully beat back the effort.” However, the Food and Drug Administration said two of the most common phthalates, — dibutylphthalate, or DBP, used as a plasticizer in products such as nail polishes to reduce cracking by making them less brittle, and dimethylphthalate, or DMP used in hairsprays — are now rarely used in this country.
Diethylphthalate, or DEP, used in fragrances, is the only phthalate still used in cosmetics, the FDA said. “It’s not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health,” according to the FDA’s website. “An expert panel convened from 1998 to 2000 by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), part of the National Institute for Environmental Safety and Health, concluded that reproductive risks from exposure to phthalates were minimal to negligible in most cases.” But Grandjean is unfazed. “We know enough about this to say we need to put a special emphasis on protecting developing brains. We are not just talking about single chemicals anymore. We are talking about chemicals in general. This does not necessarily mean restrict the use of all chemicals, but it means that they need to be tested whether they are toxic to brain cells or not,” he said. “We have the test methods and protocols to determine if chemicals are toxic to brain cells. If we look at this globally, we are looking at more than a generation of children — a very high proportion of today’s children have been exposed to lead, mercury and other substances, including substances that have not yet been tested but are suspect of being toxic to brain development.”
The Environmental Working Group is an environmental health research organization that specializes in toxic chemical analysis and has long called for reforms. In 2004, the group tested 10 samples of umbilical cord blood for hundreds of industrial pollutants and found an average of 200 in each sample. “Here in the U.S., the federal law put in place to ostensibly protect adults and children from exposures to dangerous chemicals, including those that can present serious risks to the brain and nervous systems, has been an abject failure,” said Environmental Working Group spokesman Alex Formuzis. “The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act has instead been largely responsible for the pollution in people beginning in the womb, where hundreds of industrial contaminants literally bathe the developing fetus.”
Landrigan is recruiting pregnant women for a new study that will test for chemical exposures. He said it’s inevitable that over the next few years more chemicals will be added to the list. His concern? “The ability to detect these chemicals lags behind the chemical industries’ ability to develop new chemicals and put them into consumer products. That’s why we need new legislation in this country to close that gap.” “We are lagging behind,” Grandjean said. “And we are putting the next generation of brains in danger.”
“Our new report shows that even in the mothers’ womb, the developing fetus is exposed to a slew of dangerous chemicals – chemicals that might have health effects like cancer, lower IQ or thyroid problems later in life. We cannot see with the naked eye that Canadian children are born pre-polluted, but our latest results demonstrate just that. This isn’t about what mothers are doing wrong, but that government and industry are allowing these chemicals to pollute our homes, environment and our bodies. Environmental Defence tested the umbilical cord blood of three newborn babies from the GTA and Hamilton, and found each child was born with 55 to 121 toxic compounds and possible cancer-causing chemicals in their bodies. We tested for, and found at low levels, PBDEs (flame retardants), PCBs, PFCs, Organochlorine pesticides, dioxins and furans and mercury and lead – chemicals that are pervasive and persistent in our environment. Of the 137 chemicals found in the umbilical cord blood, 132 are reported to cause cancer in humans or animals.”
Unlikely Things Found in Babies and on Mountain Tops
by Gayil Nalls, Ph.D. / December 17, 2013
In December 2009 I read an incredible study—one that seemed, at the time, like it could even be fictional. A chemical waste site was found, and it was found in a most unlikely place: a mother’s womb. During gestation and infancy humans are extremely vulnerable. They have yet to develop sufficient immune defenses. Knowing this, the adults of our species protect the health of newborns. When a baby is born in the United States the infant’s health screening usually includes tests for defects in hearing, blood disorders, endocrine disorders, and metabolic disorders. However, two environmental protection organizations, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Rachel’s Network, thought other tests should be done. Researchers at five different laboratories were commissioned to analyze the umbilical cord blood of ten American babies born in 2009 and found more than 200 man-made toxic substances in each baby at the time of birth. This study found compounds from computer circuit boards, Teflon, cosmetics, plastics, flame-retardants, and synthetic fragrances circulating in their blood.
