Commentary Sexual Health

STOKING FIRE: EPA Not Adequately Managing Risks of Chemicals in Consumer Products

Eleanor J. Bader

Meanwhile, US residents report skyrocketing rates of infertility, impacting both men and women, as well as an enormous spike in Autism Spectral Disorders, learning disabilities, and childhood cancers in the offspring we sire.

Early in 2009, Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, conceded that “EPA is not doing an adequate job of assessing and managing the risks of chemicals in consumer products, the workplace, and the environment.”

You can say that again. Indeed, since the Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA] took effect in January 1977, only three chemicals have been banned—lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls—and only 200 of the more than 84,000 chemicals on the EPA’s radar have been tested to determine whether they pose a danger to human health.

Meanwhile, US residents report skyrocketing rates of infertility, impacting both men and women, as well as an enormous spike in Autism Spectral Disorders, learning disabilities, and childhood cancers in the offspring we sire.

If this isn’t a right to life issue I don’t know what is.

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According to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, a Washington, DC-based network of healthcare providers, environmental and disability rights groups, reproductive health activists, and concerned individuals, “scientists on the cutting edge of research have found that chemicals such as phthalates, Bisphenol A [BPA], perflourinated compounds, and cadmium are linked to reproductive health problems.“

The upshot, a Coalition fact sheet continues, is that twelve percent of US women now have difficulties conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy, a nearly 40 percent jump since 1982. Known culprits include fibroids, polycystic ovary syndrome, and endometriosis, conditions considered rare just three decades ago. Low sperm count in men, and sperm deformities, have also increased.

These findings—as well as information about the chemicals we imbibe and breathe–are hardly a state secret. A 2008 report released by the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services was one of several to sound an alarm about one of the worst threats to healthy reproduction, Bisphenol A—a substance used to make plastics and epoxy resins. Bisphenol A is a known endocrine disruptor, meaning that it mimics the body’s hormones to wreak havoc on health. Although the NTP’s study voiced “concern” about BPA’s impact on the brain, prostate gland, and development of fetuses and growing children, it stopped short of recommending that the substance be banned.

Canadian and European Union politicians, however, were far less circumspect and as data about the danger of BPA surfaced, they had no qualms about phasing it out and requiring manufacturers to remove it from products marketed to and used by newborns and infants. 

Canada also took action on toluene, a widely used solvent found in gasoline, lacquers, ink, rubber, and disinfectants—and in many nail polishes and perfumes—another chemical linked to reproductive ailments. The EPA’s own research corroborates toluene’s danger, demonstrating that fetuses exposed to it in utero are more likely to have attention deficits, nervous system disorders, and developmental delays than those who are not.

But has it been outlawed? Of course not.

Then there are phthalates, a vinyl softener—EPA estimates that 470 million pounds of them are produced annually—that like BPA, are known endocrine disruptors. Among the maladies attributed to phthalates: Cleft palate, skeletal malformations, and undescended testes.

To her credit, EPA head Lisa Jackson has indicated that EPA plans to begin reducing phthalate exposure in 2012. What’s more, she’s said that the EPA will “identify [other] priority chemicals for near-term evaluation.” As to what constitutes a priority, Jackson says that the Agency intends to use common sense, zeroing in on chemicals “where extensively reviewed data indicates they are carcinogens, cause reproductive/developmental concerns, or are identified as persistent bioaccumulative, and toxic.”

Although the plan sounds relatively tame, environmentalists are nonetheless skeptical about the Agency’s ability to carry this objective forward. They point to the Safer Chemicals Act of 2011, a bill introduced by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg in April—presently stalled in the Environment and Public Works Committee–that would update TSCA by making chemical manufacturers accountable for proving chemical safety and requiring them to submit regularly scheduled reports to the EPA. The Act would also empower the Agency to take whatever actions are necessary to reduce human contact with risk-laden products. 

You ask: Why is the bill languishing?  Activists blame the American Chemical Council, an industry trade association, for quashing all attempts to limit what manufacturers can and can’t do. A look at what transpired when Jackson’s EPA attempted to regulate clean-up and limit exposure to trichloroethylene, or TCE, last month is illustrative.  Despite the fact that TCE is known to negatively impact fetal development and harm the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and male reproductive systems of adults who are exposed to it, the industry went ballistic over EPA attempts to change how it does business. Pressure was brought to bear and the expected regulations were never announced.

“The public wants to be protected from exposure to toxic chemicals in the air, the water, and the products they bring into their homes every day,” concludes Daniel Rosenberg, a Natural Resources Defense Council blogger. “But it seems that the White House isn’t thinking about health, the environment, or the public, only about what the chemical industry and other big polluters are demanding.”

