Obesogens

30 01 2019

Researchers have come to a greater understanding of the multiple factors that influence obesity, which of course include our diet, but also our hormones, bio-individuality,  epigenetics and increasingly, the environment.  While lack of activity, poor diet, and genetics are frequently blamed for this problem, could there be other factors in the environment affecting our weight gain?

Many in the medical and exercise physiology communities remain wedded to poor diet and lack of exercise as the sole causes of obesity. However, researchers are gathering convincing evidence of chemical “obesogens”—dietary, pharmaceutical, and industrial compounds that may alter metabolic processes and predispose some people to gain weight.   Research in recent years has shown that an increase of chemicals in our diet , called obesogens, could be contributing to the obesity epidemic we are now facing.

Obesogens are a category of endocrine disruptors — chemicals that can interfere with your hormones. (1)

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The Environmental Health Policy Institute (EHPI) states that certain endocrine disrupting chemicals affect how the body creates and stores fat, and which could be contributing to the current obesity  epidemic. There is a  growing list of obesogens: hidden chemicals that might be making your family gain unintended weight through a variety of means. Low doses of these endocrine disruptors can actually have a worse effects than high doses. So what are the actions and effects of these obesogens?

Some endocrine disruptors exert their effects by activating estrogen receptors, which can cause harmful effects in both women and men. Estrogen receptors are thought to be “promiscuous,” meaning that they will bind to anything that looks even remotely like an estrogen.  Some obesogens have not only been linked to obesity, but also to birth defects, premature puberty in girls, demasculinization in men, breast cancer and other disorders.

Unfortunately, many of these effects happen in the womb. For example, when pregnant women are exposed to these chemicals, their child’s risk of becoming obese later in life may increase. Obesity has risen steadily in the United States over the past 150 years, with a marked uptick in recent decades. In the United States today more than 35% of adults as well as 17% of children aged 2–19 years are obese.(2) Obesity plagues people not just in the United States but worldwide, including, increasingly, developing countries.  Even animals—pets, laboratory animals, and urban rats—have experienced increases in average body weight over the past several decades,(3) trends not necessarily explained by diet and exercise. In the words of Robert H. Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, “[E]ven those at the lower end of the BMI [body mass index] curve are gaining weight. Whatever is happening is happening to everyone, suggesting an environmental trigger.”

The idea that chemicals in the environment could be contributing to the obesity epidemic is often credited to an article by Paula Baillie-Hamilton, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2002.(4) Her article presented evidence from earlier toxicologic studies published as far back as the 1970s in which low-dose chemical exposures were associated with weight gain in experimental animals. At the time, however, the original researchers did not focus on the implications of the observed weight gains.

The role of environmental chemicals in obesity has garnered increased attention in academic and policy spheres, and was recently acknowledged by the Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity and the National Institutesof Health (NIH) Strategic Plan for Obesity Research. “Over the past ten years, and especially the past five years, there’s been a flurry of new data,” says Kristina Thayer, director of the Office of Health Assessment and Translation at the National Toxicology Program (NTP). “There are many studies in both humans and animals. The NTP found real biological plausibility.” In 2011 the NIH launched a 3-year effort to fund research exploring the role of environmental chemical exposures in obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and metabolic syndrome.(5)

The main role of fat cells is to store energy and release it when needed. Scientists also now know that fat tissue acts as an endocrine organ, releasing hormones related to appetite and metabolism. Research to date suggests different obesogenic compounds may have different mechanisms of action, some affecting the number of fat cells, others the size of fat cells, and still others the hormones that affect appetite, satiety, food preferences, and energy metabolism. Some obesogenic effects may pass on to later generations through epigenetic changes, heritable modifications to DNA and histone proteins that affect when and how genes are expressed in cells, without altering the actual genetic code.

Bruce Blumberg, a biology professor at the University of California, Irvine, coined the term “obesogen” in 2006 when he discovered that tin-based compounds known as organotins predisposed laboratory mice to gain weight.(6) “If you give tributyltin [TBT] to pregnant mice, their offspring are heavier than those not exposed,” he says. “We’ve altered the physiology of these offspring, so even if they eat normal food, they get slightly fatter.” (7)

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Human exposure and health-effect data are relatively rare for organotins, but studies have documented the presence of these compounds in human blood, milk, and liver samples. Although phased out as a biocide and marine antifouling agent, TBT is still used as a wood preservative and, along with dibutyltin, as a stabilizer in polyvinyl chloride; it pollutes many waterways and contaminates seafood.

