Why the chemical is of concern:
Naphthalene is an organic compound found in coal, petroleum and related products such as creosote and asphalt. Naphthalene exposure has been shown to lead to hemolytic anemia in humans, a condition in which red blood cells break down and die prematurely (see here, here and here). High levels of exposure can also cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, blood in the urine and yellowing of the skin (jaundice). Ingestion of naphthalene likely causes liver and kidney damage. Other hazards include eye irritation and cataracts.
Animal studies have shown an increased incidence of lung and nasal tumors, as well as eye injuries resulting in cataracts. A few case studies suggest that the latter effect may also occur in humans, but this has not been substantiated in formal epidemiological studies. Naphthalene is carcinogenic in animal studies, and has been classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Workers employed in the coal-tar, wood preservation, tanning, ink and fabric dying industries may be exposed to high levels of naphthalene in the workplace.
In the human body, naphthalene is metabolized to form several compounds, including 1- and 2- naphthol and naphthoquinones which are themselves toxic. These metabolites can cause methemoglobinemia (an abnormal build-up of hemoglobin). Reaction of naphthalene metabolites with sulfate or glucuronic acid – termed conjugation – aids in their excretion. Newborns are unable to conjugate naphthalene, however, and are thus more susceptible to napthalene toxicity.
Children have exhibited hemolytic anemia after ingesting mothballs or using fabrics treated with naphthalene insecticides. Pregnant women, through their own exposure, may also pass naphthalene to their unborn children. Naphthalene can move from the mother’s blood into the unborn baby’s, and can also be transferred through breastfeeding. In one case study, a woman inhaled fumes from mothballs while pregnant. She and her newborn child exhibited symptoms of hemolytic anemia and methemoglobinemia, and in treating the infant a double-volume blood transfusion was required.
In a case study of 21 newborns in Greece, naphthalene exposure was linked to hemolytic anemia, jaundice and kernicterus, a severe, potentially fatal jaundice-related syndrome producing neurological effects (also see here). Twelve of the newborns in the study were deficient for the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G-6-PD), while the remaining nine infants had normal enzyme levels. This enzyme deficiency is genetically inherited and affects the body’s ability to break down and excrete naphthalene and its metabolites.
Individuals with the G-6-PD deficiency are at a greater risk of developing hemolytic anemia. The frequency of the G-6-PD deficiency varies across different populations, placing some at higher risk for naphthalene-induced illness. This enzyme deficiency is more common in African-Americans and people of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean descent. In a cohort study of 500 African American newborns, G-6-PD deficiency was found in 12.8% of the infants. The G-6-PD deficient infants in this study had a higher occurrence of hemolysis and jaundice, and required higher levels of treatment, than infants without the enzyme deficiency.
Naphthalene is released into the environment from industrial and domestic sources. The chemical partially dissolves in water, and binds weakly to soil. It may evaporate from the surface of bodies of water, or be broken down by aquatic bacteria. In the atmosphere, naphthalene breaks down from moisture and sunlight, usually within one day.
Where the chemical is found:
As noted earlier, naphthalene is found naturally in fossil fuels like coal and petroleum (crude oil). The burning of fossil fuels and wood releases naphthalene into the air, and as a result, naphthalene is a common pollutant found in urban air. It is also the single most abundant compound found in coal tar.
Naphthalene is used in the synthesis of several chemicals, including phthalate plasticizers, dyes, resins, and synthetic leather tanning agents. It is commonly used in industry as a starting material in the manufacture of synthetic plastics, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics. Naphthalene is used in toilet deodorant blocks, household and automobile products, and as a repellant in moth balls and moth flakes. Naphthalene is present in cigarette smoke and motor vehicle exhaust.
Occupational exposure to naphthalene is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In the workplace, naphthalene levels may not exceed 10 parts per million (ppm) over an 8 hour work day, during a 40 hour work week. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has stated that naphthalene exposure exceeding 500 ppm is immediately dangerous to life and health.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers naphthalene to be reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen and has recommended safe levels of naphthalene in drinking water. EPA has determined that it is unsafe for children to drink water containing greater than 0.5 ppm of naphthalene for more than 10 days, or greater than 0.4 ppm of naphthalene for longer than seven years. For adults, EPA advises not drinking water contaminated with greater than 1 ppm naphthalene for more than 7 years or drinking water with more than 0.1 ppm naphthalene over a lifetime.
What should be done:
To limit your exposure to naphthalene, avoid generating and inhaling smoke from fireplaces, heating, and cooking appliances that use petroleum-based fuels or wood. Avoid tobacco smoke, and check toilet deodorizers to see if they use naphthalene before bringing them into your home. Extreme precaution should be taken when handling naphthalene-containing moth repellants as well as blankets and clothing stored with them. Some moth-repellant alternatives are suggested here.
Individuals with G-6-PD deficiency should be especially wary of products containing naphthalene and avoid exposure entirely. Workers in naphthalene-related industries should wear appropriate personal protective equipment and work in well ventilated areas.
