In the 16th century, well known Swiss physician Paracelsus said, “The dose makes the poison.” This axiom – that toxic substances can be safe as long as the amount remains below a certain threshold – is still a bedrock principle for modern toxicologists. This mistaken theorem explains why industrial chemicals have never received the stricter regulatory oversight mandated to drugs and pesticides. Even if the chemicals used to help manufacture a plastic bottle could infiltrate the human body (the thinking went), surely the dose would be too low to do any harm.

But since that time, bio-monitoring has improved exponentially. We can now detect human exposure levels as small as one part per trillion, or about one-twentieth of a drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Scientists had no choice but to realize that people were absorbing far more chemical toxins than originally thought.

At the same time, scientists learned that some toxins could be harmful at even extremely low levels. The limit considered safe for lead, which can directly reduce IQ, has been lowered from 60 mg per dcl of blood in 1970 to 10mg today. Some chemicals like BPA may have strange and negative effects even at very low doses. Invented in 1891, BPA has been used extensively since 1940s to harden polycarbonate plastics and make epoxy resin, used in the lining of food and beverage containers among other products.

BPA does its job well and today, some 6 billion lbs. of the chemical are produced globally each year. The problem is multi-faceted. BPA is also a synthetic estrogen, and plastics with BPA can break down, especially when they are washed, heated or stressed, allowing the chemicals to leach into food and water enabling it to enter the human body. We are all at risk. The CDC has found BPA in the urine of 93% of surveyed Americans over the age of 6. If you are living in the modern world, you have BPA in your body.

As a synthetic estrogen, BPA can mimic hormones; powerful chemicals like testosterone and adrenaline that run the body. Tiny amounts of hormones produce immense biological and behavioral changes, so it stands to reason that a chemical which can mirror a hormone might do the same, especially if a human being was exposed to it during critical periods of development, like the first trimester of gestation. (Children are particularly vulnerable to chemical exposure, not just because their smaller bodies are developing rapidly but also because they eat and drink more relative to their body weight than adults.) That’s exactly what dozens of scientists have found in animal studies, linking fetal BPA exposure in rodents to everything from mammary cancer to male genital defects and even neurobehavioral problems. BPA is certainly not the only industrial chemical in common everyday use that causes mayhem within the endocrine system. 

While there are fewer studies of endocrine disrupters in humans than in animals, the ones that have been conducted have begun showing worrying associations. Higher levels of phthalates and other endocrine disrupters have been linked to earlier breast development in girls – a possible risk factor for breast cancer – and endocrine disrupters are a suspect in the rise in hypospadias, a correctable deformity of the urethra in boys.

In 2009, the International Endocrine Society released a statement declaring that endocrine disrupters were a significant concern for public health and called for regulation to reduce human exposure. In January 2009, the FDA expressed concerns over BPA as the Obama administration launched a $30 million study of the chemical.

Linda Birnbaum, head of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, admitted the field of toxicology needs to catch up to the real world. Scientists must realize the body doesn’t encounter a single chemical in isolation – though that’s how tests are done – but instead assimilates a number of chemicals in combination, which might interact in unpredictable and harmful ways.

The dose may still make the poison, but we will never know unless comprehensive and objective testing is conducted on the chemical soup from which we actually absorb and experience the world. Or, we could simply close our eyes and magically discover the environmentally relevant dose. Thus far, however, this approach has only made us sicker. 

To market a new drug, the FDA needs to be convinced – in multiple tests over the course of years – that it won’t cause serious harm. To sell a new pesticide the same is needed. The burden of proof is on manufacturers to make the grade and government regulators are the final judge

But to market a new chemical for use in products – including those which will come into contact with children and pregnant women – it is up to the EPA to prove its safe or unsafe utilizing whatever data is provided by the chemical company with little power to ask for more. And, if it is one of the 62,000 chemicals already in use when the TSCA went into effect in 1976 – a category which includes BPA – chances are it was never really tested by the government at all.

The EPA can issue rules requiring testing, but that can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which explains why the agency has required testing on only about 200 of the 83,000 chemicals in the TSCA inventory. It has issued restrictions on just five. The TSCA also gives the industry wide latitude to claim confidentiality on products, so nearly 17,000 of those chemicals are virtual trade secrets.

Specific chemicals & our everyday exposure 

Asbestos – naturally occurring fibrous mineral found in housing insulation, drywall, artificial fireplace logs and toys. It is being linked to Mesothelioma, a fatal cancer.

Decabromodiphenyl Ether (DECA) – flame retardant found in electronics, furniture and carpet. Linked to permanent learning and memory deficits; hearing defects.

Perchlorate – oxidant in rocket fuel found in drinking water, soil, some vegetables. It disrupts thyroid’s hormone production. 

Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) – component of Teflon non-stick coatings found in tap water, nonstick pots and pans. It has been found to cause hormone disruption and reproductive abnormalities.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) – additive to preserve fats and oils in food and cosmetics. BHA is found in chewing gum, snack foods, diaper creams. It was found to promote cancer through animal lab testing.

Phthalates – chemicals giving plastic its resilience and flexibility. Found in toys, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, detergents, food packaging and shampoos. Animal studies show reduced sperm counts and reproductive abnormalities; as well as link to liver cancer in humans.

Parabens – synthetic preservatives found in products like moisturizers and hair care and shaving products.

Fluoride – form of the basic element fluorine found in toothpaste and tap water. Fluoride is neurotoxic and potentially tumorigenic if swallowed.

Oxybenzone – chemicals used in cosmetics such as sunscreen, lip balm and moisturizers. It is linked to hormone disruption and low birth weight babies.

Bisphenol A (BPA) – chemical used in plastic production found in water bottles, baby bottles, plastic wraps and food packaging. The government’s National Toxicology Program has concluded that there is some concern about brain and behavioral effects on fetuses and young children at current exposure levels.

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