I wrote this paper for my Sustainable Future class in college, the last term of senior year. Although this paper is now just over 2 years old, it is still pertinent information. It is also a little long, so if you want the gist of it, just read the Abstract and Discussion sections. I’ll talk more about what this all “means” for me and my family tomorrow. 🙂
Also, I say this in the paper, but I want to make it VERY clear that breastmilk is still far superior to formula in terms of infant and maternal health, despite any chemical contaminants it may contain. I mean, at the very least, breasts are lined with BPA the way that most formula cans are! Sorry the format of the works cited got a little messed up, but I think it is still useable.
Humans are exposed daily to synthetic chemicals present in the atmosphere, water, food, clothing, lotions, and shampoos. Women and infants are most susceptible to these toxins due to their unique anatomies. To the detriment of the American citizens, the U.S. government is reluctant to regulate these synthetic chemicals in the substantive way that the European Union (EU) has.
Sustaining the current pattern of synthetic chemical use in the United States cannot be ethically or morally supported due to the human health repercussions, especially in terms of maternal and fetal health.
Humans are exposed daily to synthetic chemicals that their bodies are not adapted to deal with. Toxin load is most obvious in infants. Women also bear a disproportionate amount of “body burden” of synthetic chemicals because of the biology of their reproductive systems.
Although it is possible to reduce some personal contact with synthetic chemicals, this is not enough to curb the species-wide health implications perpetuated by daily widespread exposure. Governments are reluctant to change the laws regulating chemicals unless strongly pressured by the citizens. Evidence is mounting, though, that demonstrates the negative effects of synthetic chemicals on women, infants, and fetuses.
Research and Sources
A review of the primary and secondary literature was conducted to critically assess the actual hazards of synthetic chemicals to women, infants, and fetuses, as well as the common sources of these chemicals. Significant areas of emphasis in this report include breast cancer in women and sexual development complications in infants.
Observations and Interpretations
History of a problem
Many synthetic chemicals that humans are currently exposed to were created in the last century. At the end of WWII, bomb factories were converted to create pesticides and other non-military chemicals (Hunter: 1989). As these chemicals were developed and marketed, their toxicity was not investigated, and their widespread use resulted in many health issues (Allen: 2004 p. 19).
Evidence of a problem?
Incidences of breast cancer, testicular cancer, and hypospadias (improper location of urethral opening in men) are all increasing while sperm counts are decreasing (Fig. 2) (Sharpe and Irvine: 2004 p. 449). All of these health issues and others have been linked to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) (Koertenkamp: 2006 p. 193). Also called oestrogens or xenoestrogens, EDCs are synthetic chemicals that act like estrogen in the body.
Sources of EDCs include Bisphenol A (BPA), dioxins, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), organophosphate pesticide metabolites (OPs), Perfluorochemical (PFC), parabens, phthalates, Polyvinylchloride (PVC), Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT), Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH), organochlorines, heavy metals, pesticides or fungicides, phytoestrogens, and alkylphenols, and plasticizers like Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) (Environmental Working Group: 2008; Sharpe and Irvine: 2004 p. 449; Yang, Park, and Lee: 2006: p. 183). Almost all of these chemicals are sources of EDCs that cause reproductive health problems.
BPA is an especially prevalent chemical, present in everything from shower curtains to plastic baby bottles (Maffini, Rubin, Sonnenschein, Soto: 2006 p. 180). PVCs are found in floor and wall coverings, synthetic leather, and toys (Kolarik et al: 2008 p. 98). PCBs were used in electrical transformers and have been banned but are still common (Malkan: 2007 p. 77). PAHs are found in diesel and gasoline fuels (Malkan: 2007 p. 77). PBDEs are found in flame retardant compounds which are present in various items like mattresses and children’s sleepwear (Malkan: 2007 p. 4). Phthalates are in paint, glue, fingernail polish, and putty (Hogberg et al: 2008 p. 334).
Discrepancies in exposure: A special case for women—cosmetics
The FDA does not have the power to regulate cosmetics like it does other substances consumed by humans. Instead, the cosmetics industry is internally regulated by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR: 2008), funded and directed by the Cosmetics and Fragrance Trade Association, an industry umbrella group (Malkan: 2007 p. 27).
