Pandora’s Water Bottle
Heard about endocrine disruptors? They’re in everything from skin moisturizers to skillets, from raincoats to water bottles. And they’re wreaking havoc on living things.
“Don’t tell me. I can guess,” the saleswoman says, cutting me off midstream. “It’s the lead-in-the-lipstick thing.”
“No, it’s the alligators-with-stunted-penises thing,” I long to reply. But this situation is no fault of hers, and I’ve vowed not to lecture unsuspecting salespeople on the vulnerability of the vertebrate hormone system. Or denounce the intractability of the chemical industry. The terms “infertility,” “neurological deficits,” “intersex fish,” and “bisphenol A” will not cross my lips.
“Not lead,” I answer mildly. “I’m concerned about a more complicated problem. Let’s just say I think we should be more selective about what products we buy. And I have a list of ingredients to avoid.”
When I produce a crumpled sheet listing names like diethyl phthalate, the saleswoman relents. And so we embark on the absurd task of trying to figure out which of these products will do the least harm to me and mine—insofar as I can tell.
What has prompted this peculiar shopping expedition is new research showing that most toiletries and cosmetics contain endocrine disruptors—synthetic chemicals that behave like the body’s own hormones or block their normal function. These synthetic chemicals perform a range of domestic functions, and not just in the bathroom: They keep our moisturizer from separating and our scent from souring; our raincoats shedding water and our omelets slipping in the pan; our water bottles rigid, hoses flexible, and televisions from bursting into flames. But when our bodies absorb them, these ubiquitous compounds can scramble our natural chemical messengers, which can’t tell the fake hormones from our own. They don’t necessarily cause cancer, the disease we associate with toxic chemicals. Instead they infiltrate our biological operating systems, with disturbing, often irreversible results.
Though the endocrine system can be thrown out of whack at any point in life, the most dangerous time for this to happen is during fetal development and infancy. “Then you essentially take the body and put it onto a different life path by altering the way organs develop,” says Frederick vom Saal, Curators’ Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri. “And once they’ve been set onto a different path of development, it’s like a one-way street. You can never reverse that path.”
The most worrying aspect of these unusual poisons—and the most controversial—is that it takes just infinitesimal doses to trip up hormone systems. “Even in minute amounts, endocrine-disrupting chemicals carry alien messages to organs and systems in the body,” says Peter S. Ross, a wildlife toxicologist at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, “potentially interfering with the development, growth, and function of vital systems in multiple dozens of ways.” More than a decade ago zoologist Theo Colborn sounded the alarm in Our Stolen Future, a book she wrote with biologist John Peterson Myers and journalist Dianne Dumanoski about emerging evidence suggesting such compounds were wreaking havoc on wildlife and the environment. Today thousands of lab, field, and epidemiological studies implicate low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in health problems from immune disorders and hyperactivity to infertility, obesity, and diabetes.
So why hasn’t our government swooped in to protect us? Because chemical manufacturers and their associated industries, adopting the model pioneered by tobacco and buffed to a high sheen by big oil, spend millions on campaign contributions, lobbying, and general obfuscation, while funding studies exonerating their products. That’s why most people don’t know that harmful synthetic ingredients—invisible to us and not always listed on labels—are in almost everything we use. Says vom Saal, “Because of product confidentiality, the public has no way of knowing what’s in the products they’re using. But everywhere we look we find these chemicals.”
A sea change, however, is coming. Proof that vinyl toys, polycarbonate baby bottles, and food cans leak potent endocrine disruptors called phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) has outraged the public. In 2008, when the U.S. Federal Drug Administration undertook a review of the safety of BPA, many openly criticized the timing as industry influenced and politically motivated. “The FDA discarded all but two papers, both industry funded, and rushed out the results [exonerating BPA] in time to kill a vote in the California legislature that would have banned BPA there,” says vom Saal.
The move provoked a furor in the scientific community, prompting the FDA’s own science advisory panel to reject the verdict. Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) and others urged the FDA commissioner to reevaluate the whole review process. Progressive bills were introduced in the House. And on September 29, 2009, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson asked Congress to overhaul the Jurassic Era statute that has so egregiously failed to keep us safe—the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.