The hazards presented by consumer products containing naphthalene raise a much bigger issue: the inadequate regulation of toxic chemicals in the U.S. Consumers are often not appropriately informed of the presence of toxic chemicals in the products they use or are otherwise exposed to, and the possible harms such chemicals pose to their health. Current legislation, most notably the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), fails to adequately regulate substances like naphthalene. Some 60,000 existing chemicals, including naphthalene, were grandfathered into TSCA at the time of its enactment in 1976 without requiring any health or safety data or assessment. Unfortunately, this lack of data and safety assessment hasn’t improved much in the past 35 years. This outdated legislation is in need of serious reform to give EPA the authority is needs to require basic information on chemicals from the chemical industry. Effective reform, like that presented by Senator Lautenberg in the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, would help ensure the safety of chemicals before they reach or as a condition for staying on the market, offering better protection for consumers. Help make this possible by showing your support here.
“I feel like a total basket case. I feel so insecure about myself, like I am defective or something. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t feel like being around people anymore.”
It can be difficult to figure out exactly why a woman is having trouble conceiving. For one-third of couples experiencing infertility, complications can be traced to the man. In another third of cases, complications can be traced to the woman. And for the remaining cases, infertility complications can be traced to both or are simply unknown. Uncertainty adds to the frustration, and can make women and men feel inadequate or blame themselves.
Emerging research suggests that chemicals found in products we use every day may be contributing to difficulties conceiving. We use scented laundry detergent and air fresheners or handle cash register receipts without realizing we are exposing ourselves to chemicals that might interfere with our ability to have children.
Some chemicals can affect our biology even in tiny amounts
Certain chemicals can fool our bodies by mimicking natural hormones like estrogen. These chemicals can disrupt the normal function of our hormones (the endocrine system). Scientists call these hormone-mimicking chemicals “endocrine disruptors.” Research suggests that certain endocrine disruptors can throw off our hormones in ways that contribute to reproductive problems and reduced fertility.
Even if you avoid high levels of exposure to endocrine disruptors, you may still be at risk from low-level exposures. Animal studies have revealed that even very small amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals can seriously disrupt endocrine system function with damage equal to, and in some cases greater than, that caused by higher amounts. For example, a study in mice found that the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA)—found in water bottles, food can linings, and receipt paper—can damage the reproductive tract even when only a very small dose of BPA is administered. During critical periods of development, exposure to BPA can have serious adverse effects.
Chemicals can affect our health even before we’re born
One of the most worrisome findings from research on endocrine disruptors is that early life exposures to such chemicals can result in long-term damage.
Indeed, these chemicals can have some of their worst consequences when exposure to them occurs prenatally. Even before a baby girl is born, the chemicals she is exposed to through her mother have potential to influence whether she’ll suffer from fertility problems when she grows up. In animal studies, prenatal exposure to BPA can lead to physical defects in the uterus of the developing female fetus. Uterine damage can lead to infertility later in life.
The problem of phthalates
Endocrine disruptors are found just about everywhere. Members of the phthalates chemical group are found in medical supplies, plastic wrapping, varnishes, paints, cosmetics and more. In animal studies, certain phthalates have been shown to cause a number of male reproductive developmental effects that lead to decreased fertility. In other animal studies, certain phthalates have lead to spontaneous abortions and birth defects.
Scientists, can't, of course, intentionally expose pregnant women to these chemicals to confirm that the same effects occur in us. But when researchers look at what's already happening in the human population, they see troubling corroboration of the damage seen in controlled studies with laboratory animals.
Prenatal exposure to certain phthalates has been linked to reproductive defects in boys, such as impaired testicular descent. Exposure to the phthalate DEHP (Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate)—found in plastics used in floor coverings, furniture upholstery, and shower curtains to name a few products—is associated with greater frequency of cesarean section delivery.
If that weren’t troubling enough, everyday chemicals might also be interfering with pregnancies in their later stages. Certain phthalates have been linked to premature birth.
The law doesn’t work — toxic chemicals have become impossible to avoid
Unfortunately, it is an impossible challenge to avoid chemicals that may harm our fertility. How can you be expected to learn and know which products contain hazardous chemicals? And even if we could avoid chemicals that scientists know are problematic, we’d still run the risk of exposing ourselves to any of the thousands of chemicals that have not been adequately assessed.
Why are we in this situation?
The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976. It’s one of our oldest and least effective environmental laws and desperately needs to be reformed. When it was passed, it grandfathered in 60,000 already-existing chemicals without requiring that they be assessed for safety. Since then, EPA has only been able to require testing of around 200 of those chemicals. TSCA lets companies introduce new chemicals — 20,000 such chemicals have entered the market since TSCA was passed — into products used by millions of people without requiring any health and safety data of them.
We need better legal protection
New legislation is under consideration that will protect against endocrine disruptors and other toxic chemicals: The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. If passed, this legislation would require manufacturers to submit a minimum data set on all chemicals, including new chemicals before they show up in the market and our homes.
Six million American women are having difficulty conceiving a child. It is too late to protect current generations of women (and men) from endocrine disruptors or other exposures they may have experienced before they were born, but there’s still time to protect the children they hope to have.
Some industry lobbyists are working hard to weaken or stop the Safe Chemicals Act, but if enough voters speak up, we can still get it passed.
Tell your Senators now to support the Safe Chemicals Act and help eliminate harmful chemicals that show up in products we buy.
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“This might be the first generation where kids are dying at a younger age than their parents and it’s related primarily to the obesity problem.” – Actress Judy Davis
Celebrities like Judy Davis aren’t the only ones worried about the obesity epidemic. It is on the minds of millions of Americans. It is also worrying — even frightening — public health officials.
