How to avoid toxins in fabrics – and other products

6 12 2013

In response to a post a few weeks back, Susan Lanham wrote to us:  “I initially signed on to get this blog because I thought you would give practical ways to avoid these carcinogens. However, they are so pervasive, and there doesn’t seem to be any practical way to avoid them, so that reading your blog just makes me feel helpless and hopeless. More and more I just delete without reading: it’s like diagnosing a disease early when there is nothing to be done for it.”

Yikes.  We certainly didn’t want to turn people off in despair!  There is much you can do armed with a bit of knowledge.

We have always thought that information is the great motivator – that if people knew what they were buying, then they would demand changes in those products.  Remember that each time you purchase something,  you’re ensuring that the product you bought will keep being produced, in the same  way.  If you support new ideas, find that creative way to use something or insist that what you buy meets certain parameters, then new research will be done to meet consumer demand and new processes will be developed that don’t leave a legacy of destruction.

At least in theory, right?

The reality is that change takes a long time, and we’re living in a toxic soup now – so what can we do to protect ourselves right now?

And after all, just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.  So here’s my list of things you can do to begin to protect yourself from toxins in fabrics:

  1. Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can  – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now.   If you can’t find GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics, try to use 100% organic natural fibers.  Certifications are a shorthand which allows us to accept that the certified products are safe, but if you want to get granular, you can find out what they’re certifying (i.e., what the certifications are telling you).  Be sure to differentiate between, for example, a GOTS certified fiber and a GOTS certified fabric.  Big difference:  A product which uses GOTS certified fibers only may have been processed conventionally, which means it could be full of chemicals of concern.
  2. If it’s cheap, it probably has hidden costs, like your health or our ecosystem.  It’s expensive to go against the flow, and natural fibers cost way more than synthetics, even though the price of crude is going up.  So pay more, use less.
  3. Never buy anything made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or acrylic (which can be used as finishes or backings as well as fibers) and generally avoid other synthetics (such as polyester).  They ALL start with toxic inputs (like ethylene glycol), but the profiles of both PVC and acrylic makes polyester look benign by comparison.  In that same vein, avoid fabrics that are pretending to be something they’re not – polyester can be made to look like practically anything (one of the things we love about it), but it won’t have the characteristics of the natural fibers that make them such good choices for us.
  4. If you must use synthetic fibers, the best choice would be GRS Gold level recycled polyester.  This new certification means that the recycled content really is  95-100%, with the added assurance that chemicals used in the manufacture abide by the GOTS standards (eliminating endocrine disrupting chemicals, heavy metals, and a long list of other chemicals of concern); water is treated and workers are given minimal rights.
  5. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. The wrinkle free finishes are formaldehyde resins, and there simply are no safe stain protection treatments.
  6. Fly less.  (I never said these would be easy, but it’s good to know, right?)  In this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible.  Same is true of fabrics on cruise ships.
  7. Trust your nose.  If a fabric stinks, what does that tell you about it?
  8. Ask questions!  If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it.
  9. Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.  And share what you’ve learned.  This is an evolving industry, and we’re all looking for answers. But I know you’re just ONE person – and the problems do seem overwhelming.  Can just ONE person change the world? Margaret Meade said that committed people, banding together, is the only thing that ever has.
  10. Be aware of greenwashing.  This doesn’t mean waiting for the perfect product but it does mean honesty in letting you (the consumer) know exactly what is in the fabric.  If you see a green claim, Google the company name + environment and see what pops up.  If it’s a big company, do they spend a significant portion of their R&D budget on green initiatives?  What percent of their product offerings are “green” vs. “conventional”?

That does it for fabrics, but here are a few more things you can do to protect yourself :

  • Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.
  • Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals – wafted there from the other products in our homes.
  • Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the United States – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times.
  • Avoid polyurethane (i.e., poly foam, found in cushions and many other products) if you’re in the market for a new sofa or mattress, look for 100% natural – and certified – latex.
  • Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.
  • About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.
  • As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.
  • Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.
  • And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

I know that even that is a daunting list – it’s really hard to avoid some products and growing an organic garden just isn’t in the cards for some of us.  But if you do even some of these things your health – and ours! – will benefit.  Not to mention all the living things on Earth which depend on our good stewardship of this planet.





