Celebrating 25 Years of Endocrine Disruptors Research

written by Elise Miller, MEd
Director
updated September 19, 2016

Twenty-five years ago “endocrine disrupting chemicals” was hardly a household term. Now at the grocery store or while traveling, I’ve been astonished to hear “endocrine disrupting chemicals” or “EDCs” roll off some people’s tongues as though they were toxicologists, rather than parents with little background in science simply voicing concerns about possible links between chemical exposures and their kids’ health. Even mainstream news outlets refer to EDCs with only the briefest of explanations these days.

How did this happen? I certainly don’t have the space here to detail this remarkable story, but some pioneering researchers in the 1990s were central to bringing these critical issues and a revolution in scientific thinking to national and international attention. Theo Colborn, Pete Myers, Niels Skakkebaek, John McLachlan and Lou Guillette – to name just a few – began publishing and speaking to other scientists, health professionals, health advocates, philanthropists and journalists about the significance of this research. In language accessible to lay audiences, they brought home the point that certain chemicals, pervasive in our environment, could disrupt healthy biological processes at minuscule doses during key windows of development. Most disturbingly, they described how these synthetic chemicals were present in the womb and could contribute to chronic diseases and disabilities across the lifespan.

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Top 10: 3rd Quarter 2015

We present the ten most significant news or research stories in environmental health of the last quarter, in CHE’s view. The first three items are statements from major scientific or health organizations summarizing large bodies of research and drawing conclusions about the interaction of our environments and our health. These reports join a growing list of statements and documents (see compilations of consensus statements and of resolutions and scientific statements on CHE’s website).

Additional items in this list present notable new research, new policy developments, new focus or new thinking on their respective topics.

  1. FIGOInternational Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics opinion on reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemical: The global health and economic burden related to toxic environmental chemicals is in excess of millions of deaths and billions of dollars every year, including impacts on health and quality of life. On the basis of accumulating robust evidence of exposures and adverse health impacts related to toxic environmental chemicals, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) joins other leading reproductive health professional societies in calling for timely action to prevent harm.
    Read CHE’s Blog post on the statement, written by a statement author, and join CHE’s call on the statement on October 30th.
  2. Executive Summary to EDC-2: The Endocrine Society’s second scientific statement on endocrine-disrupting chemicals: The full Scientific Statement represents a comprehensive review of the literature on seven topics for which there is strong mechanistic, experimental, animal, and epidemiological evidence for endocrine disruption, namely: obesity and diabetes, female reproduction, male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in females, prostate cancer, thyroid, and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems.
  3. PlanetaryHealthSafeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health: A growing body of evidence shows that the health of humanity is intrinsically linked to the health of the environment, but by its actions humanity now threatens to destabilize the Earth’s key life-support systems.
    See the infographic that accompanies this report.
  4. California bill leads nation with significant steps to limit antibiotic overuse in meat production: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the top health threats facing the nation. This action puts California at the forefront of efforts in the US to limit the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in meat production and protect the efficacy of precious antibiotics.
  5. Pesticide exposure linked to diabetes development: New studies, including a meta-analysis, appear to show that there is a link between exposure to pesticides and the later development of diabetes, researchers reported at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.
    See more about the meta-analysis: Analysis of 21 studies shows exposure to pesticides is associated with increased risk of developing diabetes.
    Although this meta-analysis and other studies were presented at a conference and have not been published, we felt this topic merited inclusion in the Top 10 because it reinforces the growing number of peer-reviewed studies that suggest a link between diabetes and pesticides.
  6. Assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment: the challenge ahead: Our analysis suggests that the cumulative effects of individual (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways, and a variety of related systems, organs, tissues and cells could plausibly conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies.
    See news coverage on this report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS): Exposure to low levels of chemical mixtures linked with cancer and Low-dose mixtures and cancer highlighted at NIEHS symposium, plus CHE’s teleconference call on the report: Theories of carcinogenesis: assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment.
  7. Association of child poverty, brain development, and academic achievement: Poverty is tied to structural differences in several areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills, with the largest influence observed among children from the poorest households.
    See a news report on the study, drawing from an interview with the study senior author: Effect of poverty on brains may explain poor kids’ lower test scores.
    As the author notes, this study “closes the loop and adds the missing piece” regarding the connection between poverty, brain development and academic achievement, finding that the effects are mediated by a smaller hippocampus and frontal and temporal lobes and that the decrease in volume of the latter two structures explained as much as 15% to 20% of the achievement deficits found. Of note is that children facing numerous other risk factors for poor brain development were screened out from this study. cumulativeImpactsThe impacts of poverty, nutrition, conflict, disease and other stressors in addition to exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation each may have individual and synergistic effects on brain development. This study brings focus to the role of poverty on brain development and achievement, but because children living in poverty often face other adverse conditions concomitant to poverty, the full effects of poverty are likely even greater than reported in this study.
  8. Two articles on health effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking): Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and oil and natural gas operations: potential environmental contamination and recommendations to assess complex environmental mixtures and Environmental and health impacts of ‘fracking’: why epidemiological studies are necessary. These articles make the case for concern over serious impacts on health and call for more research, including regarding the endocrine-disrupting potential of chemicals used in the process.
  9. The scandal regarding Volkswagen’s programming cars to avoid emissions control. A flurry of news reports on this situation were published. We present two focusing on human health impacts: Scientists say car emissions rigging raises health concerns and How many deaths did Volkswagen’s deception cause in the US? Because 11 million cars worldwide may be affected, and because diesel-fueled cars account for just 3 percent of passenger vehicles in America but closer to 50 percent in Europe, the health impacts of VW’s intentional undermining of clean air standards could be enormous.
  10. The Center for Public Integrity’s series on occupational exposures and health. CPI’s reports published a long list of articles describing the health impacts of occupational exposures on workers and their families, the failure of current safeguards, the push to weaken even those, and recommendations for reform.