Obesity is the fastest-growing cause of disease and death in the United States according to the U.S. Surgeon General. A full third of Americans suffer from obesity, and another third are overweight. That means two-thirds of the American public are either obese or overweight!
Why is this so worrying? Obesity is associated with diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.
Puzzling trend: Obesity in the babies
The growth of fast food chains and our dependency on cars seem to be among the obvious explanations for our society’s collective weight gain. So why would scientists look beyond poor diet and lack of exercise for answers?
Epidemiologists find obesity trends very puzzling. Not only are more adults becoming obese, but so are very young children and even infants. One third of babies nine months or younger are overweight or obese, compared to just 18% twenty years ago. That’s nearly double.
These infants aren’t eating fast food or developing bad exercise habits. They’re on a milk-only diet and can’t walk.
What’s going on here?
“Obesogens”: Chemicals that can contribute to obesity
As scientists search for answers, they’re finding disturbing links between obesity and certain chemical exposures. Researcher Bruce Blumberg has coined a new term for chemicals that can disrupt normal metabolism and contribute to obesity: “obesogens.”
Early life: Obesogens make stem cells develop into fat cells
Epidemiological studies have shown associations between certain chemicals and obesity in adults, but perhaps the most disturbing finding so far is that obesogens appear to have the greatest effects during early stages of development. This is a striking example of how toxic chemical exposures before birth or in the first few years of childhood can cause negative effects that last for the rest of our lives.
Every cell in our body starts out as a stem cell before it becomes a specific cell type, such as a muscle cell or skin cell. Experiments show the chemical tributyltin (TBT), a paint additive, predisposes stem cells to become fat cells rather than bone cells.
Another potential obesogen is bisphenol A (BPA), used in food can linings, polycarbonate plastics, and even paper receipts. A study published in the journal Endocrinology showed that exposure to BPA both prenatally and just after birth led to metabolic deficiencies and body weight increases.
Can taking a shower make you fat?
Phthalates are a large class of chemicals found in everything from fragrances to medical devices. Human epidemiological studies have correlated exposure to certain phthalates with increased fat mass and larger waist circumferences.
People use an estimated four million tons of phthalates every year. They’re used heavily in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products like vinyl shower curtains and flooring, and can also be found in paints, lubricants, and nail polish, to name just a few of many uses.
Can cooking a healthy meal make you fat?
Next time you try to cook a healthy meal, make sure your pan isn’t undoing your efforts. The surfaces of many non-stick pans are made using the chemical PFOA, and if overheated, chipped, or scratched, the chemical may be released.
In animal studies, in utero exposure to PFOA was shown to alter the levels of hormones involved in metabolism and cause excess weight gain in offspring. These observations add to PFOA’s list of toxic effects — it is already known for its developmental and systemic toxicity.
Obesogens are very hard to avoid
These few chemicals, already enough to make us worry, aren't the whole story. Research continues on others suspects too, such as the flame retardants known as PBDEs, and as more studies are done, even more chemicals may be found to have obesogenic effects. The prevalence of obesogens in our lives works against any of us who are trying to be healthy, and threatens to undermine our public health officials' best efforts.
We can try to avoid obesogens and other toxic chemicals. We can spend hours researching products and chemicals on our own. We can scour the Internet for safe alternatives. But that’s a lot to ask. How many of us have the time or expertise to sort through all the options, or the luxury of avoiding certain products or foods? In a recent blog post, José Bravo, Executive Director of the Just Transitions Alliance, calls this issue a matter of environmental justice.
Even if we could dedicate all the time in the world to avoiding obesogens, at best we’d only be able to avoid those that scientists have identified. Thousands of other chemicals haven't been evaluated, so we have no clue whether or not they may be obesogenic. There has to be a better way.
Let’s fix the law
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), enacted in 1976, is one of our oldest and least effective environmental laws. It desperately needs to be reformed. TSCA allows companies to use chemicals in products sold to millions of people, without requiring their safety to be shown first. This law grandfathered in 60,000 already existing chemicals without requiring them to be tested. Unfortunately, persistent deficiencies in TSCA have resulted in EPA being able to require testing on only around 200 of them. There are now over 80,000 chemicals on EPA’s chemical inventory.
Even if chemicals are shown to be dangerous, TSCA makes it nearly impossible for the EPA to restrict their use in consumer products. Because TSCA is so weak, even asbestos hasn’t been banned.
We need a stronger law to help us identify obesogens and other harmful chemicals before millions of us are exposed to them.
New legislation is under consideration that will help eliminate obesogens and other toxic chemicals: The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. If passed, this legislation would require manufacturers to submit safety data on new chemicals—which would be made publicly available—before they are sold in products destined for consumers.
Some industry lobbyists are working to weaken or even kill the Safe Chemicals Act, but if enough voters speak up we can get it passed.
Tell your Senators now to support the Safe Chemicals Act to make sure that chemicals in the products we buy don't undermine our best efforts to stay healthy.
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You’ve probably heard some anxiety over whether radiation from cell phones and laptops is lowering sperm count, making men infertile.
While the jury is still out on that one, what you might not have heard is that scientists are discovering that chemicals used in everyday products may contribute to reduced male fertility. Years of research have unveiled a number of chemicals linked to infertility in men.
