By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
Chemicals that interfere with the male hormone system are so common — and so potentially damaging — that the government should stop studying them one by one and consider their combined effect, an expert panel said Thursday.
Phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals pollute the air, water and dust and are found in hundreds of consumer products — including bug spray, perfume, pesticides, shower curtains, food containers, and plastic toys, according to a report released today from the National Research Council, which advises the government on science policy. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and independent scientists have found phthalates in virtually everyone, including pregnant women and babies.
The Environmental Protection Agency typically studies the impact of these and other chemicals individually. But that approach may underestimate the effect of being exposed to many different chemicals with similar effects, says the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry's Deborah Cory-Slechta, chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report.
The best way to protect people — especially infants and fetuses, whose reproductive systems are still developing — is to measure the cumulative impact of this hormonal barrage, Cory-Slechta says. In fact, she says that the EPA should always consider cumulative effects — not just for hormone disruptors, but for all potential toxins.
That will allow the EPA to figure out the maximum level to which humans can safely be exposed and create regulations to protect Americans from exposures that could be harmful, says Sarah Janssen of the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. Janssen says she hopes that other government agencies — such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission — will also consider the cumulative effect of hormone disruptors in food additives, medical equipment, toys and other products.
"We're exposed to a complex soup of chemicals," Janssen says. "It's a warning we can't ignore."
There's enough evidence to start that assessment right away, instead of waiting until additional studies are finished, Cory-Slechta says. Although the report focused primarily on phthalates, Cory-Slechta note that other products, such as pesticides used in food, also lower testosterone levels. Animal and human studies link all of these chemicals to a wide spectrum of problems, from reduced sperm counts to genital malformations. Scientists are also studying the chemicals' link to testicular cancer and other problems, the report says. Although most of the research has been done in animals, there's no reason to think that the substances wouldn't affect humans the same way, says report co-author Paul Foster, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
But the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, says that considering the risks of so many chemicals that affect male hormones would be "remarkably ambitious" — and maybe impossible. "This essentially could result in a study without limits, financially or otherwise," says the council's Chris Bryant in a statement. Lawmakers and business around the world already have taken steps to limit phthalate exposure. The European Union has restricted phthalates in cosmetics and children's toys. A growing number of hospitals are phasing out phthalates in neonatal intensive care units, hoping to protect premature and sickly newborn boys.
Congress last summer passed a ban banning several phthalates in children's products. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has said that it will allow stores to continue selling toys made with phthalates, as long as they were manufactured before the law takes effect Feb. 10th.