Why our children are at risk

18 11 2013

We hear about deaths from cancer – and how the rates are going down  (1). And that’s fabulous – but the sad fact is that the incidence of cancer seems to be going up (2).   The reason is complicated – we’re getting older, true –  but we’re also getting better at fighting it:

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK

The number of new cancer cases have increased 0.6% every year since 1975 – overall, that’s an increase of 21% in the past 36 years (3) . What I find particularly disturbing is the rise in the reported incidence of cancer among young children and adolescents, especially brain cancer, testicular cancer, and acute lymphocytic leukemia. Sadly, after injuries and violence, cancer is the leading cause of death in our children (4).

National Academy of Sciences

National Academy of Sciences

At the risk of showing my bias, in case there are those among you who didn’t already know, I think part of the problem is because our environment contains many chemicals that are known to cause these cancers. But I’m not alone: the New York Times, in a recent editorial, urged the reform of the current law which purports to protect Americans from these chemicals (5), and the 2011 report of the President’s Cancer Panel has said that the “true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” (6)

Besides cosmetics, shampoos, detergents and building products, fabric processing uses a wide variety of synthetic chemicals, many of which remain in the fabrics. A short list of the many chemicals used in textile processing – many of which remain in the fabrics we live with – includes the following chemicals, which are all linked to cancer:

• Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer (and asthma), yet rates of formaldehyde in indoor air have grown from 14 ppb in 1980 to 200 ppb in 2010 – and these rates are increasing.
• Higher rates of chemicals called Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, used in the production of plastics – and therefore all synthetic fabrics – also are linked with higher rates of leukemia.
• Benzene, used in the production of nylon and other synthetics, in textile dyestuffs and in the pigment printing process – is linked to leukemia, breast cancer, lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers.
• Chromium Hexavalent compounds, used in leather tanning, and the manufacture of dyes and pigments, are linked to lung, nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers.
• Bisphenol A, used in the production of polyester and other synthetic fibers and as an intermediate in the production of dyestuffs, is an endocrine disruptor linked to breast and prostate cancer.

Children are at greater risk because they are exposed at a higher rate than adults, their behaviors exacerbate exposure and they have increased susceptibility to the chemicals:

GREATER EXPOSURE:
Pound for pound, children breathe twice as much air as an adult, drink two and a half times as much water, and eat three to four times more. Also – the typical newborn weighs 1/20th that of an adult male, but the infant’s surface area is just 1/8th as great. This means that the infant’s total skin area is 2.5 times more per unit of body weight than an adult (7).
Their breathing rates, at rest, are higher than those of adults, and greater levels of physical activity can increase their breathing rates even further. Their play is often at ground level, while adults breathe four to six feet above the floor. So children have greater inhalation and dermal exposure to chemicals present on floors, carpets, grass or dirt, where heavier chemicals such as lead and particulates settle.

BEHAVIOR:
Children put everything into their mouths when exploring their environment. This increases their ingestion of substances in soil, household dust, floors and carpets, as well as the objects themselves.

Some children will gleefully jump into a lake – even before they could swim! This lack of fear as they grow can further increase their exposure to environmental hazards.

INCREASED SUSCEPTIBILITY:
Childhood is characterized by rapid physical and mental growth. Accordingly, certain organs may not be fully developed and may be more vulnerable to injury. Children absorb, metabolize, and excrete compounds differently than adults.
• In some instances, children may be more susceptible than adults due to their increased rates of absorption or decreased rates of elimination of foreign compounds. In other cases, the opposite may be true. Children will absorb about 50 percent of lead ingested, whereas adults will absorb only about 10 to 15 percent(8). Kidneys are the principal pathway for elimination of most chemicals from the body. At birth an infant’s kidney’s filtration rate is a fraction of adult values; by age one the rate is at adult levels. (9)
• Longer lifetimes: many diseases initiated by chemical hazards take decades to develop, so early exposure to toxicants may be more likely to lead to disease than the same exposures experienced later in life.

The fetus is particularly sensitive to environmental toxicants (10). Chemicals can affect the children born to women exposed during pregnancy, while the women remain unaffected. For example, the children of women from Michigan who ate two to three meals of fish contaminated with PCBs per month for six years before pregnancy had lower birth weights, memory deficits at seven months and four years of age, and cognitive deficits persisted at eleven years of age (11). In Iraq, children born to women who during pregnancy inadvertently ate seed grain treated with mercury to prevent fungus had severe developmental and mental deficits  (12).

