A “critical period” for our health, hormones

Regulatory rollbacks and decreased public health protections threaten progress on chemicals that mess with our reproduction, brains and behavior.

Inefficient federal testing and outsized industry influence in Washington threaten decades of progress on protecting people from hormone-altering chemicals, scientists warn in a new commentary.


Health researchers are used to talking about "critical periods" — windows of time when chemical exposures can have the most devastating, and long-lasting, impacts—now they say we, as a society, are in a critical period of our own.

"The significant progress made over the past couple of decades to understand endocrine disrupting chemical-related effects and mitigate exposures is now at serious risk," write the authors of a commentary in an upcoming Hormones and Behavior journal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeks to streamline, and possibly eliminate, critical chemical testing, health agencies' budgets are under attack and industry leaders are taking top science posts. And the number of hormone-altering chemicals in our water, air, food, cosmetics, toys and water bottles continues to grow. While estimates vary, there are about 800 chemicals currently produced that are known or suspected endocrine disruptors.

The deregulation and chemical proliferation could halt years of progress on understanding the insidious ways some everyday products alter human hormones and hurt our health, the authors write.

The chemicals are diverse in use and impact. Some are more infamous—BPA, common flame-retardants like PBDEs, and phthalates—while some are just starting to grab headlines, such as certain perfluorinated compounds, which have been found in water systems across the U.S. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to hosts of health problems including impacts to fertility, reproduction, brain and behavior problems, obesity and some cancers.

Co-author of the new commentary, Emily Barrett, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said proposed cuts to the EPA would only further limit the agencies' ability to deal with a huge backlog of chemicals that need to be tested.

In a September EPA report, the agency found that of 10,000 chemicals—including pesticides and those found in drinking water—identified in 2012 as needing screening, only 174 have been screened and tested for endocrine disruption so far.

But, if the Trump Administration has its way, the agency's budget would be reduced by about 31 percent next year. This year the EPA budget was cut by $81 million, and staff is already shrinking: the EPA offered buyouts to about 1,200 employees in the summer and about a third took them up on the offer.

Industry influence

It's not just who's leaving, but who's joining. Former chemical industry reps are sitting in top spots. President Trump recently nominated Michael Dourson, who ran a consulting group that routinely took money from giant chemical companies for industry-friendly research, to head the agency's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. The Senate Environment Committee this week advanced the nomination with a party-line vote—Republicans supporting Dourson and Democrats continuing to raise alarms about his ties.

Next up is a full Senate vote. If confirmed, Dourson will join Nancy Beck, previously a senior policy director with the American Chemistry Council, who is the deputy assistant administrator in the Office.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, has also nominated four additional industry scientists to serve on the EPA's Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals: the ACC's Richard Becker, Steven Bennett of the Consumer Specialty Products Association, Sheri Blystone of SNF Holding Company, and Stuart Cagen of Shell Health.

The Council is a major political player: contributing $542,000 during the 2016 election cycle, with about 79 percent going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Council spent an additional $9 million on lobbying. And 60 of the Council's 79 lobbyists previously worked in government.

The new appointees at the agency are helping roll out the updated Toxic Substances Control Act, which regulates the manufacture and sale of chemicals. TSCA was overhauled, with bipartisan support, for the first time in more than four decades last year.

"The people appointed or nominated to participate in the process [of putting revised TSCA into action] almost all have strong ties to chemical manufacturing … it's a direct conflict of interest," said co author of the new commentary, Heather Patisaul, a professor in the toxicology program at North Carolina State University.

In June, the EPA released three framework rules for the updated TSCA, which included: how the agency will prioritize chemicals, dividing them by high or low risk; new methods for studying the health and environmental risks of the chemicals; and removing chemicals not used commercially since 2006.

While the proposed 2018 Trump budget would give the TSCA program a bump, it recommended completely eliminating the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program.

The EPA did not return requests to comment on budget cuts or the hiring of former industry reps.

Laura Vandenberg, a researcher and assistant professor at UMass Amherst's School of Public Health and Health Sciences, said one major problem with the updated TSCA is that it preempts states from having stricter chemical regulations than the feds.

Several states, such as California and Maine, have been much more proactive in limiting or banning certain endocrine disruptors, or requiring product labeling.

Rhode Island, for example, just this month restricted the use of organhalogen flame-retardants in household furniture and bedding.

Hope remains

All hope is not lost, Barrett said. Endocrine disruption research is just three decades old and there are more and more scientists—most at universities—studying the impacts of our chemical-filled planet.

She said it's more important than ever for the researchers to take their findings out of the lab.

"The times we're living in are forcing us to take step back, look at the world around us and figure out how our science can inform policy," she said.

Vandenberg said it is also increasingly important for scientists to collaborate with economists and the business community to go beyond health warnings and highlight the economic benefit of green replacement chemicals.

Some of this work has been done—last year an analysis found exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in pesticides, toys, makeup, food packaging and detergents costs the U.S. more than $340 billion annually due to health care costs and lost wages.

"Policy is important but changes come from consumer behavior, consumer knowledge and shifts in the marketplace," Vandenberg said.

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