The President’s Cancer Panel reported: “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted’” (2010). The early stages of life no longer take place in the somewhat pristine environment commonly believed to be the modern womb. Fetuses now develop in the midst of hundreds of synthetic chemicals flooding the womb via the placenta. Concentrations of synthetic chemicals start to build before birth. The expectant mother bioaccumulates high loads of man-made chemicals from her surrounding environment. These high loads of chemical bioaccumulation may be tolerated by an adult but can cause irreparable damage to a developing fetus. No matter how a mother protects her unborn child, she can’t protect them from direct and indirect exposure to the ever-present toxic substances in our environment. After reading about these babies—being a mother myself—I started researching and collecting studies monitoring synthetic chemicals in the environment. I found many significant peer-reviewed articles in various scientific journals that detail the persistence of ingredients in healthcare, home and personal care products (including five classes of synthetic musk fragrances, parabens, phthalates, pharmaceuticals, antimicrobials, insect repellents, flame retardants, plastics and Bisphenol found in water, air, sediment, sewage sludge aquatic biota, wildlife and humans).
Petrochemical compounds had been detected in human blood and the environment as early as the 1950s. The daunting global evidence mounting this decade has brought chemical safety and indiscriminate use of chemicals into question. In the United States, a 2005 survey study published in Chemosphere reported the occurrence of polycyclic musk—artificial aromatic compounds made to emulate the scent of deer musk—in water, in humans, and in wildlife. That same year researchers in Guangdong, China found high concentrations of polycyclic musk in six different sewage treatment plants in China. In 2007, researchers in Romania found pharmaceuticals and toxic personal care compounds along the Somes River watershed. Researchers in Prague reported, in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, high levels of synthetic musk fragrances. In 2008 synthetic musk fragrances were found in the Pearl River Delta and the Macao costal region and were correlated to the degradation of the region. In 2009, researchers in Beijing measured higher magnitudes of polycyclic musk in three treatment plants than that of Guangdong. This is only a sampling.
In 2007, synthetic chemical compounds were identified in beautiful and pristine areas of the polar-regions. An article, published in Environmental Science and Technology, reported air-sea fluxes of the synthetic polycyclic musk fragrances Galazolide (HHCB) and Tonalide (AHTN) measured in both the Arctic and North Sea. The data was clear: for decades humans and wildlife have been exposed through ingestion, breath, and skin to a variety of endocrine disruptors: chemicals that interfere with the hormone system by deregulating hormone release or causing a faulty signaling response. These disruptors are everywhere. The big concern? We don’t know at what concentrations the prevalence of these synthetic chemicals can tip the scale toward diseases like cancer. Although, we are beginning to find out.
I was partially struck by a Swiss study, published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2009, that found melting Alpine glaciers (due to global warming) were releasing an array of toxic compounds into Lake Oberaar. The researchers learned that glaciers are persistent sources of pollutants. They carry and preserve chemicals and rerelease them as they melt. These chemicals gather inside the glaciers over time and at different levels; the levels are proportionally reflected by the emission history of the compounds. Christian Bogdal et al., hypothesized that, “Considering ongoing global warming and accelerated massive glacier melting predicted for the future, our study indicates the potential for dire environmental impacts due to pollutants delivered into pristine mountainous areas.”
New 3D maps released at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu show that a huge mass of Atlantic seawater is infused with traces of lead – a pollutant that was widely used in the automobile industry until a few decades ago.
Does this prediction regarding glaciers have anything to do with pre-polluted infants? This past June a new report from the Environmental Defense Canada found 137 different toxic chemicals in three different babies from the Toronto and Hamilton area. Blood from umbilical cord samples were tested for 310 chemicals and as many as 55 to 121 were detected in each child. It was reported that 132 compounds are known to cause cancer in humans and animals; 110 are toxic to the brain and nervous system; 133 cause developmental and reproductive problems in mammals. Some of the chemicals found in these babies were banned decades ago but continue to persist in humans and wildlife—just as they persist in natural environments like glaciers—and will continue to persist into future generations.
There is high evidence that chemicals like Bisphenol A, Phthalates, and the atmospheric pollutant polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon are hormone disrupting agents that cripple the endocrine system. The hormone disruptors affect the development of the nervous system in children. A large group of new studies are finding there are long-term consequences of exposure to these chemicals on the developing brain of babies in the womb and in early years, causing learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity or cognitive brain development problems. New evidence shows that pesticides not only cause IQ deficits and ADHD, it interferes with the brain’s sexual development.
