Why the U.S. Doesn’t Crack Down on Toxic Chemicals

Story at-a-glance −

More than 84,000 chemicals are used in household products, cosmetics, food, and food packaging, and a majority of these have never been tested for safety

The chemical industry has a long history of political power and influence. Chemical corporations also control and manipulate the science by funding research that downplays, contradicts, or casts doubt on health hazards

The scientific field of toxicology minimizes the risks of toxic chemicals by relying on physiologically based pharmacokinetic simulations that do not reveal a chemical’s effect on biological processes

The United States permits more than 84,000 chemicals to be used in household products, cosmetics, food, and food packaging, and a majority of these have never been tested for safety.

More than 10,000 chemical additives with questionable safety — as most have never been tested in humans — are allowed in food and food packaging alone. Roughly 13,000 chemicals are used in cosmetics, of which only 10 percent have been evaluated for safety.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 85 percent of new chemical applications include no testing whatsoever.

Scientific evidence strongly suggest that exposure to chemicals is contributing to cancer, reproductive abnormalities, early puberty,1,2,3 and a host of other endocrine, neurological, and metabolic problems.


When Combined, Chemicals Can Amplify Each Other’s Effects

What little safety testing is done is typically done on chemicals in isolation, and scientific investigations reveal this is a major mistake that generates a false sense of security, because when chemicals are combined, their synergistic  toxicity can increase exponentially.

It’s thought that 1 in 5 cancers may be caused by exposure to environmental chemicals, and according to a recent study4 published in the journal Carcinogenesis, this includes chemicals deemed “safe” on their own.

The analysis found that by acting on various pathways, organs and organ systems, cells, and tissues, the cumulative effects of non-carcinogenic chemicals can act in concert to synergistically produce carcinogenic activity, turning conventional testing for carcinogens on its ear.

Lead author Dr. William Goodson told Michigan Radio:5

“[W]hat we’re realizing … [is] that there’s reason to think that it doesn’t take one chemical to take it all the way from normal to cancer.

One chemical can take it part way, another chemical will take it another portion of the way, and maybe a second, third, or fourth chemical will take it all the way.”

A second study6 published in the same journal suggests that exposure to chemicals at low doses may also promote carcinogenesis by inducing genome instability, i.e. by enhancing the genome’s tendency to mutate.

Considering the tens of thousands of chemicals we’re exposed to in our everyday living, it’s simply not possible to review the potential effects of them all. Some do stand out above others though, in terms of what we already know.


Food and Household Products Fuel Breast Cancer, Scientists Warn

According to research7 published in the National Institutes of Health journal, the Environmental Health Perspectives, you can reduce your risk of breast cancer by avoiding certain chemicals found in common, everyday products.

The researchers evaluated more than 100 chemicals women are exposed to on a regular basis through food, medications, air pollution, and consumer products. They then prioritized the chemicals, and grouped them based on exposure, carcinogenic potential, and chemical structure.

This sorting resulted in 17 chemical groups of related chemicals, which were flagged as “high priority” due to their ability to consistently produce mammary tumors in animal tests.

This includes flame retardant chemicals; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) found in non-stick and stain-resistant coatings on rugs, furniture, clothes, cookware, and more; and styrene, found in polystyrene products, adhesives, and building materials.

I listed all of the chemicals in question in a previous article, so for the full list see “Top Tips to Decrease Your Breast Cancer Risk.”

Hormone Disrupting Chemicals — The Dirty Dozen

Many chemicals also affect the human endocrine system, which can have wide-ranging health effects — especially in babies and young children. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) alter the normal function of your hormones.

A hormone’s job is to interact with the cells in your body, sending signals that instruct them to perform certain tasks, and EDCs interfere with this communication process.

These chemicals are widely used not only in household products such as plastics, but also in cosmetics and personal care products.

In 2013, the Environmental Working Group8 identified 12 of the most troublesome hormone wreckers. Surprisingly, along with some very well-known EDCs, the review also identified several you might not normally associate with hormone disruption, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic.

The EWG’s “dirty dozen” list for the 12 worst endocrine disruptors are outlined in the following table. I’ve written about many of these in prior articles, so for more information about any particular one, please follow the links.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) Dioxin Atrazine Phthalates
Perchlorate Fire retardants Lead Mercury
Arsenic Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) Organophosphate pesticides Glycol ethers

Why Are Deadly Chemicals Allowed on the Market?

