Monthly Archives: August 2009

Terrible Toxins: 5 Bisphenol A: Plastics Gone Wild

Terrible Toxins: 5  Bisphenol A:  Plastics Gone Wild

Competency # 18 Environmental Toxins

Reference: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Sunday, August 23, 2009; The Body Toxic by Nena Baker, Published by Farrar, Strauss 2008

This is a hot topic.  Headline news this week in newspapers, “Chemical Industry to Launch a Publicity Blitz to Protect Bisphenol A.”  At 6 billion pounds a year, this is not a small industry.  The clear plastics that you drink your “pure water” out of, the lining of many canned vegetables and soups, eye glasses, baby bottles, dental sealant.  The stuff is everywhere.  It’s even in paper towels (you know those kinds that never break when they get wet…) The controversy is everywhere too.

Bisphenol is another endocrine disrupting chemical.  It leaks out of plastics.  The chemical bond that makes polycarbonate is inherently unstable.  With heat, the chemical bond really comes apart and bisphenol leaches out.  That may explain why boiling water will make bisphenol leak out at 50 times the rate of cold water.  What makes it interesting is that bisphenol causes problems at very low levels because of its endocrine disrupting effect.  At the very lowest of levels, it does something very unique.  It gets into cells and does the oddest things.  It blocks the effects of estrogen inside a cell, not outside, like most chemicals.  That may explain why it has been devilishly hard to nail down.

So when the chemical industry studies bisphenol, which it has done 13 times in the last 10 years, all 13 studies find it to be safe.  When independent university labs study it, in smaller studies with very low doses, 93% of 163 studies show bisphenol to be a problem.  Interesting, isn’t it, that we get such opposite results from different parties!

Is there a consensus summary of what bisphenol does?  Yes.  Low levels of bisphenol cause normal breast cells to change, activating genes seen only in aggressive breast cancer cells.  It causes a “striking increase in genes that promote cell division, increase cell metabolism, and increased resistance to drugs that usually kill cancer cells” (Dairkee Cancer Research 2008) Given pre-natally or to neonatal lab animals, it causes functional and structural changes in prostates, breasts, testes, body size, brain chemistry and behavior.

Once again, we have the dilemma of regulatory models.  In Europe, a safety model now prevails.  In America, we require absolute rigid proof before our agencies can regulate.   To navigate this world, you have to decide for yourself.  The headlines now state, “The Chemical Industry is Fighting Back.”  They can delay action for years.  Demanding absolute proof is a very high standard.

WWW.  What will work for me.  I’m trying not to drink any water from plastic bottles any more.  I’m using glasses or stainless steel.  We’ve changed our food storage canisters to glass.  I don’t heat food in the microwave in anything but glass or ceramic containers.   Now, cutting down on canned vegetables is harder.  That’s my list.  Yours?

Terrible Toxins 3: Phthalates – Cosmetic Conundrum

Terrible Toxins 3:  Phthalates – Cosmetic Conundrum

Competency # 18  Environmental Toxins

Reference: The Body Toxic by Nena Baker, Published by Farrar, Strauss 2008

Here is where Europe and America really differ.  Our FDA has very little authority over what is in “personal toiletries” whereas the Europeans have a “safety” approach.  Our FDA’s budget is around $ 36 million a year with just 30 employees to review and audit the safety of every product we put, pour, shake or apply to ourselves for personal self care.  That includes everything from toothpaste to deodorant, shampoo and nail polish is included.  The average American applies these products about 22-25 times a day.  In Europe 1,000 chemicals have been banned, in America, just 9.

Because of that, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) was established in 2007 to review the 23,000 untested personal products used in America.  22,500 had at least one ingredient that had never been tested for safety that could be a concern.  They found 400 products that had been banned in other countries.  As one example, a product called DBP or dibutyl phthalate has been banned in Europe.  When the FDA was alerted to that by the EWG, it did nothing.  DBP is what makes nail polish soft and flexible.  Did you also know that 61% of American lipsticks have some lead in them?

Ron Wyden, Senator from Oregon, tried to get a bill through Congress that required ingredients to be listed on all cosmetics.  The bill was killed by chemical industry lobbying.

What do phthalates do?  They make plastics soft and flexible.  They also stabilize fragrances.  Garden hoses, IV tubing, toys, room fresheners all contain phthalates.  A sample test of toys at Walmart in 2008 found that soft baby toys contained up to 47% phthalates.  They are everywhere.

And why are they problematic?  Well, in rat models they mess up the reproductive organs.  Different phthalates work synergistically to make what is called the phthalate syndrome of reproductive tract disorders.  The “ano-genital distance“ in rats is shortened.  That’s the distance, in rats, between the rectum and the ureter.  Is that a problem in humans?  We aren’t sure. But 25% of American mothers have blood levels of phthalates similar to that of the rat experimental model.  Have we had an increase in little boys with messed up genitals?  Yes!  That’s the problem.  In Europe phthalates are banned.  In America, we still have them.  It’s not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt here.  That’s our standard.   Do you want an absolute standard or a safety first model?

WWW:  What will work for me.  I found a data base where I can look things up. lists thousands of ingredients on many chemicals.  I have started to look up some of my deodorants and toothpastes.  We have a few rooms with nice fragrances in them.   I need to look those up too, as many fragrances are stabilized with phthalates.   We’ve bought glass containers for leftovers for our fridge as scratched plastics in the microwave really leak out large amounts of phthalates.  Check out your soap, your containers, your nail polish, lipstick, perfume.  Buy from organic pledged companies.  The best defense is the informed consumer.

