The Chemicals That Should Be on Your Radar ... but Probably Aren't

The Chemicals That Should Be on Your Radar ... but Probably Aren't

Radar - / CC BY 2.0

[Editor's Note: In this post, Richard Liroff follows up on his earlier article "What Does the FDA's BPA Decision Mean for Companies?" on]

Companies ask me, "What's the next chemical I need to worry about?"

Consider endocrine disruptors (EDs). As a class, these chemicals can have profound and unparalleled impacts on families, communities and businesses because of their possible links to learning disabilities, selected cancers, reproductive disorders, diabetes and other health disorders.

Systematically identifying EDs, substituting safer substances and product designs, and reducing exposures promise sizeable payoffs from reduced health care burdens and enhanced employee productivity. Such actions help align consumer-facing companies in particular with consumers' concerns about involuntary exposures to toxic chemicals in daily living.

If you tune your chemical strategic planning radar to detect EDs, you'll find:

• Stephen Colbert's jokes
• Nicholas Kristof's op-eds in the New York Times (here, here, and here)
• A petition for the EPA to set water quality criteria for endocrine disruptors under the Clean Water Act
• The FDA aligning itself with the US National Toxicology Program on the possible hazards to fetuses, infants and children from exposure to bisphenol A
• Recent research from China suggesting high occupational exposures to bisphenol A may lead to erectile dysfunction (coincidentally linking an ED to ED)
• New legislation proposed to research and possibly speed regulation, endorsed by The Endocrine Society, the leading professional association of endocrinologists
• And the EPA's long-delayed endocrine disruptor screening and testing program, which while initially emphasizing pesticides, has the potential to develop data that will give retailers and other down-stream users reputational, recall, litigation, product design and procurement headaches

What's an endocrine disruptor? They're sometimes referred to colloquially as "gender-benders," emphasizing their interference with sex hormones. But this excludes concerns about possible ties to learning disabilities and other behavioral changes, diabetes and certain cancers through links to other hormones.

{related_content}The Endocrine Society defines them this way: "Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are substances in the environment that interfere with hormone biosynthesis, metabolism or action resulting in adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and wildlife." (The European Union's description can be found here and EPA's here.)

Stephen Colbert interviewed Nicholas Kristof in July 2009: "My guest tonight is a New York Times columnist who recently wrote about pollution causing genital mutations in frogs. Kermit's right ... it's not easy being green." The serious issue to which Colbert alluded has been labeled "testicular dysgenesis syndrome (TDS)." The TDS hypothesis posits that exposure to endocrine disruptors is linked to male reproduction system impacts including undescended testicles, reduced sperm counts, increased risk of testicular cancer and a birth defect named hypospadias. Another Colbert sound bite puts an element of TDS in terms that product marketers and consumers might more readily understand: "Penis deformation? I don't like those two words together."

In June 2009, The Endocrine Society, a 14,000-member scientific society devoted to research and clinical practice on hormones and endocrinology, released a scientific overview of endocrine disruptors presenting evidence "that shows endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer ... thyroid metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology."

Thyroid impacts could be an especially potent concern for consumers, because of the critical role thyroid hormone plays in neurological development. Toxicologist Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), puts it this way: "We know that developmentally, the thyroid hormones being at the appropriate level are absolutely essential for normal brain development. And yet we're finding that certain chemicals like PCBs and now the flame retardants -- there are reports of their being associated with alterations in the normal level of circulating thyroid hormones."

Behavioral problems such as ADHD and autism have high public profiles, posing a challenge to families, schools, communities and businesses. Advocacy organizations such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Autism Society, the American Association on Intellectual and Development Disabilities, and the National Association for the Dually Diagnosed are core partners in the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, which in February published "Mind, Disrupted: How Toxic Chemicals May Affect How We Think and Who We Are." The report discussed 61 neurotoxicants and endocrine disruptors measured in the bodies of project participants and noted that reducing exposures could both cut expense burdens and enhance the quality of life.

In December 2009, Representative Jim Moran and Senator John Kerry introduced the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009 (H.R.4190/S.2828). The bill would authorize the NIEHS to establish an endocrine disruption prevention program of intra- and extramural research using an independent panel of scientists to develop the research program and select chemicals for investigation. If research showed even a minimal level of concern, the results would be referred to regulatory agencies for response. The legislation has been endorsed by The Endocrine Society.

Companies should look towards Europe for clues about endocrine disruptors that could become management concerns in the United States. For example, the E.U.'s ED strategy review published in 2007 identified 320 substances that showed evidence or potential evidence for ED effects.

EDs are subject to "authorization" (and potential removal from the marketplace) under the EU's REACH legislation if they prove to be of "equivalent concern" to other named categories of substances although equivalence remains a contentious concept. In December 2009, the EU's Council of Ministers asked the European Commission to provide recommendations by 2012 on how exposure to combinations of endocrine disruptors should be dealt with by existing EU legislation.

Alert companies are paying attention. For example, Whole Foods Market has declared, "Our goal is to help our shoppers avoid endocrine-active materials in products and packaging where functional alternatives exist." SC Johnson, in its four-point rating system for chemical toxicity, deducts a point for chemicals that are considered endocrine disruptors based on a "weight of evidence" review; if the evidence is sufficiently strong, they're labeled "Restricted Use Materials" whose use requires special justification. Nike includes endocrine disruptors in its "Material Analysis Tool."

Wal-Mart's chemical screening system, GreenWERCS, likewise takes endocrine disruption into account. In February, The Wercs, Ltd., Wal-Mart's partner in developing GreenWERCS, announced that the system would be made available for chemical manufacturers to assess product formulations. The automotive industry, through the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment (which includes the EPA) has developed a framework for assessing chemicals used in the auto supply chain that includes consideration of endocrine disruptors and has been automated using the SciVera Lens system.

So what might you and your company do?

1. Get educated. If you're most comfortable relying on authoritative government sources, visit the endocrine disruption websites of the European Commission, the U.S. EPA, or NIEHS. For a more cutting-edge perspective on the evolving science from the environmental health advocacy community, try here and here.

2. Make sure corporate science staff stay current. If your chief science advisor dismisses your concern about EDs with the response "the dose makes the poison," that advice could be toxic to your company. Rather, heed the more appropriate advice of NIEHS's Dr. Linda Birnbaum: "[T]he timing of exposure is critical to the outcome ... exposures during early life stages are particularly important ... the timing, as well as the dose, makes the poison." The American Chemical Society, in a newly published statement on endocrine disruptors, echoes this view: "A large and growing body of environmental health literature shows that endocrine disrupting substances ... do not fit the central tenet of regulatory toxicology, namely, that the ‘dose makes the poison.'"

3. Know the chemicals in your products and supply chain. If you don't have that information, when a new chemical concern surfaces, establishing your company's vulnerability can be a long, expensive, cumbersome process. If you already know your chemical inventory, you'll be better positioned to respond to unpleasant science, regulatory and consumer surprises.

4. Take action. Join the leading edge companies who are actively screening their chemical inventories for endocrine disruptors and are taking steps to lower toxicity via safer chemical substitutes or designs. The tools for doing this are now becoming available, although assessing the safety of alternatives can be challenging because of data gaps. Insist that the suppliers of the chemicals you use provide the data you need to make informed decisions.This proactive approach of analysis and substitution, and responding to early warning signals, is more likely to buttress consumer confidence in your brand than defensive posturing that reflexively asserts "more research is needed" or "no cause-effect relationships have been shown."

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, Disclosure: Liroff serves as Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and served on the priority-setting work group of EPA’s Endocrine Disruption Screening and Testing Advisory Committee.

Radar - / CC BY 2.0