Epidemiological and laboratory studies have associated certain chemicals, including BPA, certain phthalates, nonylphenol, and the flame retardants tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCPP), triphenyl phosphate (TPP), and Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), with male infertility. These chemicals can be found in everything from furniture to laundry detergent to cash register receipts.
Studies on these chemicals reveal that they affect hormonal systems in ways that may lead to reduced sperm count, motility, or quality; result in undescended testicles and deformities of the penis; and contribute to testicular cancer. Other research has shown that such chemicals can cause “feminization” of fish.
A young man's attempt to avoid chemical exposure
Andrew, a 19-year-old college student, read an article about ways to reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals. Not wanting to jeopardize his ability to reproduce, he took the advice to heart. Here’s what he did:
Certain members within the class of chemicals called phthalates can be found in many products, including most products with “fragrance” listed as an ingredient. Andrew decided to stop using air fresheners in his home and in his car. He also asked his mom to switch the household over to unscented laundry detergent.
BPA, a chemical shown to decrease male fertility rates, is often found in the thermal paper used for cash register receipts. Andrew tried to handle sales receipts as little as possible when making store purchases or signing for meals at restaurants. He even used napkins to transfer receipts into his wallet.
Is this really what we're asking of our young men?
Watching Andrew try to sign and put receipts in his wallet without touching them may be slightly humorous, but is this really what we’ve come to?
Andrew made valiant efforts to minimize his contact with chemicals. Sadly, he can’t truly avoid them on his own. When he placed receipts in his wallet using napkins, BPA likely rubbed off the receipts and onto the cash inside. Studies have found that paper money has detectable amounts of BPA on it. Beyond paper receipts, BPA is prevalent in food can linings and polycarbonate plastics. The ubiquity of this chemical is evidenced by its presence in the bodies of over 90% of Americans. Even if Andrew decided never to handle another receipt in his life, he wouldn’t be able to prevent his exposure to BPA.
And his exposure to harmful chemicals doesn’t stop with BPA. Andrew also has to worry about risky substances he might encounter while sitting on the couch at his school’s student center or while walking through air-freshened department stores.
There has to be a better way.
A broken law exposes us all to a chemical free-for-all
Why does Andrew have to worry about all these chemicals he encounters, anyway?
This year marks the 35th anniversary of one of our most inefficient and ineffective laws: The Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. Enacted in 1976, this law grandfathered in 60,000 existing chemicals without requiring any assessment of their potential health effects. There are now 80,000 chemicals available for use, and new chemicals continue to enter the marketplace without any requirement for basic health and safety data. Of these 80,000 chemicals, the EPA has only been able to require adequate testing of about 200.
We’re putting ourselves and future generations at risk by not requiring chemicals to be properly assessed for safety. How can we stand by and allow more and more potentially unsafe chemicals into everyday products?
Better legislation: The Safe Chemicals Act
The best way to fix this situation is to pass new legislation that reforms TSCA. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 would do just that. This fall, Congress is poised to take up the Safe Chemicals Act.
The Safe Chemicals Act would give us much stronger protection against toxic chemicals. Manufacturers would have to show their chemicals are safe in order to stay on or enter the market. The act would require that a chemical’s safety be assessed before it is used in the products you buy.
Andrew’s efforts to change the products his mother uses and pick up receipts with napkins were commendable, but asking anyone to undertake such measures is unreasonable – and they won’t stop his exposure to harmful chemicals. The truth is, he shouldn’t have to worry about toxic exposures in the first place.
Certain industry lobbyists are working hard against the Safe Chemicals Act, but with enough support from concerned voters, it can pass. We need to make sure that only safe chemicals are used in the products we buy.
You can protect your and your loved ones’ health — ask your Senators now to support the Safe Chemicals Act.
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One in eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetimes. Of the women who get it, one out of five will die from it.
Understandably, given these statistics, many women worry about their chances of getting breast cancer. Some women with high risk factors, such as having close relatives who have had breast cancer, go through extra screenings. Some even consider preventative removal of their breasts.
We know that more cases of breast cancer are occurring than fifty years ago. Unfortunately, a whopping 70% of these breast cancer cases are not associated with any known breast cancer risk factors. Scientists are searching for answers.
Everyday chemicals can act like hormones
Over the last decade, scientists have established that some of the chemicals women exposed to can affect their chances of getting breast cancer. For example, certain chemicals called endocrine disruptors can interact with our biology by mimicking the hormones our bodies normally produce (the technical term is the endocrine system). Some of these interactions are thought to increase the chances of getting breast cancer.
How much should we worry about endocrine disruptors? Well, exposure data indicates that we ought to be fairly concerned.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are all around us. They are used in everyday products like detergents, antibacterial soaps, plastic containers, air freshener sprays and flame-resistant furniture. We take in these chemicals through our skin, through the air we breathe, and even through chemically contaminated food.
Everyday chemicals are affecting young girls
Phthalates are a group of chemicals produced in huge amounts, exceeding 470 million pounds per year. Phthalates can be found in products made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, like shower curtains and flooring. They are also found in varnishes, paints, medical devices like IV tubing and blood bags, and more.
Certain phthalates are endocrine disruptors and have been linked to early puberty and breast development in girls. Research has shown an association between early puberty and breast cancer.
Everyday chemicals can affect our health even before we’re born
Scientists have found that it's especially problematic when a developing fetus is exposed to certain chemicals. In studies on mice, prenatal exposure to the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) led to harmful effects that persisted over a lifetime. Specifically, mice exposed to BPA while still in the womb and in the earliest stages after birth had greater sensitivity to the hormone estrogen during puberty.
