A leading group of scientists and medical experts have warned there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that toxic chemicals in food, everyday products, the general environment, and even the air poison our children. Medical experts and health organizations are calling for chemicals to be banned at the first sign of danger rather than waiting ‘unequivocal proof’.
According to a report published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the group says such toxins can interfere in the development of the brain, with unborn children being particularly vulnerable. They noted that many chemicals could interfere with the brain’s development at “extremely low levels of exposure.
In issuing a “call to action,” the researchers warned pregnant women had been found to be contaminated with dozens of potentially harmful substances such as organophosphate pesticides, PBDE flame retardants, and phthalates found in plastic. The report said:
“We are witnessing an alarming increase in learning and behavioral problems in children. Parents report that one in six children in the United States, 17 per cent more than a decade ago, have a developmental disability, including learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and other developmental delays […] as of 2012, 1 in 10 (or more than 5.9 million) children in the US are estimated to have ADHD. As of 2014, 1 in 68 children in the US has an autism spectrum disorder.”
Which Plastic Types to Use and Which Not To Use
According to a related study, most of the plastics that consumers encounter in daily life—including plastic wrap, bath mats, yogurt containers, and coffee cup lids—contain potentially toxic chemicals, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The researchers behind the study analyzed 34 everyday plastic products made of eight types of plastic to see how common toxicity might be. Seventy-four percent of the products they tested were toxic in some way. The team was hoping to be able to tell people which plastic types to use and which not to use. Martin Wagner, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of biology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and senior author of the new study, said:
“But it was more complicated than that […] instead of pointing to a few problematic types of plastic that should be avoided, the testing instead revealed that issues of toxicity were widespread—and could be found in nearly any type of plastic.”
The results help illustrate how little we know about the wide variety of chemicals in commonly used plastics, says Wagner. To be clear, the plastics found to have some form of toxicity aren’t necessarily harmful to human health. The researchers tested the chemicals in ways that are very different from how most people come into contact with them. Extracting compounds from plastic and exposing them directly to various cells does not mimic the exposure you get when you drink from a refillable plastic water bottle, for example.
Most Commonly Produced Chemicals
But the results do call into question the assumption that plastic products are safe until proved otherwise, says Wagner. Jane Muncke, Ph.D., an environmental toxicologist who is the managing director and chief scientific officer for the nonprofit Food Packaging Forum, which works to strengthen understanding of the chemicals that come into contact with food, said:
“Every type of plastic contains unknown chemicals,” and many of those chemicals may well be unsafe.”
Yet another study suggested that traces of a synthetic chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA) can be found in more than 80% of teenagers. BPA is added to plastic to create a unique form called polycarbonate plastic, used in making robust, impact-resistant materials for everything from food and drink packaging to DVD cases and medical devices. First created in 1891, it has been used commercially since the 1950s and is now one of the most commonly produced chemicals in the world, with 3.6bn tons of BPA generated every year.
The problem is that BPA can be ingested or absorbed through skin contact, meaning that humans are regularly exposed to the chemical leaching out of packaging into food and drink – and over the past 20 years, various studies have linked BPA to a variety of adverse health effects. The biggest concerns have been the impact on fetuses and young children, who have underdeveloped systems for detoxifying chemicals – the consequences are that the younger you are, the higher the BPA levels in your body.
Adverse Developmental Consequences
Once in the human body, BPA mimics the hormone estrogen’s action and disrupts the endocrine system. These glands produce hormones regulating, among other things, metabolism, growth, sexual function, and sleep. Studies examining the effects of very high doses of BPA in mice have shown that this can cause liver and kidney function problems and mammary gland development. While these studies involve much higher doses than the general public would ever be exposed to, there are concerns that BPA levels that accumulate in infants can still have adverse developmental consequences, leading to neurobehavioral and immune system abnormalities.
As a result, the Food and Drug Administration has banned BPA use in baby bottles and infant feeding cups in the US. However, in teenagers and adults, the exact health risk posed by persistent BPA levels in our systems remains controversial. Most notably, it has been linked to male infertility through decreasing sperm quality. Still, in addition, several scientists believe that continuous BPA exposure, altering normal hormonal signaling in the body, may be a component in the development of several chronic diseases.
Association between BPA and Breast Cancer
One study in mice found a link between BPA exposure and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance. In contrast, others have explored a potential relationship between BPA exposure and coronary artery disease due to possible alterations in cardiac function over a long period. Some have even suggested an association between BPA and breast cancer. With only 10-15% of breast cancer cases linked to hereditary factors, chemical exposure may be among the environmental factors driving the remaining issues.
They pointed to a previous study that found 90 percent of pregnant women in the US had detectable levels of 62 chemicals in their bodies, including phthalates, lead, and mercury. However, the group said that such harmful chemicals “likely represent the tip of the iceberg,” with only a “tiny minority” of the thousands of substances currently in use having been tested for their effects on the brain.