APEOs and NPEOs in textiles

24 01 2013

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs – often called alkyphenols or alkylphenyls) are surfactants which have an emulsifying and dispersing action, so they have good wetting, penetration, emulsification, dispertion, solubilizing and washing characteristics. This makes them suitable for a very large variety of applications: they’ve been used for over 50 years in a wide variety of products. In the textile industry, they are used in detergents and as a scouring, coating or waterproofing agents, in printing pastes and adhesives, and in dyeing. The most important APEO or alkylphenol ethoxylates for the textile industry are NPEO (nonylphenol ethoxylates) and OPEO (octylphenol ethoxylates) due to their detergent properties, but there are a big family. About 90% of the produced APEO are in fact NPEO.

The three critical issues in making APEOs and NPEOs in the environment of particular concern are:

  1. They are everywhere. They’re in receipts, canned foods and couches, paint and spot cleaners. They’re in the dust in our homes, our blood and urine, in breast milk and in the cord blood of newborns. Concentrations of NP and its parent compound NPEO have been measured worldwide in surface waters, sediments, sewage, the atmosphere, aquatic organisms, and even in typical human food products. And most disturbingly, these concentrations of APEOs are on the rise.(1) The U.S. EPA has noted rising levels of alkylphenols in water samples taken from streams and rivers throughout the U.S.
  2. The life cycles indicate long term, continued environmental contamination. APEOs are slow to biodegrade and they tend to bioaccumulate. They also move up the food chain and ultimately to us. Though APEOs themselves are not carcinogenic, teratogenic or mutagenic, research has shown that when they do degrade, their byproducts have a higher toxicity, estrogenic activity, persistence and tendence to bioaccumulate than APEOs themselves.(2)
  3. They have been shown to be toxic to aquatic organisms and an endocrine disruptor in higher animals, and therefore they pose a risk to humans. As an environmental hormone disruptor, these new substances can invade the human body through a variety of channels, with estrogen-like effects, and are harmful to normal hormone secretion, leading to reduced sperm count in men. Research published in the September 2006 edition of Toxicological Sciences shows that the human placenta responds to alkylphenyls in the first trimester.(3) The result may be early termination of pregnancy and fetal growth defect.(4)

Think of using fish to replace the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Because most mills do not treat their wastewater, the effluent containing these APEOs is discharged directly into our groundwater, where it is a major source of hormone disruption in fish species. The classic example is intersex attributes in fish (suppression of testes growth in males), with other reproductive effects and anomalies; in one study, egg production of zebrafish, exposed to wastewater effluent contaminated with APEOs, was reduced by up to 89.6% (5) ; other studies found a reduced percentage of fertilized eggs, reduced embroyo survival, and abmormal embroys (6) . These results and other studies indicate that the reproductive potential of native fishes may be compromised in wastewater-dominated streams due to the presence of alkylphenyls (7). Other studies have determined that fish, when exposed to these environmental estrogens, cannot regulate their internal homeostasis (called osmoregulation, which is related to the ability of fish to prevent dehydration or waterlogging , and buffers them against the effect of fresh or sea water). These studies of APEOs in US rivers have led scientists to conclude that fish are currently being impacted – they’re our canaries.

  1. Researchers at UC Davis  found that offspring of  fish in San Francisco estuary had underdeveloped brains, inadequate energy supplies and dysfunctional livers. They grew slower and were smaller than offspring of hatchery fish raised in clean water.

    Researchers at UC Davis found that offspring of fish in San Francisco estuary had underdeveloped brains, inadequate energy supplies and dysfunctional livers. They grew slower and were smaller than offspring of hatchery fish raised in clean water.

Wastewater treatment facilities theoretically have the capabilities of effectively breaking down APEOs, but they are often not designed to remove them from the effluent. Most often sewer sludge contains these APEOs.

