How we’re protected from chemical exposures.

4 03 2014

I always thought I wouldn’t have to worry about some things – like, oh,  incoming missiles,  terrorist plots, and chemicals which could destroy me – because I thought my government would have something in place to protect me.  But the recent chemical spill in West Virginia changed that: for those of you who don’t know, that was a spill of  about 10,000 gallons of what is called a “coal cleaner”  into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people.

When I first began looking into the chemicals used in fabrics, and finding out that the soft, luscious fabrics we surround ourselves with every day are filled with chemicals that can cause me grievous harm, I was stopped in my tracks when someone suggested that the government wouldn’t let those chemicals in products sold in the USA – so how could fabrics contain those chemicals?   I didn’t have an answer for that, because at the time I too thought  that “of course the government must have laws in place to make sure we aren’t exposed to dangerous chemicals”!

The current regulation of chemicals in the US dates back to 1976 and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which regulates the introduction of new or already existing chemicals.

But before talking about the TSCA, let’s first take a quick look at what’s changed since 1976,  because our understanding of the extent and pathways of chemical exposures has fundamentally changed since then.

We now know that the old belief that “the dose makes the poison” (i.e.,  the higher the dose, the greater the effect)  is simply wrong.  Studies are finding that even tiny quantities of chemicals – in the parts-per-trillion range – can have significant impacts on our health.  We’re also finding that mixtures of chemicals, each below their “no observed effect level”, may have greater environmental impacts than the chemicals alone.   In other words, toxins can make each other more toxic:   a dose of mercury that would kill 1 out of 100 rats, when combined with a dose of lead that would kill 1 out of 1000 rats – kills every rat exposed.

We also now know that timing and order of exposure is critical –  exposures can happen one after the other, or all at once.  The possible combinations of exposures is huge and knowledge is limited about the effects of mixed exposures.  During gestation and through early childhood  the body is rapidly growing  under a carefully orchestrated process that is dependent on a series of events.  When one of those events is interrupted, the next event is disrupted – and so on –  until permanent and irreversible changes result. These results could be very subtle — like an alteration in how the brain develops which impacts, for example, learning ability.  Or it could result in other impacts like modifying the development of an organ predisposing it to cancer later in life.

Add to that the concept of individual susceptibility.  For instance a large part of the population is unable to effectively excrete heavy metals, so their body burden accumulates faster, and their illnesses are more obvious.  They are the “canaries in the coal mine” in an environment that’s becoming increasingly more toxic.

We’re finding that chemicals migrate from products into the environment (and remember, we are part of the environment).

And this is where it gets really interesting:

Each of us starts life with a particular set of genes, 20,000 to 25,000 of them. Now scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence that pollutants and chemicals might be altering those genes—not by mutating or killing them, but by sending subtle signals that silence them or switch them on at the wrong times.  This can set the stage for diseases which can be passed down for generations.  This study of heritable changes in gene expression – the chemical reactions that switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations –  is called “epigenetics”.

They’re finding that exposure to chemicals is capable of altering genetic expression, not only in your children, but in your children’s children – and their children too.  Researchers at Washington State University found that when pregnant rats were exposed to permethrin, DEET or any of a number of industrial chemicals, the mother rats’ great grand-daughters had higher risk of early puberty and malfunctioning ovaries — even though those subsequent generations had not been exposed to the chemical.[1]  Another recent study has shown that men who started smoking before  puberty caused their sons to have significantly higher rates of obesity. And  obesity is just the tip of the iceberg—many researchers believe that epigenetics  holds the key to understanding cancer, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and  diabetes. Other studies are being published which corroborate these findings.[2]

With the advent of biomonitoring, and a growing recognition of the importance of early life exposures, low dose effects and epigenetics, the science linking environmental exposures to biological effects (i.e., disease) is becoming overwhelming.

And here’s why the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is not doing the job of protecting us:

  • We assume the TSCA is testing and regulating chemicals used in industry. It is not:
    • Of the more than 60,000 chemicals  in use prior to 1976, most were “grandfathered in”; only 200 were tested for safety and only 5 were restricted.  Today over 80,000 chemicals are routinely used in industry, and the number which have been tested for safety has not materially changed since 1976.  So we cannot know the risks of exposing ourselves to certain chemicals.  The default position is that no information about a chemical = no action.
    • For those of you who don’t know, the spill in West Virginia was of “crude MCHM”, or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, one of the chemicals that was grandfathered in to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.   That means that nobody knows for sure what that chemical can do to us.
      • Carcinogenic effects? No information available.
      • Mutagenic effects? No information available.
      • Developmental toxicity? No information available.     Lack of information is the reason the local and federal authorities were so unsure of how to advise the local population about their drinking  water supplies.  (And by the way, in January, 2014,  a federal lawsuit was filed in Charleston, WV, which claims that the manufacturer of MCHM hid “highly toxic and carcinogenic properties” of components of MCHM, hexane and methanol, both of which have been tested and found to cause diseases such as cancer.)
  • We assume that the TSCA requires manufacturers to demonstrate their chemicals are safe before they go into use.  It does not:
    • The law says the government has to prove actual harm caused by the chemical in question before any controls can be put in place.  The catch-22 is that chemical companies don’t have to develop toxicity data or submit it to the EPA for an existing product unless the agency find out that it will pose a risk to humans or the environment – which is difficult to do if there is no data in the first place.  Lack of evidence of harm is taken as evidence of no harm.
  • We assume that manufacturers must list all ingredients in a product, so if we have an allergy or reaction to certain chemicals we can check to see if the product is free of those chemicals.  It does not:
    • TSCA allows chemical manufacturers to keep ingredients in some products secret.   Nearly 20% of the 80,000 chemicals in use today are considered “trade secrets”.  This makes it impossible for consumers to find out what’s actually in a product.  And there is no time limit on the period in which a chemical can be considered a trade secret.

