One Great Big Plastic Hassle
In the seminal 1967 film, The Graduate, baby-faced Dustin Hoffman was told the wave of the future -- "Plastics." The lucrative career tip slipped on the QT to young Benjamin the day of his graduation bore no cautionary message about the veritable Pandora's Box the petrochemical plastics industry had opened in the post-war era some twenty years before the film's setting. The overzealous Plastic Man knew the only thing he needed to know: The world would always be hungry for plastic.
That celluloid prediction has proved right on target. Cheap, durable and convenient, plastic has been the country's chosen miracle-material since World War II. When added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the petroleum-based industrial chemicals in plastic -- chief among them plasticizers such as phthalates (THAHL-ates) -- make our upholstery comfier and our pipes more flexible. To keep up with the world's affection for all things plasticized, the U.S. produces a billion pounds of phthalates a year.
Today, phthalates are one of the top offenders in a group of 70 suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that we spray in our homes and yards and use in our makeup, nail polish, detergents, flame retardants, plastic bottles, metal food cans and even children's toys.
When we're done with these products, we flush them down our sinks or burn them in our incinerators, where their runoff filters into our national waterways. Even if you eschew plasticized products in your personal lives, it's impossible to avoid contamination; EDCs are in the bodies of every man, woman, child and fetus in the U.S.
A scan of the usual green media suspects turns up a lot of material on this silent phenomenon. Beyond EDCs, public waterways are contaminated with growth hormones and antibiotics from cattle feed, residual hormones from birth control products and other medicines, waste chemicals and pharmaceuticals. These substances can pass intact into the water supply through conventional sewage treatment facilities, dumps and landfills, or wash off into surface water and even percolate into ground water from animal waste fertilizers contaminated with traces of such compounds. And yet the subject remains largely under the public radar.
Pioneer zoologist Theo Colborn began following the chemical trail early on. In her landmark book, Our Stolen Future (Dutton, 1996; Plume 1997 paperback), Colborn reported countless examples of reproductive disorders among wildlife -- from sterility in bald eagles to small genitalia in male alligators. After tracing the animals' disorders to chemical exposure, Colborn suggested that EDCs profoundly affect one of the body's main communication networks -- the endocrine system -- by either mimicking natural hormones or blocking their uptake to the body's receptor sites.
Short-circuiting hormones can disturb everything from human development and behavior to reproduction and immunity. And scientists believe even the tiniest hormone variation at certain critical points in fetal development can have a profound effect on a child's future health.
Disturbing public health trends are bearing out these grim theories. Maida Galvez, M.D., a New York-based pediatrician, often talks to parents concerned by the accelerated rate of their daughters' sexual development. "I've seen the onset of breast budding as early as the age of six," Dr. Galvez says, noting that normal breast development begins to occur around ages ten to 11.
To date there has been little research in the area of "precocious puberty," as it's called, but Galvez is currently part of a multicenter study of 1,200 adolescent girls to determine if exposure to the hormone disruptor family of phthalates is behind the trend.
A much-publicized 2005 study was the first to show the connection between phthalate exposure and incomplete genital development. Dr. Shanna Swan's study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (August, 2005), showed that pregnant women with higher urine concentrations of some phthalates were more likely to give birth to sons with "phthalate syndrome" -- incomplete male genital development -- a disorder previously seen only in lab rats. Swan's findings support the hypothesis that prenatal phthalate exposure to levels found in the general U.S. population can adversely affect the reproductive tract in male infants.
Environmental exposure to EDCs is the suspected cause of declining male testosterone levels over the past two decades, as well as the declining male birth rates in industrial areas such as Seveso, Italy, and the Dow Chemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario.
Last September, Vicki Blazer, a fish pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, found that more than 80 percent of male small mouth bass in the Potomac were growing eggs. She'd seen the problem a few years earlier in a pristine area of West Virginia.
Blazer believes the fault may lie with us. "We're all putting things into the environment. Hopefully people will think twice whether it's important not to have dandelions in the lawn and dump pharmaceuticals down the toilet," says Blazer.
The publication of Colborn's Our Stolen Future concerned Congress enough that it ordered the EPA to create a screening system for endocrine disruptors. The resulting 1996 Food Quality Protection Act was the most ambitious toxicology program ever conceived. Yet so far, the EPA hasn't conducted a single test.
"Clearly they've fallen down on the job," says Erik Olsen, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The EPA, citing technical difficulties and facing a proposed budget cut, predicts it will be 2009 before it establishes a testing protocol.
Meanwhile, the agency approves about 700 new chemicals a year, relying on the manufacturer's assurances for safety.
Facing government inaction, consumers have taken the lead in protecting themselves from EDC exposure. When the CDC found in 2000 that exposure to the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate (DBP) was more than 20 times greater for women of childbearing age than for the average person, a consumer group began its detective work.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tested 72 name-brand beauty products for industrial chemical ingredients. Their report, "Not Too Pretty" (2002), found that nearly three quarters of commercial products contain phthalates, used to keep mascara from running and polished nails from chipping.
The grassroots consumer action resulting from the report was enough to pressure OPI (the major supplier of products to nail salons) as well as manufacturer Sally Hansen into agreeing to reformulate their products in late 2006.
Avalon Organics, supplier to Whole Foods, jumped onboard, becoming one of 450 signatories to the Compact for Safe Cosmetics campaign, an industry pledge to follow the European Union's lead in removing carcinogens, mutagens (chemicals which mutate the DNA of an organism), and reproductive toxicants (which adversely effect puberty, behavior and reproduction) from products, replacing them with safer alternatives.
Today if you screen the ingredients lists of most body care products for phthalates you'll find them on nail polish labels, but not in shampoo and other beauty products, where they are often masked as "fragrance." Stacy Malkan of Health Care Without Harm says that's changed her buying habits. "Now I won't buy products with fragrance on the label." (For more better buying habits, see sidebar).
Overwhelmed? Don't be says Gina Solomon of the NRDC. "People freak out with 85,000 chemicals out there, but in reality it will probably turn out to be a relative handful that are the real problem we need to deal with."
In December 2006, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to answer this charge when it banned baby products containing any level of BPA (plastic #7) and certain levels of phthalates. San Francisco officials based the ban on the European Union model that requires about 30 thousand chemicals be tested prior to their approval.
But single-city bans, while bold, are not going to stem the toxic tide. "What we need is chemical policy reform from the ground up," says Dr. Solomon. As it stands now, most chemicals released in recent decades are given a blanket assumption of safety. "The innocent-until-proven-guilty attitude in the U.S. is backwards," she counsels.
As scientists continue to tackle testing our chem-saturated environment, EDC damage to human health is likely to rank up with cancer as the environmentally induced medical concern of our time. Meanwhile, you can take action by pressuring your local officials, and -- like Benjamin in The Graduate -- reject the plastic world in favor of the real deal.