Trying to Put the Kibosh on Endocrine Disruption

by Bill Chameides | July 14th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Is this the soon-to-be Czarina of Toxic Chemicals?

A proposal to place a short fuse on regulating toxic chemicals.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, is tasked with “understanding how the environment influences the development and progression of human disease.” (More on the NIEHS [pdf].) A major part of its portfolio is the National Toxicology Program, an interagency effort run by the NIEHS whose mission could not be more fundamental to the whole notion of environmental health — to “safeguard the public by identifying substances in the environment that may effect human health.” Among the “substances” currently being looked at are cell phone radiation (not really a substance but of interest and the source of ongoing controversy), nanomaterials, and endocrine disruptors (more on this one later).

The NIEHS is regularly the home of a lot of activity but especially so this week — it’s a happening place literally and figuratively.

Developing a Strategic Plan for Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health

What are endocrine disruptors?

Certain chemicals can disrupt our endocrine

system. One way they do this is to mimic
human hormones. By binding to cells at sites
normally reserved for the real hormones they
mimic, endocrine disruptors can change up
normal, necessary bodily functions. (This
animation visualizes the process.) Endocrine
disruptors that mimic steroid hormones like
estrogen and testosterone have been linked to
reproductive abnormalities in animals.
Concerns range from breast cancer to low
sperm count, testicular cancer, and malformed
reproductive organs. Effects are found
throughout the entire endocrine system.
A conclusive link between exposure to
endocrine disruptors and human disease is
elusive, but there are hints. (Learn more
here and here.)

It’s happening in the literal sense because today is the last day of a three-day workshop at the Research Triangle Park Lab where NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum has assembled about 200 experts to help to develop a new strategic plan of research for the institute.

It’s a hands-on brainstorming event, where the organizers have adopted an Open Spaces format in which attendees set the agenda and determine the direction the discussions take.

This is a courageous approach for a director to adopt, because it transfers control of the meeting from the organizers to the attendees. I look forward to seeing the output, as I’m sure is Birnbaum.

Making Progress on Endocrine Disruptors

But there’s another NIEHS happening afoot, one whose genesis was in the U.S. Congress. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Representative Jim Moran (D-VA) have just introduced legislation that would give the NIEHS director sweeping powers to outlaw endocrine-disrupting chemicals from the marketplace.

Most of the current authority for regulating the use of toxic or potentially toxic compounds in products lies with the Environmental Protection Agency through the Toxic Substances Control Act (see my recent post). There is a broad perception that the law is too weak and as a result EPA has been unable to keep pace with the dizzying array of chemicals that find their way into the marketplace each year. And you don’t have to take my word for it — here’s what EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has to say

“Right now, we are failing to get this job done … not only has TSCA fallen behind the industry it’s supposed to regulate — it’s been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects. … Since 1976, EPA has issued regulations to control only five existing chemicals determined to present an unreasonable risk. Five from a total universe of almost 80,000 existing chemicals.”

Kerry and Moran think they have a better idea — at least for endocrine disruptors. The bill, introduced yesterday, is called the “Endrocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Exposure Elimination Act of 2011.” (See CNN’s advanced – not final — copy [pdf] of the bill.) Noting that “there is growing evidence that the human endocrine system is extremely sensitive to particular chemicals” and that “numerous studies show links between particular chemicals and hormone functions in animals and in humans, … connected to numerous disorders,” the bill has two main proposals:

  1. A new research program on endocrine-disrupting chemicals — interesting but not especially newsworthy. While the bill says “there are authorized to be appropriated such sums as may be necessary” for the research program, it doesn’t say where these funds are to come from. This kind of language can easily end up being what is known as an unfunded mandate, a new program that has to be funded by cannibalizing existing programs — something that can make a director’s life miserable.
  2. The establishment of an expert panel that would study up to 10 endocrine-disrupting chemicals per year. Any of these chemicals deemed as having a “high level of concern” could potentially be outlawed by the NIEHS director unless other means could be used to mitigate human exposure.

If passed, this law would radically change the way this class of chemicals is regulated in the United States. It would also place enormous responsibility and power with the NIEHS director (and with the expert panel). I suspect that that is a lot more responsibility than most people would like.

With the prospect of being given a huge unfunded mandate and final word on chemicals in America, you might expect to find Director Birnbaum with a furrowed brow. But no, she was her upbeat, smiling self at the workshop this week. Perhaps that’s because she heads up the NIEHS, not Congress, that
not-so-happening place where progress is slow-going at best and the likes of a bill like this passing are less than nil.

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