By the time I became pregnant in 2015, it had been a few years since I ditched my once-trusty Nalgene.
After learning that the durable plastic bottles contained bisphenol A, or BPA—a chemical linked to potential health harms in humans—I traded my Nalgene for a glass water bottle, like many other consumers.
But it wasn’t until after pregnancy that I learned more about the ways endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA might be lurking in other parts of my life—and my young children’s lives. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are chemicals that interfere with our bodies’ hormones, also known as the endocrine system. These chemicals hide in the lining of metal food cans, in plastic food packaging, and disturbingly, in children’s toys and sippy cups. Though the toys and the sippy cups may look harmless, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are not. Research has linked exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA, phthalates, and PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, sometimes called “forever chemicals”) to adverse developmental, reproductive, immune, and brain effects.
The harms of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals can start well before birth. A new study in the journal Science found that prenatal exposure to a mix of endocrine-disrupting chemicals—like the mix of chemicals most of us are exposed to in our everyday lives—may put babies at risk for delayed brain development. Conducted by European researchers, this study looked at data from a large group of pregnant women in Sweden and found that over half of the women studied were exposed to levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that could potentially contribute to developmental delays.
In this study, researchers identified a mix of 15 endocrine-disrupting chemicals that previous research had linked to delays in childhood language development. Then, they exposed three organisms—tadpoles, zebrafish, and “brain organoids,” which are tiny, artificially-grown brain “prototypes” generated from human stem cells—to the same mix of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. All three organisms showed disrupted regulation of the genes that influence language development in children.
While the study’s findings don’t mean that every mother exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals will have a child with developmental delays, they do raise questions about the potential harms of chemicals that most of us are exposed to every day.
Maria Doa, Senior Director of Chemicals Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, notes that the new study reinforces the need for EPA to use the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to significantly reduce exposures and risks from categories of chemicals and mixtures of chemicals that cause similar harms, such as phthalates and PFAS. Originally adopted in 1976, TSCA aimed to protect Americans from toxic chemicals, but it was widely considered ineffective. In 2016, President Obama signed into law the Lautenberg Act, which was designed to overhaul the country’s broken chemical safety laws, but the Trump administration implemented the act in deceitful and even illegal ways.
Doa explains: “Currently under TSCA, EPA considers the risks of chemicals individually and separately even though we are often exposed to multiple chemicals that cause similar harms.” Organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and Moms Clean Air Force are encouraging EPA to use its authority through TSCA to both comprehensively assess the health impacts of toxic chemicals and address the cumulative risks Americans face from widespread, across-the-lifespan exposure.
“By considering the cumulative risks of chemicals and setting requirements early in their life cycle to reduce exposure,” Doa tells me, “EPA can more effectively mitigate the risks we face from these chemicals.”
As noted in an article on the new Science study in Environmental Health News, the widespread nature of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals makes it difficult for individuals, including pregnant people, to meaningfully limit their exposure. Trading in our old-school Nalgenes and BPA-infused sippy cups for safer options will undoubtedly reduce our exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, but without decisive action from policymakers, individual behavior changes won’t provide the protection from toxic chemicals our children deserve.
Every child deserves a chance to start life with a healthy brain.