In 2002, the WHO and UN released a report suggesting that concerns about chemicals known as hormone disruptors wasn’t necessarily merited, because the link between compounds like Bisphenol A and phthalates was “weak.” Now, the story has changed, with more scientific evidence suggesting they actually are a cause for global concern, and that more research is critically needed to understand these chemicals and their human health effects more thoroughly. This suggests they also could have some negative environmental health impacts as well, on organisms like fish in polluted water and plants living near industrial sites. For many scientists and activists, this is hardly new information.
Hormone disruptors, also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals, mimic hormones in the human body. Since they aren’t actual human hormones, however, it appears they could cause health problems like pregnancy complications, cancers, thyroid disorders and metabolic problems. In addition, infants and young children exposed to such chemicals could experience developmental delays, because their bodies and brains are developing so quickly that endocrine disturbances have a disproportionate impact.
The problem with these chemicals is that they’re what researchers call “pseudo-persistent.” On their own, they don’t actually stick around that long, which would seem like good news; if they don’t linger in the environment, they don’t have much time to cause health problems or get passed up the food chain. However, because they’re so abundant in the environment, people are perennially re-exposed, which is effectively like being given a steady dose.
They’re found in a huge range of consumer products as well as pesticides, herbicides, industrial pollution and more. That makes addressing their presence in the environment difficult, as potential point sources need to be identified and tackled individually as well as collectively. The United Nations is suggesting tighter regulations on the use of such chemicals, reminiscent of bans on compounds like PCBs in the past. These bans were used to limit new emissions of compounds known to be harmful to human or environmental health, and could be used again to prevent exposure to hormone disruptors and protect the environment.
But they would take time and energy to implement. Even as some companies have chosen voluntarily to start refraining from use of chemicals like Bisphenol A, others have lagged behind, and eliminating them from the environment could be a lengthy process, especially since researchers still don’t know precisely how they act in the human body. The UN study points to the simultaneous need for more action to address immediate known issues, and more study to uncover issues that haven’t been identified yet, in the hopes of staying one step ahead.
The vast number of unregulated chemicals poses a very real threat to human and environmental health, and scientists are working to change that while educating the public. Meanwhile, government agencies and the industry are digging in their heels, fearing the expense of regulation as well as the potential blowback effects; after all, if these chemicals were permitted and used in full awareness of the fact that they caused health problems, that could create considerable legal liability.
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