We’ve been really busy – one of the things that has delayed our blog post is our new website: Two Sisters Ecotextiles (twosistersecotextiles.com). It is a retail website, because we feel everybody should have access to safe fabrics. If you go to our new site, you’ll notice that it features lots of pictures of kids, because kids are more at risk than adults from the chemicals in our environment. We did a blog post about this a few years ago, and it’s reproduced here.
Our children today live in an environment that is fundamentally different from that of 50 years ago. In many ways, their world is better. In many ways, they’re healthier than ever before. Thanks to safe drinking water, wholesome food, decent housing, vaccines, and antibiotics, our children lead longer, healthier lives than the children of any previous generation. The traditional infectious diseases have largely been eradicated. Infant mortality is greatly reduced. The expected life span of a baby born in the United States is more than two decades longer than that of an infant born in 1900.
Yet, curiously, certain childhood problems are on the increase: asthma is now the leading cause of school absenteeism for children 5 to 17; birth defects are the leading cause of death in early infancy; developmental disorders (ADD, ADHD, autism, dyslexia and mental retardation) are reaching epidemic proportions – 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. (Currently one of every six American children has a developmental disorder of some kind .) Childhood leukemia and brain cancer has increased sharply, while type 2 diabetes, previously unknown among children, is on the increase. And the cost is staggering – a few childhood conditions (lead poisoning, cancer, developmental disabilities –including autism and ADD – and asthma) accounted for 3% of total U.S. health care spending in the U.S. “The environment has become a major part of childhood disease” trumpeted Time magazine in 2011.
How can this be?
Today’s children face hazards that were neither known nor imagined a few decades ago. Children are at risk of exposure to thousands of new synthetic chemicals – chemicals which are used in an astonishing variety of products, from gasoline, medicines, glues, plastics and pesticides to cosmetics, cleaning products, electronics, fabrics, and food. Since World War II, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been invented. Scientific evidence is strong, and continuing to build, that exposures to synthetic chemicals in the modern environment are important causes of these diseases. Indoor and outdoor air pollution are now established as causes of asthma. Childhood cancer is linked to solvents, pesticides, and radiation. The National Academy of Sciences has determined that environmental factors contribute to 25% of developmental disorders in children, disorders that affect approximately 17% of U.S. children under the age of 18. The urban built environment and the modern food environment are important causes of obesity and diabetes. Toxic chemicals in the environment – lead, pesticides, toxic air pollutants, phthalates, and bisphenol A – are important causes of disease in children, and they are found in our homes, at our schools, in the air we breathe, and in the products we use every day – including textiles.
What is different now?
- The chief argument used by manufacturers to defend their chemical use is that the amounts used in products are so low that they don’t cause harm. Yet we now know that the old belief that “the dose makes the poison” (i.e., the higher the dose, the greater the effect) is simply wrong. Studies are finding that even infinitesimally low levels of exposure – or any level of exposure at all – may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses. Endocrine disrupting chemicals may affect not only the exposed individual but also their children and subsequent generations. Add to that the fact that what the industry bases its “safe” exposure limits on is calibrated on an adult’s body size, not children’s body sizes.
- We also now know that time of exposure is critical – because during gestation and through early childhood the body is rapidly growing under a carefully orchestrated process that is dependent on a series of events. When one of those events is interrupted, the next event is disrupted – and so on – until permanent and irreversible changes result. These results could be very subtle — like an alteration in how the brain develops which subsequently impacts, for example, learning ability. Or it could result in other impacts like modifying the development of an organ predisposing it to cancer later in life. There is even a new terminology to explain the consequences of exposure to EDCs: “the fetal basis of adult disease”, which means that the maternal and external environment, coupled with an individual’s genes, determine the propensity of that individual to develop disease or dysfunction later in life. This theory, known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHad, has blossomed into an emerging new field. DOHad paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.