That certain industrial chemicals mimic the effects of hormones should be yesterday’s news. Endocrine disruptors were the great environmental nemeses of the 20th century, after all. One, the pesticide DDT, brought about widespread reproductive failure in top predators, including bald eagles and other birds. PCBs, used in electrical equipment, caused small head size, lowered IQ, and produced developmental problems in infants born to women living around the Great Lakes who ate a diet rich in fish.
But those effects were caused by sky-high contaminant levels. When the U.S. and other governments restricted the use of DDT and banned PCBs in the 1970s, those very high concentrations in the environment began to wane. Some animal populations recovered. Things didn’t exactly go back to normal, though. Strange new anomalies began to reveal themselves in disparate parts of the globe.
Sport fishermen in England in the late 1980s were among the first to notice. We’re catching some really bizarre fish, they reported. We can’t tell if they’re male or female. When government researchers followed up, they discovered that many male fish had characteristics of both genders. “Intersex,” scientists called them. “Gender-benders,” they were dubbed by the British press.
The problem seemed to be worst near sewage treatment outfalls. So researchers anchored cages of young, captive-bred trout near such drainage points in rivers across England and Wales. Within days the male troutlings started producing vitellogenin, an egg yolk precursor protein normally found only in egg-laying females. Could something hormonal be at work here? they wondered. Water tests turned up neither birth-control hormones nor human estrogens from urine. The case of the questionable fish had fisheries authorities stumped.
Then came a lab mishap on the far side of the ocean. At Tufts University Medical School, biologists Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein had been using estrogen-sensitive human breast cancer cells to study the cell proliferation seen in cancer. The researchers had conducted hundreds of experiments, adding blood serum with and without estrogen to breast cell cultures; the estrogen-free cultures did not multiply, but the cultures to which estrogen was added did.
In 1987 the experiment went haywire. Cells in all the samples began multiplying like crazy. Something was contaminating the cultures. After methodically tearing apart every element of their procedures, the researchers finally discovered the culprit: the lab flasks themselves. Corning, the manufacturer of the plastic tubes in which the lab kept serum, had reformulated its plastic. Though the new flasks looked no different, they were leaching an invisible estrogen-like substance into the serum.
Aghast at the implications of plastic containers leaching sex hormones, the researchers and university administrators asked Corning officials: What was the new ingredient? The company stonewalled: trade secret. It took Soto and Sonnenschein two years to identify the saboteur. In 1991 they published their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives—“p-Nonylphenol: An Estrogenic Xenobiotic Released from ‘Modified’ Polystyrene.”
In England, fish reproduction expert John Sumpter, of Brunel University, read Soto and Sonnenschein’s paper and connected the dots. Phenols were now in detergents, from whence their breakdown products whistled through sewage treatment into rivers. Male fish absorbed these trace artificial estrogens and responded by producing vitellogenin.
Estrogen mimickers couldn’t account for dwarfed testes. EPA environmental toxicologist Earl Grey offered a possible explanation for that. Grey, using lab rats to study the effects of synthetic chemicals on mammals, found that low doses of these chemicals hijack receptors responsible for transporting testosterone in the bloodstreams of male mice. Stranded, testosterone can’t stimulate development of the testes. Grey called this endocrine-disrupting activity antiandrogenic (androgen being any hormone that promotes male characteristics).
Antiandrogens could turn up in Sumpter’s rivers, too. What chemicals those might be no scientist could say. By the late 1990s some 100,000 synthetics were already in commercial use, and hundreds more were showing up on the market—and in the wild—every year. Swedish biologists trying to trace the culprit responsible for stunted fish testes in the Baltic had been able to identify only six percent of the organochlorine chemicals they found in the sea.
Today, some 15 years and thousands of new compounds later, with the use of synthetics still almost entirely unregulated, health problems have intensified to the point that experts are documenting a blurring of the distinctions between the sexes in both wildlife and humans. Because so many artificial chemicals are estrogen-like or antiandrogenic, they hit males especially hard.
A new report from the British nonprofit CHEM Trust catalogs ugly results: intersex fish, amphibians, and reptiles; embryonic mortality and poor parenting in male birds; mammals with undescended testes; and reduced reproductive success in an enormous range of species. This year the USGS released study results documenting intersex in at least one-third of all smallmouth bass in nine major North American watersheds.
