Education is the bread and butter of Follain. For nearly three years we've been spreading the message about toxic ingredients in our personal care products and while there's still a long way to go, having partners out there like Silent Spring Institute to share the science behind the message is invaluable.
Silent Spring Institute partners with physicians, public health and community advocates and other scientists to identify and break the links between environmental chemicals and women’s health, especially breast cancer. If you're still a non-believer in the risk of chemical exposure, we're sure this science-backed guest post will change your tune.
Chemicals and Health—Connecting the Dots By Kathryn Rodgers
Like many of you, I try my best to protect myself from dangerous chemicals by using only healthy personal care products. But how do you know which chemicals in your personal care to avoid? And what kind of information are those decisions based on? These are challenging questions, and ones that my colleagues and I at Silent Spring Institute are trying to answer.
For more than twenty years, Silent Spring’s mission has been to investigate the links between everyday chemical exposures and health, especially breast cancer. About 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are due to high-risk inherited mutations, which means environmental factors play a major role in the development of the disease. At Silent Spring, we try to identify what chemicals in products are likely to cause harm, we gather evidence on how people are exposed to these chemicals in their daily lives, and we look at the health effects from these exposures. Connecting the dots between these three areas allows us to then develop effective strategies to help consumers reduce their exposures.
Back in 2007, after synthesizing data from various national and international sources, Silent Spring published a list of 216 chemicals that have been found to cause mammary tumors in animals or humans. An estimated 100 of these chemicals are ones that people are commonly exposed to in their everyday lives. And many of these chemicals are endocrine disrupting chemicals, that is, they alter hormones in the body. Because breast cancer is largely a hormonally-influenced disease, researchers are especially concerned with endocrine disruptors because of their potential to mimic or interfere with hormones such as estrogen.
What’s tricky about these chemicals is that they can be potent at low concentrations just like natural hormones, which act at extremely low levels in your body. The notion that the higher the dose, the more toxic the effect doesn’t really apply to endocrine disruptors. Last year, we published a paper with our colleagues at University of California, Berkeley showing that parabens, a class of chemicals used as preservatives in personal care products, might increase breast cancer risk at much lower doses than previously thought. When the researchers exposed breast cancer cells to parabens in the presence of a growth factor that’s naturally present in the breast, the parabens were able to stimulate breast cancer cell growth at concentrations 100 times lower than in cells that didn’t have the growth factor.
Our research has also shown that people are widely exposed to endocrine disruptors from a range of common consumer products. In a study from 2012, we looked for 66 endocrine disrupting chemicals in 50 product categories, including personal care products, cleaning products, and other household items. The majority of the products we tested contained potentially harmful chemicals, and we found 55 target chemicals in total. Although some chemicals are accurately listed on product labels, we found that many consumer products contain a wide range of toxic chemicals, such as phthalates and BPA that are not listed as ingredients.
Some say we are living in a silent epidemic of chemical exposures that has far reaching consequences for the health of our society. Research shows that environmental chemicals are associated not just with breast cancer, but also other types of cancer, developmental and reproductive problems, neurotoxicity, obesity, learning disorders, and diabetes. A recent study estimated that endocrine disrupting chemicals cost the European Union $209 billion a year in health care expenses and lost earning potential.
The good news in all of this is that we can influence markets through our purchasing decisions, and we can put pressure on manufacturers to use safe ingredients. We can also be vocal in our support of policies that protect consumers from dangerous chemicals. When we look at the science and connect all the dots, we see that we have enough evidence now to act, and that by making simple changes in our daily lives, we can put ourselves on a path toward a healthier future for ourselves and our families.
Kathryn Rodgers is a staff scientist at Silent Spring Institute. For more information, visit www.silentspring.org or for tips on reducing your exposure to toxics, download the organization’s new mobile app Detox Me at detoxmeapp.org.