The study found 13 chemicals in her body, including mercury, phthalates, bisphenol A, and “Teflon chemicals.” Gray had mercury levels that were higher than the national average. The experience showed her just how widespread are the chemicals, and how difficult it is for personal actions to solve the problem.
“I was living as clean as I could be, but I still couldn’t protect my baby,” she said, during a conference call on Thursday to highlight the connection between chemical exposure and reproductive health. The call was organized by the group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 250 environmental, public health and green businesses pushing for national policies to make chemicals safer.
Gray’s story about her difficulty getting pregnant is becoming more common.
During the call, health specialists from the University of California, San Francisco highlighted a number of reproductive health trends, in which they believe chemicals are playing a role.
“Hormones affect human development and some environmental chemicals act like hormones,” Linda Giudice, UCSF’s chair of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, who treats thousands of patients for infertility. “Science has exploded with data on the effect of endocrine disrupting hormones exposure in utero. The trends in reproductive health are concerning.”
Giudice says she’s seeing more women have trouble conceiving and maintaining their pregnancy, and it’s not just because they are waiting until they are older to have children. Citing the National Center for Health Statistics, she said the percentage of women under the age of 25 reporting difficulty conceiving doubled from 4.3 to 8.3 percent from 1982 to 2002. Sperm counts have decreased 50 percent in the last 50 years.
The researchers say they are also seeing a major population-level shift in the age at which girls enter puberty.
“Generally, girls are starting to enter puberty earlier than girls born 10-20 years ago,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of UCSF’s program on reproductive health and the environment. Woodruff cited a study that tracked 1,200 girls starting at age 6 to see when they entered puberty. Among the 7 year olds, 15 percent had already developed breasts, and among the 8 year olds, about a third had done so. The rates of early breast development were even higher among African-American and Latina girls.
Giudice says genetics, diet and other environmental factors play a role but that researchers do not have a good handle on what’s causing the disparity among black and Latina girls.
“One of the concerns is that certain segments of the population have higher exposures to chemicals than others,” said Woodruff. She says that hormone-mimicking chemicals and higher rates of obesity are contributing to the trend.
The researchers say consumers are swimming in a sea of chemicals, and get exposed through “air, water, food, drink, cosmetics, pesticides, herbicides and other household items.” There are some 80,000 chemicals on the market and only a couple hundred have been tested for safety.
Efforts to pass legislation to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which many view as inadequate to ensure public safety, stalled in Congress, facing fierce opposition by the chemical industry. In the meantime, the states are stepping up to address chemicals on a case by case basis. A analysis by two national health-based coalitions--SAFER States and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families--found that 18 states have passed 71 chemical safety laws.
Consumer pressure is also driving the industry to make changes. Several food manufacturers this month said they would begin phasing out the controversial bisphenol A, used to line food cans, from their products.
For mother Molly Gray, whose son is now one and a half years old, policies to ensure the safety of chemicals are key. She says her son is healthy, but what concerns her is the effect of the chemical exposures down the line.
“My concern is about the unknown," she said. "There’s no knowledge of the long term health results for him, his children and his grandchildren.”
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