The Perils of Plastic; Chemicals in Everyday Items May Have Serious Health Ramifications
Mattson, Marcia, The Florida Times Union
Byline: Marcia Mattson, The Times-Union
********************CORRECTION November 18, 2003
European nations have not decided to ban baby bottles made with the chemical bisphenol A. Because of a reporter's error, a story on Page 10 of First Business Nov. 10 stated otherwise.
Plastics make it possible, so the slogan goes.
Plastics are used to make everything from the bottle holding your baby's milk to the wrap covering your leftovers to the medical tubes keeping your loved one alive.
The wonderproduct has replaced much of the wood, metal and glass in our homes because it's cheap and convenient.
But studies increasingly show chemicals in some plastics may create unforeseen and unwelcome possibilities, damaging animals' reproductive systems in ways researchers also are observing in people.
These researchers say the chemicals are endocrine disruptors, substances that act like hormones and, when introduced into animals' systems, cause deformed genitalia, reduced sperm counts, chromosomal damage or early puberty.
Scientists disagree over whether endocrine disruptors could wreak similar havoc in human reproductive systems. But just the possibility was enough to lead the European Union in January to ban a group of chemicals known as phthalates in cosmetics, teethers and toys for children under age 3.
Japan also has banned phthalates in teethers and pacifiers.
Furthermore, European nations banned plastic baby bottles made from bisphenol A (BPA), an estrogen-mimicking endocrine disruptor that's also used to line the inside of many metal food cans.
But the United States has taken no such action, and, in fact, is opposing the European Union's January decision to require that all commercial chemicals undergo health testing before they hit the market -- a decision that experts estimate could cost the chemical industry and other companies billions of dollars.
More than 70 environmental groups in September called on the Bush Administration to stop lobbying the EU "at the behest of the chemical industry."
But Chris VandenHeuvel, a spokesman for the American Plastics Council, said European countries want to put "the onus on the manufacturer or user of a chemical to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is perfectly safe. "Under that thinking," he said, "we wouldn't be able to sell any chemicals."
A link to human reproduction?
Whether endocrine disruptors are causing changes in people is unknown. But scientists worldwide report marked changes in human reproduction, many of them among males.
For example, one in every 125 American boys is now born with hypospadias, a defect in which the opening of the urethra is located somewhere along the penis rather than at the tip.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the rate of hypospadias more than doubled between 1970 and 1993.
Some pesticide chemicals are known to cause the condition in animals. But an EPA researcher recently found that tiny amounts of some phthalates cause hypospadias in animal fetuses exposed at specific times in the womb.
There's also evidence human sperm counts have dropped as much as 50 percent in the past 50 years. Testicular cancer rates have doubled in many parts of the world in the past 20 years. And boys are increasingly born with undescended testicles, a condition linked with lower sperm count and other problems.
Scientists are concerned about changes in females, too, including a jump in the breast cancer rate in industrialized nations and signs that girls are hitting puberty at ever-younger ages.
Direct effects still unclear
How much of these changes might be the work of phthalates, BPA or other chemicals isn't clear.
Spokespeople for the U.S. plastics and chemical industries say phthalates and BPA research is either poorly done, inconclusive or doesn't support the case that chemicals in some plastics could harm people. …