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.

Endocrine Disruptors






a synthetic estrogen


coolants and lubricants


plastics such as baby bottles




cosmetics, air fresheners, and some medical equipment


naturally occurring in soy-derived products

“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.

Recent Findings

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.

Studying the Effects

• Several local studies are examining the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Igor Burstyn, PhD and other researchers at Drexel’s School of Public Health are seeking to determine if pregnant women’s exposure to BPA affects the growth of their newborns.

• Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia nutritionists are studying whether infants who are exposed to chemical compounds through breast milk or formula grow and develop normally in the first two years of life. CHOP is also following thousands of children in a national study of environmental issues.

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).

Prevent Exposures

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.

Chemicals Watchdog 

The Environmental Working Group is a citizen’s watchdog organization that investigates toxic chemicals. Industry associations question the group’s methodology. Others praise the EWG, such as the Center for Social Media, which says the group provides “vital information.” Among EWG’s studies:

The “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” list fruits and vegetables that the EWG says have the most and least pesticide residues.

• The Skin Deep cosmetics database tracks ingredients and provides safety ratings for personal care products, including those for kids.

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.

For More Info

Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units around the country provide information to individuals and organizations with concerns about children’s environmental health. Questions are answered by doctors and nurses at no charge.

Mid Atlantic Center for Children’s Health in Washington, D.C. serves PA & DE. 866-622-2431

Mount Sinai Pediatric Health Specialty Unit in New York City serves
NJ. 866-265-6201

For additional info, visit the EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program

Categories: Health & Nutrition, Healthy Living