Negative effects on human health of chemicals and plastics doubles in five years, study finds
By Sandee LaMotte
The proof is piling up: Many synthetic chemicals can harm your health and that of your children.
Evidence has doubled in the last five years about the negative impact on our health of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics, pesticides, flame retardants and other merchandise, according to a new review of recent literature.
“It’s a global problem. These are chemicals used in consumer products all across the world,” said senior author Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone.
The new review, published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology journal, lists recent studies that have linked endocrine-disrupting chemicals with weight gain in women and polycystic ovary syndrome, a significant cause of infertility. These chemicals have also played a role in semen damage and prostate cancer in men, along with a host of other health concerns.
In January, Trasande and his colleagues compared early life exposures to lead to studies on the exposure of fetuses in the womb to pesticides, the methylmercury found in fish and flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE.
PBDE flame retardants, the study found, are the “greatest contributor to intellectual disability” in children, resulting in a total loss of “162 million IQ points and over 738,000 cases of intellectual disability.”
There’s also the health care costs of such exposure, Trasande said. The same study estimated the health costs of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the United States at $340 billion a year. In Europe it was markedly less, some €163 billion (US $187 billion).
This “explosion of evidence” over the last five years proves current regulations in the US are inadequate to protect citizens from the dangers of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, said Trasande, a leading expert in childhood environmental exposures.
And while Europe leads the US in bans on pesticides and minimizing human exposure, there is still much to be done there and around the world, according to a second analysis also published in July in The Lancet.
“This scientific issue has matured, accumulated substantial and consistent scientific evidence, and repeatedly shown that ‘chemicals of concern’ and their replacements have many if not the same effects on human health,” Trasande said.
“That’s why we are calling for an international agency to do research in endocrine disruption,” Trasande added, suggesting it could be modeled after the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents US chemical, plastics and chlorine industries, said the term “endocrine disruptor” was “widely misused,” and provided the following statement:
“To stay below ranges of exposure determined to be safe, consumers should read product labels closely and follow directions carefully. Some exposures will produce no response at all, while others may bring about temporary responses to which the body can naturally adjust and maintain its normal function. The primary focus should be on preventing over-exposures so that any potential health risks can be avoided.”
A chemical revolution
“I want to say one word to you. Just one word,” said party guest Mr. McGuire to Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie classic “Mrs. Robinson.”
Today we can add a host of other chemical discoveries to the growing list of products that have made Western life easier, cleaner and supposedly safer.
But as our use of these products grew, science learned of a flip side: Many of these chemicals can leach into our air, water and soil, and ultimately into our bodies. There they can significantly disrupt how our endocrine system — our hormones — regulate mood, sex and tissue function, growth, metabolism and more.
Some five years ago, the World Health Organization and United Nations reported on 15 ways that chemicals used in plastics, pesticides and flame retardants could affect babies from the womb to adulthood, including:
- IQ loss and intellectual disability
- Autism and attention-deficit disorder
- Childhood and adult obesity
- Low testosterone, male infertility and testicular dysfunction
- Endometriosis and fibroids in women.
The new analysis published Tuesday now adds another 17 such health impacts to the list and broadens the number of known chemicals involved. The review found evidence is particularly strong for a link between perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Among the conditions PFAS chemicals have been tied in recent research are:
- Impaired glucose tolerance
- Gestational diabetes and reduced birth weight in babies
- Reduced semen quality
- Child and adult obesity
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis
- Breast cancer
Other plastics and pesticides are linked to adult diabetes, prematurity, reduced anogenital distance in boys, reduced semen quality and prostate cancer. An even stronger connection between insecticides, plastics and flame retardants and cognitive deficits and attention-deficit disorder in children has been shown by newer studies.
PFAS do not degrade
One of the problems is that as soon as science identifies a potential chemical hazard and it is removed, industry creates another. If they are closely tied to the originals, the new chemicals can produce very similar health risks.
Take PFAS, for example, which are used to make nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothes, infection-resistant surgical gowns and drapes, cell phones, semi-conductors, commercial aircraft and low-emissions vehicles.
PFAS are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms, which do not degrade in the environment.
“In fact, scientists are unable to estimate an environmental half-life for PFAS, which is the amount of time it takes 50% of the chemical to disappear,” the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences wrote.
While two of the most ubiquitous PFAS — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — were removed from consumer products in the US in the early 2000s, the industry has spawned many more: More than 4,700 types of PFAS existed in 2018, a number that rises as industry invents more new forms.
PFAS have been detected in the blood of 97% of Americans, one 2015 report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
What to do?
“It’s not hopeless,” Trasande said. “There are safe and simple steps families can take in their daily lives to limit exposure.”
Many environmental advocacy groups have clear, simple suggestions on their websites for how to reduce you and your family’s exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Take PFAS, for example. The newest category of chemicals for which the science is clocking human health effects are found in nonstick cookware, oil and water-resistant clothing, stain-resistant furniture, carpet, luggage and clothing, greasy or oily packaged fast foods and microwave popcorn, personal-care products made with Teflon™ and ingredients that include the words “fluoro” or “perfluoro.”
“Avoiding the purchasing and use of those products can potentially also reduce exposure,” Trasande said. “Use stainless steel or cast iron as an alternative to non-stick. Avoiding canned food will lower BPA exposure; choose glass and products packaged in glass instead. Avoid microwaving and machine dishwashing plastics of any kind.
“When it comes to flame retardants, recirculating the air and using a wet mop is an effective way to suck up that persistent dust that accumulated in homes from these products,” he said. “None of the steps I’ve described break the bank. They don’t require a PhD in chemistry. People can make an enormous impact on this problem, so one cannot lose hope.”