Of the 80,000 chemicals currently used in the US, most haven’t been tested for their effects on our health. These chemicals are everywhere. They lurk in things our children come in contact with every single day: furniture, toys, cleaning products, personal care products, and our food.
According to a new book, Sicker, Fatter, Poorer: The Urgent Threat of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Our Health and Future … and What We Can Do About It by Dr. Leonardo Trasande, we need to understand what these chemicals are doing to our bodies, our children’s bodies, and how they affect future generations.
Dr. Trasande is a professor in pediatrics, environmental medicine, and population health at the NYU School of Medicine, in health policy at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service, and at the NYU College of Global Public Health. He’s also a dad.
Dr. Trasande was kind enough to answer my questions about how chemical exposures play a role in the health and welfare of our children here:
You open the book on a playground in NYC in the 1960’s, and describe what the physical and mental attributes of the children look like. Then you imagine the same playground in 2019. Can you explain the changes?
We’ve seen epidemic increases in many chronic conditions including obesity, diabetes, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, certain birth defects and even some forms of cancer. We’ve literally become sicker. I’m not drawing a circle around that epidemic and saying that all of it is due to the rapid use of synthetic chemicals. But time and again study after study connects the dots between these exposures and endocrine-related diseases, identifying an opportunity to stem the tide of a rising epidemic.
What are the chemicals of concern with the strongest evidence of childhood health issues?
We know of over 1000 chemicals that can disrupt hormones and thereby contribute to disease. The evidence is greatest for four categories of chemicals: flame retardants, used in electronics, carpeting and furniture; phthalates, used in cosmetics, personal care products and food packaging; bisphenols which are found in thermal paper receipts and aluminum cans; and pesticides used in agriculture.
Sicker, Fatter, Poorer has a section titled “Fracking Our Homes.” What does fracking have to do with hormone-disrupting chemicals?
Fracking fluid has more than 750 chemicals, many of which are hormone disruptors. Surface water near fracking sites has been found to have higher estrogen activity as well as antagonism to male sex hormones. Multiple studies have identified concerns about prenatal exposure in families living near fracking sites, including birth defects and prematurity.
How do chemicals in our food affect our children’s health? What can we do to protect our children?
More than 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food in the US, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is unable to ensure all of those chemicals are safe. The greatest concerns are about the effects of these chemicals on the endocrine system; hormones act on all parts of the body, and even small disruptions at key moments in development can have permanent and lifelong consequences. Bisphenols have been associated with obesity and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Phthalates are known to affect male reproductive development. Grease-proof paper can contain perfluoroalkyl acids associated with decreases in birth weight. Perchlorate prevents static in some packaging and inhibits thyroid function, which is crucial for brain development as well as a host of other key functions. Nitrates used as preservatives and color enhancers have been linked to various types of cancer.
How do policy regulations protect us from harmful chemicals? What don’t they do? What needs to be done?
You might think that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has oversight over chemicals all over our environment, but it’s more of a swiss cheese framework. The FDA has a big role in overseeing chemical regulation when it comes to food, and still has an antiquated mindset in reviewing additives in foods and chemicals in cosmetics. Much of the law dates to the 1960s or before, and doesn’t account for the science documenting effects at low levels of exposure.
What can we do to limit our exposure to chemicals in our homes?
Fortunately, there are safe and simple steps to reduce exposure to the chemicals of greatest concern:
- Avoid canned food consumption.
- Say no to paper receipts.
- Be careful with your cosmetics, avoiding products with “fragrance” or phthalates.
- Looking at the recycling number on plastic bottles, and avoiding the numbers 3, 6 and 7.
- Eating organic reduces your exposure to pesticides. Studies have proven this across the income spectrum, and the cost margins for organic versus conventional foods are narrowing such that big-box stores are even carrying organic fruits, vegetables and meats now.
Anything else you’d like to share with Moms Clean Air Force members?
The power of the consumer can be extremely profound. BPA was banned from baby bottles and sippy cups a decade ago, based on much less science than we have today. Consumer and media attention changed manufacturing practices, and companies went to FDA to insist on a ban. More recently, we saw supermarket chains remove their buffet-style food packaging because it had perfluoroalkyl acids – because of a study that found them there. If schools or employers insist on a change in ingredients in cleaning materials, that can be a potent force multiplier for the change we all seek.