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Environmental Toxins Create Health Concerns

Recently the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women joined the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Endocrine Society in asking that stronger regulations be placed on industrial chemicals.

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The original law governing these chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was passed in 1976, almost 40 years ago. The way that the law was written allows for chemicals to go into packaging and products without any safety review. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can request safety data about a chemical from a company, but only after the EPA can establish that there is a danger posed by the substance.

Because of this, the ACOG released a "Committee Opinion" to call attention to the problem of environmental dangers to human health, specifically pregnant women. The opinion cites a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey that reports that almost every pregnant woman in the United States has been made vulnerable to about 43 different dangerous chemicals, such as lead, pesticides, mercury, and bisphenol A (BPA). These harmful substances, some of which are classified as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), can have adverse effects on pregnancies, which is why the ACOG released their committee opinion.

What are endocrine disrupting chemicals?

EDCs are usually ingested through food and water, or inhaled through dust and other particles in the air. These substances, according to the World Health Organization, can be "transferred from the pregnant woman to the developing fetus or child through the placenta and breast milk." People exposed to these chemicals can experience many adverse reactions, including problems with immune functions, increased instances of breast cancer, and higher instances of susceptibility to non-communicable diseases.

One of these EDCs is called bisphenol A, which can be used to make reusable water bottles and as a sealant in tin cans. It was previously used in baby bottles and feeding cups for infants. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted studies that have found that "the use of BPA in food packaging and containers is safe," the FDA has stopped production of all products for children that contain BPA. It is still used in products that adults purchase.

What does the ACOG want?

Part of the problem, as mentioned above, is that the Toxic Substances Control Act limits the amount of regulation the government can impose on these toxic environmental substances. Gerald Markowitz, a historian of health at the City University of New York's John Jay College, said that "[g]oing back pretty far, the industry has basically won the day with the idea that chemicals should be treated as innocent until proven guilty." This is very different from the way pharmaceutical drugs are treated, as they have to go through a rigorous testing period to find out the various side effects and possible health risks associated with them. It is much more difficult to study these toxic environmental substances once they are out in the world, and some harm may have already been done to people who have ingested these chemicals before anyone knows their impact on the human body.

Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act in 2005 in an attempt to solve this problem. The bill would have required companies to study and show that the substances they were using in their products were safe for human use before they ever reached the market for sale. Lautenberg couldn't get any bipartisan support for the bill in its original form, so he removed many of the health protections and earned a co-sponsor in Senator David Vitter. This version of the bill died because environmental groups said it had no safety standards and claimed it was good for the companies who make these potentially harmful chemicals.

The ACOG wants more attention paid to the health concerns of individuals who may be affected by these toxic chemicals without even knowing it. Dr. Jeanne Conry, president of the ACOG, hopes that the government learns from the example of mercury and the harm it has done. "We should be looking at these in a cautious fashion," she said. "Why are we releasing them assuming they're safe, and then it takes 30 years to see, oh, guess what, they're not safe?"

Why is this important?

The medical community has major concerns surrounding these substances. The Breast Cancer Fund released a new report that talks about the dangers of prenatal exposure to BPA. The report states that BPA can be found in 92 percent of Americans. Animal testing shows that exposure to the chemical has many debilitating effects, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, decreased fertility, and neurological problems.

Even though the FDA indicated that BPA was safe enough to keep in products marketed to adults, it still can reach a fetus through the mother if she is exposed to the substance. For the ACOG, the concerns about toxic environmental substances are a matter of public health. In their committee opinion, the organization said that health care providers should learn about toxic environmental substances that can harm individuals and talk to patients about the concerns, as "study results document that avoiding canned food and other dietary sources of bisphenol A can reduce measured levels of the chemical in children and adult family members."

People have to have the information to make informed choices about what to buy and what to eat. Companies have the right to make money, but individuals also have the right to know if what they are ingesting and interacting with can have serious repercussions on their health. As the last line of the ACOG report said, "[a] chemical should never be released if a concern exists regarding its effect on health." As the laws stand right now, chemicals are being released without any safety records, and that is potentially causing disastrous health issues in adults and children. Hopefully the strong words of the ACOG can motivate positive change in the use of these harmful chemicals.

About the Author:

Jamar Ramos has been writing poetry and fiction for many years, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For the last three years, Mr. Ramos switched to producing blog posts for CBSSports.com and writing professionally as an independent contributor for a number of Internet sites. His creative works have been featured in The Bohemian and The San Matean. He now contributes articles for OnlineDegrees.com, OnlineColleges.com, and AlliedHealthWorld.com.