Nov. 18, 2010 -- A growing list of common household chemicals may be linked to reproductive health problems, including early puberty and infertility.
The list includes phthalates, the plastics chemical bisphenol A (BPA), perfluorinated compounds found in nonstick cookware, flame retardants, the antibacterial agent triclosan, and mercury, according to experts speaking at a news conference sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition seeking to overhaul the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
The group is pushing for the passage of the “Safe Chemicals Act of 2010” in the Senate and the "Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010" in the House. Among other things, these bills call on the companies who make chemicals to test them for safety, instead of the Environmental Protection Agency having to prove they are unsafe.
Linda C. Giudice, MD, PhD, the chair of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, says that there is "increasing evidence that these contaminants may be playing a role in reproductive disorders."
Some, such as the controversial BPA, are known endocrine disruptors, which means they look or act like hormones in the body.
"We have begun to question whether exposures are affecting reproductive health, and the data are quite confirmatory," she says. "We don't really have a good handle on why certain chemicals may put African-American girls, for example, at risk for an earlier age of onset for puberty."
It's complex, Giudice says. "It is partly genetic and partly nutritional and there may also be other influences as well."
There is a lack of data on many of the chemicals used today, she says. "The absence of data does not mean they are safe." One of the group's issues with the TSCA is that it "grandfathered" in 62,000 chemicals without testing.
While studies linking chemicals to human health problems have been mixed, it is possible they have not captured the vulnerable period of exposure.
"They may have looked in the wrong place," she says. Going forward, a study by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development at the National Institutes of Health may provide some clarity. This study will follow chemical exposures among women from conception and pregnancy and track their children through puberty.
Limiting Exposure to Chemicals
Seattle-based mom Molly Gray does not need any more convincing. She had two miscarriages before giving birth to her son. Despite eating organic food, steering clear of fish high in mercury, and using green cleaning products, her blood tested high for 13 toxic chemicals, including mercury, when she participated in a study during her pregnancy.
"As clean as I tried to be and as hard as I tried, I was still exposed to many chemicals known to have toxic effects," she says. As of now her 1-year-old son appears perfectly healthy. "My concerns are the unknown," she says. "We have no idea what the long-term results are."
There are things that people can do today to lower their exposure levels if they are concerned, says Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, an associate professor and director of University of California - San Francisco's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.
These chemicals and their residue can also be found in dust, so keeping the house clean can help lower exposure, Woodruff says.
Giudice routinely discusses these issues with her patients, but tries to frame it in a non-alarmist sort of way.
"We are very careful not to be alarming unless there are really strong data," says Giudice.
For example, the risks of mercury exposure during pregnancy are fairly well known, and women are counseled to limit their exposure during pregnancy by avoiding fish high in mercury.
"Most patients are very motivated as parents or potential parents and are very receptive on how to minimize their exposure and maximize their health during pregnancy and the health of their baby," she says. "We don't know when the exposure may occur and feeling guilty is not the thing we want to instill in these patients."
Role of Congress
Andy Igrejas, the national campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families in Washington, D.C., says many states are addressing these issues with laws designed to protect consumers from the potential health effect of toxic chemicals. "There has been quite a bit of momentum and a handful of states have passed policies that are more comprehensive and designed to move away from toxins and chemicals," he says.
What Congress will do and how much responsibility industry will take is not yet known, he says.
Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, says he would not count on the federal legislation passing any time soon. The National Center for Public Policy Research is a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.
"For decades, activists have been hyping fear in order to advance their legislative agenda which reduces consumer choice and adds to our costs, without making us any safer," says Stier. "As Congress considers TSCA Reform, known as the Safe Chemicals Act, be prepared for another round of scaremongering designed to influence legislation," he says.
"It is unlikely that it will pass," he says. "It is not a priority for this Congress, and the next Congress won't support it."