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Chemicals in the Environment

The E.P.A. has compiled a list of 100 potentially risky chemicals and 12 microbes that are known or expected to be found in public water systems, but are not yet regulated. ... There are thousands of other chemicals, viruses and microbes that scientists like Dr. Griffiths say the agency has not begun to assess. ... The soup of contaminants in many water sources holds other possibilities for trouble. The E.P.A.’s latest list of potentially risky substances includes some variants of estrogen, compounds from birth-control pills and other pharmaceuticals that are already linked to sexual changes in fish. Individually, they probably pose little risk to humans. Together, Dr. Klaper said, the risk may or may not be greater.

“How do you look at the long-term impact of these trace chemicals?” she asked. “That’s what we’re trying to wrap our heads around. The research that could determine whether anything is a problem is very complicated.”

- Michael Wines and John Schwartz, Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to Flint, NYT, Feb. 8, 2016



"Unlike the diseases of the nineteenth century, such as smallpox and cholera, which were immediately evident to the affected person, the effects of eating, breathing, and drinking minute doses of a vast array of synthetic chemical compounds cycled through soil, air, groundwater, and streams into insects, food, fish, and humans are not immediately apparent. Symptoms may not reveal themselves because of the incremental and subtle nature of the effects of absorbing small amounts of pesticides and other chemicals until 20 or 30 years later." [p. 97] ...

"The US National Academy of Sciences recently estimated that some 70,000 synthetic chemicals are used and traded in the United States; 25,000 are in "common use." People may be exposed to at least 50,000 chemicals (Elkington 1985, p. 44). [Elkington, J. 1985. The Poisoned Womb: Human Reproduction in a Polluted World. Harmondsworth, England and New York: Viking Press.] ... Most chemicals to which we are exposed are untested or inadequately tested for human and environmental hazards." [pp. 102-3]
- H. Patricia Hynes, ''The Recurring Silent Spring, Pergamon Press, 1989


A Call for Action on Toxic Chemicals:

Every day, children and adults are exposed to a variety of chemicals found in common household items. Now a growing body of research suggests that many of these chemicals — which are used to make plastic more flexible, fruits and vegetables more abundant and upholstery less flammable — may also pose a threat to the developing brain. ...
...most chemicals in use today were not adequately tested for safety before being allowed on the market, said Dr. Jeanne Conry, an obstetrician-gynecologist and a past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which is part of the coalition. ...
The call to action comes just one week after President Obama signed into a law a much-debated overhaul of the nation’s 40-year-old toxic chemical rules. The update to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act subjects some 64,000 existing chemicals to eventual safety testing. But critics say the changes don’t go far enough, and the testing of chemicals is far too slow — just 20 chemicals at a time with a deadline of seven years per chemical. And the new law doesn’t cover pesticides used in food production – which critics say are one of the largest sources of childhood chemical exposures. ...
Wading into a potentially contentious issue like regulation of chemicals is unusual for ACOG, a professional medical association for doctors who care for pregnant women. The group has been alarmed by rising rates of neurodevelopmental disorders and other health problems in children, which it linked to toxic exposures in a 2013 scientific paper.

National health surveys show that 15 percent of children had a developmental disability in 2008, up from 12.8 percent in 1996. Researchers say changes in diagnostic criteria and a greater awareness of developmental disorders including autism, attention deficit disorders, and other learning disabilities may explain some of the increase in rates, but not all of it. ...
Organophosphate Pesticides: ... In one study, women who were pregnant when they lived near areas where these pesticides were in use were up to three times more likely to have a child who developed autism or other developmental disorders. ...
Flame Retardants: ... Recent studies have found that children exposed prenatally to higher levels of flame retardants had lower I.Q.s and higher hyperactivity scores. Similar effects have been found in animal studies. ...
Lead: The government has banned leaded gasoline and household paint, but old homes and pipes often still contain lead that gathers in dust and leaches into water. Lead is so toxic that no level of exposure is considered safe, and even low blood levels are associated with lower intelligence and attention deficits. In 2010, an estimated 535,000 children were identified with alarmingly high levels of lead.
Phthalates: These chemicals cross the placenta during pregnancy, and prenatal exposure has been linked in studies to problems with attention and intellectual deficits. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned the use of six phthalates in toys and child care products, but they are still widely used in all kinds of products, from food packaging to personal care products and building materials. ...
Combustion-Related Air Pollutants – ... Air pollutants can cross the placenta, and prenatal and early childhood exposure to some pollutants has been linked with preterm birth and low birth weight, as well as developmental delays, inattention and reduced I.Q.
Studies show almost all American women have these chemicals circulating in their bodies during pregnancy. A recent study of about 300 women found detectable levels of pesticides, flame retardants, phthalates, PCBs and other chemicals in 99 percent to 100 percent of the women tested.