The authors of this study note that changes in estrogen levels are a known, central risk factor for breast cancer and that increased sensitivity to estrogen may be of concern.
Everyday chemicals can make it harder to fight cancer
For women already diagnosed with breast cancer, toxic chemicals can do further damage. For example, a number of alkylphenols, chemicals found in detergents and cleaners, and BPA have been shown to stimulate faster division and growth of mammalian breast cancer cells.
BPA may also confer “chemoresistance,” which can make cancer treatments like chemotherapy and other anti-cancer drugs less effective. Scientists have found that breast cancer cells respond less well to chemotherapy treatments after having been exposed to BPA. This has serious implications for the chemotherapy treatment of breast cancer patients who have been exposed to BPA.
Unfortunately, almost everyone is regularly exposed to BPA. The Centers for Disease Control’s biomonitoring data reveals that BPA is present in more than 90% of Americans.
Why are all these chemicals in our bodies?
If we know these chemicals can cause us harm, why isn’t the government protecting us from them?
This year marks the 35th anniversary of one of our most inefficient and ineffective laws: The Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. Enacted in 1976, this law grandfathered in 60,000 already existing chemicals without requiring any assessment of their safety. There are now over 80,000 chemicals on EPA’s chemical inventory. Unfortunately, persistent deficiencies in TSCA have resulted in EPA being able to require testing on only around 200 of them.
For the great majority of chemicals available for use, then, we are left in the dark as to how they’re being used, who’s being exposed, and what harm they might be causing—whether we're talking about breast cancer or other conditions, such as obesity, infertility and Alzheimer’s, for which evidence is also mounting that links them to chemical exposures.
We need a better law: the Safe Chemicals Act
This fall, Congress is likely to take up the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. This legislation would vastly improve TSCA, giving us much stronger protection against toxic chemicals. Chemical manufacturers would have to provide basic safety data on their chemicals. New chemicals would be assessed for safety before they are allowed onto the market and into the products we buy.
Unfortunately, effective chemicals policies weren’t available for the 40,000 women who died of breast cancer in the past year. But for those of us lucky enough to be free of it or fighting it, for the babies not yet born and the young girls who haven’t made it to puberty yet—we can and need to do better.
Tell your Senators now how important it is to support the Safe Chemicals Act.
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More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s. This devastating illness has no cure. ABC reporter Terry Moran shares his experience of watching his mother struggle with Alzheimer’s:
"The worst thing for me, I think, was that I could tell my mother knew what was happening to her; she had watched it happen to her mother. She was terrified as the disease tore apart her mind. I remember sitting with her one morning, for hours, as she said over and over to me, ‘I want to kill myself. I am going to kill myself. I wish I could kill myself.’ For hours. My mom."
Mr. Moran watched his mother lose the ability to keep track of her belongings, schedule, and forget the names of people she loved. At the same time, he grappled with a big decision: should he undergo genetic testing for Alzheimer’s? He wondered if it was really worth knowing that he might be predisposed to suffer the way his mom did.
Genes aren’t the whole story
People in situations like Mr. Moran’s can spend hours agonizing over their family history. What many might not realize is that factors in addition to our genes can also affect whether we develop Alzheimer’s. Scientists are beginning to find links between exposure to certain commonly found chemicals and Alzheimer’s.
We have no control over our genetic make-up, but effective laws and regulations can control our exposure to harmful chemicals.
Why worry about chemicals and Alzheimer’s?
Scientists don’t yet know exactly how Alzheimer’s develops, but research is turning up important clues. For instance, researchers know that a protein called amyloid-beta is very important in Alzheimer’s prognosis. People with higher levels of this protein appear more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
While specific genes do influence how much amyloid-beta is in the brain, they aren’t the only factor. Studies show that certain chemicals, such as lead, can increase amyloid-beta accumulation in the brain. This frightening effect is worse when the exposure to lead happens early in life because the brain is less developed and thus more influenced by changes in the environment.
But wasn't lead banned?
You might think that lead isn’t used anymore, given broad awareness of its hazards. Sadly, that’s not so.
In the U.S., lead is restricted in specific uses, but not banned. In paints, the most notorious use of this toxin, up to .06% lead is still allowed. Even after the public outcry about the alarming levels of lead in children’s toys and jewelry, the law guiding the US Consumer Products Safety Commission still allows products for children under the age of 12 to contain up to 100 ppm (parts per million) of lead–or 300 ppm lead when it is deemed not technologically "feasible" to attain the 100 ppm limit in a product.
Some may think that lead in small amounts is not harmful. But we know that’s not the case. Even very small amounts of lead have been shown to cause detrimental effects on the brain and nervous system. The Center for Disease Control’s chemical profile of lead cites numerous studies demonstrating that low levels of lead can cause harm. Further, several studies like this one, performed by the director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center, indicate that there is no “safe” level of lead exposure.
PCBs: Another story of how regulations failed us
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are another group of toxic chemicals that increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. PCBs were once used in television sets, fluorescent lighting, and electrical insulators. We know now how dangerous they are, and since 1976 PCBs have been banned from commercial production and most uses in the United States.