The small sampling of chemicals listed above is just the tip of the iceberg. But, why are all of these top offenders still allowed on the market even after studies have proven them to be hazardous to human health?

A comprehensive article9 in Independent Science News helps shed some light on this troubling issue:

“[S]ome scientific arguments become so polarized that tempers fray … Such is the current state of affairs between two camps of scientists: health effects researchers and regulatory toxicologists.

Both groups study the effects of chemical exposures in humans. Both groups have publicly used terms like ‘irrelevant,’ ‘arbitrary,’ ‘unfounded’ and ‘contrary to all accumulated physiological understanding’ to describe the other’s work …

The rift centers around the best way to measure the health effects of chemical exposures. The regulatory toxicologists typically rely on computer simulations called ‘physiologically based pharmacokinetic’ (PBPK) modeling. The health effects researchers … draw their conclusions from direct observations of how chemicals actually affect living things … The link from certain chemicals to these health effects is real.

In a paper10 published earlier this year, a group of leading endocrinologists concluded with 99 percent certainty that environmental exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals causes health problems … Yet chemical regulation in the United States has proceeded at a glacial pace. And corporate profit is at the heart of the story … ”


Modeling Used by Regulatory Toxicologists Downplays Health Risks of Toxins

Like the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry has a long history of political power and influence, and according to Valerie Brown and Elizabeth Grossman who authored the article11 in question, chemical corporations not only influence the political process; they also control and manipulate the science.  They do this by:

    1. Funding research that downplays, contradicts, or casts doubt on health hazards
    2. Creating a field of science, known as toxicology, that minimizes the risks of toxic chemicals. The physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) simulation that regulatory toxicologists favor may be fast and inexpensive, but according to Linda Birnbaum, director of both the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, it doesn’t tell you anything about the chemical’s effect on biological processes.

To determine that, you need observational studies and lab experiments.

A major problem is that the PBPK model can be “deliberately manipulated to produce desired outcomes” simply by way of excluding or including certain data. As noted by Kristin Shrader-Frechette, a biologist specializing in human health risk assessment: “Models can offer a means of avoiding the conclusions derived from actual experiments.”

In this way, PBPK modeling allows the chemical industry to manipulate and customize results to come out in their favor, allowing toxic chemicals to be deemed “safe,” when in fact they may not be.

The featured article goes on to note:

“Our investigation traces this web of influence to a group of scientists working for the Department of Defense (DOD) in the 1970s and 1980s — the pioneers of PBPK modeling. It quickly became clear that this type of modeling could be manipulated to minimize the appearance of chemical risk.

PBPK methodology has subsequently been advanced by at least two generations of researchers … who move between industry, government agencies, and industry-backed research groups, often with little or no transparency.

The result is that chemicals known to be harmful to human health remain largely unregulated in the United States — often with deadly results …  [T]his lack of regulation is likely to continue unless the federal chemical review process becomes more transparent and relies less heavily on PBPK modeling …”


Revolving Doors Between Government and Industry Prevent Safety

Revolving doors exist between many of the most hazardous industries and our federal regulators; including the chemical industry. According to the featured article, dozens of researchers have moved between federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and various chemical industry groups. We see the same game being played out in the food, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries.12,13

For example, as recently noted in the Epoch Times:14

Researchers … show that the sugar industry successfully manipulated the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research on dental caries designed to protect the industry’s financial interests … [T]he sugar documents show that the industry influenced the NIH to move away from any talk of reducing sugar intake and instead focus on a ‘cure’ for tooth decay that didn’t involve children eating less sugar.”

The strategy is the same one that lets the food industry avoid taking responsibility for the obesity epidemic.15 The industry points the finger at lack of physical activity rather than the quality and quantity of food eaten by America’s children.”

As a result of the sugar industry’s influence, the NIH began to steer clear of sugar, and began developing research projects focused on fluoride, vaccines against tooth decay, protective food additives, and enamel sealants instead — all of which are band-aids that do nothing to address the root problem, which is that people eat far too much sugar to prevent tooth decay.


Industry-Funded Research Is Inherently Untrustworthy

More recently, Coca-Cola Company was outed for creating and financing the front group known as the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which produces research that contradicts, minimizes, and diverts attention away from the mounting evidence showing that soda and sugary beverages are a major contributor to obesity and diseases associated with insulin resistance, such as diabetes.