The CIR has reviewed 1,200 chemicals that are included in cosmetics, and “recommended restrictions for hundreds of ingredients” (Ross: 2006 p. 272), but it has no authority to enforce its recommendations. Furthermore, it has been estimated by several independent research and environmental health organizations that these 1,200 chemicals represent a mere 13% of chemicals used in cosmetics, and that most of the 87% the CIR has not recommended restrictions for are just as harmful (Malkan: 2007 p. 54).
Ross (2006: p. 273) claims that “there are no known data or studies linking cosmetic use to cancer, reproductive harm or genetic damage in humans,” demonstrating how difficult is to identify an individual source as the cause of this problem. However, rigorous studies have found statistically significant correlations between “free” estrogen and breast cancer in females (Kortenkamp: 2006 p. 194). Because women naturally produce more estrogen then men, EDCs have a more readily noticeable effect on females. But these same EDC pseudo-estrogens can also have detrimental effects on fetal growth and development, especially in unborn males (Maffini et al: 2006 p. 179).
“A large number of oestrogen-like pollutants, all present at low levels, can act together to add to the internal oestrogenic level” (Kortenkamp: 2006 p. 193). Following that formula, even if the hazard of the chemical is incredibly small, the cumulative effect of exposure over time to increases the risks associated with the chemical.
The incidences of cancers and reproductive health problems have increased across all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds in the United States, but the rise in the cases of breast cancer has been one of the most noticeable. This increase has been linked to the greater exposure to EDCs (Maffini et al: 2006 p. 180). When the load of estrogen naturally present in women’s bodies is augmented by the EDCs present in synthetic chemicals, their risk of contracting breast cancer is greatly increased (Malkan: 2006 p. 79). In 1960, a woman had a 1 in 20 chance of contracting breast cancer. Today, the chance is 1 in 8 (breastcancer.org: 2008).
Discrepancies in exposure: A special case for infants
If humans are at the top of the food chain, then human infants are on a tier above even that, as they receive nourishment from their mothers both before and after birth. Infants are also at a significantly higher risk because they consume more milk fat than do adults in comparison to their body weight (Landrigan: 2002 p. A 314). Many toxins are stored in fat, and mammary tissue is surrounded by fat (Chevrier et al: 2000 p. 1272), making it easy to pass these chemicals to infants during breastfeeding. Despite this, breast milk is still the most natural and wholesome food for infants (Landrigan: 2002 p. 315A).
“Some scientists suspect that exposure early in life [to BPA] disrupts hormones and alters genes, programming a fetus or child for breast or prostate cancer, premature female puberty, attention deficit disorders and other reproductive or neurological disorders” (Cone: 2008). In contrast, the FDA stated last July that BPA was harmless in the amounts that Americans are exposed to it. The FDA reached this conclusion based upon limited research funded by the American Plastics Council, an industry confederation that supported that same summary (Szabo: 2008).
BPA and other phthalates acting as EDCs disrupt how testosterone is taken up in utero. Smaller penises, undescended testicles, a shorter distance from anus to penis, and falling sperm amount and motility can all be correlated with high maternal levels of EDCs (Malkan: 2006 p. 17, 29).
Agents of continuation?
The European Union has much stricter regulations on the development and release of synthetic chemicals than does the U.S., and so comparable products sold in Europe are safer than those sold in the U.S. (Schapiro: 2007 p. 3). The lack of laws in the U.S. determining what chemicals can be included in different substances leaves the decisions up to the manufacturers. The result of this laissez faire approach is that companies which develop plastics, cosmetics, and other synthetic products have rarely allowed human health considerations to impact formula specifications.
The U.S. government has been reluctant to change its stance on employment and dissemination of synthetic chemicals. For instance, Canada has just declared BPA to be toxic, and is considering banning it entirely, while the U.S. FDA has simply decided to investigate the matter further (Austen: 2008). As was discussed above, the U.S. federal government insists that BPA is safe at the levels that they estimate U.S. citizens are exposed to, despite research evidence to the contrary (Maffini et al: 2006 p. 179).
Due to the EU directives in Europe, the nontoxic factor is becoming an important criterion in manufacture of synthetic substances. The EU regulations required that companies create new mixtures of cosmetics to sell to European women in March 2005 (Schaprio: 2007 p. 23); it was the government regulations that forced the companies to change, not the companies or consumers themselves. Many companies decided to segregate their markets, selling the safer cosmetics in Europe and the original formulations in the U.S (Malkan: 2007 p. 39).