Increasingly, human males are exhibiting a similar syndrome. Endocrinologist Niels Skakkebaek, of the National University Hospital’s Department of Growth and Reproduction in Copenhagen, put a name to it: testicular dysgenesis syndrome. TDS in humans looks like some of the symptoms documented in wildlife—undescended testicles; penile deformities called hypospadias, in which the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis; poor sperm quality; and sperm counts half what men’s were 50 years ago. Rates of testicular cancer have more than doubled since the 1960s. Says Skakkebaek, “It’s a young man’s disease now.”
Although “end of man” effects nab headlines, endocrine disruptors sabotage other systems, too. Of particular concern are contaminants that sideline thyroid hormones, causing brain deficits and suppressing immune systems in a number of species, possibly including two of my favorites: humans and killer whales.
Puget Sound’s nomadic iconic killer whales have enjoyed legal protection for the past five years. They nevertheless have a lower-than-normal birth rate and inexplicably high mortality. Wildlife toxicologist Peter Ross wants to know why. His study subjects, however, offer some challenges.
“Eighty-eight killer whales make up the southern resident population of Puget Sound,” Ross says. “Northern residents? Let’s say 200. The transient population is maybe 220.” These whales already suffer from noise disturbance and a shortage of salmon. Chase them down every year to take skin and blubber samples? They would be dead of stress in no time, Ross says. So he goes at the problem obliquely, capturing, sampling, and releasing pups of the species he wryly calls the “lab rat of the ocean”—harbor seals.
Month-old harbor seals have never eaten anything but mother’s milk. Contaminants in the pups come through their mothers. The resident killer whales and harbor seals are both top predators in the same food web. So Ross uses the seal pups—common, hardy, abundant—as surrogates for his whales.
“We’re seeing two groups of contaminants in seals,” Ross says. “One is legacy pollutants, including PCBs and DDT, still two top contaminants in marine mammals in the Northern Hemisphere.
“But we’re seeing rising levels of a second group we call ‘emerging’ chemicals,” many of them endocrine disruptors. These include perfluorinated grease, water, and stain repellents, or PFOAs, more familiar as Teflon, Gore-Tex, and Scotchgard. The EPA classifies PFOAs as “likely to be carcinogenic,” potentially causing liver, mammary, pancreatic, and testicular cancer. The agency fined Dupont a record $16.5 million for misrepresenting Teflon’s safety. Teflon was not banned, however, nor was its use restricted. As more health data come to light, a $16.5 million fine, though record-breaking, starts looking like a wet kiss.
Mostly Ross finds polybrominated diphenyl ether, also known as flame retardants called PBDEs, which are widely incorporated into home electronics, mattresses, and other burnables. Ross’s sampling shows that PBDEs are doubling in the environment every three and a half years. They’ve bumped DDT from the number two spot in marine mammals and fish in the Pacific Northwest, and Ross predicts they’ll soon supersede PCBs.
“Together PCBs and PBDEs deliver a potent one-two punch,” Ross says. They lock onto thyroid hormone receptors, starving animals of thyroid hormone. Low thyroid hormone levels hamper brain development in fetuses, Ross says, and shortchange metabolism and immune and mental functioning in young and adults.
Under these circumstances a species’ numbers may appear healthy even as the animals themselves are in poorer condition, making populations vulnerable to sudden, catastrophic declines. They can’t fend off bacteria and other pathogens effectively—as Ross knows better than most. His first marine mammal job was in the North Sea, where he helped link abnormally high mortality from a virus—60 percent of North Sea harbor seals died—to PCBs in the seals’ diet. Wildlife toxicologists necropsying sea otter carcasses collected in California are seeing similar effects. Sea otters dead from diseases have higher PBDE and PCB burdens than those killed in accidents. As they get sicker and sicker, they eat less.
“It’s hard to stay dispassionate when you see what these chemicals are doing to animals,” Ross says. “The burden of proof is put on our work to prove cause and effect. We rely to a dangerous degree on having a smoking gun demonstrating that these chemicals are affecting wildlife. But there are multiple chemicals out there with multiple effects, and confounding factors like climate change. In the meantime, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Why is there not a simple rule that if a chemical shows up in breast milk, it will be pulled from the market?”