- There is yet another consideration: The health effects from chemical pollution may appear immediately following exposure – or not for 30 years. The developmental basis of adult disease has implicit in its name the concept that there is a lag between the time of exposure and the manifestation of a disorder. Each of us starts life with a particular set of genes, 20,000 to 25,000 of them. Now scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence that pollutants and chemicals might be altering those genes—not by mutating or killing them, but by sending subtle signals that silence them or switch them on at the wrong times. This can set the stage for diseases that can be passed down for generations. This study of heritable changes in gene expression – the chemical reactions that switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations – is called “epigenetics”. Exposure to chemicals is capable of altering genetic expression, not only in your children, but in your children’s children – and their children too. Researchers at Washington State University found that when pregnant rats were exposed to permethrin, DEET or any of a number of industrial chemicals, the mother rats’ great granddaughters had higher risk of early puberty and malfunctioning ovaries — even though those subsequent generations had not been exposed to the chemical. Another recent study has shown that men who started smoking before puberty caused their sons to have significantly higher rates of obesity. And obesity is just the tip of the iceberg—many researchers believe that epigenetics holds the key to understanding cancer, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and diabetes. Other studies are being published which corroborate these findings.
- Age at time of exposure is critical. Fetuses are most at risk, because their rapidly developing bodies can be altered and reprogrammed before birth.
- Finally, exposures don’t happen alone – other pollutants are often involved, which may have additive or synergistic effects. It is well documented that chemicals can make each other more toxic, and because we can’t know what exposures we’re being subjected to (given the cocktail of smog, auto exhaust, cosmetics, cleaning products and countless other chemicals we’re exposed to every day) coupled with an individuals unique chemistry, we can’t know when exposure to a chemical will trigger a tipping point.
What makes these chemicals such a threat to children’s health?
- Easy absorption. Synthetic chemicals can enter our children’s bodies by ingestion, inhalation, or through the skin. Infants are at risk of exposure in the womb or through breast milk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 200 high-volume synthetic chemicals can be found in the bodies of nearly all Americans, including newborn infants. Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75 percent are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain.
- Children are not little adults. Their bodies take in proportionately greater amounts of environmental toxins than adults, and their rapid development makes them more vulnerable to environmental interference. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, consume more food, and drink more water than adults, due to their substantial growth and high metabolism. For example, a resting infant takes in twice as much air per pound of body weight as an adult. Subject to the same airborne toxin, an infant therefore would inhale proportionally twice as much as an adult.
- Mass production. Nearly 3,000 chemicals are high-production-volume (HPV) chemicals – that means they’re produced in quantities of more than 1 million pounds. HPV chemicals are used extensively in our homes, schools and communities. They are widely dispersed in air, water, soil and waste sites. Over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the nation’s environment each year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens.
- Too little testing. Only a fraction of HPV chemicals have been tested for toxicity. Fewer than 20 percent have been studied for their capacity to interfere with children’s development. This failure to assess chemicals for their possible hazards represents a grave lapse of stewardship by the chemical industry and by the federal government that puts all of our children at risk.
- Heavy use of pesticides. More than 1.2 million pounds of pesticides — many of them toxic to the brain and nervous system — are applied in the United States each year. These chemical pesticides are used not just on food crops but also on lawns and gardens, and inside homes, schools, day-care centers and hospitals. The United States has only 1.3% of the world’s population but uses 24% of the world’s total pesticides.
- Environmental Persistence. Many toxic chemicals have been dispersed widely into the environment. Some will persist in the environment for decades and even centuries.
Let’s take a look at just the group of chemicals which are known as endocrine disruptors:
In 2012, Greenpeace analyzed a total of 141 items of clothing, and found high levels of phthalates in four of the garments and NPE’s in 89 garments – in quantities as high as 1,000 ppm – as well as a variety of other toxic chemicals. Phthalates and NPE’s are among the chemicals known as “endocrine disruptors” (EDCs) – chemicals which are used often – and in vast quantities – in textile processing.
The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth (including the development of the brain and nervous system), response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior, and the ability to reproduce. Hormones are chemicals such as insulin, thyroxin, estrogen, and testosterone that interact with specific target cells. The endocrine system uses these chemicals to send messages to the cells – similar to the nervous system sending electrical messages to control and coordinate the body.
