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Polytoxicity — Why Chemical Safety Studies Cannot Be Trusted

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

chemical safety studies

Story at-a-glance -

  • As chemical safety testing is done in isolation, it largely ignores the chemical soup that exists in the water, soil and air, eventually making its way into the human body
  • A recent European study finds a chemical mixture analyzed in the urine of 2,300 pregnant women in Sweden had a negative effect on the sexual development and metabolism in animals
  • Recognizing chemicals are ingested or absorbed from multiple sources, researchers tested urine to find a "real life" mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals, including phthalates, BPA and pesticides; another team of researchers found pesticide residue on fruit and vegetables lowered the probability of pregnancy and live birth
  • The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of 85,000 chemicals allowed in manufactured products, but this list does not include chemicals used in the manufacture of cosmetics, food additives, pesticides or tobacco products, and the EPA is unsure of how these chemicals are being used
  • Strategies to reduce your exposure to chemical toxins include eating locally grown, fresh and ideally organic whole foods, purchasing products in glass and storing your leftovers in glass, avoiding plastics and nonstick cookware and filtering your tap water for drinking and bathing

One section of the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to "compile, keep current and publish a list of each chemical substance manufactured or processed" in the U.S.1 The initial reporting began in 1978 and was published in 1979, listing 62,000 chemical substances. Currently, the TSCA inventory lists 85,000 chemicals.2 They state:

"As part of EPA's commitment to strengthen the management of chemicals and increase information on chemicals, the Agency provides free access to the inventory online."

However, their site goes on to say that to determine if a substance is on the list, a written request must be made to the EPA, which will consider whether there is3 "genuine intent to manufacture or import" the chemical.

The EPA receives 400 requests to add chemicals each year, and while they update the public list twice a year, it contains no identities of chemicals claimed as confidential. Therefore, according to the EPA, the public list is not as complete or current as the Master Inventory File, which contains chemical identities claimed as confidential.4

The master list is updated continuously but requires a written request to determine if a specific chemical is on the list. While this list contains 85,000 chemicals, it does not contain chemicals included in pesticides, food additives, drugs or chemicals contained in cosmetics or tobacco products.5

And, while they maintain the list, they are largely in the dark about what the chemicals mean for human health and the environment, and are unsure of how the chemicals are being used.6

Chemical Safety Is Determined by the Manufacturer

With an ever-growing list of chemicals used in production, the EPA, Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies are unable to adequately test for safety in human health or the environment. To manage this unwieldy system, the FDA has said that while cosmetics are required to be safe, product testing is in the hands of the manufacturer to ensure the safety of the product.7

According to the FDA, the agency has no legal authority to approve cosmetic products and ingredients before they arrive on store shelves. They also do not have a list of tests required by manufacturers for any cosmetic product or ingredient.8 The FDA lays the full legal responsibility for ensuring product safety on the shoulders of the companies making money from the products.

One study9 evaluated a searchable database of additives allowed in human food made publicly available by the FDA with cross references to toxicological studies. The researchers found 80% of the additives lacked the information needed to estimate consumer safety and 93% lacked reproductive or developmental toxicology data.

In total, of all the FDA-regulated additives on the list, two-thirds didn't have publicly available feeding data to estimate the amount of additive that may be safely eaten.10 In recent years, more researchers have raised warnings of the mounting number of toxic exposures. In some cases, negative effects of a chemical are well-established, but regulatory agencies still allow its continued use.

Chlorpyrifos is one such chemical. It was invented as an alternative to the pesticide DDT but impairs the developing brain in children. The EPA denied a petition to ban it, allowing continued use, while recognizing it is found in food and drinking water above safe levels, according to a report from Harvard University.11

Most studies done on chemicals by manufacturers are also done in isolation under unrealistic conditions. A recently completed European study found a mixture of chemicals increased measurable health risks.12

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Threat Posed by Chemical Mixtures Is Underestimated

In late 201813 the European Union made a move to protect consumers when they heavily restricted four types of phthalates in current use in consumer products. Phthalates are plasticizers used to soften and strengthen plastics. They're found in packaging, cosmetics and food wrapping.

However, they are not strongly bound to the products, so over time they leach into the air, water, soil and household dust. Joelle Ruegg, molecular toxicologist at The Institute of Environmental Medicine in Sweden, believes most are exposed to thousands of chemicals and the interactions between them may potentiate the effects.14

Tested in isolation, some scientists have found chemicals with little to no harmful impact. But testing has ignored the fact chemicals are not used in isolation and often end up in the human body from multiple sources. Ruegg says,15 "If we don't take into account the many chemicals out there that have a similar effect on the hormone system, then we are underestimating risk."

Ruegg led a European study called EDC-MixRisk,16 which implicated chemical mixtures in damaging health and development. This study measured 41 chemicals in the blood and urine found in 2,300 pregnant women in Sweden, in an effort to find "real life" endocrine disrupting chemical mixtures.17

When the chemicals were tested individually, the researchers believed there were few short-term concerning effects. However, in mixture, the researchers found the chemicals affected sexual development and metabolism in animals used in the study, such as zebrafish and mice.