The weight of evidence is finally motivating regulators. Unfortunately, they have mostly not been our regulators. Canada recently classified BPA as a toxin, banning its use in baby bottles. A European Union program called REACH—Registration, Evaluation and Restriction of Authorization of CHemical substances—will soon require manufacturers to scrutinize and enter 15,000 common synthetic compounds into a database. Data confirm the value of action: Environmental levels of PBDEs in Europe have dropped considerably since the chemicals were discontinued there a decade ago.
And the United States? Though manufacturers voluntarily phased out two of the three PBDE formulations here in 2004, the federal government hasn’t banned a single chemical since the EPA tried—and ultimately failed—to ban asbestos in 1989. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite, writes investigative reporter Mark Schapiro.
In his book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power (Chelsea Green, 2007), Schapiro recounts how, under orders from the Bush administration, State Department officials collaborated with Dow Chemical executives to bully some European countries into voting against REACH. The administration and the chemical industry feared, rightly so, that such legislation would bar toxin-containing American products from lucrative European markets.
REACH prevailed, but a recent slip of the curtain exposed industry’s attitude toward concerns about their products. Last May lobbyists from Coca-Cola, Alcoa, Crown, the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Chemistry Alliance, and Del Monte met to discuss BPA’s tarnished reputation. (BPA is used in polycarbonate plastic, epoxy-resin can linings, and countless other applications.) The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel subsequently published minutes from the meeting.
Assembled public relations flacks recommended “befriending people who are able to manipulate the legislative process.” Doubtful of “obtaining a scientific spokesperson,” the lobbyists came up with “the holy grail”—a “pregnant young mother . . . willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.”
As the daylighting of such machinations obliterates industry’s credibility, momentum for reform gathers. We, the reading public, are becoming engaged. Updates are zipping around the Internet, lighting up the blogosphere. Newer, safer products—to the extent we consumers are equipped to judge—are filling our shopping carts and shelves. Two new bills banning the use of BPA in food packaging await action in both the Senate and the House. And the recent announcement by the Obama administration of its intention to overhaul the nation’s criminally inadequate system for watchdogging chemicals holds enormous promise—though as this story goes to press, dismaying word comes from the FDA that it will commission further studies on BPA’s safety rather than act to regulate it now.
The truth is, you can’t get the good news until you’ve had the bad, says Ross. “Look at DDT. That was an endocrine disruptor. We collected the science to understand it, and we passed the regulations to correct it. We have to get the bad news in order to mitigate, conserve, protect, and become stewards of the natural world.”
Now if our elected champions will face up to this formidable—and crucial—industry with carrot and cudgel, we can start moving on together to mitigation, conservation, protection, and stewardship, before more damage is done.
Susan McGrath is a frequent contributor to Audubon, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. She writes more about endocrine disruptors on the Audubon blog, The Perch.
There are a lot of ways to reduce your use of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. First, obsess not. You’ll just alienate your friends and make yourself miserable. Do what you can at home or school, then hound politicians into passing legislation to ban these compounds for good.
Boot That BPA
Limit your BPA exposure. Ditch polycarbonate baby bottles and water bottles; minimize the use of canned foods; avoid using plastic in the microwave. Buy food in glass jars or, best of all, fresh. Follow the latest news and research at Our Stolen Future, Environmental Working Group, and Environmental Health News.
Avoid a Stink
Steer clear of scented products or anything that lists “fragrance” as an ingredient. Phthalates lurk therein. Check toiletries and cosmetics on the Cosmetic Safety Database, and don’t buy products on its What Not to Buy list. Avoid products with triclosan, including Microban, or anything labeled “anti-bacterial.”
Replace your vinyl shower curtain with cloth (cotton, polyester, or nylon) or install a glass door. Ditto for other vinyl products around the house. (Yes, environmentally responsible disposal of endocrine-disrupting products is problematic, but until better options are developed, the landfill’s the best one.) If you can afford to, replace vinyl flooring with safer alternatives. Check out toys on healthytoys.org and get rid of the phthalate-loaded ones. As much as possible, avoid polyvinyl plastics, marked “3” for recycling.
Scrutinize labels. Don’t buy products treated with Teflon, Scotchgard, or Gore-Tex. Don’t treat upholstered furniture with stain guards. Instead of nonstick pans, use stainless steel or cast iron.
Wash your hands often, and avoid putting them in your mouth. Dust with a damp cloth, and mop, sponge, and vacuum frequently.
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