But we learned of the danger too late. PCBs are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs). They remain in the environment for a very long time and are still found today in dangerous quantities in the in soil, water, and air. Some uses that were allowed have turned out to be a continuing source of release to the environment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control's biomonitoring data, which measures the presence of chemicals in people's bodies, indicate our continued exposure to PCBs despite their not having been used in 35 years. If PCBs had been adequately tested for safety decades ago before their widespread use, maybe their lingering presence might not be still threatening our health today.
We need to worry about other chemicals, too
Lead and PCBs aren’t the only chemicals that may increase our risks of developing Alzheimers.
Many chemicals on the market, like BPA (found in food cans and paper receipts) and certain phthalates (found in certain plastics, varnishes, paints, and fragrances) have been shown to lower testosterone levels. Lowered testosterone levels are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. While studies have not yet linked these chemicals directly to Alzheimer’s, what we do know raises troubling questions.
There may be even more chemical contributors to Alzheimer’s risk. Identification of toxic chemicals, such as those associated with Alzheimer’s, is difficult because of weak chemical safety laws that don’t require adequate testing of the thousands of chemicals in use.
The main chemical safety law isn’t protecting us
Why are potentially dangerous chemicals used in consumer products at all? The main reason is an ineffective and outdated law called the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA). When TSCA was enacted in 1976, it grandfathered in the 60,000 chemicals already on the market–with no questions asked about their safety and no testing required.
And even today, TSCA does not require that new chemicals be tested before being used in everyday items. There are now over 80,000 chemicals available for use, and EPA has managed to require testing of about 2% of them. Given what we know about the potential dangers of chemicals, these numbers are frightening and unacceptable.
We can fix the law—support the Safe Chemicals Act
A lot of damage has been done. We can’t change the history of PCBs and lead. Widespread use of risky chemicals like BPA and phthalates continue in the market today.
But we have an opportunity to make things better now and for the future. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 would require that existing and new chemicals be found safe in order to remain on, or be introduced into, the market. Chemical manufacturers would have the burden to provide data that demonstrate their chemicals are safe, rather than government – and the public – having the burden of showing they’re not.
Some industry lobbyists are hard at work against the Safe Chemicals Act, but with support from enough concerned voters, it can pass.
Tell your Senators now how important it is to support the Safe Chemicals Act.
We can’t change our genetic risk of Alzheimer’s, or keep people like Mr. Moran and his mom from facing awful choices. But through common-sense chemical safety policies, we can make big steps toward reducing preventable risks that stack the deck against our health.
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Holland, J, Bandelow S, Hogervorst E. “Testosterone levels and cognition in elderly men: a review.” Applied Cognitive Research, 21 June 2011.
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Why the chemical is considered of concern:
Styrene is a colorless liquid, which is reacted with itself or other chemicals to produce polystyrene and synthetic plastic resins. The U.S. National Toxicology Program has classified styrene as a chemical reasonably anticipated to be carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to high levels of styrene in occupational settings has been associated with an increased risk for lymphohematopoietic cancers, which include leukemia and lymphoma. These cancers are characterized by abnormally high levels of white blood cells, which are thought to result from DNA mutations. In the human body, styrene is metabolized to styrene-7, 8-oxide, which has been shown to cause DNA damage in white blood cells. This damage is thought to result in chromosomal abnormalities in lymphocytes, a potential mechanism for styrene-induced cancer. Styrene exposure may also increase the risk for other cancers, including those of the esophagus and pancreas.
Styrene is hazardous if inhaled or ingested, and by means of skin or eye contact. Chronic exposure to styrene, or acute inhalation at high levels, negatively affects the nervous system. Changes in color vision, slowed reaction time, lethargy, headaches, memory deficits, hearing loss, and concentration and balance problems can occur and may be permanent. Styrene is also suspected to be toxic to the kidney, liver and respiratory system [pdf]. In animal studies, mice exposed to styrene developed lung tumors and nasal passage linings were damaged.
Styrene may be inhaled from off-gassing of building materials, tobacco smoke, photocopier fumes [pdf], and automobile exhaust. It is incorporated into a widely used polymerized plastic, polystyrene. While the polymer is non-toxic, styrene may leach from polystyrene containers into food at low levels. Styrene exposure has also occurred from drinking and bathing in contaminated water.
Occupational exposure occurs through inhalation and skin contact. Workers in the reinforced plastic, styrene-butadiene rubber, and styrene monomer and polymer industries are especially at risk for exposure. Workers in car, truck and boat fabrication industries are also likely to be exposed to high levels of styrene.
A cohort study of 17,924 workers in the styrene-butadiene rubber industry in North America found that leukemia-related mortality was elevated 16% compared to the general population. Cases of mortality were even higher among those having worked 20 or more years in the industry. Leukemia incidence was concentrated in those with jobs with a higher likelihood for chemical exposure. However, uncertainty remains about the specific chemical agent(s) that contribute to the increased leukemia incidence. In addition to styrene, workers could have also been exposed to the chemicals butadiene and dimethyldithiocarbamate.
Styrene is detected in air, water and soil as a consequence of its release from manufacturing processes involving styrene, as well as from the use and disposal of styrene-containing products. Styrene breaks down [pdf] in the air within one to two days and binds with ozone and hydroxyl radicals in the atmosphere. In bodies of water, styrene volatilizes quickly, and in soil, styrene is typically broken down by bacteria and microorganisms.