(1) Jemal A, Siegel R, Ward E, Hao Y, Xu J, Thun MJ. Cancer statistics, 2009. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2009;59(4):225–249.
(2) Data from cancer tracking suggest that childhood cancer is increasing, although the data is not consistent from year to year; the National Cancer Institute reported that for infants less than one year old, the rate of cancer rose by 36% from 1976-84, but some say that these increases are due to improved detection rather than representing true increases in cancer.
(3) Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine (http://www.pbs.org/odyssey/odyssey/toxics_brain_cancer.pdf)
(4) Ibid.
(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/a-toothless-law-on-toxic-chemicals.html?emc=eta1&_r=0
(6) http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/presidents-cancer-panel/
(7) Our Children at Risk, The Natural Resrouces Defense Council, http://www.nrdc.org/health/kids/ocar/chap2.asp
(8) Royce, S. and H. Needleman, Case Studies in Environmental Medicine: Lead Toxicity, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1995.
(9) Bearer, C., “How Are Children Different from Adults?” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 103, supp. 6, September 1995, pp. 7-12.
(10) Birnbaum, L.S., “Endocrine Effects of Prenatal Exposures to PCBs, Dioxins, and Other Xenobiotics: Implications for Policy and Future Research,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 102, no. 8, 1994, pp.676-679. Y.L. Guo et al., “Growth Abnormalities in the Population Exposed in Utero and Early Postnatally to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Dibenzrofurans,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 105, suppl. 6, September 1995, pp.117-122.
(11) Jacobson, J.L. et al., “The Transfer of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) across the Human Placenta and into Maternal Milk,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 74, 1984, pp.378-9. J. Jacobson et al., “Effects of In Utero Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Related Contaminants on Cognitive Functioning in Young Children,” Pediatrics, vol. 116, 1990, pp.38-45. S.W. Jacobson et al., “The Effect of Intrauterine PCB Exposure on Visual Recognition Memory,” Child Dev, vol. 56,1985, pp.853-60. J.L. Jacobson et al., “Effects of Exposure to PCBs and Related Compounds on Growth and Activity in Children,” Neurotoxicol. Teratol., vol.12, 1990, pp. 319-26.
(12) Gilbert, S. G. and K. Grant-Webster, “Neurobehavioral Effects of Developmental Methyl-Mercury Exposure,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 103, supp. 6, September 1995, pp. 135-142.

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Fire retardants: the new asbestos

9 05 2013

My toxic couch:

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the “new asbestos”. These chemicals (halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are commonly known as PBDE’s. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune, responding to the series published by that paper about flame retardants called “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the series), said the use of flame retardants is a public health debacle.

According to “Playing with Fire”, the average American baby is born with “10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded level of flame retardants among infants in the world.” Many of these chemicals accumulate within the blood, fat, and even breast milk, causing a number of unknown health risks. One common ingredient in flame retardants, BDE-49, has recently been found to damage neural mitochondria, leading to brain damage. The same study also found evidence of autism effects being amplified by environmental factors.(1) The MIND Institute at UC Davis, responsible for the study, summarized it by saying the “chemical, quite literally, reduces brain power,” noting that the findings “bolster the argument that genetics and environment can combine to increase the risk of autism and other neurological disorders.”

These chemicals accumulate in human tissues – and they last a really long time . In addition, we’re being constantly re-exposed because they’re ubiquitous in the environment – they’re used for foam in cushions, but also in such things as baby strollers, carpeting, mattresses and electronics. These chemicals are also found in mother’s milk in every country of the world and in animals – from polar bears in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the Amazon.

In the United States, California has required flame retardants on everything from children’s pajamas to furniture. This standard is called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, which was passed in 1975 and requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because California is such a large market, and also because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of a published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher than do children who were born and raised in Mexico.[2] In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States – and people in the United States have levels of PBDE higher than anyone else in the world.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants. These chemicals are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology [3] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen. In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.[4] Tris is now being used again at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture, yet from 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And during a fire when the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.[5]. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

And when a ban does go into effect, it’s usually severely restricted: for example, in the USA, BPA is now banned in baby bottles – but only in baby bottles. Many products tout the fact that they’re “BPA free” but that’s because the chemical has hit a nerve with consumers, who recognize that BPA isn’t a good thing to have in plastic water bottles, for example, so the manufacturers voluntarily restrict its use. Another example is lead, which has been banned in the USA in some products– paint and gasoline come quickly to mind – but is still used in others, such as plastics, printing, and dyes. New legislation restricts the amount of lead that can be present in products designed for children to 100 ppm, despite the fact that research shows that any detectable amount of lead can be harmful to kids.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”

California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act, introduced in February, 2011. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.