- Roni Caryn Rabin, A Call for Action on Toxic Chemicals, NYT, July 1, 2016


Project TENDR Article:

The vast majority of chemicals in industrial and consumer products undergo almost no testing for developmental neurotoxicity or other health effects. ...we assert that the current system in the United States for evaluating scientific evidence and making health-based decisions about environmental chemicals is fundamentally broken. To help reduce the unacceptably high prevalence of neurodevelopmental disorders in our children, we must eliminate or significantly reduce exposures to chemicals that contribute to these conditions.
- Project TENDR: Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks. The TENDR Consensus Statement, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 124, Issue 7, July 2016


In 2016, FDA banned many antibacterial soap ingredients:

The Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of soaps containing certain antibacterial chemicals on Friday, saying industry had failed to prove they were safe to use over the long term or more effective than using ordinary soap and water.

In all the F.D.A. took action against 19 different chemicals and has given industry a year to take them out of their products. About 40 percent of soaps — including liquid hand soap and bar soap – contain the chemicals. Triclosan, mostly used in liquid soap, and triclocarban, in bar soaps, are by far the most common. ...
Experts have pushed the agency to regulate antimicrobial chemicals, warning that they risk scrambling hormones in children and promoting drug-resistant infections.

“It has boggled my mind why we were clinging to these compounds...,” said Rolf Halden, a scientist at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, who has been tracking the issue for years. “They had absolutely no benefit but we kept them buzzing around us everywhere. They are in breast milk, in urine, in blood, in babies just born, in dust, in water.” ...

The American Cleaning Institute, a trade group, opposed the rule.... ...
Studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism.... The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemicals in the urine of three-quarters of Americans.
Dr. Halden... said... triclocarban takes a very long time to disappear. In one study in New York City, for example, his team found traces of it that dated back to the 1960s.
- Sabrina Tavernise, F.D.A. Bans Sale of Many Antibacterial Soaps, Saying Risks Outweigh Benefits, NYT, Sept. 2, 2016


There is evidence that lead poisoning may have contributed to the 19th century downfall of Japan's shogun ruling class.

Led by the anatomist Tamiji Nakashima, the researchers unearthed the remains of 70 people from a samurai burial place in the ancient city of Kokura. After testing the concentration of lead in their bones, they determined that the women in the group had higher lead levels than the men; the children’s levels, meanwhile, were up to 50 times higher than their parents’. The most elevated levels showed up in those under age 3—a median of 1,241 micrograms of lead per gram of dry bone, or more than 120 times the minimum amount now believed to cause neurological disorders, behavioral problems and severe intellectual impairment.
What caused the samurai kids’ apparent lead poisoning and the discrepancy between the men’s and women’s respective levels? Nakashima and his team point to the lead-heavy cosmetics samurai women often used during the Edo period. As members of an elite group, samurai wives wanted to look stylish, so they took fashion cues from the celebrities of their day: famous geishas, courtesans and Kabuki actresses. Many of these high-profile women coated their faces in a lead-based white powder that served as a canvas for brightly colored accents. ...

Young children’s exposure may have occurred while they breastfed, and those who did not die from the metal’s effects probably suffered from the many mental and physical symptoms it can produce, Nakashima said. The historical record hints that even the shoguns were not impervious: Several rulers during the Edo period were afflicted with mysterious disorders that are consistent with lead toxicity. The lower classes, meanwhile, were prohibited from using cosmetics and could not have afforded them anyway; their inferior status granted them immunity from a lethal luxury that may have weakened their leaders and created enough political instability to bring down the shogunate system.
- Jennie Cohen, Did Lead Makeup Poison Samurai Kids & Topple Japan’s Shogunate?, History.com, Sept. 21, 2010



Lead Poisoning in America:

...the US government, faced at various times with a choice between protecting children from lead poisoning and protecting the businesses that produced and marketed lead paint, almost invariably chose the latter. ...
Long before the Baltimore toddler study was even conceived, millions of children had their growth and intelligence stunted by lead-contaminated consumer products—and some five million preschool children are still at risk today. One expert even estimated that America’s failure to address the lead paint problem early on may well have cost the American population, on average, five IQ points—enough to double the number of retarded children and halve the number of gifted children in the country. Not only would our nation have been more intelligent had its leaders banned lead paint early on, it might have been safer too, since lead is known to cause impulsivity and aggression. Blood lead levels in adolescent criminals tend to be several times higher than those of noncriminal adolescents, and there is a strong geographical correlation between crime rates and lead exposure in US cities. ...
By the 1920s, it was known that one common cause of childhood lead poisoning was the consumption of lead paint chips. Lead paint was popular in American homes because its brightness appealed to the national passion for hygiene and modernism, but the chips taste sweet, and it could be difficult to keep small children away from them. Because of its well-known dangers, many other countries banned interior lead paint during the 1920s and 1930s, including Belgium, France, Austria, Tunisia, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden, Spain, and Yugoslavia.
In 1922, the League of Nations proposed a worldwide lead paint ban, but at the time, the US was the largest lead producer in the world, and consumed 170,000 tons of white lead paint each year. The Lead Industries Association had grown into a powerful political force, and the pro-business, America-first Harding administration vetoed the ban. Products containing lead continued to be marketed to American families well into the 1970s, and by midcentury lead was everywhere: in plumbing and lighting fixtures, painted toys and cribs, the foil on candy wrappers, and even cake decorations. Because most cars ran on leaded gasoline, its concentration in the air was also increasing, especially in cities.
Lead paint was the most insidious danger of all because it can cause brain damage even if it isn’t peeling. Lead dust drifts off walls, year after year, even if you paint over it. It’s also almost impossible to get rid of. ...
Only in the early 1950s did companies start removing lead from most domestic products. But lead house paint remained in use until the congressional ban in the late 1970s, and it’s still on the walls of some 30 million American homes today.
Minuscule amounts of lead can poison a child. The signs of severe lead poisoning—convulsions, pain, coma, etc.—are typically seen when the concentration of blood lead exceeds sixty micrograms per deciliter (a tenth of a liter) of blood. This corresponds to the ingestion of a total amount of lead weighing about the same as six grains of table salt. ... studies have found that even infinitesimally low levels—down to one or two micrograms per deciliter—can reduce a child’s IQ and impair her self-control and ability to organize thoughts. ...
The 1985 leaded gasoline ban and the gradual renovation of slum housing have since reduced the number of poisoned children, so that today, the CDC estimates that some 500,000 children who are between one and five years old have lead levels over five micrograms per deciliter.
As the scale and horror of the lead paint problem came to light, the lead companies played down the bad news. When popular magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal began publicizing the dangers of lead poisoning in the 1930s and 1940s, lead and paint manufacturers placed cartoons in National Geographic and The Saturday Evening Post celebrating the joy that lead paint brought into children’s lives. Advertisements for Dutch Boy paint—which contained enough lead in one coat of a two-by-two-inch square to kill a child—depicted their tow-headed mascot painting toys with Father Christmas smiling over his shoulder. ...
So, just as the tobacco industry deliberately obfuscated the dangers of cigarettes until skyrocketing smoking-related Medicaid costs finally led state governments to sue the companies, and just as oil company–backed scientists now downplay the dangers of greenhouse gases, the lead industry also lied to Americans for decades, and the government did nothing to stop it.
- Helen Epstein, Lead Poisoning: The Ignored Scandal, New York Review of Books, March 21, 2013 (a review of Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner)


Lead Poisoning and Rome, by James Grout, provides a good introduction to the much debated issue of the impact of lead poisoning on Roman civilization. See also Steve Muhlberger's Lead and the Fall of Rome: A Bibliography

Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.

The chemicals, called phthalates, can disrupt male hormones like testosterone and have been linked to genital birth defects in infant boys and learning and behavior problems in older children. The chemicals migrate into food from packaging and equipment used in manufacturing and may pose special risks to pregnant women and young children. ...
There is strong evidence that phthalates block the production of the hormone testosterone. “That means there is less testosterone available to the developing male fetus, and since testosterone is absolutely vital to build his reproductive organs, the worry is that you will get malformations and other kinds of problems that translate to health effects later,” Dr. Patisaul said. Those include “infertility, low sperm counts, altered male reproductive behavior and changes in the area of the brain that are important for sex differences between men and women,” as well as a heightened risk of testicular cancer later on, she said.

“If you asked most scientists about the top 10 or 20 endocrine-disrupting chemicals they worry about, phthalates would be on that list,” Dr. Patisaul said. “We have an enormous amount of data.”
- RONI CARYN RABIN, The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese, NYT, JULY 12, 2017


The pesticide [chlorpyrifos], which belongs to a class of chemicals developed as a nerve gas made by Nazi Germany, is now found in food, air and drinking water. Human and animal studies show that it damages the brain and reduces I.Q.s.... ...
One 2012 study found that it was in the umbilical cord blood of 87 percent of newborn babies tested. ...
The Environmental Protection Agency actually banned Dow’s Nerve Gas Pesticide for most indoor residential use 17 years ago — so it’s no longer found in the Raid you spray at cockroaches.... The E.P.A. was preparing to ban it for agricultural and outdoor use this spring, but then the Trump administration rejected the ban.

That was a triumph for Dow, but the decision stirred outrage among public health experts. They noted that Dow had donated $1 million for President Trump’s inauguration.
So Dow’s Nerve Gas Pesticide will still be used on golf courses, road medians and crops that end up on our plate. Kids are told to eat fruits and vegetables, but E.P.A. scientists found levels of this pesticide on such foods at up to 140 times the limits deemed safe. ...
The $800 billion chemical industry lavishes money on politicians and lobbies its way out of effective regulation. This has always been a problem, but now the Trump administration has gone so far as to choose chemical industry lobbyists to oversee environmental protections. ...
I’ve written about the evidence that toxic chemicals are lowering men’s sperm counts, and new research suggests by extrapolation that by 2060, a majority of American and European men could even be infertile. ...
... Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.
- Nicholas Kristof, Trump’s Legacy: Damaged Brains, NYT, Oct. 28, 2017


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