The typical mixtures contain bisphenol a (BPA), phthalates and pesticides. Each of these are regulated by different agencies and legislation, but they all eventually end up in the environment and often in the human body. Ruegg points out,18 "... [B]ut the organism does not care if it is a pesticide or plasticizer, or if it is in food or drink. It is going to be important to address mixtures, together."

A second European initiative, the Human Biomonitoring Initiative,19 measures man-made chemicals found in people to investigate potential health implications. To date, they have identified 18 priority substances,20 including mixtures. There are now 117 groups and agencies across 28 countries collaborating in the hope of generating guidelines for safe levels found in the human body.

No Evidence Demonstrating Safety of Pesticides in Children

In this video excerpt of my interview with Andre Leu, author and president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements — Organics International,21 we discuss the impact pesticides and chemicals have on children. Leu has written and published extensively on this impact and has over 40 years of experience in organic agriculture.

For decades, federal regulatory agencies have stated traces of pesticides left on food would be safe. However, the sheer volume of chemicals involved in food production contaminating everything from fruit and vegetables to meat, crackers and cereals makes this assertion extremely unlikely.

According to a sampling by the FDA,22 79% of fruit and 52.3% of vegetables carry pesticide residues, even the tightly restricted chemical DDT. One pesticide, endosulfan,23 which has been banned worldwide24 due to evidence it causes neurological and reproductive problems, was also found in the food samples, as reported by Environmental Health News.25

While regulators and pesticide manufacturers insist these residues pose no threat, research from the EU finds otherwise. The EPA continues to be confident pesticides in food are safe and have granted requests to increase the allowable tolerance of pesticide residue allowed on food.26

One team of scientists from Harvard University27 called for further research in this area since the potential for cancer development is a serious public health challenge, and pesticide residue found in the food supply is global.

A study28 of 325 women undergoing infertility treatment evaluated the association of pesticide intake from residue left on fruits and vegetables with the outcome of infertility treatment.

Researchers found higher consumption of pesticide residue was associated with lower possibility of pregnancy and live birth after infertility treatment. Data suggested dietary pesticide exposure within a range currently accepted as typical may be associated with adverse reproductive consequences.29

Chemical Absorption Happens Through Several Avenues

There are multiple ways of absorbing toxins into your system you may not have considered. Eating foods with pesticide residue is only one. BPA is used in thermal paper, the type receipts at many grocery stores are made of. BPA is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that affects development in children but may also trigger high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity in adults.

Using hand sanitizer before handling a receipt may increase your absorption of BPA from the receipt. This type of absorption route bypasses liver metabolism, which may increase the health risks even further.30 The same study also found the combination of handling BPA receipt paper, using hand sanitizer and eating finger food led to a dramatic and rapid increased absorption.

Air quality is yet another route of absorption. The World Health Organization states 92% of the world breathe air exceeding safety limits set by WHO.31 Even when you can't see them or smell them, one group of air pollutants may be present — volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds are used in dry cleaning fluids, metal degreasers, paint thinners, adhesives and glue.32

Children and pets may absorb chemicals from household dust on the floor, while all may be ingesting 100 pieces of plastic in dust33 with every meal.34 The composition of dust is complex, and one meta-analysis found the chemicals residing in your dust may come from a variety of different sources in your home.35

Water is another source of toxins, whether you're drinking bottled water that may contain microparticles of plastic36 or tap water. In 2015, 21 million people were drinking community water that violated health-based quality standards, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.37

Simple Strategies May Reduce Your Exposure

With the number of chemicals used in the manufacture and production of products used throughout your home and work, it is impossible to completely avoid all exposure.

Whether intentionally or not, corporations use your home, water, air, food and body as a convenient chemical dumping ground. Until global changes happen, you may significantly limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.

Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh and ideally organic whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals, from the food and packaging. Wash fresh produce well, since even organically grown produce may be inadvertently exposed to pesticides.38

Choose pastured, sustainably raised meat and dairy. Avoid dairy products containing the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).

Avoid conventional or farm-raised fish, often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury.39 Instead eat wild-caught Alaskan salmon, anchovies and sardines or supplement with a high-quality krill oil.

Purchase products in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals may leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings) into the contents. Be aware products labeled "BPA-free" are typically made with bisphenol substitutes40 with as many health challenges.

Store your food and beverages in glass, use glass baby bottles and avoid using plastic wrap.

Replace nonstick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware. Also avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).

Filter tap water for your drinking and bathing. If you are able to do only one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin readily absorbs contaminants. Most tap water toxins, including fluoride, may be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.

Seek out products made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic and GMO-free. This applies to food, personal care products, building materials, furniture, mattresses and others.

Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame-retardant chemicals.

When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses or carpet padding, consider buying chemical-free varieties containing naturally fewer flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk and Kevlar.

Steer clear of plastic toys and pacifiers for your baby.

Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that may compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.

Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. EWG's Skin Deep database41 may help you find personal care products free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.

Replace a vinyl shower curtain with fabric or glass doors.

Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer organic alternatives.

Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance may contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals.42 Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.

+ Sources and References