"...more confrontational than most scientists are used to."
November 30, 2013 10:21 PM   Subscribe

A silent but epic battle is waging in the pages of toxicology journals over the use of science in public health policy.

A controversial editorial published in 14 scientific journals this fall argues that "scientifically unfounded precaution" is driving the EU's recent push to regulate endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs)(e.g., Bisphenol A). (Previously.) The proposed rules "would have sweeping, global ramifications because all companies that sell a variety of products in Europe would have to comply."

Of the 18 toxicology journal editors who signed the editorial, only one had no known links to industry.

Over a hundred other scientists and journal editors have subsequently joined in two rebuttals, one stating: "Thousands of published studies have revealed health effects of EDCs on wildlife and laboratory animals, and moreover, have shown associations of EDCs with effects in humans. Many of these studies have been reviewed recently by The Endocrine Society, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Health Organization (WHO), and other independent scientists. The conclusions presented in each of these documents are extraordinarily consistent: Like hormones, EDCs are active at very low doses and can induce a range of adverse health outcomes, many of which are not examined in traditional toxicology assays. In sum, these reports point to the conclusion that EDCs pose a global health threat."

Signatory Andrea Gore, editor-in-chief of Endocrinology and a toxicology and endocrine researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, called it “possibly the most remarkable experience in my career”.
posted by hereticfig (43 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sickening.
posted by stbalbach at 10:25 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


A number of my friends are (or were) environmental scientists. They unanimously believe endocrine disruptors to be one of the greatest environmental and health threats to be one of the most serious and under-confronted issues facing us, and have given me the impression that this is pretty much the global warming issue of the next few decades. There's broad consensus, strong resistance from corporate shills, and measurable ill effects that will probably go under-reported until the tide turns.
posted by mobunited at 10:31 PM on November 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


You have to understand how the world works now. If you step aside for every commercial product that would have future far-reaching negative effects, you not only ensure the profits of the companies making it, you ensure the future profits of the companies making all the products intended to offset the negative effects. It's an economic win-win.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:04 PM on November 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Echoes of the battle over DDT.
posted by belarius at 11:13 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really hope that whatever result comes out of this, it's the science-supported one. Europe is good about banning legitimately bad things, but there have been some things where I don't think the science is really behind it, at least not enough to justify the action (GMOs being the most significant example). I don't know enough about toxicology to know if the proposed bans are appropriate or supported - because EDCs are a legitimate threat doesn't mean the right chemicals are identified or the rules make sense. I hope that the final decision rests upon valid science and not junk science, or industry corruption, or anything else.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:23 PM on November 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


The question ultimately being, will our capability to eliminate all life on earth outstrip our capability to recognize and prevent it from happening?
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:29 PM on November 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


The suturing of science and capitalism is an uneasy one, as is the conjunction of science and government. In the U.S., environmental regulations like the Endangered Species Act rely on the concept of "best available science" to mediate between the uncertainty of scientific practice and the demand for state action. Market efficiency is great at providing new products (BPA free baby bottles!) but not that great at weighing risks and unintended consequences. Thanks so much for sharing this, it's a topic I've just started reading about and the ubiquity of endocrine disruptors (and our sewage systems lack of filtering capabilities) raises so many questions from a regulatory perspective.

If you want to nerd out on this, get ahold of Sheila Jasanoff's article "Technologies of humility: citizen participation in governing science"
But how can ideas of accountability be mapped onto well-entrenched relations between knowledge and power, or expertise and public policy? The time is ripe for seriously re-evaluating existing models and approaches. How have existing institutions conceptualized the roles of technical experts, decision-makers, and citizens with respect to the uses and applications of knowledge? How should these understandings be modified in response to three decades of research on the social dimensions of science? Can we respond to the demonstrated fallibility and incapacity of decision-making institutions, without abandoning hopes for improved health, safety, welfare, and social justice?

...

There is a growing need, I shall argue, for what we may call the ‘technologies of humility’. These are methods, or better yet institutionalized habits of thought, that try to come to grips with the ragged fringes of human understanding – the unknown, the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the uncontrollable. Acknowledging the limits of prediction and control, technologies of humility confront ‘head-on’ the normative implications of our lack of perfect foresight.
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:07 AM on December 1, 2013 [13 favorites]


See also: Tobacco.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:37 AM on December 1, 2013


interviewer: Mr. Ghandi, what do you think of using science in public policy?

Ghandi: It would be a good idea.
posted by telstar at 1:25 AM on December 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


and have given me the impression that this is pretty much the global warming issue of the next few decades.

Alongside, well, global warming. It hasn't become a non-issue, as much as some would like it to be. Sorry.
posted by Jimbob at 2:09 AM on December 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I highly recommend reading the FDA's rejection (PDF) of this as a thing, it is clearly and accessibly written and well sourced.