Your Health the Week of May 25th

written by Nancy Hepp, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

Improving air quality

school busesTwo items this week relate to actions that can improve air quality. The first from Living On Earth reports on efforts and positive outcomes in Pennsylvania to reduce exhaust by cutting down idling by school buses: School bus pollution is dangerous, and efforts to control it are still uneven. Given the number of school buses and the known health hazards from diesel exhaust, no-idling efforts can make a big difference in children’s health.

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Your Health This Week

Nancy Heppwritten by Nancy Hepp, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

CHE has been publishing a news feed for several years. We also take a subset of those news stories, journal articles, and announcements that specifically address Your Health — information that you might find useful in safeguarding or improving your own health or that of your family — and publish those as a separate feed. Readers can subscribe to either feed via RSS, but this post initiates a regular series that summarizes and highlights recent Your Health items and trends.

Bringing attention to specific resources and findings does not mean CHE endorses or validates them. We highlight the emerging science and its implications for Your Health, knowing that the science will continue to evolve.

New video: Reducing EDC exposures

link to the videoEDCs, which have been associated with diabetes, some cancers, learning disorders, and harm to reproduction, have been in the news increasingly in the last few years. A short video from Women in Europe for a Common Future provides an overview of the issues and information for pregnant women on how to protect themselves and their children from EDCs.

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Making the Bottom Line Healthier for All: The Economic Argument for Reducing Exposures

written by Elise Miller, MEd
Director

What does it cost us to have more people than ever suffering from chronic illnesses? Last week a highly respected health economist in Europe, along with a number of scientists specializing in endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), released a groundbreaking report indicating that the EU is spending at least $175 billion (US) a year on chronic diseases related to EDC exposures. This was the first analysis of its kind to focus on the costs of neurological effects, obesity and diabetes (related to the disruption of metabolic function), and male reproductive disorders.

from the EU reportAnd this is of course not just a European concern. Over the past decade or two, leaders in environmental health have provided various estimates on the environmentally attributable fraction of costs for various health endpoints, such as ADHD, childhood cancers, and asthma, in the US. All of these analyses, even the most conservative ones, have indicated that society would save billions of dollars every year in health care costs and lost wages if we reduced exposures to certain chemical contaminants. As the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences noted in response to the EU report, “If you applied these [health care] numbers to the US, they would be applicable, and in some cases higher.”

quote from Lizzie GrossmanLizzie Grossman made this point even clearer in her breaking article: “To put $175 billion in perspective, it is more than the combined proposed 2016 budgets for the US Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, National Park Service, and Environmental Protection Agency combined.”

Another way of thinking about this is even if the estimated health care costs related to exposures to EDCs were only about half of that, say $90 billion, we could quintuple the budgets for Head Start and Child Care and Development Fund in the US with those savings alone. That would mean a lot more kids could get a far better start in life—and of course, a lot fewer adults would be suffering from preventable diseases.

On the federal level, the politics are so mired and convoluted that a bill to protect citizens more effectively from exposures to the tens of thousands of untested chemicals that are on the market has yet to pass Congress. The latest draft of the measure to reform the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), circulated to lawmakers earlier this week, continues to have some serious flaws according to many colleagues. This means that it’s not at all clear how the Senate hearing on this version will go next week.

But there is good news on the market front. On Monday, it was announced that Ashley Furniture, the largest furniture retailer in the US, has agreed to stop using toxic flame retardants (which are EDCs) in their products. This is of course a huge win for consumers and shows that leading companies can move away from using chemicals that impact human health without harming their bottom line—and perhaps even increasing it. Plus, health will improve more broadly because people won’t be exposed to flame retardants—in turn, reducing health care costs across society. And that brings us back to the seminal report I mentioned at the beginning on health costs in the EU linked to EDCs.

The economic argument for minimizing exposures to toxic chemicals is a powerful one because it is grounded in evidence-based science. Naysayers can continue to try to make the case that these exposures are not really harmful to health and that removing them would undermine the economy. But it’s clear that companies like Ashley Furniture aren’t going to wait for politics to catch up with the science to do the right thing. Here’s to more companies and decision-makers in every sector of society realizing that a healthy bottom line can in fact be healthier for all.

Electromagnetic Fields: The Chemical Connection

written by Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

Elise Miller, MEdAs you probably remember from your high school biology class, our bodies function using electrical impulses to communicate between cells, such as telling your heart muscles to contract or signaling your brain that you just stubbed your toe. Since everything relies on these signals, any breakdown or disruption in your body’s electrical system can become a real problem.

We also know that certain toxic agents, such as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), can alter our bodies’ hormonal messaging systems (which, by the way, uses electrical signals to communicate). When exposures to these chemicals, even in tiny amounts, happen during critical windows of development, then a wide range of health problems can result over a person’s lifetime.

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The “Junk Science Threat” to Free Trade

CHE Partner Paul Whaley
Editor, Health & Environment blog

Excerpted with permission of the author.

In January this year, MEP Julie Girling contributed an opinion piece to the Wall Street Journal (Girling 2014) in which she decried “the EU’s expanding embrace of ‘precautionary’ regulation” of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), equating this to a “junk science” approach to policy-making.

Since this piece promulgates a number of misconceptions about the legal and scientific underpinnings of precautionary policy-making, which need to be resolved if we are to do as Girling wants and move “toward a common approach to these issues”, it is worth deconstructing some of the points she presents.

Continue reading on the Health & Environment blog.