Fisk Johnson, CEO of S.C. Johnson, admitted as much in a keynote speech before the American Chemical Society last June: “Your child has a better chance of becoming a major league baseball player,” he quipped, “than a chemical has of being regulated by EPA.”

President Obama has the power to prove Johnson wrong by pushing the EPA to fulfill its mandate. But whether he’ll finally get off the bench and do something to protect the health of the American people remains to be seen


STOKING FIRE: OTC Weed-Killing Toxin Causes Birth Defects, Poses Wide Range of Other Health Hazards

Eleanor J. Bader

According to the NIH, research indicates that the number of babies born with birth defects in places where Atrazine is sprayed is consistently higher in the months following its use. And the danger of Atrazine extends beyond physical imperfections in newborns. 

Back in May, Syngenta, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers—a company with offices in 90 countries and a workforce of 26,000 people—settled an eight-year-old class action lawsuit for $105 million. The agreement provides funding to more than 30 districts in the Midwestern United States to clean up water supplies that had been contaminated by Atrazine, a pesticide that was banned by the European Union in 2004 and that the National Institutes of Health have linked to adult illnesses and disabilities in newborn babies who were exposed to it in utero. 

According to the NIH, research indicates that the number of babies born with birth defects in places where Atrazine is sprayed—defects that include spina bifida, Down syndrome, respiratory anomalies, and esophageal, and gastrointestinal abnormalities–is consistently higher in the months following its use.  

“Atrazine is applied and spread on crops in the spring,” Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains.

“It then goes into the ground water. The amount spikes during application season so that there are weeks, or even months, when people are exposed to drinking water containing more than three parts per billion—the threshold for safety that has been determined by the Environmental Protection Agency–of this known endocrine disruptor. That’s why when a woman conceives during Atrazine application season, she is more likely to have a baby with health issues.”

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And the danger of Atrazine extends beyond physical imperfections in newborns. The Centers for Disease Control found that “chronic high dose toxicity observed in animals demonstrated decreased body weight, myocardial muscle degeneration, liver toxicity, developmental ossification defects, impaired fertility, altered estrus cycles, delayed onset of puberty, and reduced levels of luteinizing hormones, prolactin, and testosterone.” In addition, scientists noticed that humans exposed to high levels of Atrazine had an elevated risk of miscarriage, breast, and prostate cancers.

“The settlement money will help clean up and prevent future contamination,” says Paul Towers, the Organizing and Media Director of the Pesticide Action Network of North America “But it does not have any public health implications for the hazards of Atrazine. On the positive side, there is money for cleaning the water Midwesterners drink. The problem is that Syngenta has lobbied hard to keep selling Atrazine; it’s their flagship product.”

PANNA estimates that seven million US residents were exposed to Atrazine in their drinking water in the five years between 1998 and 2003. What’s more, 75 percent of all corn, 58.5 percent of all sorghum, and 76 percent of all sugarcane is presently treated with the pesticide. It’s also used on lawns and golf courses throughout the country.

As if this were not enough, recent studies conducted by the NRDC found Atrazine in the drinking water of 153 public water systems. “The adverse effects of Atrazine have been seen in amphibians, mammals, and humans, even at low levels of exposure,” the researchers concluded. ”Concentrations as low as one part per billion have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs.”

No, people are not frogs. Still, it seems clear that dangers lurk, something the EPA noted 22 years ago when it dubbed the herbicide a “restricted use product.” Despite this gesture, the designation changed nothing. Atrazine continues to be sold over the counter—to the tune of 76 million pounds a year in the U.S. alone–and there is absolutely no oversight to make sure that it is used safely. Worldwide, 60 countries allow it to be sprayed on crops.

For its part, despite the settlement agreement, Syngenta is hunkering down and continuing to sing Atrazine’s praises.

“Syngenta acknowledges no liability and continues to stand by the safety of Atrazine,” Ann Bryan, the company’s Senior Manager for External Relations wrote in an email. ”The value of Atrazine is clear. It benefits American farmers by up to $3.3 billion and supports up to 85,000 American jobs related to farming annually.”

Indeed, Atrazine IS effective and has proven to be a fast and inexpensive way to kill weeds. The question is whether having weed-free fields is worth the health risks everyone but Syngenta associates with the product.      

Worse, the fact that Atrazine can linger in the water supply for up to 15 years should give everyone–from the EPA, to farmers, to corporate executives—pause, especially since it is possible to promote safer ways of using Atrazine until it can be phased out.

The Land Stewardship Project cautions that if Atrazine has to be utilized it should never be sprayed within 200 feet of a lake, pond, or reservoir and urges the planting of high grass buffers along all rivers and streams. At the same time, the Project argues that weed control without pesticides is possible—if more labor intensive.