Animal studies have also implicated another suspected obesogen: bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in medical devices, in the lining of some canned foods, and in cash register receipts – as well as in polyester fabrics. (8) “BPA reduces the number of fat cells but programs them to incorporate more fat, so there are fewer but very large fat cells,” explains University of Missouri biology professor Frederick vom Saal, who has studied BPA for the past 15 years.“In animals, BPA exposure is producing in animals the kind of outcomes that we see in humans born light at birth: an increase in abdominal fat and glucose intolerance.”(9)

Still another widespread obesogen is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a potential endocrine disruptor. “Pretty much everyone in the U.S. has it in their blood, kids having higher levels than adults, probably because of their habits. They crawl on carpets, on furniture, and put things in their mouth more often,” explains NIEHS biologist Suzanne Fenton. PFOA is a surfactant used for reduction of friction, and it is also used in nonstick cookware (i.e., Teflon), Gore-Tex™ waterproof clothing, Scotchgard™ stain repellent on carpeting, mattresses, and microwavable food items. In 2005 DuPont settled a class-action lawsuit for $107.6 million after its factory was found to have tainted  Parkersburg, WV  drinking water supplies with PFOA. (10)

Another obesogen is phthalates.  Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics soft and flexible.  They are found in various products, including food containers, toys, beauty products, pharmaceuticals, shower curtains and paint.  They are in the vast majority of textile printing inks. These chemicals can easily leach out of plastics and contaminate foods, the water supply and even the very air we breathe.

A Swedish study found that children can absorb airborne phthalates from plastic floor material through the skin and respiratory tract.  In a study by the CDC, most Americans tested positive for phthalate metabolites in their urine (11).  Like BPA, phthalates are endocrine disruptors, affecting the hormonal balance in your body.

Phthalates may be contributing to increased susceptibility to weight gain by affecting hormone receptors called PPARs, which are involved in metabolism.  Studies in humans have shown that phthalate levels in the body are associated with obesity, increased waist circumference and insulin resistance.

t appears that men are particularly susceptible. Studies show that phthalate exposure in the womb leads to genital malformations, undescended testicles and low testosterone levels.

Many of these obesogens – pesticides, BPA, PFOAs, Phthalates, TBTi, PCBs – are used regularly in textile production and they remain residual in the fabrics.  Phthalates were found in all the garments tested by Greenpeace (Greenpeace bought a range of clothing from 19 countries around the world) from 1.4 mg/kg to 200,000 mg/kg – or more than 20% of the weight of the sample.(12)

Another good reason to seek out minimally Oeko-Tex 100 fabric, or, better, GOTS certified fabric.

[1] Janesick, AS, Blumberg B:   “Obesogens: an emerging threat to public health”, Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2016 May;214(5):559-65. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2016.01.182. Epub 2016 Jan 29.

(2) Ogden CL, et al. Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among US children and adolescents, 1999–2010. JAMA.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2012.40 [online 17 Jan 2012]

(3) Klimentidis YC, et al. Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics. Proc R Soc Biol Sci. 2011;278(1712):1626–1632.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.1890.

(4) Baillie-Hamilton, PF, “Chemical toxins: a hypotheses to explain the global obesity epidemic”, J Althern Complement Med. 2002; 8(2): 185-192. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/107555302317371479

(5) National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, “Obesogens”, https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/obesity/obesogens/index.cfm

(6)  Blumberg, B, Grun, F; “Environmental obesogens:  organotins and endocrine disruption vis nuclear receptor signaling”; Endocrinol. 2006; 147(6): S50-S55; http://dx.doi.org/10.1210/en.2005-1129

(7) Ibid.

(8) Somm E, et al. “Perinatal  bisphenol A alters adipogenesis in the rat”; Environ Health Perspect. 2009; 117(10): 1549-1555. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.11342

(9) Philpott, T; “Can BPA make you fat?” Mother Jones, May, 2012.