The potential toxicity of BPA in commercially relevant exposure levels was always unlikely but vaguely scary-ish before the excretion pathway was figured out, but it has been pretty absurd for a long time now. Our bodies rapidly and effectively convert BPA into BPA-monoglucuronide, which is both inactive and rapidly excreted. This means that all of the researchers who applied BPA to their various small model systems, from DNA methylation to obesity to thyroid function, were using dramatically non-relevant amounts. This is one of those few cases where criticisms of scientists not studying the whole system man are actually relevant. Our digestive systems are exposed to higher levels of more bizarre estrogen like compounds regularly by nature, it only stands to reason that we are built to handle that kind of thing in a general sense, and it turns out we are pretty good at handling BPA specifically.

The only reason this 'controversy' has continued for some time now has been the name brand value of competing products spreading FUD and the EU's cynical economic policies that have everything to do with which companies benefit in which countries and nothing to do with health.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:26 AM on December 1, 2013 [20 favorites]


"Of the 18 toxicology journal editors who signed the editorial, only one had no known links to industry."

Whoever made this list either lacks the most basic of understandings of how scientists work as a community, or is using it like a drunk man might use a lamp post, for support rather than illumination. A researcher at that level who honestly had no ties of any kind to industry at the kind of trivial detail they were listing would be suspicious for pretending expertise they don't have.

The half a million dollars they place at the top like it was some kind of evidence of bribery would fund a few PhD and a post doc for a year or a fancy machine that goes boop, at the level these journal editors are working at it's a little less stress about funding for a few months and its certainly not a new house. Hell, whoever wrote "Her lab is partly funded by private foundations." clearly doesn't know, and doesn't care to know, what those words generally mean. Also, looking past almost $5 million in current funding from three NIEHS and NIH grants and through 37 line items of past funding to a half years worth of post doc grant for very basic research from RJ Reynolds 15 years ago is pretty fucking rich.

A really big part of the point of science is to be useful, and helping companies not kill people, even if only so as to protect their bottom line, is pretty fucking useful. Of course there is potential for abuse in industry ties, but whoever went digging through these CVs to make this list clearly would have no idea how to begin to find it.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:14 AM on December 1, 2013 [24 favorites]


The potential toxicity of BPA in commercially relevant exposure levels was always unlikely but vaguely scary-ish before the excretion pathway was figured out, but it has been pretty absurd for a long time now.

That's just BPA, though, isn't it? The only mention of BPA I can find here is the example link in the post. The EU proposal is about EDCs in general.

In any case, the proposal has a mechanism for excluding chemicals "where there is (e.g. mechanistic) information demonstrating that the effects are clearly not relevant for humans and not relevant at population level to animal species living in the environment" so if there's evidence that BPA is safe (for animals as well as humans) this shouldn't apply to it.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:52 AM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


It will be quite funny when we are requiring women to collect and store their urine for proper disposal due to the EDC's present rather than letting them go into the environment as a toxic pollutant.
posted by koolkat at 4:57 AM on December 1, 2013



I really hope that whatever result comes out of this, it's the science-supported one.


I agree. I'm not a toxicologist and honestly don't have any clear understanding of BPA and its potential effects. My best hope is a public regulatory mechanism that uses the best available science, updated as more information becomes available.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:04 AM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Our bodies rapidly and effectively convert BPA

How very Human centric of you. Does such express one's humanity or does a consideration of the other life-forms on the planet make for an expression of humanity?

If the biosphere goes, so does humanity.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:00 AM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


My best hope is a public regulatory mechanism that uses the best available science

So what are you doing to bring fourth that reality?

Or is the public regulatory system driven by science already and need no change?
posted by rough ashlar at 6:02 AM on December 1, 2013


environmental scientists. They unanimously believe endocrine disruptors to be one of the greatest environmental and health threats to be one of the most serious and under-confronted issues facing us,

Don't look over your shoulder then and see:

1) Peak Phosphorous.
2) The old use of solvents like Freon. One crony of mine likes to point out how this via Brownian motion will slowly get into the upper atmosphere and destroy the Ozone. Usually she tosses in a lecture about how there is no natural pathway for its destruction along with how uneconomical a atmosphere scrubbing operation would be. She's got a pretty good handwave on the lack of scientific papers/government reports - but if there is truth to what is claimed the effect will happen well beyond the lifetime of anyone I know today given what I know about lifespans today.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:13 AM on December 1, 2013


Our digestive systems are exposed to higher levels of more bizarre estrogen like compounds regularly by nature

'Tis a good thing that the biosphere reproductive cycle is so well known from start to death that the only concern about endocrine-disrupting chemicals is how one set of chemicals works in the Human gut.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:19 AM on December 1, 2013


Yeah I have to say I'm in favor of all new substances carrying an extremely high burden of proof before hitting the market and the environment,and considering scientist often carry a moral framework in which causing a large quantity of suffering to animals is considered an easy or morally clear choice for them, I do not trust them to care about the welfare of non-human animals, or even the more subtle aspects of being human itself for me. I don't want their experiments in my food or my environment. We want scientists to have the utilitarian justification of harm if it might save someone from cancer, but by default of having it, I do not trust them making ethical decisions for the entire public and giving them MORE POWER THAN THE PEOPLE to force their experimental products on others.