Following some rather unflattering media reports, the University of Colorado medical school, where the GEBN’s president, James Hill, works as a professor, returned donations given to the University by Coca-Cola, and Rhona Applebaum, Coke’s chief science and health officer since 2004, has now decided to retire at the age of 61.

As reported by The New York Times:16

“[R]eports show that Dr. Applebaum and other executives at Coke helped pick the [GEBNs] leaders, create its mission statement, and design its website … The A.P. also published a series of emails between Dr. Hill of the University of Colorado and Coke executives that revealed the initial strategy of the Global Energy Balance Network.

Before the G.E.B.N. was created, Dr. Hill proposed publishing research that would help the company fend off criticism about its products by shifting the blame for obesity to physical inactivity.”


Parabens Again Linked to Breast Cancer

Getting back to the issue of toxic chemicals, recent research on cells, funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program, found that parabens — a chemical commonly found in personal care and beauty products — may stimulate breast cancer growth even at very low levels. Previous research found paraben esters in 99 percent of breast cancer tissues tested, suggesting exposure to the chemical may indeed be a significant risk factor in the development of the disease.

Philippa Darbre, associate professor of oncology at the UK’s University of Reading told the Sydney Morning Herald:17

“This is beginning to build a bigger picture of how parabens might act in the body. It’s not as simple as looking at one chemical acting in isolation. We need a full picture of all the environmental chemicals detected in the breast and all the pathways through which they act in the body before we can begin to understand what effects they might have.

One problem is that the breast has become a dustbin for environmental chemicals. It’s a very fatty part of the body so any fat soluble chemicals that are absorbed from the environment can linger in the tissues. ”


Opposition Against Flame Retardants Heats Up

Flame retardant chemicals are another of the 17 “high priority” chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce breast cancer.18,19 These chemicals are also poisoning pets and wildlife, according to recent tests. Yet, despite their wide-ranging health risks, they continue being used — ostensibly because they save lives in case of fire.

However, mounting research shows that not only do they not work, they also release toxins into dust and air, and when treated products burn, they release toxic fumes that may be more far more likely to kill you than the fire itself. Even firefighters are now speaking out against the use of fire retardant chemicals in everyday household products, noting that they don’t work as expected,20 and aren’t worth the risks they pose when they burn.

The Texas Campaign for the Environment is putting pressure on furniture retailers, including Pier 1 Imports, urging them to stop selling furnishings treated with flame retardant chemicals. On November 17, 2015, more than a dozen people gathered in protest outside Pier 1’s Fort Worth headquarters.21 They also delivered more than 300 letters from consumers, urging the company to quit selling chemical-treated furniture.

According to a Pier 1 executive, the retailer began phasing out flame retardants about a year ago, and is currently in negotiations with suppliers to eliminate flame retardants from all of its furniture. While Pier 1 requires flame retardant products to be labeled, it’s important to realize that most products are not labeled.

What’s worse, flame retardant chemicals are everywhere, in electronics, fabrics, cushions, carpets, and a wide variety of children’s goods, including car seats and nursing pillows.

Listing items to avoid would be near impossible. The most comprehensive recommendation is to opt for organic or “green” alternatives no matter what product is under consideration — be it a piece of furniture, clothing, kids toys, cleaning product, or personal care item. This is by far the easiest route, as manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations, such as fire safety regulations.


Tips to Help You Avoid Toxic Chemicals

It’s quite clear that the US government is falling short when it comes to protecting you from the onslaught of toxic chemicals that may have devastating health effects. Within this dysfunctional system, you are the best one to keep your family safe. Although no one can successfully steer clear of ALL chemicals and pollutants, you can minimize your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.

Eat REAL food that is focused on locally grown, fresh, and ideally organic whole foods.

Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it’s not organically grown.

Choose grass-pastured, sustainably raised meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).

Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity, such as wild caught Alaskan salmon. Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings), into the contents; be aware that even “BPA-free” plastics typically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad for you as BPA.
Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap. Use glass baby bottles.
Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware. Filter your tap water for both drinking AND bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants.

To remove the endocrine disrupting herbicide Atrazine, make sure your filter is certified to remove it. According to the EWG, perchlorate can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.

Look for products made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic, and GMO-free.

This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses, and others.

Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame retardant chemicals.
When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, consider buying flame retardant free varieties, containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk, and Kevlar. Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings, and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized.

It’s advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.

Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one. Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics.

EWG’s Skin Deep database22 can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.

Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals.

Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.

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