(10) DuPont Reaches Settlement with Class Action Group (press release).  Wilmington, DC and Parkersburg WV:  Dupont (2 Sept 2004). http://www2.dupont.com/Media_Center/en_US/news_releases/2004/nr09_09_04.html

(11) B.C. Blount et al; “Levels of seven urinary phthalate  metabolites in a human reference population”, Environ Health Perspect; 2000 Oct, 108(10): 978-982.

(12)  Pedersen, H; Hartmann, J, “Toxic Textiles by Disney”; Greenpeace; Brussels, April 2004

 

 

 

 





What is the benefit of PLA?

9 10 2018

Much of this article came from the Smithsonian Magazine written by Elizabeth Royte – to whom we owe our gratitude.

Near Blair, Nebraska is the largest lactic acid plant in the world.  Into one end goes corn, and out the other comes white pellets, which some say is the future of plastic.  The substance is PLA – Polymerized Lactic Acid, or polylactic acid.

Globally, bioplastics (of which PLA is a member) make up nearly 331,000 tons (300,000 metric tons) of the plastics market.[1]  That may sound like a lot, but it only accounts for less than 1 percent of the 200 million tons (181 million metric tons) of synthetic plastics the world produces each year. Still, the bioplastics market is growing by 20 to 30 percent each year.[2]  In the US, plastics take up 25% of landfilles by volume.[3]

Even the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that NOTHING biodegrades in a landfill because nothing is supposed to. Furthermore the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that “Uncontrolled biodegradation in a landfill can cause ground water pollution, methane gas emissions and unstable sub-soil conditions.”

The benefit of PLA is that is that it’s made from Midwestern corn, not Middle East oil[4]. It’s a renewable resource, but more than 93% of the corn produced in the USA is genetically modified in some way.  NatureWorks (owned by Cargill, the world’s largest corn merchant) insists that you don’t have to worry about consuming genetically modified proteins because these are destroyed in the transformation from plant to PLA plastic.[5]  NatureWorks, acknowledging some of those criticisms, points out that the corn it uses is low-grade animal feed not intended for human use. And it processes a small amount of non-genetically engineered corn for customers who request it.[6]

Producing PLA uses 65% less energy than producing conventional plastics, according to an independent analysis commissioned by NatureWorks. It also generates 68% fewer greenhouse gases.  And, if incinerated, bioplastics don’t emit toxic fumes like their oil-based counterparts.

PLA does releases toxicfumes known as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). Not all VOCs are actually toxic, but some may be, especially for younger users. Before this becomes a serious health issue, a new study has analysed the exact quantities of toxic VOCs – as well as potentially dangerous nanoparticles – in order to assess the potential health risks. The new study, presented by Dr. Fabrizio Merlo and Dr. Eng. Stefano Mazzoni, starts off from other previous research conducted in the early 90’s, which demonstrated that during the fusion and processing of plastic materials, several toxic particles are released as gases, including ammonia, cyanidric acid, phenol, and benzene, among others.  PLA is a corn-based polymer and is not exempt from dangerous emissions, especially if extruded at temperatures higher than 200°C.  Among the effects that the absorption of toxic VOC’s and nanoparticles can cause to humans, the most common are pulmonary pathologies, such as bronchitis, tracheitis, asthma. In some cases, these substances can also cause certain types of cancers, so this is not something to be taken lightly. [7]

Another problem with PLA is that , as one of the producers, Joe Selzer a vice president at Wilkinson Industries, puts it:  “I had my takeout box in my car in the sun and it melted into a pancake!” So PLA  can’t be used for such things as containers made for holding hot liquids.   He continues: “Our number-one concern is PLA’s competitive price, and then its applications. After that comes the feel-good.”  In the beginning, it cost $200 to make a pound of PLA, now it’s less than $1.[8]

PLA produces the greenhouse gas methane when it decomposes so composting isn’t a perfect disposal method.

But the biggest problem with PLA is it’s biodegradability:  PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days. What’s a controlled composting environment? Not your backyard bin.   It’s a large facility where compost—essentially, plant scraps being digested by microbes into fertilizer—reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. So, yes, as PLA advocates say, corn plastic is “biodegradable.” But in reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities that can make that happen. NatureWorks has identified 113 such facilities nationwide—some handle industrial food-processing waste or yard trimmings, others are college or prison operations—but only about a quarter of them accept residential foodscraps collected by municipalities.