Where the chemical is found:
Styrene is used to manufacture polystyrene, a widely used category of plastic. Polystyrene is used in CD hard cases, plastic silverware and other rigid molded plastics. Polystyrene foams, like Styrofoam™, are commonly used for their insulating properties and are found in building and home maintenance materials, craft supplies, packaging peanuts and disposable coffee cups.
Styrene is also used to produce reinforced plastics and rubbers used in insulation (building construction and refrigeration equipment), pipes, automotive parts, tires, printing cartridges, food packaging and carpet backing. Trace amounts of styrene may also be found naturally in some foods.
Styrene is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; worker exposure is limited to an average of 100 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour workday during a 40-hour work week. The US Food and Drug Administration regulates styrene in bottled drinking water; the concentration of the chemical may not exceed 0.1 milligrams per liter (mg/L).
Styrene is regulated as a contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that exposure to styrene from drinking water is not expected to cause adverse health effects in children at concentrations at or below 20 mg/L for one day, or 2 mg/L for 10 days. EPA has also indicated that lifetime exposure to 0.1 mg/L styrene in drinking water is not expected to cause adverse effects. Styrene is listed under the EPA’s Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), and as part of the Toxic Release Inventory, industries must report environmental releases and waste management of styrene.
What should be done:
You can play a role in limiting your exposure to styrene. Try to avoid inhaling cigarette smoke and car exhaust. Don’t microwave food or beverages or put hot drinks in polystyrene foam containers and cups. Heat may permit styrene monomers to leach from the polystyrene material and into your food or drink.
Workers who use styrene-containing materials can protect themselves from skin absorption of the substance by wearing protective gloves and clothing. Exposure by inhalation can be reduced with appropriate ventilation of the workspace.
But despite all personal measures, the significant potential for adverse health effects from exposure to styrene really demonstrates a larger problem: inadequate chemicals policy in the U.S. The current legislation, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is flawed and limits the EPA’s authority to require chemical information from industry or ensure safe use. Through effective reform, like that presented in the Safe Chemicals Act, measures will be put in place to ensure the safety of all chemicals on the market and better inform and protect consumers from the harms of toxic chemicals. Show your support for smart, safe chemicals policies here.
Why the chemicals are considered of concern:
Diisocyanates are a group of chemicals—within the larger isocyanate family of chemicals—primarily used to make polyurethane polymers found in products ranging from bowling balls to insulation foam. During polyurethane synthesis, diisocyanates react with other chemicals—a process called curing—to form polyurethane polymer chains. When the curing reaction is complete and virtually no unreacted diisocyanates remain, the polyurethane product is said to be “cured.” Cured products, which contain fully reacted diisocyanates incorporated into polyurethane polymers, are essentially non-toxic. However, unreacted diisocyanates – whether those remaining unreacted in cured products or those present in uncured products – are highly toxic, especially to the respiratory system.
Diisocyanates are known to induce and exacerbate asthma, damage the lung, cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat, and in severe cases, result in death. They have also been linked to cases of hypersensitivity pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs) and pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs). A specific diisocyanate – toluene diisocyanate (TDI) – has been identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), as carcinogenic in animals, while the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) considers it a "reasonably anticipated human carcinogen."
Exposure to diisocyanates occurs most often through inhalation, although skin contact can also cause irritation and sensitization. Exposure potential is increased when products containing diisocyanates are sprayed or heated.
Diisocyanates are chemical sensitizers, that is, repeated exposure results in increasing sensitivity to their effects such that even low levels of exposure can trigger severe asthmatic reactions. In addition, asthmatic response can be delayed by up to 12 hours following exposure.
The two most commonly used diisocyanates are Methylene Diphenyl Diisocyanate (MDI) and Toluene Diisocyanate (TDI), which make up about 90% of the entire diisocyanates market. They are frequently used in the automobile and construction industries and are a leading cause of occupational asthma (see here, here and here). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) highlights several case reports of isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory problems, and in a few cases, death. In fact, each year about 280,000 workers are exposed to diisocyanates, yielding a substantial prevalence of isocyanate-induced asthma.
Consumers are vulnerable bystanders to commercial application of diisocyanates when used to seal concrete, wooden decks and roofs. More recently, potential exposure of the general public to diisocyanates has risen due to the increasing availability of household products containing these chemicals. In particular, do-it-yourself homeowners may inadvertently expose themselves to higher levels of diisocyanates as commercial-grade polyurethane products become ever more available to consumers.
Children are especially susceptible to diisocyanate exposure and resulting illness. Diisocyanate vapors are heavier than air and settle close to the ground, leaving children more vulnerable to inhalation and skin absorption. In addition, children breathe in more air relative to their body size compared to adults. In one case study, school children were exposed to MDI from a polyurethane-based artificial surface applied to an athletic track. Of the children exposed to fumes from the track material, 60% with no prior history of asthma reported asthma-like symptoms of shortness of breath and coughing, and many students suffered eye and throat irritation, nausea, headaches and vomiting.
Air releases of diisocyanates are of concern because of the potential for direct inhalation exposure. Diisocyanates can also react with water in the air – a process called hydrolysis – to form other hazardous chemical compounds called diamines (TDI forms toluene diamine; MDI forms methylene diphenyl diamine). The stability of diisocyanate and diamine compounds in air depends in part on humidity levels. Under conditions of low humidity, diisocyanates may remain stable enough to be transported across long distances.