In the U.S., these chemicals are basically unregulated, nor is there any restriction on their use. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has focused research efforts on determining acceptable levels of these compounds in water and identified NPEs as well as the chemical nonylphenol (NP) for further study because of concern about their impact on the environment and us. Why has nothing been done? Because as you might imagine, this is big business, and the chemical lobby has not only impeded regulation but has even tried to block research.(8) The lack of action on the part of environmental regulators in the United States stems largely in part from the research conducted by the Alkylphenol and Ethoxylate Research Council formed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association to conduct studies on APEO (APE Research Council, 2001). To date this panel has disputed all claims that NP concentrations in waterways of the United States are above concentrations where a significant effect would be realized. The Alkylphenol and Ethoxylate Research Council also contests the estrogenic potential of NP (APE Research Council, 2001) (9).

In Europe, the use of NPEO has been banned or voluntarily restricted since 1986. Since 1998, the use of APEO in detergents has been forbidden in Germany – and since January 2005 the EU directive 2003/53/ EG has forbidden the use of NPEO in higher concentrations than 0.1% in product formulations. However it will take years before there is progress in phasing out APEOs completely, as was done by Norway in 2002.(10)

Although forbidden in the EU, many companies have production sites or suppliers outside Europe, where the use of NPEO is not forbidden. Textile eco-labels such as the EU flower and Öko-Tex 1000 have also forbidden the use of APEOs.

But voluntary certifications and the prohibition in some countries is not enough to stem the tide, as Greenpeace found recently. Their Detox Campaign was designed to expose the links between clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution around the world. The Greenpeace studies found that these NPEs aren’t just expelled into wastewater – they also remain in the finished textile. The chemicals found in the finished clothing of top name brands (Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret, among others) included nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Concentrations of NPEOs were found in 89 garments (just under two thirds of those tested) at levels ranging from just above 1 part per million up to 45000 parts per million in the top name brand items tested (Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Victoria’s Secret, H&M, Gap among others) (11); over 20% of the items tested had more than 100 parts per million.

To see the PBS series on Frontline entitled “Poisoned Waters”, click here.

[1] Zoller, Uri, “Endocrine disrupting APEOs in Isreal/Palestinian water resrouces: What should it take to prevent future pollution?”, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228493491_ENDOCRINE_DISRUPTING_APEOs_IN_ISRAELIPALESTINIAN_WATER_RESOURCES_WHAT_SHOULD_IT_TAKE_TO_PREVENT_FUTURE_POLLUTION
[2] Wessels, Denise, “Policy Brief: Endocrine Disrupters in Wastewater Alkylphenol Ethoxylates and the City of Indianapolis Combined Sewer System”,
[3] Bechi, N., Estrogen-Like Response to p-Nonylphenol in Human First Trimester Placenta and BeWo Choriocarcinorna Cells, Toxicological Sciences, 93(1), 75-8 1 (September, 2006).http:lltoxsci.oxford~ournals.org/cgi/content~full/93/1l75.
[4] Potential adverse effects of NP and NPEs on human health is also discussed in Vazquez-Duhalt, Nonylphenol, an integrated vision of a pollutant, Applied Ecology and Environmental Research 4(1): 1-25 ISSN1589 1623, http:lIwww.ecology.kee.hu~pdf/O401~001025.pdf. Widespread exposure of the U.S. population to NP has been demonstrated. Calafat, A., Kuklenyik Z., Reidy J., Cauhll S., Ekong J., Needham L. 2005. Urinary Concentrations of Bisphenol A and 4-Nonylphenol in a Human Reference Population. Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 113, p. 391. NP at high doses has been llnked to breast cancer in mice. BBC News. 2005. Chemical Link to Breast Cancer.http:llnews.bbc.co.uW1/hl/healthl676129.strnin 612005.
[5] Tyler, C.R. and Routledge, E.J., “Oestrogenic effects in fish in English rivers with evidence of their causation”, Dept. of Biology and Biochemistry, Brunel University, UK, Pure and Applied Chemistry, Vol 70, No. 9 pp. 1796-1804, 1998.
[6] Dickey, Philip, “Troubling Bubbles: Alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants”, Washington Toxics Coalition
[7] “Response to comments submitted by the Alkylphenols and ethoxylates research council”, by Victoria Whitney, Deputy Director, Division of Water Quality, State Water Resources Control Board, Sacramento, California, June 20, 2011 ALSO SEE: Tyler, C.R. and Routledge, E.J., “Oestrogenic effects in fish in English rivers with evidence of their causation”, Dept. of Biology and Biochemistry, Brunel University, UK, Pure and Applied Chemistry, Vol 70, No. 9 pp. 1796-1804, 1998.
(8) Kristof, Nicholas, “Warnings from a Flabby Mouse”, New York Times, January 19, 2013.
[9] Porter, A. and Hayden, N., “Nonylphenol in the Environment: A Critical Review”, Dept of Civil and Encironmental Engineering, University of Vermont.
[10] Norris, David and Carr, James, “Endocrine Disruption: Biological Bases for Health Effects in Wildlife and Humans”, Oxford University Press, 2006
[11] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Toxics-reports/Big-Fashion-Stitch-Up/