Moreover, PLA by the truckload may potentially pose a problem for some large-scale composters. Chris Choate, a composting expert at Norcal Waste Systems, headquartered in San Francisco, says large amounts of PLA can interfere with conventional composting because the polymer reverts into lactic acid, making the compost wetter and more acidic. “Microbes will consume the lactic acid, but they demand a lot of oxygen, and we’re having trouble providing enough,” he says. “Right now, PLA isn’t a problem,” because there’s so little of it, Choate says.  (NatureWorks disputes that idea, saying that PLA has no such effect on the composting processes.)

To plastic processors, PLA in tiny amounts is merely a nuisance. But in large amounts it can be an expensive hassle. In the recycling business, soda bottles, milk jugs and the like are collected and baled by materials recovery facilities, or MRFs (pronounced “murfs”). The MRFs sell the material to processors, which break down the plastic into pellets or flakes, which are, in turn, made into new products, such as carpeting, fiberfill, or containers for detergent or motor oil. Because PLA and PET mix about as well as oil and water, recyclers consider PLA a contaminant. They have to pay to sort it out and pay again to dispose of it.

Wild Oats accepts used PLA containers in half of its 80 stores. “We mix the PLA with produce and scraps from our juice bars and deliver it to an industrial composting facility,” says the company spokesman Sonja Tuitele. But at the Wild Oats stores that don’t take back PLA, customers are on their own, and they can’t be blamed if they feel deceived by PLA containers stamped “compostable.” Brinton, who has done extensive testing of PLA,says such containers are “unchanged” after six months in a home composting operation. For that reason, he considers the Wild Oats stamp, and their in-store signage touting PLA’s compostability, to be false advertising.[9]

Despite PLA’s potential as an environmentally friendly material, it seems clear that a great deal of corn packaging, probably the majority of it, will end up in landfills. And there’s no evidence it will break down there any faster or more thoroughly than PET or any other form of plastic. Glenn Johnston, manager of global regulatory affairs for NatureWorks, says that a PLA container dumped in a landfill will last “as long as a PET bottle.” No one knows for sure how long that is, but estimates range from 100 to 1,000 years.

Environmentalists have other objections to PLA. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, questions the morality of turning a foodstuff into packaging when so many people in the world are hungry. “Already we’re converting 12 percent of the U.S. grain harvest to ethanol,” he says. The USDA projects that figure will rise to 23 percent by 2014. “How much corn do we want to convert to nonfood products?” In addition, most of the corn that NatureWorks uses to make PLA resin is genetically modified to resist pests, and some environmentalists oppose the use of such crops, claiming they will contaminate conventional crops or disrupt local ecosystems. Other critics point to the steep environmental toll of industrially grown corn. The cultivation of corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more herbicides and more insecticides than any other U.S. crop; those practices contribute to soil erosion and water pollution when nitrogen runs off fields into streams and rivers.

Eric Lombardi, president of the Grassroots Recycling Network and a leader in the international Zero Waste movement, takes a nuanced view of PLA’s progress. He says it’s “visionary” even to think about biologically based plastic instead of a petroleum-based one. True, he says, there are problems with PLA, “but let’s not kill the good in pursuit of the perfect.”

So in the end, what have we learned?

  • It produces no toxic compounds when burned, unlike many plastics.
  • Like conventional plastic, it’s not likely to break down in a landfill.
  • It produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Also like conventional plastic, it doesn’t break down quickly on land or in the ocean.
  • And finally, it only can be composted in commercial-grade composting plants, while failing to break down in a backyard compost pile.

Until the kinks are worked out on the disposal and reprocessing end, PLA may not be much better than the plain old plastic it’s designed to make obsolete.

 

[1]”Bioplastics Frequently Asked Questions.” European Bioplastics. June 2008. (Nov. 6, 2008)http://www.european-bioplastics.org/index.php?id=191

[2]https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm

[3] Royte, Elizabeth; Smithsonian Magazine, August 2006

[4] Wood, Shelby,  The Oregonian; posted October 27, 2008   https://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2008/10/pla_corn_plastic_problems.html

https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://3dprintingindustry.com; accessed on 9.28.18

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

 

 





Nichlos Kristof gets it!