Where the chemicals are most commonly found:
Diisocyanates are found in a broad range of products, including adhesives, sealants, binders, coatings, spray paints, whiteboard paints, rubbers, plastics and crafts materials. They are used extensively in industries that produce and repair automobiles, boats, furniture, appliances and electronics.
Many other products contain diisocyanates in an uncured and much more toxic form, however, usually in the form of liquids, sprays, aerosols or foams that stiffen as polyurethane polymers are formed through the curing process. The curing time for polyurethane products has been shown to be variable. As a result, the recommended amount of time one should wait before entering an area in which diisocyanate-containing products have been applied also varies. The curing rate depends on several factors, including product type, application method and ventilation. Diisocyanate-containing products remain hazardous until curing is complete.
Of note, government programs have incentivized the use of polyurethane foams for increasing energy efficiency. These products are used for insulation and are available in uncured forms as “pour in place” foam, spray polyurethane foam (SPF), and one-component foam (OCF).
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates worker exposure to diisocyanates through the establishment of permissible exposure limits (PEL). OSHA also requires the use of personal protective equipment when workers are using diisocyanates. Employers are charged with determining appropriate protective equipment for hazards encountered by their employees and training of employees on how and when to use such equipment.
Under the Clean Air Act, diisocyanates are regulated as hazardous air pollutants. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) regulate diisocyanates as hazardous when present in wastes.
Twenty diisocyanates are subject to Section 313 of the EPA’s Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). This section requires businesses to report environmental chemical releases and waste management of identified toxic chemicals. The reported information is subsequently made publicly available on the EPA Toxics Release Inventory.
In the European Union, measures have been taken to limit MDI in consumer products under the EU’s REACH Regulation. Since December 27, 2010, MDI has been banned in quantities greater than 0.1% in products sold to the general public. Products exceeding that limit may only be sold to consumers if they contain approved protective gloves and are visibly marked with the chemical hazards, application instructions and warnings of the health risks associated with product use.
What should be done:
Users of products containing uncured diisocyanates should take all necessary precautions to protect themselves when using these products. This starts with informing yourself as to whether the products you use contain diisocyanates. Call the product manufacturer when chemical ingredients aren’t listed or if you are unsure whether listed ingredients are diisocyanates. Do-it-yourselfers should be especially wary and take extreme precaution when using uncured polyurethane products, including using personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers must also use appropriate PPE and those sensitized to diisocyanates should cease work with these chemicals to avoid severe health complications.
Industry should look towards the use of new non-isocyanate polyurethane alternatives. There is a new class of non-isocyanate polyurethanes and isocyanate-free expanding foam products that show potential. These products are purported to be equally as effective as their isocyanate counterparts, less costly to produce and safer, all claims that must be further evaluated and substantiated.
The widespread, expanding and largely unregulated use of dangerous diisocyanates in consumer products underscores the larger problem of inadequate chemicals policies and the need for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Effective TSCA reform would assure that full safety data would be generated and made available to consumers, and that consumer uses of these chemicals be shown to be safe. As it stands, there is little information on consumer uses and consumer exposure to diisocyanate-containing products. Unfortunately, current TSCA does not provide EPA with authority to require better chemical use information from industry, let alone adequate chemical testing, as a condition for entering or remaining on the market.
In April 2011, Senator Lautenberg introduced legislation that would provide critical reforms to TSCA: the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. Among other things, this legislation would enable EPA to obtain and provide public access to better use, hazard and exposure information on chemicals. This necessary reform would improve public protection from diisocyanates and the thousands of other chemicals poorly regulated in the US. Show your support for stronger toxic chemicals regulation here.
If You Don’t Tell Your Senator That You Want TSCA Reform Who Will?
On Wednesday, July 20, 2011, people across the country will join forces for a National Call in Day to show that chemical safety reform is a priority to the American public. You can contribute by asking your Senators for their help in ensuring that chemicals on the market today and in the future are safe for every American citizen and family. Tell your Senators you want them to support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. We know you’re passionate about this issue, and now your Senators need to hear from you.
Over the past 35 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been able to require testing of only around 300 of the tens of thousands of chemicals in use today. The major U.S. law monitoring toxic chemicals — the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — is woefully out of date and too weak to ensure health and environmental protection from toxic chemicals. By the time TSCA was passed in the 70’s, it was merely a watered down version of the original plan intended to ensure chemicals were safe with respect to our health and the environment.
Please call your Senators on Wednesday July, 20! If you don't know your Senators' numbers, call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and they will connect you.
Here is an example of what you can say to the Senator's staffer when they take your call:
"Hi my name is _______ and I am a (insert something like mom, dad, aunt, nurse, doctor etc). I am really concerned about toxic chemicals in consumer products and their impact on my family’s health. I’m calling Senator ___________ to ask him/her to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. American families deserve to be protected from toxic chemicals in our homes, workplaces and communities.”
For more information about the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 and TSCA go here.
For more information on Not a Guinea Pig and the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition visit here.
Thank you for taking 3 minutes out of your day to make these important calls and for staying involved on this issue.
Why the chemicals are considered of concern:
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are synthetic chemicals added to foam cushioning, plastics, and other materials used in a variety of consumer products to make them less likely to catch fire and burn. PBDEs are suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals, with neurobehavioral effects, identified by the EPA as the critical health impact of concern for humans.