However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers – Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. – resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011. Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe. This despite opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians. But new life is again being breathed into this issue, and California has introduced a new TB117-2013 to address the problem by changing the testing parameters so as not to need flame retardants.

But stay tuned – the chemical industry has a lot at stake and they won’t go down without a fight.

Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects. Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.

(1) Napoli E, Hung C, Wong S, Giulivi C., “Toxicity of the flame-retardant BDE-49 on brain mitochondria and neuronal progenitor striatal cells enhanced by a PTEN-deficient background” Toxicol Sci. 2013 Mar;132(1):196-210.
[2] Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”, http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002874
[3] Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10), pp4602-4608. http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearch?action=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within&publication=40025991
[4] Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.
[5] Ibid.





How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: synthetic fibers

3 10 2012

So from last week’s post, you  know that you want a durable, colorfast fabric that will be lovely to look at and wonderful to live with.  What’s the best choice?  I’m so glad you asked.

You have basically two choices in fibers:  natural (cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk)  or synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.).  Many fabrics today are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers – it has been said that most sheet sets sold in the U.S. are cotton/poly blends.

Natural fibres breathe, wicking moisture from the skin, providing even warmth and body temperature;  they are renewable, and decay at end of life.  On the other hand, synthetics do not breathe,  trapping body heat and perspiration; they are based on crude oil, definitely a non-renewable resource and they do not decompose at end of life, but rather remain in our landfills, leaching their toxic monomers into our groundwater.  They are, however, cheap and durable.

I like to think that even without the health issues involved I’d choose to live with natural fibers, since they work so well with humans!  The fibers themselves present no health issues and they’re comfortable.  But they simply don’t last as long as synthetics. But I have begun to see the durability of synthetics as their Dorian Grey aspect, in other words they last so long that they’ve become a huge problem.  By not decomposing, they just break into smaller and smaller particles which leach their toxic monomers into our groundwater.

The impact on health (ours the the planet’s) is an issue that’s often overlooked when discussing the merits of natural vs. synthetic.   And it’s a complex issue, so this week we’ll explore synthetic fibers, and next week we’ll look at natural fibers.

The most popular synthetic fiber in use today is polyester.

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.

And then there is acrylic.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(4)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [5], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. The data included women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics – those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

[1] http://www.bu-eh.org/uploads/Main/Soto%20EDs%20as%20Carcinogens.pdf

[2] http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.95103608

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

(4) ) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html

(5) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321





Asbestos – and fire retardants.

24 10 2011

A half century ago, asbestos – a ” 100% natural” material by the way –  was hailed as the wonder fiber of the 20th century.   It was principally used for its heat resistant properties and to protect property (and incidentally, human lives) from the ravages of fire. Because of this, asbestos was used in virtually all industrial applications as well as the construction of buildings and sea-going vessels. In the United States, asbestos is still legally used in 3,000 different consumer products, predominantly building insulation (and other building materials), automobile parts such as brake pads, roofing materials, floor tiles. Since asbestos became known to be a potent human health risk, many manufacturers found alternatives to asbestos:  for example, since the mid-1990s, a majority of brake pads, new or replacement, have been manufactured instead with linings made of ceramic, carbon, metallic and aramid fiber( Twaron or Kevlar – the same material used in bulletproof vests).

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, three of the major health effects associated with asbestos exposure include:

  • Asbestosis —  a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate lung tissues and cause the tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. The latency period (meaning the time it takes for the disease to develop) is often 10–20 years. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis.
  • CancerCancer of the lung, gastrointestinal tract, kidney and larynx have been linked to asbestos. The latency period for cancer is often 15–30 years.
  •  Mesothelioma — Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin lining (membrane) of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart. Unlike lung, cancer, mesothelioma has no association with smoking. The only established causal factor is exposure to asbesto  fibers. The latency period for mesothelioma may be 20–50 years. The prognosis for mesothelioma is grim, with most patients dying within 12 months of diagnosis.  This is why great efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.

Worldwide, 52 countries (including those in the European Union) have banned the use of asbestos, in whole or in part.  In the United States, only six categories of products can NOT contain asbestos:  flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper. In addition, there is a ban on the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as “new uses” of asbestos.   