Polyester and our health

13 10 2011

Polyester is a very popular fabric choice – it is, in fact, the most popular of all the synthetics.  Because it can often have a synthetic feel, it is often blended with natural fibers, to get the benefit of natural fibers which breathe and feel good next to the skin, coupled with polyester’s durability, water repellence and wrinkle resistance.  Most sheets sold in the United States, for instance, are cotton/poly blends.

It is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of clothing and sportswear – not to mention diapers, sanitary pads, mattresses, upholstery, curtains  and carpet. If you look at labels, you might be surprised just how many products in your life are made from polyester fibers.

So what is this polyester that we live intimately with each day?

At this point, I think it would be good to have a basic primer on polyester production, and I’ve unabashedly lifted a great discussion from Marc Pehkonen and Lori Taylor, writing in their website diaperpin.com:

Basic polymer chemistry isn’t too complicated, but for most people the manufacture of the plastics that surround us is a mystery, which no doubt suits the chemical producers very well. A working knowledge of the principles involved here will
make us more informed users.

Polyester is only one compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.

Polymers are made by chemically reacting a lot of little molecules together to make one long molecule, like a string of beads. The little molecules are called monomers and the long molecules are called polymers.

Like this:

O + O + O + . . . makes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Depending on which polymer is required, different monomers are chosen. Ethylene, the monomer for polyethylene, is obtained directly from the distillation of crude oil; other monomers have to be synthesized from more complex petroleum derivatives, and the path to these monomers can be several steps long. The path for polyester, which is made by reacting ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, is shown below. Key properties of the intermediate materials are also shown.

The polymers themselves are theoretically quite unreactive and therefore not particularly harmful, but this is most certainly not true of the monomers. Chemical companies usually make a big deal of how stable and unreactive the polymers are, but that’s not what we should be interested in. We need to ask, what about the monomers? How unreactive are they?

We need to ask these questions because a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. Because these monomers are so toxic, it takes very small quantities to be harmful to humans, so it is important to know about the monomers before you put the polymers next to your skin or in your home. Since your skin is usually moist,
any water-borne monomers will find an easy route into your body.

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals shown in the flowchart above. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden
that we would be better off without.

What does all of that mean in terms of our health?  Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:

  • The connection between plastic and breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 at Tufts Medical School in Boston by
    research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991)[1].
  • Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995).[2]
  • Commentary published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2010 suggested that PET might yield endocrine disruptors under conditions of common use and recommended research on this topic. [3]

These studies support claims that plastics are simply not good for us – prior to 1940, breast cancer was relatively rare; today it affects 1 in 11 women.  We’re not saying that plastics alone are responsible for this increase, but to think that they don’t contribute to it is, we think, willful denial.  After all, gravity existed before Newton’s father planted the apple tree and the world was just as round before Columbus was born.

Polyester fabric is soft, smooth, supple – yet still a plastic.  It contributes to our body burden in ways that we are just beginning to understand.  And because polyester is highly flammable, it is often treated with a flame retardant, increasing the toxic load.  So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load – and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.

Agin, this is a blog which is supposed to cover topics in textiles:   polyester is by far the most popular fabric in the United States.  Even if made of recycled yarns, the toxic monomers are still the building blocks of the fibers.  And no mention is ever made of the processing chemicals used to dye and finish the polyester fabrics, which as we know contain some of the chemicals which are most damaging to human health.

Why does a specifier make the decision to use polyester – or another synthetic –  when all the data points to this fiber as being detrimental to the health and well being of the occupants?  Why is there not a concerted cry for safe processing chemicals at the very least?