It comes down to how much we value the people who plant, pick, and nurture our crops since farm workers and their offspring are clearly at disproportionate risk of pesticide poisoning. “Farmers seem stuck on a pesticide treadmill,” PANNA’s Paul Towers admits. ”Rather than moving toward more ecological practices that allow us to grow more successfully, they too-often fall prey to relentless sales pitches from pesticide corporations.”  

That said, some heartening progress in workplace and consumer safety is evident. Not only has BPA, another known endocrine disruptor associated with increased heart disease, diabetes, liver toxicity, and breast cancer, been banned from baby bottles and sippy cups—a small first step–but in the past few years coalitions have formed to address the health consequences of other pesticides. To wit, six months ago, in March 2012, the Arysta LifeScience Corporation agreed to stop dumping methyl iodide on California’s strawberries fields. The concession followed an unprecedented campaign by the United Farm Workers and environmental and reproductive health groups to publicize the dangers the chemical poses for human reproduction.

While all agree that Atrazine may be a tougher nut to crack—it has been used since 1958—mounting evidence of the havoc it causes cannot be ignored. The onus, however, is on us to do extensive outreach, bringing together a broad cross-section of people to demand safe workplaces, safe food, and safe conditions for conception. Time is surely of the essence.

Commentary Health Systems

Snipping Pink Sentimentality: Persisting on the Whys of Breast Cancer

Eleanor J. Bader

If there is evidence that something is bad for human health, Breast Cancer Action believes, quite simply, that it should not be used.

Cross-posted from On the Issues Magazine.

Three years ago, The International Journal of Chemistry published an article positing Biphenyl-A, or BPA, as a primary culprit in the breast cancer epidemic of the past 50 years. The report sounded an alarm because BPA has not only been used to make plastic and epoxy resins, but has become embedded in American life, found in everything from food packaging to children’s sippy cups to flame retardants. Most frightening, more than eight billion pounds of the 54-year-old product enters the marketplace each year.

While the Journal study caused a flurry of attention among policy makers, the findings did not come as a surprise to Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco based activist organization that works to publicize — and organizes to stop – the environmental causes of breast cancer. Elenore Pred, Breast Cancer Action’s founder, had an ambitious goal when she started the group in 1990: She wanted people to recognize breast cancer as a public health emergency rather than as a personal crisis.

It’s not that Breast Cancer Action minimizes the upheaval caused by a breast cancer diagnosis. Far from it. Instead, the group delves into the whys, looking into every possible cause for breast cancer’s ubiquity, from proven causal links like family history, tobacco usage, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle, to less publicized — and in some circles less agreed upon — illness triggers, including chemicals found in the foods we eat and products we use.

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At its core, says Communications Manager Angela Wall, Breast Cancer Action advocates “precautionary principles.” That is, if there is evidence that something is bad for human health, Breast Cancer Action believes, quite simply, that it should not be used. “Once we know something is hurting us, how much evidence do we need before we stop putting it into our bodies?” she asks.

“Milking Cancer” causes a stir

Take the Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, r-BGH, a genetically engineered chemical compound, also known as Posilac, that was developed by Monsanto and approved by the FDA in 1993. While r-BGH increases milk production by approximately 10 percent, it also causes cows to develop health problems including mastitis and bacterial infections. Worse, milk from r-BGH-treated cows contains hormones that medical experts such as Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, Chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and author of Got [genetically engineered] Milk?, believe increase the risk not only of breast cancer, but of colon, lung, and prostate cancers.

Breast Cancer Action responded to the researchers’ findings by creating the Milking Cancer campaign in 2009. Unlike organizations that try to stop individual dairies from using r-BGH, BCA has gone to the source, targeting pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, the sole worldwide manufacturer of r-BGH. “We feel that the way to stop cancer is to stop making things that cause it,” Wall says. “The hypocrisy here is obvious. Eli Lilly — which purchased Monsanto’s Posilac Division in 2008 for $300 million–sells drugs to treat cancer while also producing a product that is a known carcinogen. We’ve already collected more than 6,000 signatures on a petition asking Lilly to stop making r-BGH and there’s been a groundswell of support at the grassroots level to end its production. But we know that winning this fight is going to require a long, hard organizing effort.”

The tip of a chemical iceberg

That said, some headway is already evident. A campaign called Yoplait: Put a Lid On It prompted General Mills to stop using milk from cows treated with r-BGH in its yogurt. Shortly after Yoplait agreed to this, Dannon followed suit. Other companies, including Wal-Mart, Starbuck’s and Ben and Jerry’s have also committed to selling or using r-BGH-free products.

Pesticides are also prominent on Breast Cancer Action’s agenda. They are currently focusing on methyl iodide and have teamed up with the Pesticide Action Network of North America to prohibit its use in California’s strawberry and tomato fields.