24 04 2018

Nicholas Kristof had an editorial in the New York Times on February 25, 2018. This is a reproduction of his editorial:

 Our bodies are full of poisons from products we use every day. I know – I’ve had my urine tested for them. Surprised? So was I when I had my urine tested for these chemicals. (A urine or blood test is needed to confirm whether you have been exposed.)

Let me stress that mine should have been clean.

Almost a decade ago, I was shaken by my reporting! on a class of toxic chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are linked to cancer and obesity and also seemed to feminize males, so that male alligators developed stunted genitalia and male smallmouth bass produced eggs.

In humans, endocrine disruptors were linked to two-headed sperm and declining sperm counts. They also were blamed for an increase in undescended testicles and in a birth defect called hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis rather than the tip. Believe me, the scariest horror stories are found in urology journals. If you’re a man, you don’t wring your hands as you read; you clutch your crotch.

So I’ve tried for years now to limit my exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Following the advice of the President’s Cancer Panel, I eat organic to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors in pesticides. I try to store leftover meals in glass containers, not plastic. I avoid handling A.T.M. and gas station receipts. I try to avoid flame-retardant furniture.

Those are all common sources of toxic endocrine disruptors, so I figured that my urine would test pristine. Pure as a mountain creek.

                        Here are 12 chemicals found in everyday products:

Chemical Details Found in products like:
Antimicrobials Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones Colgate Total toothpaste, soap, deodorant
Benzophenones Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Sunscreen, lotions, lip balm
Bisphenols Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Protective lining for canned goods, hard plastic water bottles, thermal paper register receipts.
1,4-Dichlorobenzene Can affect thyroid hormones and my increase risk of cancer Mothballs, toilet deodorizers
Parabens Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Cosmetics, personal care products like shampoos, hair gels, lotions
Phthalates Can disrupt male reproductive development and fertility

 

Vinyl shower curtains, fast food, nail polish, perfume/cologne
Fragrance Chemicals Can exacerbate asthma symptoms and disrupt natural hormones. Perfume/cologne, cleaning products, dryer sheets, air fresheners
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) Can affect hormones, immune response in children, and may increase risk of cancer. Scotchgard and other stain-resistant treatments, fast-food wrappers.
Flame Retardants Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer Nail polish, foam cushioning in furniture, rigid foam insulation.

The Silent Spring Institute near Boston, which studies chemical safety, offers a “Detox Me Action Kit” to help consumers determine what harmful substances are in their bodies. Following instructions, I froze two urine samples (warning my wife and kids that day to be careful what food they grabbed from the freezer) and Fed-Exed them off for analysis.

By the way, the testing is for women, too. Men may wince as they read about miniaturized alligator penises, but endocrine disruptors have also been linked to breast cancer and gynecological cancers. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warns women that endocrine disruptors can also cause miscarriages, fetal defects and much more.[1]

As I waited for the lab results, I continued to follow the latest research. One researcher sent a bizarre video of a mouse exposed to a common endocrine disruptor doing back flips nonstop, as a kind of nervous tic.

Finally, I heard back from Silent Spring Institute. I figured this was a report card I had aced. I avoid all that harmful stuff. In my columns, I had advised readers how to avoid it.

Sure enough, I had a low level of BPA, best known because plastic bottles now often boast “BPA Free.” But even a diligent student like me failed the test. Badly. I had high levels of a BPA substitute called BPF. Ruthann Rudel, a toxicologist who is the head of research at Silent Spring, explained that companies were switching to BPF even though it may actually be yet more harmful (it takes longer for the body to break it down). BPF is similar to that substance that made those mice do back flips.

“These types of regrettable substitutions — when companies remove a chemical that has a widely known bad reputation and substitute a little-known bad actor in its place — are all too common,” Rudel told me. “Sometimes we environmental scientists think we are playing a big game of whack-a-mole with the chemical companies.”

Sigh. I thought I was being virtuous by avoiding plastics with BPA, but I may have been causing my body even more damage.

My urine had an average level of an endocrine disruptor called triclosan, possibly from soap or toothpaste. Like most people, I also had chlorinated phenols (perhaps from mothballs in my closet).

I had a high level of a flame retardant called triphenyl phosphate, possibly from a floor finish, which may be “neurotoxic.” Hmm. Whenever you see flaws in my columns, that’s just my neurotoxins at work.

