The urgent threat of hormone-disrupting chemicals to our health and future

The following essay was written by Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, a  renowned pediatrician, professor at NYU, and prominent leader in children's environmental health. He's the author of 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. — Mark Frauennfelder

As a consumer, when it comes to chemical safety you'd be surprised how powerful your voice really is. When the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned bisphenols A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups, it wasn't the scientific knowledge that moved the needle to trigger that decision. There had been a huge outcry in the media about the effects of this synthetic estrogen. Manufacturers changed their process for making these materials, and literally ran to FDA to ask for a change in the rules so that they didn't lose market share and profit.

In the current political climate, you might think this is less likely to happen, as chemical companies might feel emboldened. But it's quite the opposite actually. A small study recently found perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), chemicals known to mess with thyroid hormone and our metabolic rate, in the linings of those buffet-style food carry out boxes you see in supermarkets. The findings from a small sample of measurements literally triggered two major supermarket chains to insist that their suppliers either shape up or literally be shipped out.

This article focuses on five other examples where the same phenomenon is not that far away. The public is becoming woke to these issues, and manufacturers should be on the lookout for the implications for their market share.

1. Thermal paper receipts. The technology for this inexpensive replacement for ink printing was first developed in the 1970s. The coating was until recently made with BPA, a chemical that has all the characteristics of a chemical that can make you overweight: it helps make fat cells bigger, can turn other cells into fat cells, and disrupt the function of a protein that protects the heart and blood vessels that line it. BPA is being replaced by other bisphenols that have the same biological effects on cells and tissues. One such chemical is bisphenol S (BPS) which is as estrogenic and toxic to embryos as BPA, and even more persistent in the environment. The health concerns, together with the ecological impacts like waste, are prompting a welcome shift to electronic receipts. It's not exactly a good time to buy stock in companies that are using this increasingly outdated technology.

2. PFAS in athletic gear. We already talked about the health effects of PFAS and their use in food packaging. As a marathon runner, it makes me cringe to think about the water repellent features of PFAS and whether they are in the gear I use. Even one of the most environmentally conscious companies in this space is having trouble with this issue. There's been a lot of hype thrown about regarding smaller ("short chain") PFAS molecules replacing the older ones because they move in and out of the body quickly. But as we know with many other chemicals quick excretion doesn't mean safe. Quite the opposite: you can often see a hit and run phenomenon. Green chemists have a big opportunity here.

3. Bisphenols in cans. There's also a lot of misleading hype about BPA-free. In some cans you will see a naturally derived material called oleoresin that may be safer, though even that is not fully tested. Often though you will see BPS and its chemical cousins BPF, BPP and BPZ just to name a few. Once a few companies test their cans for these regrettable substitutes, you will see the dominoes fall. Again, in this space, the FDA has been reluctant to regulate, despite its own data from the so-called CLARITY initiative which suggest effects at low levels like those we see in humans. Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and consumer movements are likely to come.

4. The hidden fragrance trick. There are bills that have been proposed in Congress to address this issue (Senator Feinstein and Congressman Pallone have been among the leaders here), but there is a way to go before we could see the necessary traction here. Companies have long hidden chemicals underneath a "trade secrets" label, with the implicit support of FDA. It's not to suggest that all of these ingredients are unsafe. That said what little we know about one group of chemical additives in lotions and cosmetics and other customer care products, phthalates, raises concerns about effects on sex hormones, particularly disrupting testosterone. With 40% of men 40 and older reporting some degree of impotence, and given the role of testosterone in libido, not to mention fertility, it's surprising we haven't seen more attention to this space.

5. Flame retardants in mattresses. A 1975 California law required chemicals be used to meet a flammability standard for furniture. With no such requirement elsewhere in the world, Americans lead the way with higher levels of brominated flame retardants than anywhere else in the world. A 2013 change to the law eliminated the need for chemical additives in furniture but flame retardant chemicals are still used in electronics, carpets, and even mattresses. While the brominated flame retardants have mostly begun to be phased out in the US, they are increasingly being replaced with organophosphorous compounds that have the same thyroid disruptive properties. The concern here is greatest for brain development, especially for the fetus because the fetus does not make thyroid hormone until the second trimester of pregnancy. There are many companies marketing flame retardant free mattresses that are gaining and not losing traction as attention to this issue grows.

These examples should serve as friendly words to the wise for chemical manufacturers. Previously, debates about regulation would be limited to scientific conferences and government agency discussions. In these meetings, the typical defense of these chemicals was to impugn the work or the scientists that were presenting concerns. The irony of this approach is that consumers are not willing to gamble with uncertainties as much as government agencies or scientists will. They are also demanding transparency regarding ingredients in the products they buy more and more.