Should We Worry About Chemicals?
Concern grows over lax laws and endocrine disruption.
Our nation’s system of regulating chemicals is “ineffective in protecting children, pregnant women and the general population from hazardous chemicals in the marketplace,” say the nation’s pediatricians. In a statement published this May in the journal Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calls for chemicals to be tested for safety before they are released to the market.
While the AAP’s statement broadly refers to all chemicals in the consumer marketplace, unborn babies and children are especially vulnerable to chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. These chemicals can mimic or interfere with the function of human hormones, affecting developmental factors in children, from behavior to puberty to weight gain.
“The endocrine system controls what goes on in the body much more than the general public realizes,” says pediatrician Jerome Paulson, MD, author of the AAP statement. Unfortunately, says Dr. Paulson, “it’s going to take years” to get the information we need to assess the danger of these chemicals.
People are often exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals through the foods and beverages they consume. According to Dr. Paulson, no matter how a child is exposed to the chemical, he will get a more concentrated dose than an adult would. “Kids eat more food per pound of body weight, they drink more water per pound and they breathe more air per pound,” he explains.
“These chemicals are everywhere,” says Dr. Jerry Heindel, PhD, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “And the scariest thing is that we don’t know where all these chemicals are coming from.”
More than 250 extraneous environmental chemicals have been detected in the bodies of adults, says Dr. Heindel. “Exposure is a concern, but we don’t know how much of a concern” without additional studies, says Dr. Carla Campbell, MD, a pediatrician from Drexel University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.
Late in 2008, the federal National Toxicology Program reported “some concern” (the mid level of five levels) that exposure to BPA (bisphenol-A), a commonly used endocrine disruptor, can cause problems in fetuses, infants and children, including brain and behavioral problems.
Many manufacturers and retailers have since switched to BPA-free baby bottles, sippy cups and feeding products.
In 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency launched an Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, but it relies on data voluntarily provided from the chemical industry and has been slow to take effect.
Additional focus on endocrine disruptors came in May 2010, when the White House Task Force on Obesity reported that these chemicals may play a role in diabetes and childhood obesity. The Task Force noted that endocrine disruptors increase the body’s proportion of fat cells, decrease calories burned and alter our mechanisms for appetite and satiety (feeling full).
To reduce your exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals, “eat as much fresh food as you can,” advises Dr. Heindel.
BPA has been removed from baby bottles, but it’s still in food packaging such as soup and soda cans, baby food jars and cans of powdered formula. To reduce BPA exposure, avoid plastics labeled with the recycling codes 3, 6 and 7.
“The best thing to do is avoid canned vegetables,” says Heindel. Here are other suggestions:
- Don’t eat from plastic containers
- Don’t microwave plastics
- Don’t wash plastics in thedishwasher
- Wash your fruits and vegetables
- Breastfeed to avoid baby bottles
- Don’t use bug sprays in the home.
Activists such as the Environmental Working Group (see sidebar, right) suggest that families purchase organic versions of crops high in pesticides.
Reason for Optimism
The good news: It is often possible to reverse the effects of endocrine disruptors when they have been identified as causing problems. “Once you remove the exposure, kids should get much better,” says Virginia Stallings, MD, director of the Nutrition Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The AAP calls for premarket testing of chemicals and post-market follow up. Will Congress update its 1976 rules for chemicals? “We’re optimistic about the next two years,” says Dr. Paulson.
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.