                            My lab results: high levels of FOUR chemicals were found

CHEMICAL DETAILS
1,4- DICHLOROBENZENE Can affect thyroid hormones and may increase risk of cancer
ANTIMICROBIALS Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones
BISPHENOLS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
FLAME RETARDANTS Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer
BENZOPHENONES Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
PARABENS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen

Notes: Benzophenones and parabens were also found, but in lower levels than in most Americans. Tests for phthalates and fragrance chemicals were not included.

Will these endocrine disruptors give me cancer? Make me obese? Make my genitals fall off? Nobody really knows. At least I haven’t started doing random back flips yet.

The steps I took did help, and I recommend that others consult consumer guides such as at ewg.org to reduce their exposures to toxic chemicals. Likewise, if I had downloaded the Detox Me smartphone app, I would have known to get rid of those mothballs, along with air fresheners and scented candles. (Science lesson: A less fragrant house means cleaner pee.)

Yet my takeaway is also that chemical industry lobbyists have rigged the system so that we consumers just can’t protect ourselves adequately.

“You should not have to be a Ph.D toxicologist to be safe from so many of the chemicals in use,” Dr. Richard Jackson of U.C.L.A. told me. “So much of what we are exposed to is poorly tested and even less regulated.”

The Trump administration has magnified the problem by relaxing regulation of substances like chlorpyrifos, Dow Chemical’s nerve gas pesticide. The swamp has won.

So the saddest lesson is that even if you understand the peril and try to protect yourself and your family — as I strongly suggest you do — your body may still be tainted. The chemical companies spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying and have gotten the lightest regulation that money can buy.

They are running the show, and we consumers are their lab mice.

[1] “Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents”, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, University of California San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.





Politically motivated

3 01 2018

Happy 2018!  I wish you all the best in the coming year.

I have tried to keep politics out of our blog posts, but I couldn’t resist Nicholas Kristof recent op-ed piece in the New York Times of October 28, 2017.  It strikes a cord, since we founded Two Sisters Ecotextiles and O Ecotextiles to give people options for safe fabrics.  We shouldn’t have to worry about what fabrics are doing to you! But neither should we worry about what Kristof calls Dow Chemical Company’s Nerve Gas Pesticide.

By Nicholas Kristof 10.28.17:

A pesticide, which belongs to a class of chemicals developed as a nerve gas made by Nazi Germany, is now found in food, air and drinking water. Human and animal studies show that it damages the brain and reduces I.Q.s while causing tremors among children. It has also been linked to lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease in adults.  This chemical, chlorpyrifos,  is hard to pronounce, so let’s just call it Dow Chemical Company’s Nerve Gas Pesticide. Even if you haven’t heard of it, it may be inside you: One 2012 study[1] found that it was in the umbilical cord blood of 87 percent of newborn babies tested.

And now the Trump administration is embracing it, overturning a planned ban that had been in the works for many years.

The Environmental Protection Agency actually banned Dow’s Nerve Gas Pesticide for most indoor residential use 17 years ago — so it’s no longer found in the Raid you spray at cockroaches (it’s very effective, which is why it’s so widely used; then again, don’t suggest this to Dow, but sarin nerve gas might be even more effective!). The E.P.A. was preparing to ban it for agricultural and outdoor use this spring, but then the Trump administration rejected the ban on March 29, 2017.[2]

That was a triumph for Dow, but the decision stirred outrage among public health experts. They noted that Dow had donated $1 million for President Trump’s inauguration.

So Dow’s Nerve Gas Pesticide will still be used on golf courses, road medians and crops that end up on our plate. Kids are told to eat fruits and vegetables, but E.P.A. scientists found levels of this pesticide on such foods at up to 140 times the limits deemed safe.[3]

“This was a chemical developed to attack the nervous system,” notes Virginia Rauh, a Columbia professor who has conducted groundbreaking research on it. “It should not be a surprise that it’s not good for people.”

Remember the brain-damaging lead that was ignored in drinking water in Flint, Michigan? What’s happening under the Trump administration is a nationwide echo of what was permitted in Flint: Officials are turning a blind eye to the spread of a number of toxic substances, including those linked to cancer and brain damage.

“We are all Flint,” Professor Rauh says. “We will look back on it as something shameful.”

