We can't address sustainability without talking chemicals

Michelle Harvey

I recently had a conversation with a colleague in the personal care industry. He said, “Why does EDF consider chemicals part of sustainability? We understand protecting the environment – the air, the water, not wasting energy. But why chemicals?” My first response – chemicals are at the core of EDF’s DNA. EDF’s mission is to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends – and part of the human impact on natural systems are the molecules we make and the products through which we use them.

EDF wants nothing short of molecular sustainability.

This means that the principles of sustainability must apply even at the level of the chemicals that we create and which serve as the building blocks of our economy. The critical importance of molecular sustainability to human health has become increasingly evident as the field of toxicology experiences a paradigmatic shift that is radically reshaping our understanding of the relationship between chemical exposures and disease.

There are also personal reasons I’m heavily invested in this work, which I’ll get to in a moment, but for now I ask you to consider the words of Paracelsus, considered a founding father of toxicology.

“The dose makes the poison.”

Paracelsus once said “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” Now we simply say, “The dose makes the poison.” In colloquial terms the logic seems simple – a little can’t hurt. And this is how we’ve defined chemical safety for decades. We’ve considered one chemical at a time and we’ve assumed that the effect gets worse with increasing dose, and that at some small level, every chemical may be safe.

This framework ignores the reality of human exposures to chemicals today.  We are in fact exposed to hundreds of different compounds throughout our lives. It turns out that it’s not just that the dose determines the effect, but so does the timing of exposure, the presence of other substances, and the vulnerability of the exposed individual.

And what does it mean if the response to a smaller amount of a chemical is more problematic than a bigger dose? If timing is problematic to a 13 year old, but not a 30 year old? What does it mean if the chemicals risk management approach we’ve relied on for generations has given us a false sense of safety?

This is the emerging view on endocrine disrupting chemicals – those that can act like or interact with hormones. Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, in the very tiniest amounts, can alter development and lead to disease later in life. Recent studies have shown this to be occurring, and they are at the forefront of the paradigmatic shift in the study of toxic chemicals.

Epigenetics: Is chemical exposure causing heritable changes?

As John Cloud stated in his January 2010 Time magazine cover article: “We all know that you can truncate your own life if you smoke or overeat, but it’s becoming clear that those same bad behaviors can also predispose your kids — before they are even conceived — to disease and early death. Epigenetic ‘marks’ tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors…can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.”

Most disturbing, these changes can continue for multiple generations.

Before a baby arrives in this world, the initial fertilized egg contains all the DNA of that individual. But along the way, as cells divide, some become heart, lungs or liver. Others become green eyes, black hair, or brown skin. The DNA, our genetic code, remains the same, but it is epigenetics that trigger the differentiation.

Scientists have long studied identical twins in an attempt to understand why the same DNA did not produce common outcomes. Look at a common active gene in 50 year old identical twins, and they are different. Life literally leaves different marks on two initially identical individuals. As people age, genetics can have less and less a role in predicting disease incidence. This is the environment at play. Environment is a broad category of course and includes everything from smoking and diet to stress, but it also includes exposures to the 200 plus industrial chemicals commonly found in pregnant women in the US.

Researchers are striving to answer why, over the last several decades, asthma is up 100%, and autism diagnosis is up 1000%. Why impaired fertility is up 40%, while 30% more births are premature. Why 1 in 8 women can now expect to get breast cancer during their life time. Many are considering the impact of chemical exposures not just on the individual but on generations to come.

Broadly, we know chemical production is growing, that exposure throughout life is ubiquitous, and that our fundamental scientific understanding of the relationship between chemicals, genes and disease is changing rapidly. The assumptions used to identify chemical safety may be based on outdated understandings, leading to inaccurate estimates of human health risk.

The good news is, our ideas to improve the chemical safety landscape are taking flight in industry as we speak. In September, our partners at Walmart announced a new chemicals policy intended to bring better ingredients into home and personal care products, targeting an initial set of roughly ten common chemicals of concern for “continuous reduction, restriction and elimination.” Since then, Target, P&G and Johnson & Johnson have all come out to say they’re working to remove certain chemicals of concern from the products they make and sell.

We can argue about who’s right, or how much science is enough, and continue to wait for greater certainty. Or we can change how we think about and use chemicals to meet our needs.

That’s why EDF works on these issues. Why do I?

I grew up in New Orleans. My daughter and her cousins are the 5th generation to live there. We grew up at the foot of the levee to the Mississippi River, on a stretch also known as Cancer Alley, where chemical plants and refineries dominated the landscape

When I was a kid, we took Sunday drives to picnic up river. On the way, we’d pass the aluminum plant, where none of the trees had leaves on the side facing the facility. After a family visit to Baton Rouge, the refinery flares were beacons in the dark almost all the way home.

My mom and her three sisters all dropped dead between the ages of 68 – 72, ten to fifteen years earlier than the previous generation of matriarchs. My dad is a breast cancer survivor. One of my sisters is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer; her prognosis is good. All of my sisters and I have warranted breast biopsies; monitoring technology and medicine appear to be on our side. None of us show known genetic predisposition.

Like my parents and grandparents, my siblings married other people from south Louisiana. Infertility has been a challenge for all of them. I don’t know if these are unsettling coincidences, or something more.

This is why I do the work I do.

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