However, exposure to synthetic chemicals is much more widespread than cosmetic exposure and cannot be substantively avoided without drastic changes in lifestyle. Mattresses, water bottles, and IV drip lines all contain EDCs. The only reasonable way to avoid these chemicals is for industry to develop non-toxic versions. “In the market we have created through our public policies, there is no pressing need for companies to design their products to be as safe as possible” says Dr. Michael Watson (IN: Malkan: 2007 p. 140). Changing the chemical makeup of products requires a change in government policy, not just a grassroots movement.
Recently, there have been great improvements in reducing exposure to synthetic chemicals. These improvements have occurred on personal and corporate, not government, levels. A greater public awareness of the prevalence and hazards of synthetic chemicals has prompted much of the change.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published two reports on the ubiquity of EDCs in cosmetics (Malkan: 2007 p. 52). For the first time, Americans were really beginning to look at what was in their everyday products that they had assumed were safe and to consequently demand that the government do something. Until the government meets these demands, however, the EWG lists some practical strategies for avoiding synthetic chemicals (EWG: 2008)
- Do not use nail polish that contains DBP (it will be on the ingredient list)
- Avoid substances, including shampoo, perfume, deodorants, candles, and air fresheners that contain “fragrance” on the ingredient list (even unscented products can still contain fragrance)
- Do not microwave in plastic containers, as heating speeds up the leaching process
- Use non-vinyl shower curtains
- Try not to buy canned food items, in order to avoid the opaque lining of tin cans that contains BPA–this is especially important in terms of infant formula (DeFord: 2008)
- Avoid, especially for infants and young children, polycarbonate plastics, found in almost all hard plastic food containers, which also contain BPA—use metal or glass containers whenever possible
- Do not wear as much makeup, or do not wear it as often
The U.S. government avoids pulling products from the market until concrete evidence of their toxicity is confirmed through a lawsuit (Szabo: 2008). Many U.S. companies are not waiting for that to happen. A week after the BPA warnings were published, both Toys R Us and Wal-Mart promised to stop selling baby bottles made with the substance (Shinn: 2008).
The clamoring of the American populace has been heard by at least a sector of the business world, but not by the government. In Shinn’s article, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is quoted as saying that “American families and children should not have to rely on retailers to protect their health from toxic chemicals in products. Clearly, the system is broken.”
It is obvious that the U.S. government is still relying on the litigious system of the American economy to regulate substances, and it is only because a few companies are concerned about future profit loss that they are changing. Furthermore, this is only one chemical in one product out of the dozens that are considered to be EDCs. This is a good start, but government regulations are necessary to maintain and increase the momentum. Currently, “the government is completely useless here, largely because there’s no operative federal law that regulates these chemicals,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group. “It’s a free-for-all zone” (IN: Shin: 2008).
The prevalence of synthetic chemicals in the environment, especially EDCs, is causing unacceptable health consequences in humans. Higher counts of breast cancer, testicular cancer, hypospidais, and decreasing sperm counts are beginning to have real effects on human populations. Women and infants are more vulnerable to these chemicals, and this has troubling ramifications for future generations. The long half-lives of EDCs can continue to cause problems even decades after their use has been discontinued.
The United States government is reluctant to regulate synthetic chemicals. Unlike the European Union, which is built upon a precautionary principle, the United States uses the litigious principle. In the EU, the government keeps the chemical off the market until testing indicates that they are safe. In the U.S., a company will consider taking a hazardous product off the market if it loses a lawsuit—no government regulations apply to the products.
But lawsuits are difficult to win, as it is impossible to pinpoint that a specific chemical from a specific product made by a specific company is responsible for a woman’s breast cancer or a baby boy’s “feminized” genitalia when every woman and every man is breathing, drinking, eating, and simply existing in a wide variety of synthetic chemicals. The U.S. government must take a more aggressive regulatory stance for long-term sustainability to be achieved. The European Union has already done this, and the U.S. would do well to follow its lead.
It is a good thing that a few American companies are being pre-emptive in discontinuing the use of chemicals which other countries have determined to be toxic, but federal and state laws need to be enacted and enforced that will force all companies to make their products safer by regulating and restricting the use of hazardous synthetic chemicals. It is only through curbing the ubiquitous use of these chemicals now that the current and future adverse health effects now being experienced will be minimized.
The current system in the Food and Drug Administration and the dependence of chemical companies and consumers upon the litigious system is inadequate and indefensible. Companies respond to consumer demands. Acceptance of these synthetic chemicals is wreaking havoc on women’s and infants’ bodies. Humans are leaving a lethal chemical legacy for their children.
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