Here’s the big picture: The $800 billion chemical industry lavishes money on politicians and lobbies its way out of effective regulation. This has always been a problem, but now the Trump administration has gone so far as to choose chemical industry lobbyists to oversee environmental protections. The American Academy of Pediatrics protested the administration’s decision on the nerve gas pesticide, but officials sided with industry over doctors. The swamp won.

The chemical industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council, is today’s version of Big Tobacco. One vignette: Chemical companies secretly set up a now-defunct front organization called Citizens for Fire Safey that purported to be a coalition of firefighters, doctors and others alarmed about house fires. The group called for requiring flame retardant chemicals in couches, to save lives, of course. A photo was posted on the Facebook page of Citizens for Fire Safety. Despite its name, the organization represented chemical companies, not concerned members of the public.

In fact, this was an industry hoax, part of a grand strategy to increase sales of flame retardants — whose principal effect seems to be to cause cancer. The American Chemistry Council was caught lying about its involvement in this hoax.

Yet these days, Trump is handing over the keys of our regulatory apparatus to the council and its industry allies. An excellent New York Times article by Eric Lipton (click here) noted that to oversee toxic chemicals, Trump appointed a council veteran along with toxicologist with a history of taking council money to defend carcinogens. In effect, Trump appointed two foxes to be Special Assistant for Guarding the Henhouse.

Some day we will look back and wonder: What were we thinking?! I’ve written about the evidence that toxic chemicals are lowering men’s sperm counts[4], and new research suggests by extrapolation that by 2060[5], a majority of American and European men could even be infertile. These days we spew fewer toxins into our air and rivers, and instead we dump poisons directly into our own bodies.

A Dow spokeswoman, Rachelle Schikorra, told me that “Dow stands by the safety of chlorpyrifos”.   Given Dow’s confidence, I suggest that the company spray it daily in its executive dining rooms.

Look, it’s easy to get diverted by the daily White House fireworks. But long after the quotidian craziness is forgotten, Americans will be caring for victims of the chemical industry’s takeover of safety regulation.

Democrats sometimes gloat that Trump hasn’t managed to pass significant legislation so far, which is true. But he has been tragically effective at dismantling environmental and health regulations — so that Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.

[1] Huen, et al; “Organophosphate pesticide levels in blood and urine of women and newborns living in an agricultural community”, Environ Res., 2012 Aug; 117-8-16.

[2] Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, said the agency needed to study the science more, and the matter will not likely be revisited until 2022.

[3] According to EarthJustice, there is no safe level of chlorpyrifos in drinking water; pesticide drift reaches unsafe levels at 300 feet from the field’s edge; chlorpyrifos is found at unsafe levels in the air at schools, homes and communities in agricultural areas.

[4] Kristof, Nicholas, “Are Your Sperm in Trouble?, New York Times, March 11, 2017

[5] Sifferlin, Alexandra; “Men’s Sperm Counts are Down Worldwide: Study”, Time, 7.25.17





Tips on how to avoid chemicals

25 10 2017

We are always being asked about how to avoid chemicals which can harm you, so we thought it would be good to put together a list of how to go about it. Considering all the potential sources of toxic chemicals, it’s virtually impossible to avoid all of them. However, you CAN limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.

  • Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh, and ideally organic whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it’s not organically grown.
  • Choose grass-pastured, sustainably raised meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers. Avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
  • Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity, such as wild caught Alaskan salmon.
  • Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings), into the contents; be aware that even “BPA-free” plastics typically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad for you as BPA.
  • Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
  • Use glass baby bottles.
  • Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
  • Filter your tap water for both drinking AND bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants. To remove the endocrine disrupting herbicide Atrazine, make sure your filter is certified to remove it. According to the EWG, perchlorate can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.
  • Look for products made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic, and GMO-free. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses, and others.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame retardant chemicals.
  • When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, consider buying flame retardant free varieties, containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk, and Kevlar.
  • Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
  • Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It’s advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.
  • Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
  • Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. EWG’s Skin Deep (click here) database can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
  • Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or glass doors.
  • Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
  • Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners  and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.