Evidence continues to mount that some synthetic musk fragrances, like musk xylene compounds and musk ketone compounds, found in almost all consumer products but especially perfumes, shampoos, body lotions, and deodorants, are also endocrine disrupting compounds. In 2001, a German study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, confirmed nitro musk compounds are stored in human fatty tissue and in breast milk. This was after 1998 studies found them in fresh water fish of Italian lakes and rivers. A 2004 study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, found that synthetic musk fragrances bioaccumulate and have both estrogenic and antiestrogenic effects on fish.
How did it happen that nearly 800 chemicals in the commercial marketplace are known or suspected to cause endocrine related disorders? In the United States, by way of the Toxic Substances Control Act, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, which results in 80,000 manufactured chemicals being released into the environment without their chemical toxicity being known by the public. When thinking of purity one might imagine beautiful babies radiating joy or pristine snowy mountaintops. After all, what is more pure than the hope carried with new life or the wilderness untouched by the human hand? I posit a better question, however: What could possibly be more vulnerable? The environment of the womb and the environment of our world are expressions of the same universal reality. The physical world is far too polluted with man-made chemicals. It’s hard to comprehend what we have done to the biology of the most helpless members of our species as well the betrayals committed against our fragile biosphere. Healthy babies and unpolluted landscapes are archaic illusions in our new reality. But we cannot let this be.
This year, the most comprehensive report to date on endocrine disrupting chemicals and human health problems was jointly published by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO): State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals – 2012. UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, an advocate for the world’s transition to a green economy said, “Chemical products are increasingly part of modern life and support many national economies, but the unsound management of chemicals challenges the achievement of key development goals, and sustainable development for all.”
As we continue to monitor the mega tons of these compounds dumped into the world each year and identify the levels of hormone disrupting compounds in the water, sludge, biota and air, we are studying our fate. Curving environment pollution will require an approach of holistic stewardship to all pharmaceutical, personal care and home products. This means eliminating dangerous chemicals from nonessential uses, investigating the effects of chemicals before they are mass released, and being more frugal with the essential chemicals we do have to use. We need to consider the time-bomb message written by the international experts who wrote the report: “Because only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of synthetic chemicals in existence have been assessed for endocrine disrupting activity, and because many chemicals in consumer products are not identified by the manufacturer, we have only looked at the “tip of the iceberg.”
Tests Find More Than 200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood
by Sara Goodman / Dec 2, 2009
U.S. minority infants are born carrying hundreds of chemicals in their bodies, according to a report released today by an environmental group. The Environmental Working Group‘s study commissioned five laboratories to examine the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies of African-American, Hispanic and Asian heritage and found more than 200 chemicals in each newborn. “We know the developing fetus is one of the most vulnerable populations, if not the most vulnerable, to environmental exposure,” said Anila Jacobs, EWG senior scientist. “Their organ systems aren’t mature and their detox methods are not in place, so cord blood gives us a good picture of exposure during this most vulnerable time of life.”
Of particular concern to Jacobs: 21 newly detected contaminants, including the controversial plastics additive bisphenol A, or BPA, which mimics estrogen and has been shown to cause developmental problems and precancerous growth in animals. Last month, researchers reported that male Chinese factory workers exposed to high levels of the chemical experienced erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems. “BPA is a really important finding because people are really aware about its potential toxicity,” Jacobs told reporters. “This is the first study to find BPA in umbilical cord blood, and it correlates with national data on it.”
Jacobs said the study focused on minority children to show that chemical exposure is ubiquitous, building on 2005 research on cord blood from 10 anonymous babies. That study found a similar body burden among the babies. This is the first study to look at chemicals in minority newborns. “Minority groups may have increased exposure to certain chemicals, but here we didn’t focus on those chemicals,” Jacobs said. “The sample size is too small to see major differences, but we want to increase awareness about chemical exposures.”