[2] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/zwa-reports-are-plastic-products-causing-breast-cancer-epidemic-76957597.html

[3]  Sax, Leonard, “Polyethylene Terephthalate may Yield Endocrine Disruptors”,
Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2010, 118 (4): 445-448





What are endocrine disruptors?

13 04 2011

Many chemicals used in textile processing – and elsewhere in consumer products – have been identified as “endocrine disruptors”.  I never paid too much attention to “endocrine disruptors” because it didn’t sound too dire to me – I preferred to stick to something like “carcinogens” because I knew those caused cancer.   I knew that endocrine disruptors had something to do with hormones, but I didn’t think that interfering with acne or my teenager’s surliness was much of a concern.  Boy was I wrong.

What is an “endocrine disruptor”?

The Environmental Protection Agency defines an endocrine disruptor as an external agent that interferes in some way with the role of natural hormones in the body.  (Hmm.  Still doesn’t sound too bad.)

The endocrine system includes the glands (e.g., thyroid, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, or testes) and their secretions (i.e., hormones), that are released directly into the body’s circulatory system. The endocrine system controls blood sugar levels, blood pressure, metabolic rates, growth, development, aging, and reproduction.  “Endocrine disruptor” is a much broader concept than the terms reproductive toxin, carcinogen, neurotoxin, or teratogen. Scientists use one or more of these terms to describe the types of effects these chemicals have on us.

How do they work?  This is from The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC):

Humans and wildlife must regulate how their bodies function to remain healthy in an ever-changing environment. They do this through a complicated exchange between their nervous and endocrine systems. The endocrine systems in humans and wildlife are similar in that they are made up of internal glands that manufacture and secrete hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that move internally, start or stop various functions, and are important in determining sleep/wake cycles, stimulating or stopping growth, or regulating blood pressure. Some of the most familiar hormones in humans or wildlife are those that help determine male and female gender, as well as control the onset of puberty, maturation, and reproduction. An endocrine disruptor interferes with, or has adverse effects on, the production, distribution, or function of these same hormones. Clearly, interference with or damage of hormones could have major impacts on the health and reproductive system of humans and wildlife, although not all of the changes would necessarily be detrimental.

But why the fuss over endocrine disruptors and why now?  After all,  scientists had known for over fifty years that DDT can affect the testes and secondary sex characteristics of young roosters[1].

And for almost as long, it has been well known that daughters born to women who took the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, early in their pregnancies had a greatly increased risk of vaginal cancer. [2]

And it has been known for over 25 years that occupational exposures to pesticides could “diminish or destroy the fertility of workers.”[3]

It wasn’t until Theo Colborn, a rancher and mother of four who went back to school at age 51 to get her PhD in zoology, got a job at the Conservation Foundation and began to put the pieces together that the big picture emerged.  Theo’s job was to review other scientists’ data, and she noticed that biologists investigating the effects of presumably carcinogenic chemicals on predators in and around the Great Lakes were reporting odd phenomena:

  • Whole communities of minks were failing to reproduce;
  • startling numbers of herring gulls were being born dead, their eyes missing, their bills misshapen;
  • and the testicles of young male gulls were exhibiting female characteristics.

Colborn correlated this data with the presence in the water of organochlorine compounds such as PCBs, DDT, and dieldrin, some of which have hormone-mimicking effects and build up in fatty tissue. Often, the offspring of creatures exposed to chemicals were worse off than the animals themselves.  Colborn concluded that nearly all the symptoms could be traced to things going awry in the endocrine system.