So today, asbestos remains in millions of structures throughout the country, as many people find out (to their dismay) when they are planning to repaint their home or do other remodeling tasks and must deal with the EPA rules for safe disposal or removal of products which may contain asbestos.   Millions of people are exposed at home or in their workplace by the monumental quantities of asbestos that remain in the built environment — the attic insulation in 30 million American homes, for instance — following decades of heavy use.  It also remains heavily used in brake shoes and other products, directly exposing auto mechanics and others who work with the materials, and indirectly exposing consumers and workers’ families.

No safe level of minimum exposure has ever been established for asbestos. Many of the first cases of mesothelioma were persons who never directly handled asbestos as part of their jobs. An early case in South Africa occurred in a young girl whose job it was to empty the pockets of miners before dry cleaning their clothes. The asbestos dust in the miners’ pockets made her fatally ill.[1]   People who have worked in plumbing, steel, insulation and electrical industries have very high chances of suffering from asbestos-related disease. In fact, they could have passed it on to their family members through the dust that could have clung to their shirts, shoes and other personal belongings.

Today, even though global asbestos use is down, there are more than 10,000 deaths per year due to the legacy of asbestos exposure.[2] Asbestos kills thousands more people each year than skin cancer, and kills almost as many people as are slain in assaults with firearms

With the science to back up the claims that asbestos is a serial killer, and with global use on the downward swing, wouldn’t you think that deaths from asbestos exposure would be going down?  Yet, the U.S. EPA reports that asbestos related deaths are increasing  and, according to the studies cited by the Environmental Working Group, many believe that  the U.S. asbestos disease epidemic may not even peak for another ten years or more.

This ongoing increase in asbestos mortality is due largely to the fact that asbestos-caused cancers and other diseases have a 20 to 50 year latency period, meaning that individuals exposed in the 1960s and 1970s are just now dying from their exposure. Better tracking accounts for the dramatic increase in mesothelioma mortality reported in 1999, but lung cancer deaths from asbestos are not reported at all, and asbestosis is still dramatically underreported even in worker populations where asbestos exposure is well established.

The legacy of asbestos, in the United States as in other countries such as the U.K. and Australia, is that the initial use of asbestos as a miracle fiber quickly gave rise to a burgeoning industry and adoption of asbestos in many products.   This happened long before any detrimental health effects were known, so now,  many years later,  asbestos related disease is killing significant numbers of people.  Environmental Health Perspectives last year published “The Case for a Global Ban on Asbestos”[3]

If you google “new asbestos” you can find many materials that people claim could be the “new asbestos” – nanotechnology, fly ash and climate-change litigation for example – because these are all being widely adopted before being well understood, and may well leave a legacy of death and destruction similar to that of asbestos.  Well, okay, litigation has not been known to kill directly, but you understand the point I’m trying to make.

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the new asbestos.  These chemicals are called halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers – commonly known as PBDE’s.  Women in North America have 10 to 40 times the levels of the PBDEs in their breast milk, as do women in Europe or in Asia. And these chemicals pass through the placenta and are found in infants at birth, making a double dose of toxins for young children when they are most vulnerable.  When tested in animals, fire retardant chemicals, even at very low doses, can cause endocrine disruption, thyroid disorders, cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological problems such as learning impairment and attention deficit disorder.   In humans, these chemicals are associated with reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, thyroid impacts, undescended testicles in infants (leading to a higher cancer risk), and decreases in sperm quality and function.Ongoing studies are beginning to show a connection between these chemicals and autism in children.(4)  Pregnant women have the biggest cause for concern because animal studies show negative impacts on brain development of offspring when mothers are exposed during pregnancy. And bioaccumulating PBDEs can stay in our bodies for more than a decade.

A study published last week in the Environmental Health Perspectives  points to California’s unique furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117, as the major reason for high fire retardant levels in California. The California standard, passed in 1975, requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of the published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher  than do children who were born and raised in Mexico.[5]  In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants that are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology [6] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen.  In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.[7]

Tris is now being used at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture. From 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And when during a fire the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal  oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.[8]. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

“We can buy things that are BPA free, or phthalate free or lead free. We don’t have the choice to buy things that are flame-retardant free,” says Dr. Heather Stapleton, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University. “The laws protect the chemical industry, not the general public.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”

This year, California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.

However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers –  Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. –  resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011.  Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe.  This despite  opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians.

Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects.  Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.


[5]  Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”,  http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002874

[6]  Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10),  pp4602-4608.  http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearch?action=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within&publication=40025991

[7]  Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.

[8]  Ibid.





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