Chemicals and Our Health, by Nicholas Kristof NY Times
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From: DeBiasi,Deborah [mailto:Deborah.DeBiasi at deq.virginia.gov]
Sent: Thursday, July 16, 2009 9:10 AM
To: pharmwaste at lists.dep.state.fl.us
Subject: Chemicals and Our Health, by Nicholas Kristof NY Times
July 16, 2009
Chemicals and Our Health
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
However careful you are about your health, your body is almost certainly
home to troubling chemicals called phthalates. These are ubiquitous in
modern life, found in plastic bottles, cosmetics, some toys, hair
conditioners, and fragrances - and many scientists have linked them to
everything from sexual deformities in babies to obesity and diabetes.
The problem is that phthalates suppress male hormones and sometimes
mimic female hormones. As I've written before, chemicals called
endocrine disruptors are believed to explain the proliferation of
"intersex fish" - male fish that produce eggs - as well as sexual
deformities in animals and humans. Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are
among the most common endocrine disruptors, and among the most difficult
to avoid. They're even in tap water, and levels soar in certain plastic
They probably are not harmful to us adults, but it is another story for
children. In girls, some research suggests that phthalates may cause
early onset puberty. Most vulnerable of all, it seems, are male fetuses
in the first trimester of pregnancy, just as they are differentiating
their sex. At that stage, scholars believe, phthalates may "feminize"
"Commonly used phthalates may undervirilize humans," concluded a study
by the University of Rochester. The study, which was small, based its
conclusion, in part, on measurements of "anogenital distance" - the
distance between the anus and the genitals, which is typically twice as
long for males as for females. Some scholars believe that shrinkage of
this distance reflects "feminization" of male anatomy.
The researchers found that pregnant women with higher levels of
phthalates delivered babies with a shorter anogenital distance. It's
possible this won't cause any complications. But baby boys with shorter
anogenital distance were more likely to have undescended testicles and
less penile volume, and phthalates have been linked in humans to
problems with sperm count and sperm quality.
In China, researchers found that female rats given phthalates gave birth
to males with a penis deformity called hypospadias (in which the urethra
exits the side or base of the penis, not the tip). Many other animal
studies around the world have found similar results.
Some endocrinologists refer to the "phthalate syndrome," including
hypospadias and undescended testicles.
"Accumulating human epidemiological data point to a relationship between
adverse fetal development and phthalate exposure," concluded an article
this spring in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. Just
last month, the Endocrine Society - composed of thousands of doctors in
the field - issued a powerful warning that endocrine disruptors
including phthalates are "a significant concern to public health."
One of the conundrums for scientists and journalists alike is how to
call prudent attention to murky and uncertain risks, without
sensationalizing dangers that may not exist? Increasingly,
endocrinologists are concluding that the mounting evidence is enough to
Indeed, there has also been a flurry of scientific articles questioning
whether endocrine disruptors are tied to obesity, autism and allergies,
although the evidence there is less firm than with genital abnormalities
and depressed sperm count.
The American Chemistry Council argues that phthalates are not a problem,
that they do not migrate out of products easily and that they quickly
break down in the body. The chemical industry has noted an apparently
reassuring study in the Journal of Urology finding that hypospadias does
not seem to be increasing in New York State (although different studies
showed increases both in the United States and in Denmark).
James Yager, a professor of toxicology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg
School of Public Health, agrees that there are huge uncertainties but
says that pregnant women and children should be cautious. "When my wife
was pregnant, we worried about drinking or smoking," Professor Yager
said. Now, he said, he would be more focused on exposure to chemicals
such as phthalates in baby bottles.
Dr. Theo Colborn, the founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, goes
further. She tells researchers working with her to toss out plastic
water bottles and use stainless steel instead. "I don't have plastic
food containers in my house," she added. "I use glass."
Certain phthalates have been banned from new toys sold in the United
States, but kids continue to be exposed to these chemicals from the
moment they are conceived. Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and
Environmental Health Network says that the way regulators examine risks
- studying the impact of one chemical at a time - is bankrupt, for we're
exposed to a cocktail of them daily. Regulation is so pathetic that
there's not even disclosure when products contain phthalates.
If terrorists were putting phthalates in our drinking water, we would be
galvanized to defend ourselves and to spend billions of dollars to
ensure our safety. But the risks are just as serious if we're poisoning
ourselves, and it's time for the Obama administration and Congress to
show leadership in this area.
Deborah L. DeBiasi
Email: Deborah.DeBiasi at deq.virginia.gov (NEW!)
WEB site address: www.deq.virginia.gov
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Office of Water Permit Programs
Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program
PPCPs, EDCs, and Microconstituents
Mail: P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA 23218 (NEW!)
Location: 629 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219
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