Why EPA Should Take Hormone Disrupting Chemicals Seriously

By When you think about your body’s natural day-to-day job, what probably comes to mind are the easy tasks: breathing, pumping your heart, and digesting food. Presumably, you aren’t thinking about how much estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormone your body is making to keep your body happy and healthy. We also know that chemicals in our everyday lives can affect the hormones in our bodies. Hormones are chemical messengers that control blood sugar, infant and child development, sexual function, growth, energy production and much more. Hormones, even in amounts so small they’re difficult to measure, have profound effects on our health and well-being. Without them, we would not be ourselves.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) — found in hundreds of common products such as plastic water bottles, furniture, electronics, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides — can interfere with our bodies’ hormones and lead to life-long health problems. Studies have linked EDC exposure to infertility, breast and prostate cancer, diabetes and obesity, increased rates of dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and a variety of other diseases. EDCs may affect not just the offspring of mothers exposed during pregnancy, but future offspring as well. Some of the most notoriously dangerous EDCs include phthalates, flame retardants, and bisphenols, like BPA.

As required by law, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified 20 chemicals that they propose to begin reviewing for potential toxicity next year. Over the next few years the EPA is tasked with using these findings to determine and set safe levels of human exposure to these chemicals to protect the public from suffering adverse health outcomes. CEH found that, of the 20 chemicals up for review in 2019, 18 of them are EDCs, and two are yet to be determined.

Considering the growing public health threat these hormone disrupting chemicals represent, it is astonishing that the EPA often disregards endocrine disruption in determining a chemical’s harmful effects. We find this unacceptable, and you should, too. In response, CEH recently submitted comments to the Agency demanding inclusion of endocrine disruption data for chemicals moving forward. Not only should the EPA properly review this list of chemicals and propose stringent safe exposure levels based on their findings (or lack thereof), they should also require the chemical industry to test them for safety before putting them in products that consumers come into contact with on a daily basis without their knowledge and consent. Let’s dive into some of the chemicals on EPA’s list:

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates)
Other than being hard to pronounce and hard to spell, phthalates are also hard on our bodies. EPA’s list of 20 chemicals this year contains five phthalates: DBP, BBP, DEHP, DIBP, and DCHP. Phthalates are used in plastics to make them more flexible and durable, and they can often be found in toys, food packaging, personal care products, and other consumer goods. The threat phthalates pose to human health has been well established. We also have known since the 1990’s that they are EDCs. All five of the phthalates on the EPA’s list are able to mimic estrogen within the body, altering the delicate balance of the reproductive system. Four of these compounds have been found to result in decreased testosterone, which can cause malformations in male reproductive organs and a decrease in fertility. Three of them block thyroid hormones, which can have negative effects on brain activity, heart rate, and metabolism.

Because adequate testing hasn’t been done, we still don’t know many of the potential endocrine disrupting properties that phthalates may possess. Phthalic anhydride, which is used to make phthalates, has not been adequately tested despite also being one of the 20 candidates that EPA is considering. In reality, it could be possible that all of these compounds have the same effects, but we don’t know until the research is done. EPA should consider all of these phthalates as endocrine disruptors unless credible scientific studies demonstrate otherwise and ensure proper safeguards are put in place to protect the public from harmful endocrine disrupting effects of chemicals.

Flame retardants
For decades, flame retardants have been an area of high concern when it comes to public health. They are most commonly found in electronics, building materials (such as insulation and wiring), and some furniture to help control flames in case of fire. This may sound like a noble cause for a chemical to have. However, flame retardants often fail to protect people from fires, and these toxic chemicals have been linked to numerous adverse health effects, including endocrine disruption. Flame retardants typically migrate into household dust that is then ingested and inhaled by humans, pets, and wildlife. As a result, they are now ubiquitous in our households, workplaces, and the environment. Let’s start with a big culprit: tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA).

BPA was removed from water bottles and other plastics because it can disrupt our body’s hormones, and has been linked to cancer, diabetes, immunosuppression, reproductive problems, and obesity, especially in young children. Manufacturers now use BPA in a process to make TBBPA (notice the similar sounding names) by simply adding a few extra atoms to the BPA backbone. These new atoms give TBBPA a unique chemistry that make it resistant to high temperatures, but also hazardous to our health. EPA’s own data has found that TBBPA blocks the function of estrogens and androgens, which can negatively affect our reproductive, nervous, and immune systems. TBBPA can also cause too much thyroid activity, which we often associate with irregular heartbeat and unintentional weight loss. EPA should treat this chemical as an EDC in its risk evaluation while requiring rigorous testing of this chemical to better understand the threat it poses to human health and the environment.

Another flame retardant that was listed as high-priority by EPA was tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate, more commonly known as TCEP. While structurally a very different chemical from TBBPA, many of TCEP’s endocrine effects are similar. TCEP has been shown to reduce testosterone production and may also alter estrogen production; both of these hormones are critical for our health. Another study of humans exposed to TCEP found it was linked to increased rates of aggressive thyroid cancer. These findings, while limited, provide more compelling evidence suggesting an effective review of TCEP’s toxicity, and properly addressing it must consider the role of its hormone disrupting properties. In the case of both of these flame retardants, there is sufficient evidence to consider them EDCs, and the EPA would be doing the health of the American people a disservice if they don’t treat them as such.

CEH urges the EPA to consider the data presented here, as well as our submitted analysis of the other 12 compounds on their list not discussed here today.

The facts are in.

The data is clear.

The increasing ubiquity of EDCs pose a clear and present danger to the health of present and future generations. The EPA must follow the science and do the job they were entrusted to do by including EDCs in their chemical review process. We need the EPA to increase testing for EDCs and develop new criteria for regulating them — not closing their eyes and wishing they didn’t exist.

As the EPA dithers, you can protect yourself from EDCs by becoming a more informed, health conscious consumer:
  • Eat organic food when it’s available and affordable.
  • Avoid household bug sprays and toxic weed killers.
  • Use old-fashioned cleaners like vinegar and baking soda, or products with the Safer Choice logo.
  • Purchase furniture that does not have flame retardants.
  • Keep rooms well-aired, vacuum, clean, and dust regularly to remove toxic chemicals that can be found indoors.
  • Minimize unnecessary use of plastics, among others.
Sustainable and safe alternatives to EDCs exist. By exercising our power of the purse — in addition to demanding regulatory changes that put people’s health above corporate profit — we can force companies to drastically reduce the use of EDCs that put our children and families at risk and create a healthier, more sustainable world.

Moving forward, EPA will allow more public comments on these evaluations, and CEH is here to support you with the information to make your voice heard.
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