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Our Chemical Environment

Until a few decades ago, the popular but falsely reassuring belief was that babies in the womb were perfectly protected by the placenta and that children were just “little adults,” requiring no special protections from environmental threats. We now know that a host of chemicals, pollutants and viruses readily travel across the placenta from mother to fetus, pre-polluting or pre-infecting a baby even before birth.

Toxic chemicals like lead, certain air pollutants, pesticides, synthetic chemicals and infectious agents like Zika can derail the intricate molecular processes involved in a fetus’s healthy brain development. So can physical and social stress experienced by the mother.

At a time when we should be spending more on research and prevention of those threats, President Trump would do the opposite. He would cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, including cuts to scientific work on chemical safety. ...
Toxic exposures are shockingly prevalent. Analysis of biomonitoring data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds dozens of toxic chemicals, pollutants and metals in pregnant women, many of which are also found in cord blood of newborns. These include pesticides sprayed in inner-city buildings and on crops, flame retardants used in furniture, combustion-related air pollutants from fossil-fuel-burning power plants and vehicles, lead, mercury and plasticizers. All have been shown in epidemiologic studies in the United States and elsewhere to be capable of damaging developing brains, especially while babies are exposed in utero or in their early life.
- FREDERICA PERERA, The Womb Is No Protection From Toxic Chemicals, NYT, JUNE 1, 2017


Our bodies are full of poisons from products we use every day. ...
Almost a decade ago, I was shaken by my reporting on a class of toxic chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are linked to cancer and obesity and also seemed to feminize males, so that male alligators developed stunted genitalia and male smallmouth bass produced eggs.

In humans, endocrine disruptors were linked to two-headed sperm and declining sperm counts. They also were blamed for an increase in undescended testicles and in a birth defect called hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis rather than the tip. ...
I had high levels of a BPA substitute called BPF. Ruthann Rudel, a toxicologist who is the head of research at Silent Spring, explained that companies were switching to BPF even though it may actually be yet more harmful (it takes longer for the body to break it down). ...

“These types of regrettable substitutions — when companies remove a chemical that has a widely known bad reputation and substitute a little-known bad actor in its place — are all too common,” Rudel told me. ...
The chemical companies spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying and have gotten the lightest regulation that money can buy.
- NICHOLAS KRISTOF, What Poisons Are in Your Body?, NYT, FEB. 23, 2018


“The idea that food might become less nutritious was a surprise, it’s not intuitive,” said Dr. Myers. “But I think we should continue to expect surprises. We are completely altering the biophysical conditions that underpin our food system, and we still have very little understanding of how those disruptions will ripple through ecosystems and affect human health.”
- Brad Plumer, How More Carbon Dioxide Can Make Food Less Nutritious, NYT, May 23, 2018


An increasing number of children are born with intersex variation (IV; ambiguous genitalia/hermaphrodite, pseudohermaphroditism, etc.). Evidence shows that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in the environment can cause reproductive variation through dysregulation of normal reproductive tissue differentiation, growth, and maturation if the fetus is exposed to EDCs during critical developmental times in utero. Animal studies support fish and reptile embryos exhibited IV and sex reversal when exposed to EDCs. Occupational studies verified higher prevalence of offspring with IV in chemically exposed workers (male and female). Chemicals associated with endocrine-disrupting ability in humans include organochlorine pesticides, poly-chlorinated biphenyls, bisphenol A, phthalates, dioxins, and furans. Intersex individuals may have concurrent physical disorders requiring lifelong medical intervention and experience gender dysphoria. An urgent need exists to determine which chemicals possess the greatest risk for IV and the mechanisms by which these chemicals are capable of interfering with normal physiological development in children.
- Alisa L. Rich, Laura M. Phipps, Sweta Tiwari, Hemanth Rudraraju, and Philip O. Dokpesi, The Increasing Prevalence in Intersex Variation from Toxicological Dysregulation in Fetal Reproductive Tissue Differentiation and Development by Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals, Environmental Health Insights, Sept. 8, 2016, 10: 163–171.


I was born intersex, with XY chromosomes but Complete Androgen Insensitivity. If you’re not sure what that means, I don’t blame you. By some estimates, almost 2 percent of the world’s population is intersex like me but is still living in the shadows because of societal stigma and shame. ...
The gonadectomy surgery performed on my body was internal but opened the floodgates for a sequence of physical alterations that would affect my appearance and identity. Any subsequent decisions made about my body that involved me, at an age of informed consent, were constrained by this first choice: to render me traditionally female. Regardless of my liminal genetic code — or rather, regarding it as a threat to societal norms — the train to my idealized gender presentation had already left the station. Why were all these decisions fast-tracked onto my body? Not because they were medically necessary — I would have been perfectly healthy just living and growing as little old me — but because they were vital to “normalize” me.
The desire to force-fit people into societally conditioned boxes has led to sterilizing children and enacting medically unnecessary surgeries on them. These surgeries are irreversible, lead to physical and emotional scarring, and their subjects are un-consenting. They are, to put it bluntly, the coercive application of Western cultural ideals to everyday human bodies.
- Alicia Roth Weigel, Intersex, and Erased Again, NYT, Oct. 23, 2018


The society also noted that transgender young people “have high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use, self-harm and suicide.” ...
Apart from transgender issues, other conditions make it clear that defining male and female is not so simple. For instance, there are people with XY chromosomes — which makes them genetically male — who look, act and feel like women because their bodies cannot react to male hormones. ...
- Denise Grady, Anatomy Does Not Determine Gender, Experts Say, NYT, Oct. 22, 2018


The most thorough existing research finds intersex people to constitute an estimated 1.7% of the population*, which makes being intersex about as common as having red hair (1%-2%). However, popularly misinterpretted, much referenced statistics would have you believe are numbers are much lower. Here’s why.

Some groups use an old prevalence statistic that says we make up 1 in 2000, or .05%, percent of the population, but that statistic refers to one specific intersex trait, ambiguous genitalia, which is but one of many variations which, combined (as they are in medical diagnostics and coding), constitute the 1.7% estimate by esteemed Professor of Biology and Gender Studies, Anne Fausto-Sterling, of Brown University*. A similar, slightly higher, statistic was also reported in, “How Sexually Dimorphic Are We?”, by Blackless, et al, in The American Journal of Human Biology.
- Hida Viloria, How Common is Intersex? An Explanation of the Stats, Intersex Campaign for Equality, April 1, 2015


Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female one in 100 births
Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearance one or two in 1,000 births
- Intersex Society of North America, How common is intersex?, undated, accessed on Oct. 24, 2018 [referencing Dreger, Alice Domurat. 1998. Ambiguous Sex—or Ambivalent Medicine? Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Intersexuality. Hastings Center Report, 28, 3: 24-35, and Blackless, Melanie, Anthony Charuvastra, Amanda Derryck, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Karl Lauzanne, and Ellen Lee. 2000. How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and synthesis. American Journal of Human Biology 12:151-166.]



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