 

 





Microplastics found in tap water

21 09 2017

The Guardian, in early September 2017, released a report that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world. What this means for the seven billion people on earth, no one yet knows. All the experts can agree on is that, given the warning signs being given by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media .[1] Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the as it was also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the United States for Orb.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

Why should you care? Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. If fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well – baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces whether from the kitchen or the grocery. It gets worse. Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale. Studies show that particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of  microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood. But the wholesale pollution of the land was hidden. Tap water is gathered from hills, rivers, lakes and wells, sampling the environment as it goes. It turns out that tiny fibres of plastic are everywhere.

Orb Media

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Plastics often contain a wide range of chemicals to change their properties or color and many are toxic or are hormone disruptors. Plastics can attract other pollutants too, including dioxins, metals and some pesticides. Microplastics have also been shown to attract microbial pathogens. Research on wild animals shows conditions in animal guts are also known to enhance the release of pollutants from plastics. “Further,” as the review puts is, “there is evidence that particles may even cross the gut wall and be translocated to other body tissues, with unknown consequences”. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photograph: Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media

Does any of this affect people? The only land animals in which the consumption of microplastic has been closely studied are two species of earthworm and a nematode.[2]

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibers in all of 24 beer brands tested[3] , as well as in honey and sugar .[4] A study revealed a rain of microplastics falling on Paris from the air, dumping between 3 and 10 tons a year on the city.[5] The same team found microplastics in an apartment and hotel room. “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” said Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil, who did the Paris studies. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”

This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.[6]

Another huge unanswered question is how microplastics get into our water and food. A report from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management[7] says the biggest proportion are fibers shed by synthetic textiles and tire dust from roads, with more from the breakdown of waste plastics. It suggests the plastic being dumped on land in Europe alone each year is between four and 23 times the amount dumped into all the world’s oceans.

A lot of the microplastic debris is washed into wastewater treatment plants, where the filtering process does capture many of the plastic fragments. But about half the resulting sludge is ploughed back on to farmland across Europe and the US, according to recent research published in the Journal Environmental Science & Technology[8]. That study estimates that up to 430,000 tons of microplastics could be being added to European fields each year, and 300,000 tons in North America. “It is striking that transfers of microplastics – and the hazardous substances bound to them – from urban wastewater to farmland has not previously been considered by scientists and regulators,” the scientists concluded. “This calls for urgent investigation if we are to safeguard food production,” they say in a related publication.

Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

A magnified image of clothing microfibres from washing machine effluent. One study found that a fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per wash. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were contaminated. “This research only scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one,” said Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf,  which collected samples for Orb.

Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so.

But above all we need to know if we are all drinking, eating and breathing microplastic every day and what that is doing to us, and we need to know urgently.

[1] https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

[2] Carrington, Damian, “We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/we-are-living-on-a-plastic-planet-what-does-it-mean-for-our-health

[3] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol 31, 2014, Issue 9

[4] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol. 30, 2013, Issue 12

[5] Dris, Rachid, et al., “Microplastic contamination in an urban area: case of greater Paris”, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2015, https://hal-enpc.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01150549v1

[6] Carrington, Damian, “People may be breathing in microplastics, health expert warns”, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/09/people-may-be-breathing-in-microplastics-health-expert-warns

[7] http://www.ciwem.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Addicted-to-plastic-microplastic-pollution-and-prevention.pdf

[8] Nizzetto, Luca; Futter, Martyn and Langaas, Sindre; “Are agricultural soils dumps for microplastics of urban origin?”; Journal of Envornmental Science & Technology, Sept. 29, 2016, 50 (20), pp 10777-10779





Not Michael Pollan’s Food Rules

26 07 2017

One of the presenters at the 2011 Living Building Challenge (whose name I’ve been trying to find, but cannot – so apologies to the presenter who remains unnamed), inspired by writer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, shared a list of ways to choose products that remove the worst of the chemical contamination that plagues many products. These rules apply to all products, including fabrics:

  • If it is cheap, it probably has hidden costs.
  • If it starts as a toxic input (like ethylene glycol in the manufacture of polyester), you probably don’t want it in your house or office.
  • Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
  • Use carbohydrate-based materials (i.e., natural fibers) when you can.
  • Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.
  • Pay more, use less.
  • Consult your nose – if it stinks, don’t use it.
  • If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it. (Note: this is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or are there any finishes on the fabric?)
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not (like polyester mimicking linen).
  • Question materials that make health claims.
  • Regard space-age materials with skepticism.