Are chemicals altering the planet?

February 18, 2008 9:09:49 PM PST
Chemicals surround us; from the food we eat, to the electronic devices we use, to the clothes we wear.

But to what extent do they put our health in danger? That's a question increasingly being asked by scientists. Despite promises from the federal government, little to no research is actually being done.

All we know is that she looks like a female from the outside - she lays eggs - but we know she's a genetic male," said U.C. Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes.

U.C. Berkeley Biologist and herpetologist Tyrone Hayes has a theory on what happened to this African clawed frog. He's been studying them for 17 years.

"We know now that these are genetic males that have been exposed to attrazine," said Professor Tyrone Hayes.

Attrazzine is the world's second most popular herbicide.

"If you are a male frog exposed to attrazine at very low ecologically relevant levels you become a hermaphrodite," said Professor Hayes.

And because frogs share some similar genes with humans, he worries attrazine may have an affect on humans as well.

Attrazine mimics the female hormone estrogen, and because breast cancer patients show elevated levels of estrogen - he's now investigating whether there is a link between the two.

Chemicals that cause changes in hormone levels are called "endocrine disruptors." But not everyone is convinced there is a correlation.

"Mice are not men - and frogs are certainly even farther from humans in their physiology and their potential sencitivity to certain things," said Dr. Henry Miller from the Hoover Institution.

Doctor Henry Miller worked for the Food and Drug Administration for 15 years where he founded the FDA's office of biotechnology. Miller is the only medical doctor at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"It's an ideological mindset that over simplistically says chemicals bad - natural products good," said Dr. Heny Miller.

But it turns out federal research seeking conclusive answers has been idled by the federal government.

In 1996, then President Clinton ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to establish the Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee. The plan was to test tens of thousands of chemicals used in common products from pesticides to plastics.

"In eleven years all that's happened - all that's happened, is the committee has come up with a list, a potential list of chemicals that should be tested. In eleven years," said Prof. Tyrone Hayes.

Not a single chemical has been tested, though the EPA has spent more than $80 million dollars on the screening program. Dr. Elaine Francis is the national program director for the Endocrine Disruptors Research Program.

"It has been a long process, we have not - you know - been inactive. We've produced many publications on the work were doing," said Doctor Elaine Francis.

Doctor Francis says this is a new area of research; everything from the testing systems to the chemicals that will be studied need to be closely scrutinized.

"Our laboratory has been focused on developing the underlying science to develop protocols that the agency could then request that industry use to develop the data for the for the screening and testing program," said Dr. Francis.

"The current system of regulating chemicals is really broken," said Bill Walker from the Environmental Working Group.

Bill Walker is with the non-profit Environmental Working Group in Oakland. The organization educates the public about toxic contaminates in the environment.

"Right now in the United States a chemical is innocent until proven guilty. It's a good idea for criminal justice - but not such a good idea when you are dealing with chemicals that can harm your growth and development," said Walker.

And state lawmakers agree.

"Clearly this is not a priority with the federal government," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D) San Francisco.

State assemblywoman Fiona Ma is among those taking matters into her own hands. She pushed legislation banning phthalates in children's toys and products.

Independent research has shown that the plastic softener has been found to have endocrine disrupting properties. That research has linked it to reproductive and developmental disorders, and even cancer in laboratory animals.

"Fourteen other countries in the European Union are already are using safe products. They are investing in their people and their safety, and why shouldn't the U.S. have the same high standards," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma.

California isn't waiting for the federal government to react. In 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation creating the California Environmental Contaminants Biomonitoring Program.

Under the Department of Health Services, he program will collect data on chemicals in humans.

"Over 2000 people will be sampled over a two year period of time," said Dr. Bonnie Sorensen from the biomonitoring program.

Urine and blood samples will be collected in two-year cycles to track chemical exposure in the nation's most populated state.

"The outcome is to have California specific data - to understand what chemical's our Californians' may be exposed to not only to prevent further exposure to chemicals, but also to understand what's the link between chemicals in our bodies and health status," said Dr. Bonnie Sorensen.

The biomonitoring project is still working out just what chemicals will be tested, but they expect to do their first human testing in the next two to three years.

Only then, may we finally have proof that chemicals are not only impacting wildlife but mankind as well.

Any answers from the federal government are still years away.

The EPA gave us no estimate for when they expect data from their research. They did tell us, however, it is one of the long-term goals.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.