Terrible Toxins 4: PBDEs

Terrible Toxins 4: PBDEs

Competency # 18  Environmental Toxins

Reference: The Body Toxic by Nena Baker, Published by Farrar, Strauss 2008

PBDE’s?  What on earth!  Poly Brominated Diphenyl Ether, another possible persistent toxin.  Bromine, attached many times to benzene rings acts like as a wonderful flame-retardant.  When the substance starts to burn, the bromine gobbles up all the oxygen and literally snuffs out the fire internally.  That is a cool thing.  We save over 280 lives a year in America by adding flame- retardants to our products.  There is a social benefit to that.  Bromine is in the chlorine, fluorine and iodine family, and there is a big industry supporting its use.  Discovering the property of flame retardation is part of our safety journey to making our homes safe from fire.  But are PBDEs safe?

“Houston, we have a problem.”   PBDEs leach out of the products that they are in.  They are in stain removers, water repellants and flame-retardants.  They build up in places like carpets as they leach out of computers, carpets and furniture.  Tiny children, so called “rug-rats” are on the carpet all the time and their blood levels are building very rapidly.   In fact, in America, we can show a doubling of the blood level of PBDEs every 2.5 years.  House cats have the same problem.  They spend time on the floor with the kids.  Cats groom themselves and lick their fur.  Kids put everything in their mouths.  When we exam the level in fat tissue from liposuction patients, we find 10,000 parts per billion in the fat tissue.

Cats have suddenly developed an epidemic of hyperthyroidism.  Cause unknown.  Bromine is chemically closely related to iodine, which affects thyroids.  We haven’t specifically found a clear connection to human problems but lab animal fetuses show problems with brain development and with muscle and movement disorders.  In Sweden, they were alarmed enough to ban PBDEs and sure enough, breast milk concentrations started dropping rapidly.  Volvo and IKEA removed PBDEs from all their products.

In America, we have 10 times the levels of PBDEs that there are in Europe.  One study from Texas showed a 100-fold increase over European levels.  Dubious distinction.   Because of those concerns, the makers of PBDEs in America voluntarily withdrew two of the less used ones called OCTA and PENTA but held onto DECA.  (There are about 209 different kinds and figuring out which is the worst has been a challenge.)

Currently, about 80% of PBDEs are in the plastic housings of computers and TVs.  They are good flame-retardants.  They can be mixed in with the plastic and hardly affect its stiffness and durability.  If only it didn’t leach out!   It costs about $ 4-6 extra to make a computer without using them.  Many companies are voluntarily moving away from them.  Apple, Dell, HP, Sony have all stopped using them.  The European Union banned them as of July 1, 2008.

WWW.  What Will Work for Me?  You should ban them too!  If you have plans to buy a new TV or computer, ask if it has PBDEs in it.  If you have old furniture or carpeting, be very careful when you remove it.  Tape off the area from the rest of your house.  Furniture made prior to 2005 is loaded with it.  Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum when you remove old carpeting.  Keep your kids on new PDBE free carpet.

Atrazine: How to Make Boy Frogs into Girl Frogs

Terrible Toxins 2  Atrazine:  How to Make Boy Frogs into Girl Frogs

Competency # 18  Environmental Toxins

Reference: The Body Toxic by Nena Baker, Published by Farrar, Strauss 2008

Canada has banned it, so has Europe.  We know that those two have regulatory agencies that work from the premise of human safety first.  Europe has its REACH legislation that requires chemical companies to prove that chemicals are safe before they can be put on the market.  It’s a small nuance, but the difference is huge in America.  Here, we require our FDA to prove that harm is caused by the drug, and we don’t require our chemical companies to share information that may lead to proof of that evidence.

What is atrazine?  It’s an unbelievably good herbicide.  It kills weeds.  It really works well.  So well that 80% of our corn fields in the Midwest have it applied in the spring.  It’s applied in the spring, when it rains a lot.  Some of the atrazine washes off into our ground water where we now have three parts per billion (ppb) in our ground water in many locations.  Doesn’t sound like much.  But it has been found as high as 50 parts per billion in some monitoring sites.  The EPA ruled that three ppb was the limit.

Here’s the rub.  An independent scientist, Tyrone Hays at Berkeley, has found that he can make boy frogs grow up to look like girl frogs with one-tenth parts per billion, way below the level the EPA says is our safety limit.   He even found the enzyme it disrupts called aromatase.  Atrazine turns on aromatase converting testosterone to estrogen.  A real endocrine disruptor if we ever had one.  He has proven that in many different fashions.  Guess how the chemical industry replied?  They got a bill slipped into a budget bill President Clinton signed called the Data Quality Act that requires the government to “ensure that the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity” of any regulation is up to scientific snuff.  If you were a lawyer, you could then challenge each of those in court and tie up regulatory rulings by challenging the science.  First you need some studies to show the opposite of what Tyrone Hays showed.    Guess what has happened in the last five years?  Of course, chemical company scientists have come up with a whole raft of studies that show no effect of atrazine.  They can then tie up the regulations in court.  Right out of the tobacco industry play book.  Really well done!  That’s called corporate risk management.

In the meantime, our American sperm counts are going down, our breast cancer rates are going up, our fertility is changing, we have many more cases of testicular cancer and on and on.  Are they related?  We just don’t know.  But the difference between Europe and Canada and the USA could not be more stark.  We go on the premise that our FDA has to prove, beyond a shadow of a legal doubt that a chemical is a problem.  In Europe, the chemical company has to prove its products are safe before coming into the market.  Where do you want to live?

WWW.  What will work for me.  I live in Milwaukee.  I plan on not walking in unplowed fields in the spring.  I will take off my shoes as I come in the house, as that is how we track atrazine indoors.  I’m going to get a carbon filter for my water.  I will write my congressman.  I’m mad.  I want clean water.