Sending Chemical Messages: Adding the Scariest Chemicals to the Priority Lists for Chemical Control

Health & Wellness on 01.23.12
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Photo credit: Mieke Dalle/Getty Images

Are you hungry? Tired? In a good mood? All of those experiences depend upon chemical messengers being transmitted and received. Our bodies depend on an amazing chemical postal service for survival.

Chemical messengers work overtime when a woman is pregnant. As Moms-to-be, we carefully avoid chemicals, pass on alcohol, eat right...maybe you even weedled a relaxing massage out of your partner "to keep the stress hormones down for the baby's sake."

But the chemical messenges must be the right news at the right time. For example, we want men with beards, but not boys with beards. What happens when chemicals in our environment confuse our bodies' messages?

Pancake Chemicals and Silver Bullet Chemicals

I remember, from early in my career managing chemical safety, that one chemical company representative came up with the analogy of "one pancake in a stack reaching to the moon." The phrase was supposed to help people understand that chemicals in wastes released by industry are so diluted that there is no danger.

Many years of chemical control policy were based on the idea that there are two cases: (1) "pancake chemicals," which are only dangerous when you get a lot of them in your body and (2) "silver bullet" chemicals. The latter are chemicals like carcinogens; the "silver bullet' theory posits that one single molecule of the chemical is enough to make you sick, if it happens to strike in just the right spot. Like a silver bullet through the heart of a vampire, that single molecule hitting the genetic material in a cell could create a mutation which would grow into a tumor, cause fetal deformity, or which might even be passed on to offspring.

The chemicals in category one were considered safe as long as concentrations are kept low. The chemicals in category two have been highly regulated for years -- as long as the hazard is sufficiently proven to overcome the lobbyist's resistance and convince regulators that the benefit is worth the economic cost.

A Third Category of Chemicals: Heat-seeking missiles

But for the past two decades, growing evidence points to a third category of chemicals. These chemicals act like the messengers in our bodies. Because they can be mistaken by the body for messengers, they can do a lot of harm at pretty low exposure levels. Worse, they do the most harm during the sensitive months of growth in the womb, and during childhood years.

Scientists call these chemicals "endocrine disruptors (EDs)" (or endocrince disrupting chemicals, EDCs). You might have noticed that the endocrine disruptors seem like silver bullets, only more so. You could compare this category of chemicals with heat-seeking missiles.  

Tests now routinely find endocrine disruptors in women's bodies, in the placenta, even in newborns, where they are linked to disorders such as underformed sexual organs; neurological handicaps like attention deficit, hyperactivity, or delayed development; diabetes and obesity; deformities; immune system problems, and more.

Over 1500 chemicals are listed on TEDX, the endocrine disruptor exchange. To be listed, a chemical must have at least one verified published, peer-reviewed study finding effects on the endocrine system. Additionally, a growing number of societal issues -- such as the effects of endocrine disruptors which mimic female hormones on the males in both human and animal populations -- demonstrate that the need for action is urgent.

Action on Endocrine Disruptors Finally on the Horizon

 You are probably shocked to know that this potent category of chemical risks remains unregulated or regulated by accident (usually due to other hazards). We have seen the first baby steps to address the issue in laws banning certain chemicals from baby bottles, toys, or other products intended for children. But these efforts do not address the growing concentrations of EDs in our environment, in our bodies, and in our wombs during fetal development.

But keep the term "endocrine disruptor" in mind, as you will be hearing more of it. The working group charged with preparing for the International Conference on Chemicals Management in Nairobi, Kenya from Sept. 17-21, 2012 (ICCM3) has agreed that endocrine disruptors will be on the agenda at ICCM3 ). With enough support, endocrine disruptors could be added to the list of priorities for the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, a non-binding policy framework that encourages governments to adopt regulations to control chemical risks.

The era of ignoring the world's scariest chemicals is coming to an end. The fight to regulate remains a challenge: first to finally, indubitably, and undeniably prove the risk, and then to convince the regulators that economic benefits and lifestyle benefits of using the chemicals are not worth the risks (or in the case of highly enlightened regulators, that the precautionary principle must be applied).

Send the message

 You will need to send messages too. If you believe that action is needed to regulate endocrine disruptors, keep your ears open. Make your voice heard whenever the opportunity arises. If you are a US citizen, support The Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Exposure Elimination Act of 2011.


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