Tufts researchers deliver sobering news about links between plastics, health

Wednesday, March 15, 2006, The Swellesley Report

Tufts University researcher Carlos Sonnenschein said he and colleague Ana Soto didn't set out to ruin anyone's evening last night during a presentation at Wellesley College on the harmful effects of chemicals found in everyday products. But it was hard not to come away from their sobering talk at least a little paranoid about everything from water bottles to lunchboxes to microwavable food.

The pair spoke and answered questions for about two hours about "Environmental Estrogens and Public Health" before an audience of about 60 people (I caught the last 90 minutes, so unfortunately missed the start of the actual presentation).

While natural estrogens are found in humans and play key roles in female sexual development, too much estrogen has been linked to birth defects, cancer and other abnormalities, such as males showing female physical traits. Environmental estrogens (also called xenoestrogens) have been shown to mess up the endocrine system that maintains hormonal balances via glands and organs.

The problem, the researchers said, is that additional estrogens are being introduced into humans' bodies through many everyday products, such as plastic formula bottles and packages containing everything from soup to water to shampoo. Chemicals seep from the containers made of PCBs and other harmful substances into their contents, Soto said (Audience members couldn’t help fidgeting with their plastic water bottles throughout the night, examining the bottoms to find out what sort of containers they were.).

Soto ran through the history of chemicals being introduced into society, and noted the corresponding rise in cancer rates. Whereas breast cancer was a 1-in-22 risk back in the 50s, now it is 1 in 7, she said. "A three-fold increase in 50 years. That should be something to think about," she said.

The researchers acknowledged that there may only be so much that adults can do to save themselves from the effects of chemical exposure at this point (go easy on microwaving food in plastic containers, they advise, since the heat enables estrogens to seep into foods), but said that you might still be able to shield youngsters and particularly the unborn, whose developing organs can be irreversibly harmed by exposure to harmful chemicals.

Soto described current research on mice to determine links between environmental estrogens and breast cancer, but said it is difficult to focus research given the plethora of chemicals that exist and the fact that the environment is already so contaminated.

Part of the researchers' message is that governments need to prevent companies from making products that use harmful chemicals and that citizens need to put more pressure on governments to do so. They came down hard on the current Bush Administration. Sonnenschein, who consults for the European Union, singled out Scandinavian countries are being particularly aggressive. "They are the gold standard," he said.

Audience members asked dozens of questions. Among them:

· We switched to bottled water because we used to hear that tap water was filled with bad stuff. But is this bottled water worse? (The researchers couldn’t say, though did say that chemicals do leech from plastic bottles into the liquids they hold).

· What can we learn from bans on lead, DDT, etc.? (Well, the researchers said, even though the U.S. might ban products that use certain contaminants, that doesn't stop the wind from blowing across the country from countries that do allow use of such them.)

· Are there any safe plastics? (Soto named polystyrene, a hard plastic. Though she said she wasn’t sure whether it was very good for most household products. She also noted that it can be "enhanced" with chemicals that make it a threat to health as well.)
The event was organized by the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project and Wellesley College's Department of Environmental Studies The WCPP's Sara Frost Azzam chimed in a number of times during the program, informing the crowd about efforts in states such as California and New York to curb production and use of chemical-heavy products. She also said the WCPP is planning an awareness campaign for local high school students, and possibly middle schoolers, about harmful ingredients in cosmetics and hygiene products. An audience member also cited work of the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, which she said is working to bring European-style anti-chemical laws to the U.S., starting with Massachusetts.