Leo Trasande, co-director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said the findings, while preliminary, show that minority communities are often disproportionately affected by chemical exposure. Trasande was not involved in the EWG study. “Presently, minority communities suffer from a host of chronic disorders, and disproportionate chemical exposures may contribute significantly to the origins of the disparities that exist,” Trasande said. Both he and Jacobs said the findings add momentum for the call to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the law regulating the more than 80,000 chemicals on its database. They released the report on the same day that a Senate panel is scheduled to discuss the government’s strategy for managing the tens of thousands of chemicals in the marketplace with an eye toward overhauling TSCA.
TSCA does not require most chemicals to be tested for safety before they are approved for widespread use. Because of this, Trasande said, less than half of the 3,000 high-production volume chemicals on the marketplace have toxicity data, and less than one-fifth have toxicity testing data on the effects on developing organs. “These results are alarming for their implications of health impacts on children,” Trasande said.
Another challenge facing chemical regulators is understanding how the different chemicals interact together, which is particularly significant given the number of chemicals found in people. “What we’re finding are complex mixtures of chemicals that sometimes have similar toxicities,” Jacobs said. “There’s an increased recognition that mixtures are a problem. … It’s very difficult to evaluate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We should also try to decrease the toxicity of individual chemicals.”
AIR & WATER
Monsanto’s Roundup Found in 75% of Air and Rain Samples
by John Deike / February 27, 2014
A new U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that pesticides can be found in, well, just about anything. Roundup herbicide, Monsanto’s flagship weed killer, was present in 75 percent of air and rainfall test samples, according to the study, which focused on Mississippi’s highly fertile Delta agricultural region. GreenMedInfo reports new research, soon to be published by Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry journal, discovered the traces over a 12-year span from 1995-2007.
In recent years, Roundup was found to be even more toxic than it was when first approved for agricultural use, though that discovery has not led to any changes in regulation of the pesticide. Moreover, Roundup’s overuse has enabled weeds and insects to build an immunity to its harsh toxins. To deal with the immunity issue, Monsanto’s solution has been to spray more and stronger pesticides to eliminate the problem. The health effects of Roundup are also hard to ignore as research has linked exposure to the pesticide to Parkinson’s disease and various cancers. For instance, children in Argentina, where Roundup is used in high concentrations, struggle with health problems, with 80 percent showing signs of the toxins in their bloodstreams. However, Roundup isn’t the only widespread threat to public health. The U.S. Geological Survey, along with others, have identified additional pesticides in the air and water that become more toxic as they mix and come in contact with people. Spraying Roundup may have short-term economic benefits for Monsanto, but the potential long-term risks could present significant challenges to people in affected regions of the country.
LARGEST UNCONTROLLED EXPERIMENTS in HISTORY
You Are a Guinea Pig
by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz / April 28, 2013
A hidden epidemic is poisoning America. The toxins are in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the walls of our homes and the furniture within them. We can’t escape it in our cars. It’s in cities and suburbs. It afflicts rich and poor, young and old. And there’s a reason why you’ve never read about it in the newspaper or seen a report on the nightly news: it has no name — and no antidote. The culprit behind this silent killer is lead. And vinyl. And formaldehyde. And asbestos. And Bisphenol A. And polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). And thousands more innovations brought to us by the industries that once promised “better living through chemistry,” but instead produced a toxic stew that has made every American a guinea pig and has turned the United States into one grand unnatural experiment.
Today, we are all unwitting subjects in the largest set of drug trials ever. Without our knowledge or consent, we are testing thousands of suspected toxic chemicals and compounds, as well as new substances whose safety is largely unproven and whose effects on human beings are all but unknown. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) itself has begun monitoring our bodies for 151 potentially dangerous chemicals, detailing the variety of pollutants we store in our bones, muscle, blood, and fat. None of the companies introducing these new chemicals has even bothered to tell us we’re part of their experiment. None of them has asked us to sign consent forms or explained that they have little idea what the long-term side effects of the chemicals they’ve put in our environment — and so our bodies — could be. Nor do they have any clue as to what the synergistic effects of combining so many novel chemicals inside a human body in unknown quantities might produce.