Diabetes, a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose, is an endocrine disease, as is hypoglycemia and thyroid cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 29.1 million people have diabetes. The three types of diabetes are a good illustration of the two main ways that something can “go wrong” with hormonal control in our bodies. In type I diabetes, the pancreas is unable to make insulin. Without insulin, the liver never “gets the message” to take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type II diabetes, the person’s pancreas is making enough insulin, but the insulin receptor sites on the liver cells are “broken” (possibly due to genetic factors, possibly do to “overuse”) and cannot “get the message.” Because the liver is unable to receive the instructions (despite the presence of lots of insulin), it does not take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type III diabetes (AKA Alzheimer’s Disease), it is the neurons in the brain, specifically, which “don’t get the message,” (though it sounds like researchers have yet to determine whether that’s due to lack of the brain-produced insulin upon which they depend, or whether that’s due to receptors on the neurons that either are or become “broken”) and thus, cannot take in the sugar that they need, with the result that, without an alternative fuel source such as medium-chain triglycerides, the neurons will starve.
Over the past 60 years, a growing number of EDC chemicals have been used in the production of almost everything we purchase. What this constant everyday low-dose exposure means in terms of public health is just beginning to be explored by the academic community. We have learned over time that many chemical substances can cause a range of adverse health problems, including death, cancer, birth defects, and delays in development of cognitive functions. For instance, it is well established that asbestos can cause a fatal form of lung cancer, thalidomide can cause limb deformities, and breathing high concentrations of some industrial solvents can cause irreversible brain damage and death. Only relatively recently have we learned that a large number of chemicals can penetrate the womb and alter the construction and programming of a child before it is born. Through trans-generational exposure, endocrine disruptors cause adverse developmental and reproductive disorders at extremely low amounts in the womb, and often within the range of human exposure.
Recent research is giving us a new understanding of EDCs since Dr. Theo Coburn wrote Our Stolen Future. Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are throwing out our old notions of toxicology (i.e., “the dose makes the poison”). In a recent talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics—the study of how genes respond to toxins—the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things.”
As the TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc.) website states: “The human health consequences of endocrine disruption are dire. Yet, no chemical has been regulated in the U.S. to date because of its endocrine disrupting effects – and no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects. The U.S. government has failed to respond to the evolving science of endocrine disruption. While much remains to be learned in regard to the nature and extent of the impact of endocrine disruptors on human health, enough is known now to assume a precautionary approach should be taken.
 Boyle, Coleen A., et al, “Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in U.S. children, 1997-2008”, Pediatrics, February, 2011.
 Grady, Denise, “Obesity-Linked Diabetes in children Resists Treatment”, New York Times, April 29, 2012
 Walsh, Bryan, “Environmental Toxins Cost Billions in childhood Disease”, Time, May 4, 2011.
 Koger, Susan M, et al, “Environmental Toxicants and Developmental Disabilities”, American Psychologist, April 2005, Vol 60, No. 3, 243-255
 Polluting Our Future, September 2000, http://www.aaidd.org/ehi/media/polluting_report.pdf
 Sheehan DM, Willingham EJ, Bergeron JM, Osborn CT, Crews D; “No threshold dose for estradiol-induced sex reversal of turtle embryos: how little is too much?” Environ Health Perspect 107:155–159, 1999
 Anway MD, Skinner MK “Epigenetic transgenerational actions of endocrine disruptors.” Endocrinology 147: S43–S49, 2006
 Sorensen, Eric, “Toxicants cause ovarian disease across generations”, Washington State University, http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=31607
 http://www.sciguru.com/newsitem/13025/Epigenetic-changes-are-heritable-although-they-do-not-affect-DNA-structure ALSO SEE: http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/agrawal/documents/HoleskiJanderAgrawal2012TREE.pdf ALSO SEE: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32637/title/Lamarck-and-the-Missing-Lnc/
 Crews D, Putz O, Thomas P, Hayes T, Howdeshell K “Animal models for the study of the effects of mixtures, low doses, and the embryonic environment on the action of endocrine disrupting chemicals”, Pure and Applied Chemistry, SCOPE/IUPAC Project Implications of Endocrine Active Substances for Humans and Wildlife 75:2305–2320, 2003
 http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/Water%202012/TechnicalReport-06-2012.pdf SEE ALSO: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/toxics/2014/A-Fashionable-Lie.pdf
 De la Monte, Suzanne, and Wands, Jack R., “Alzheimer’s Disease is Type 3 Diabetes – Evidence Reviewed”, J. Diabetes Sci Technol 2008 Nov; 2(6): 1101-1113