New Internationalist

Chemicals of concern

Issue 428

A new US bill is aiming for tough screening of toxic chemicals. Roxana Olivera reports.

A far-reaching bill that seeks to set safe levels for controversial chemicals known as endocrine disrupters is making its way to the United States Congress and Senate this week. Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia and Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts are expected to introduce the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009 on Thursday, 3 December.

If the bill passes, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) would have the mandate to conduct cutting-edge research for the purpose of identifying and determining the safety of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These chemicals, also known as hormone disruptors, are human-made compounds that interfere with hormone production, behaviour and metabolism.

Recent scientific studies have associated many of these chemicals with a number of endocrine-related disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cardiovascular disease, obesity, early puberty, infertility and cancer.

There is mounting evidence from human and lab animal studies that suggests that health effects can be most damaging when exposure to the chemicals occurs early in life, even at the prenatal stage.

Recent scientific studies have associated many of these chemicals with a number of endocrine-related disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cardiovascular disease, obesity, early puberty, infertility and cancer

The bill aims to prevent and reduce the production of toxic chemicals and to minimize public exposure to them through improved testing and regulation. In a departure from classic testing which focuses on one-chemical-at-a-time, the research would rely on updated testing models that take into account the cumulative and aggregate risks of exposure as well as the timing of exposure.

An expert panel, to be appointed by the NIEHS director and to be made up of independent scientists with established expertise in endocrine disruption research, would develop an inventory of chemicals of concern.

The panel would evaluate the level of hazard posed by the targeted chemicals and submit its findings to the appropriate federal regulatory agency for action.

Under the bill, federal regulatory agencies would be required to communicate to the NIEHS, and produce a report to Congress as to their proposed course of action in light of the panel’s findings.

A federal database would be established to collect information from all regulatory agencies in order to track the multiple routes of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Earlier this year, both the Endocrine Society and the American Medical Association expressed their concern over widespread exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. In June, the Endocrine Society warned that EDCs are ‘a significant concern to public health’. The agency proposed a series of recommendations for the development of preventative guidelines and regulations.

In Congressman Moran’s district of Northern Virginia, a recent study found that in some parts of the Potomac River, 100 per cent of smallmouth bass exhibited inter-sex organs – a trait linked to EDCs. ‘This is a serious issue,’ Moran said in an email statement, adding that he hopes the bill ‘will stimulate serious public debate’.

Despite numerous studies that link endocrine-disrupting chemicals with a multitude of health disorders, industry representatives insist that there is no cause for alarm.

Industry has traditionally relied on classic toxicology whereby minimum toxic levels are established for single compounds under limited periods of exposure.

But recent research indicates that there is a potential risk of harm when persistent exposure occurs at low levels, often revealing adverse effects at levels significantly below currently accepted limits.

Despite numerous studies that link endocrine-disrupting chemicals with a multitude of health disorders, industry representatives insist that there is no cause for alarm.

Moreover, adverse effects may not be detected until years, or even decades, after initial exposure.

These substances enter our bodies when we breathe, eat, drink, or even have skin contact with them. The compounds are so pervasive that they are present throughout our modern environment, at home, in daycare or school, and in the workplace.

They are found in a multitude of everyday consumer products such as packaged foods, cosmetics, cleaning materials, clothing and children’s toys.

‘There are thousands of hazardous chemicals out there that everyone is being exposed to that have never been tested,’ said Dr. Michael Gilberston, a former International Joint Commission (IJC) scientist who supports the bill.

‘More particularly, the methods for testing them are not yet agreed upon. And industry has shown that it doesn’t know how to test these chemicals because when they test them, they cannot find the effects.’

Dr. Theo Colborn, the founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange and co-author of Our Stolen Future, along with Gilberston and 136 other prominent international scientists and health experts, has formally endorsed the bill. Colborn is best known for helping formulate the endocrine disruptor hypothesis. Over the past decade, she has warned us about the risks these chemicals pose to our living world. Now, she and her followers are calling for a new approach to determine the safety of these agents.

‘The bill is a mechanism,’ says Gilberston, ‘for not only getting the testing done but also to getting decisions made.’

With files from Shirley Moore. Roxana Olivera is a freelance writer from Peru who now lives in Toronto.

FURTHER READING:

New Internationalist September 2008: Drowning in plastic

New Internationalist essay, Toxic planet

Comments on Chemicals of concern

Leave your comment