How Industrial Toxins Entered the American Home
The story of how Americans became unwitting test subjects began more than a century ago. The key figure was Alice Hamilton, the “mother” of American occupational medicine, who began documenting the way workers in lead paint pigment factories, battery plants, and lead mines were suffering terrible palsies, tremors, convulsions, and deaths after being exposed to lead dust that floated in the air, coating their workbenches and clothes. Soon thereafter, children exposed to lead paint and lead dust in their homes were also identified as victims of this deadly neurotoxin. Many went into convulsions and comas after crawling on floors where lead dust from paint had settled, or from touching lead-painted toys, or teething on lead-painted cribs, windowsills, furniture, and woodwork.
Instead of leveling with the public, the lead industry through its trade group, the Lead Industries Association, began a six-decade-long campaign to cover-up its product’s dire effects. It challenged doctors who reported lead-poisoned children to health departments, distracted the public through advertisements that claimed lead was “safe” to use, and fought regulation of the industry by local government, all in the service of profiting from putting a poison in paint, gasoline, plumbing fixtures, and even toys, baseballs, and fishing gear. As Joe Camel would be for tobacco, so the little Dutch Boy of the National Lead Company became an iconic marketing tool for Dutch Boy Lead Paint, priming Americans to invite a dangerous product into their children’s playrooms, nurseries, and lives. The company also launched a huge advertising campaign that linked lead to health, rather than danger. It even produced coloring books for children, encouraging them to paint their rooms and furniture using lead-based paint.
Only after thousands of children were poisoned and, in the 1960s, activist groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers began to use lead poisoning as a symbol of racial and class oppression did public health professionals and the federal government begin to rein in companies like the Sherwin-Williams paint company and the Ethyl Corporation, which produced tetraethyl lead, the lead-additive in gasoline. In 1971, Congress passed the Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act that limited lead in paint used for public housing. In 1978, the Consumer Products Safety Commission finally banned lead in all paints sold for consumer use. During the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules that led to the elimination of leaded gasoline by 1995 (though it still remains in aviation fuel). The CDC estimates that in at least 4 million households in the U.S. today children are still exposed to dangerous amounts of lead from old paint that produces dust every time a nail is driven into a wall to hang a picture, a new electric socket is installed, or a family renovates its kitchen. It estimates that more than 500,000 children ages one to five have “elevated” levels of lead in their blood. (No level is considered safe for children.) Studies have linked lost IQ points, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems, dyslexia, and even possibly high incarceration rates to tiny amounts of lead in children’s bodies.
Unfortunately, when it came to the creation of America’s chemical soup, the lead industry was hardly alone. Asbestos is another classic example of an industrial toxin that found its way into people’s homes and bodies. For decades, insulation workers, brake mechanics, construction workers, and a host of others in hundreds of trades fell victim to the disabling and deadly lung diseases of asbestosis or to lung cancer and the fatal cancer called mesothelioma when they breathed in dust produced during the installation of boilers, the insulation of pipes, the fixing of cars that used asbestos brake linings, or the spraying of asbestos on girders. Once again, the industry knew its product’s dangers early and worked assiduously to cover them up. Despite growing medical knowledge about its effects (and increasing industry attempts to downplay or suppress that knowledge), asbestos was soon introduced to the American home and incorporated into products ranging from insulation for boilers and piping in basements to floor tiles and joint compounds. It was used to make sheetrock walls, roof shingles, ironing boards, oven gloves, and hot plates. Soon an occupational hazard was transformed into a threat to all consumers.
Today, however, these devastating industrial-turned-domestic toxins, which destroyed the health and sometimes took the lives of hundreds of thousands, seem almost quaint when compared to the brew of potential or actual toxins we’re regularly ingesting in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Of special concern are a variety of chlorinated hydrocarbons, including DDT and other pesticides that were once spread freely nationwide, and despite being banned decades ago, have accumulated in the bones, brains, and fatty tissue of virtually all of us. Their close chemical carcinogenic cousins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were found in innumerable household and consumer products — like carbonless copy paper, adhesives, paints, and electrical equipment – from the 1950s through the 1970s. We’re still paying the price for that industrial binge today, as these odorless, tasteless compounds have become permanent pollutants in the natural environment and, as a result, in all of us.