In 1991, Colborn called together a conference, whose participants included biologists, endocrinologists and toxicologists as well as psychiatrists and lawyers, at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. They produced what become known as the “Wingspread Statement,” the core document of the endocrine-disruption hypothesis, in which these researchers concluded that observed increases in deformities, evidence of declining human fertility and alleged increases in rates of breast, testicular and prostate cancers, as well as endometriosis  are the result of “a large number of man-made chemicals that have been released into the environment”.[4]

Endocrine disruption—the mimicking or blocking or suppression of hormones by industrial or natural chemicals— appeared to be affecting adult reproductive systems and child development in ways that far surpassed cancer, the outcome most commonly looked for by researchers at the time. Potential problems included infertility, genital abnormalities, asthma, autoimmune dysfunction, even neurological disorders involving attention or cognition. In one early study that Colborn reviewed, for instance, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  commissioned psychologists to study children whose mothers ate fish out of the Great Lakes. The researchers found that the children “were born sooner, weighed less, and had smaller heads” than those whose mothers hadn’t eaten the fish. Moreover, the more  PCBs that were found in the mother’s cord blood, the worse the child did on tests for things such as short-term memory. By age eleven, the most highly exposed kids had an average IQ deficit of 6.2.[5]

The endocrine disruptor hypothesis first came to widespread congressional attention in 1996, with the publication of the book Our Stolen Future – by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers.[6]

In the years since the Wingspread conference, many of its fears and predictions have been fleshed out by new technologies that give a far more precise picture of the exquisite damage that toxins can wreak on the human body – and especially on developing fetuses, which are exquisitely sensitive to both the natural hormone signals used to guide its development, and the unexpected chemical signals that reach it from the environment”[7]

Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could 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 capability means that we are beginning to understand how even tiny doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development.

The endocrine disruption hypothesis has also unleashed a revolution in toxicity theory. The traditional belief that “the dose makes the poison” (the belief that as the dose increases, so does the effect; as the dose decreases, so does its impact)  has proven inadequate in explaining the complex workings of the endocrine system, which involves a myriad of chemical messengers and feedback loops.

Experimental data now  shows conclusively that some endocrine-disrupting contaminants can cause adverse effects at low levels that are different from those caused by high level exposures.  For example, when rats are exposed in the womb to 100 parts per billion of DES, they become scrawny as adults.  Yet exposure of just 1 part per billion causes grotesque obesity.[8] Old school toxicology has always assumed that high dose experiments can be used to predict low-dose results. With ‘dose makes the poison’ thinking, traditional toxicologists didn’t pursue the possibility that there might be effects at levels far beneath those used in standard experiments. No health standards incorporated the possibility.

Jerry Heindel, who heads a branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) that funds studies of endocrine disruptors, said that a fetus might respond to a chemical at “one hundred-fold less concentration or more, yet when you take that chemical away, the body is nonetheless altered for life”.  Infants may seem fine at birth, but might carry within them a trigger only revealed later in life, often in puberty, when endocrine systems go into hyperdrive. This increases the adolescent’s or adult’s chances of falling ill, getting fat, or becoming infertile – as is the case with DES, where exposure during fetal development doesn’t show up until maturity.

And not just the child’s life, but her children’s lives too.  “Inside the fetus are germ cells that are developing that are going to be the sperm and oocytes for the next generation, so you’re actually exposing the mother, the baby, and the baby’s kids, possibly,” says Heindel.[9]

So it’s also the timing that contributes to the poison.

According to Our Stolen Future, “the weight of the evidence says we have a problem. Human impacts beyond isolated cases are already demonstrable. They involve impairments to reproduction, alterations in behavior, diminishment of intellectual capacity, and erosion in the ability to resist disease. The simple truth is that the way we allow chemicals to be used in society today means we are performing a vast experiment, not in the lab, but in the real world, not just on wildlife but on people.”

Now that I know what “endocrine disruptor” means, I’m not dismissing them any more as mere irritants.


[1] Burlington, F. & V.F. Lindeman,  1950. “Effect of DDT on testes and secondary sex

characteristics of white leghorn cockerels”. Proc. Society for Experimental Biology

and Medicine 74: 48–51.

[2] Herbst, A., H. Ulfelder, and D. Poskanzer. “Adenocarcinoma of the vagina: Association of maternal stilbestrol therapy with tumor appearance in young women,” New England Journal of Medicine, v. 284, (1971) p. 878-881.

[3] Moline, J.M., A.L. Golden, N. Bar-Chama, et al. 2000. “Exposure to hazardous substances

and male reproductive health: a research framework”. Environ. Health Perspect.

108: 1–20.

[4] Shulevitz,Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story. New York: Penguin. (1996) 316 p.

[9] Shulevitz,Judith, op. cit.