These limitations all help to perpetuate the chemical industry’s failure to innovate toward safer chemical and product design.  It’s one of the reasons the USA is one of the few nations in the world in which asbestos is not banned in many products.

In 2013, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) was introduced, however it does not deliver the critical fixes needed to fix the TSCA, although it is an improvement to the TSCA.  The Natural Resources Defense Council suggests some steps that we must take to reform the TSCA, and these apply to the CSIA also:

  • Require new and existing chemicals be assessed for safety – with mandatory and enforceable deadlines.  “Innocent until proven guilty” should not apply to chemicals.
  • Establish safety standards, especially with regard to children and other vulnerable groups.
  • Give the EPA the authority to protect the public from unsafe chemicals, including expedited action for those deemed the most toxic.
  • “Grandfathering in” spells trouble for the future.
  • Ensure the public’s right to know about the safety and use of chemicals.
  • Allow states to maintain laws which exceed federal protections to safeguard their citizens.
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You are what you wear.

13 06 2013

In Memoriam: U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D – NJ).

Sen. Lautenberg fought valiantly to reform the weak laws protecting consumers in the US from chemical incursions in their lives. He introduced the “Safe Chemicals Act of 2010”, which was defeated, but followed up with the “Chemical Safety Improvement Act” which has been endorsed by the New York Times, the Washington Post and has bipartisan support at this time. It caps eight years of work by Senator Lautenberg to fix the nation’s broken chemical law (the TSCA) which has been proven ineffective and is criticized by both the public health community and industry. Thank you Senator Lautenberg.
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You are what you wear.

I don’t mean like in “the clothes make the man” kind of way, but in the “our bodies absorb chemicals found in our environment” kind of way.

The new science of biomonitoring has enabled scientists to take the guesswork out of the effects of toxic exposure in blood, urine, breast milk, semen and all the other parts of us where chemicals tend not to flush out. It has brought home the truth in the saying that we are what we wear – or eat, sit on, breathe, rub up against or drink. The “environment” is not “out there” as David Suzuki reminds us: We are the environment and it is us.

Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested Americans every two years in order to build a database of what are called “body burdens,”(1) in order to help toxicologists set new standards for exposure and definitively link chemicals to illness, or else decouple them. The study attempts to assess exposure to environmental chemicals in the general U.S. population – and the more chemicals they look for, the more they find: The CDC started with 27 worrisome chemicals in 1999 and now tests for 219. Their findings have shown that no matter whether you’re rich or poor; live in the center of a city or a pristine rural community; east coast, west coast or in between; are elderly or newborn; Republican, Democrat or Socialist – you have BPA in your blood, as well as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDE)s – which can retard a fetus’s neurological development; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – which impairs normal development; perchlorate – which can keep the thyroid from making necessary hormones and methyl tert-butyl ethers (now banned in most states) and mercury.

And the correlation between chemicals to illness seems to be on the rise(2) – certainly from studies done linking various chemicals to human disease and illness, but also because the spectrum of both “rare” and “common” illnesses is on the rise. The National Institutes of Health defines a rare disease as one affecting 200,000 or fewer Americans. Yet 25 – 30 million Americans suffer from one of the nearly 6,800 identifiable rare diseases. That compares to the 40 million Americans with one of the three “major” diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Specifically with regard to fabrics: over 2,000 chemicals are used in textile processing, and these include some of the most toxic known (lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, PBDE, PFOA). There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all.

What they’re finding is that this chemical onslaught seems to be changing us. Using a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can now examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could only study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This means that we are beginning to understand how even small doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development.

In a talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics (the study of how genes respond to toxins) the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things,” that is, the huge doses that led to “death or low birth weight.”(3) Scientists are developing new ideas about how chemicals can, in effect, re-program animals and humans to be more susceptible to certain diseases—and to pass that susceptibility on to their offspring. This theory is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease” (DOHad) , and is now an emerging field.

So why not seek products – fabrics, soaps, cosmetics, perfumes, deodorants, food – that don’t contain chemicals that harm you – or your children or grandchildren?
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(1) What is a “body burden”: Starting before birth, children are exposed to chemicals that impair normal growth and development. Exposures continue throughout our lives and accumulate in our bodies. These chemicals can interact within the body and cause illness. And they get passed on from parent to child for generations.
(2) World Health Organization; http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/index.html
(3) Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 28, 2011