Dr. John Froines, chair of the California Scientific Review Committee, called methyl iodide “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.” That statement, along with similarly condemnatory testimony from other scientists, set Breast Cancer Action’s wheels in motion. They’ve put the precautionary principle into action, and are demanding that methyl iodide not be sprayed on the fruits and vegetables we eat. While some may think it’s a no-brainer to avoid a known poison, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of methyl iodide in 2008. Their rationale? According to FDA officials, methyl iodide is toxic only if consumed or inhaled in enormous quantities. Not so, say PANNA, Breast Cancer Action, and other activists. They brought their concerns to newly installed California Governor Jerry Brown on his first day in office — January 1, 2011 — and anxiously await his response to their demand that he stop the chemical from being used on crops.

And methyl iodide is just the tip of the chemical iceberg, which is why Breast Cancer Action is actively involved in pushing Congress to revise the 35-year-old Toxic Substance Control Act, or TOSCA. As a member of the “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, they’re asking Washington to revisit the way chemicals are tested and approved. According to the Coalition, “TOSCA grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals when it was initially passed in 1976 without requiring further testing to demonstrate safety.” Even more frightening, only a few of the more than 82,000 substances currently in use have been tested and only a handful of the most venomous –lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls — have been outlawed or limited. “Traditionally, chemicals have been regulated one at a time,” Breast Cancer Action Program Manager Kimberly Irish says. “We want a sweeping change that puts the onus on companies to prove that something is safe before it is released to the public.”

Beauty products — from shampoos, to make-up, to nail polishes — are a prime example and women’s groups and environmental activists have begun to focus on the danger they pose to both workers and consumers. Breast Cancer Action is presently participating in the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, a project that has brought manufacturers, salon owners and workers together. “The industry folks feel it’s up to workers and owners not to breathe in fumes; the workers and owners feel there should be better, safer products,” Irish explains. “Many salon workers have breathing problems and asthma. They also have an increased risk of breast cancer from what’s known as the toxic trio in polishes and sealants: Formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate.” A small victory was won when San Francisco passed an ordinance — the Collaborative hopes that it will become a national model — giving a “green business” citation to salons that do not use toxic products.

Collectively questions to get action

These campaigns — centered on advocacy to eradicate the pollutants that cause breast cancer — form the crux of Breast Cancer Action’s day-to-day work. “Involuntary exposures” are the prime target, explained former Executive Director Barbara Brenner in a 2007 podcast. “(T)he things to which we are involuntarily exposed are things that people can’t protect themselves against just by changing their behavior. That’s a question of what we all need to work on together,” Brenner said.

Breast Cancer Action has also taken on drugs that are approved to treat breast cancer. Case in point, Avastin. The group was instrumental in pushing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remove Avastin as a breast cancer treatment in December 2010. According to Irish, Breast Cancer Action looks at three things when assessing the efficacy of a particular drug. “It has to improve the patient’s survival rate, improve the person’s overall quality of life, and cost less than other similar treatments,” she begins. “In the case of Avastin, the drug was approved for breast cancer patients in 2008. Approval was fast-tracked, meaning it did not go through the full rigor of drug trials. When it was studied, researchers found that it did not prolong life, cost $88,000 a year, and caused perforation of the stomach lining and heart attacks in some users.”

And Breast Cancer Action is also mindful of the fact that race, economics, and where we live and work impact survival rates and treatment choices. Indeed, while one in eight U.S. women will develop breast cancer, African Americans and Latinas die earlier than their Caucasian peers. Finding out why, and then changing these conditions, is at the heart of Breast Cancer Action’s mission.

“We use a social justice lens in all of our work,” says Program Manager Kimberly Irish. “We ask, how can we eliminate social inequalities as they apply to breast cancer?

Part of the answer, say Breast Cancer Action staff, is making clear and accessible information available to everyone who needs it. This means that in addition to its community organizing efforts, Breast Cancer Action attends to the needs of people with breast cancer as well as their loved ones.

“We receive more than 1,000 calls a year from women who are newly diagnosed or who have a family member or friend who was just diagnosed,” Wall says. “Sometimes they don’t understand what’s happening and sometimes they want more information about a particular stage of cancer or a particular treatment. They ask lots of questions: ‘I’m 35. Should I have a mammogram?’ Or, ‘My mom died of breast cancer. Do you think I should be tested to see if I have the gene that predisposes me to the disease?’”

It goes without saying that Breast Cancer Action tries to provide callers with good, solid data and referrals. Still, the bulk of their organizing centers on fighting for a safer, cleaner world. This puts them at odds with those who favor pink ribbon “awareness” campaigns. After all, Breast Cancer Action asks, what good is awareness if the root causes of breast cancer remain unchanged?


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