The Largest Uncontrolled Experiment in History
While old houses with lead paint and asbestos shingles pose risks, potentially more frightening chemicals are lurking in new construction going on in the latest mini-housing boom across America. Our homes are now increasingly made out of lightweight fibers and reinforced synthetic materials whose effects on human health have never been adequately studied individually, let alone in the combinations we’re all subjected to today.
Formaldehyde, a colorless chemical used in mortuaries as a preservative, can also be found as a fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant in, for example, plywood, particle board, hardwood paneling, and the “medium density fiberboard” commonly used for the fronts of drawers and cabinets or the tops of furniture. As the material ages, it evaporates into the home as a known cancer-producing vapor, which slowly accumulates in our bodies. The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health suggests that homeowners “purchasing pressed-wood products, including building material, cabinetry, and furniture… should ask about the formaldehyde content of these products.”
What’s inside your new walls might be even more dangerous. While the flame retardants commonly used in sofas, chairs, carpets, love seats, curtains, baby products, and even TVs, sounded like a good idea when widely introduced in the 1970s, they turn out to pose hidden dangers that we’re only now beginning to grasp. Researchers have, for instance, linked one of the most common flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, to a wide variety of potentially undesirable health effects including thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, and the early onset of puberty. Other flame retardants like Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate have been linked to cancer. As the CDC has documented in an ongoing study of the accumulation of hazardous materials in our bodies, flame retardants can now be found in the blood of “nearly all” of us.
Nor are these particular chemicals anomalies. Lurking in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, for instance, are window cleaners and spot removers that contain known or suspected cancer-causing agents. The same can be said of cosmetics in your makeup case or of your plastic water bottle or microwavable food containers. Most recently, Bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic chemical used in a variety of plastic consumer products, including some baby bottles, epoxy cements, the lining of tuna fish cans, and even credit card receipts, has been singled out as another everyday toxin increasingly found inside all of us. Recent studies indicate that its effects are as varied as they are distressing. As Sarah Vogel of the Environmental Defense Fund has written, “New research on very-low-dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral problems, and reproductive abnormalities.”
Teflon, or perfluorooctanoic acid, the heat-resistant, non-stick coating that has been sold to us as indispensable for pots and pans, is yet another in the list of substances that may be poisoning us, almost unnoticed. In addition to allowing fried eggs to slide right onto our plates, Teflon is in all of us, according to the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency, and “likely to be carcinogenic in humans.” These synthetic materials are just a few of the thousands now firmly embedded in our lives and our bodies. Most have been deployed in our world and put in our air, water, homes, and fields without being studied at all for potential health risks, nor has much attention been given to how they interact in the environments in which we live, let alone our bodies. The groups that produce these miracle substances — like the petrochemical, plastics, and rubber industries, including major companies like Exxon, Dow, and Monsanto — argue that, until we can definitively prove the chemical products slowly leaching into our bodies are dangerous, we have no “right,” and they have no obligation, to remove them from our homes and workplaces. The idea that they should prove their products safe before exposing the entire population to them seems to be a foreign concept.
In the 1920s, the oil industry made the same argument about lead as an additive in gasoline, even though it was already known that it was a dangerous toxin for workers. Spokesman for companies like General Motors insisted that it was a “gift of God,” irreplaceable and essential for industrial progress and modern living, just as the lead industry argued for decades that lead was “essential” to produce good paint that would protect our homes. Like the oil, lead, and tobacco industries of the twentieth century, the chemical industry, through the American Chemistry Council and public relations firms like Hill & Knowlton, is fighting tooth and nail to stop regulation and inhibit legislation that would force it to test chemicals before putting them in the environment. In the meantime, Americans remain the human guinea pigs in advanced trials of hundreds if not thousands of commonly used, largely untested chemicals. There can be no doubt that this is the largest uncontrolled experiment in history.
To begin to bring it under control would undoubtedly involve major grassroots efforts to push back against the offending corporations, courageous politicians, billions of dollars, and top-flight researchers. But before any serious steps are likely to be taken, before we even name this epidemic, we need to wake up to its existence. A toxic dump used to be a superfund site or a nuclear waste disposal site. Increasingly, however, we — each and every one of us — are toxic dumps and for us there’s no superfund around, no disposal plan in sight. In the meantime, we’re walking, talking biohazards and we don’t even know it.