I find the presumptions scientists and producers tend to have that they have an innate right to force me/public and the environment to consume their products by releasing them in the wild and putting them in unlabelled food products to be corrupt. If you want to prove these things are safe or worth the risk, prove it. And by proving it I mean, make a case and allow me to choose for myself. If people don't want your products in their water or air or food, why is the default that industry has the right to force it "for the good of the people"? There are sometimes unforseen consequences even of well tested substances. Some people don't want that risk and it serves no benefit to them. Forcing them to consume such things for the convenience of industry is not about serving them at all, it offers only risk, no actual benefit. The only benefit is to industry not having to work to meet regulatory requirements.

It's often not at all about a needed service and mostly about the convenience of industry not wanting to follow the will of the people or look out for their welfare or wishes when it's less convenient. This is about convenience of industry not about some truly humanitarian crusade to make the world "better". Dumping a bunch of extra chemicals in the environment and fighting for the right of industry to refuse to seek other solutions is not at all about doing great deeds.

Most of the goods in question (with a few exceptions) could be produced without such excesses of chemical toxins- and the pressure should be in the direction of clean as possible production, not the other way.
posted by xarnop at 6:57 AM on December 1, 2013


I'm pretty sure if humanity does manage to wipe itself out, the reason will boil down to Profit Motive.
posted by Mooski at 7:05 AM on December 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


"In any case, the proposal has a mechanism for excluding chemicals "where there is (e.g. mechanistic) information demonstrating that the effects are clearly not relevant for humans and not relevant at population level to animal species living in the environment" so if there's evidence that BPA is safe (for animals as well as humans) this shouldn't apply to it."
There is a weird logical flip buried in that, which has nothing to do with protecting health and everything to do with protecting profit. The original editorial is making a pretty inherently non-intuitive and technical, but vitally important, ontological argument that the two responses completely fail to address - instead responding to it as if it were some kind of existential attack on endocrine toxicology as a whole.

What the European Commission has done is establish a regulatory framework that sees "endocrine disruption" as a thing that is inherently bad that they need to regulate out of existence by eliminating chemicals that cause it - unless of course there is clear proof that it is "not relevant". The original authors are arguing that this is ridiculous way to see endocrine disruption, and they're right. The entire point of our endocrine system is to be disrupted by our environment, allowing various systems in our bodies to use it to respond to changing external and internal factors. "Endocrine disruption" is not itself a toxic effect, indeed its what the endocrine system is for, but, as the authors note, it is still a potential pathway to toxicity. There is a significant amount of work that has been done that establishes strong connections between a lot of compounds and the endocrine system, and a comparatively small and weak amount of work establishing connections between those effects and health, in either animal models or humans. So long as we are, in general, talking about theoretical harms that cannot be directly demonstrated, it behooves us especially to use sensibly built theoretical models to imagine these harms.

Just disrupting the endocrine system is clearly not at all a cause for concern in and of itself, it is indeed kind of the point, however disrupting it in such a way as to push us out of homeostasis, or out of the adaptive range, would be a cause for concern. 'Endocrine disrupters' are everywhere, and demonstrating even the barest shred of plausibility for harm should be absolutely necessary before doing things like treating soy like its tobacco. The way that the European Commission's regulations are currently written, most everything that we eat, particularly all but the most sterile and processed of foods, should be banned outright, but never will be for beautifully trivial procedural reasons. The whole point is for Commissioners to shut out their own scientists from the meaningful decision making process to allow them to ban whatever the fuck they want for whatever reason they want. Giving corporations with the right clout the ability to fuck with their competitors and seek rent in all sorts of new and creative ways.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:22 AM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


"How very Human centric of you. Does such express one's humanity or does a consideration of the other life-forms on the planet make for an expression of humanity?

If the biosphere goes, so does humanity."
It is a pretty enzymatically accessible organic compound. The homeopathic concentrations that would end up in the environment will end up in some environmental microbe that will happily turn it into cell mass. Life on Earth hasn't lasted this long by being totally unable to break down simple structures like this, particularly in the absurd dilutions that it ends up in. Indeed, BPA turns out to have a half life of 10 days in soil along with measurable effects in invertebrates, generally the most sensitive of critters, showing up somewhere around 1μg/L to 1 mg/L. This is a pretty phenomenally short half life and a really low toxicity for something that is never used in any real concentration.

There are real environmental problems to fight, and the people fighting them are overwhelmed enough with shit that actually exists, fuck these ghosts.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:35 AM on December 1, 2013 [12 favorites]


Just disrupting the endocrine system is clearly not at all a cause for concern in and of itself, it is indeed kind of the point, however disrupting it in such a way as to push us out of homeostasis, or out of the adaptive range, would be a cause for concern.

What about the potential for cumulative disruptive effects? Any chance industry would shell out the extra research money for exhaustive longitudinal studies if those went against their own interests? Or is there even potential for those kinds of real world effects that might not be evident in the lab or when only looking at these chemicals in isolation?
posted by saulgoodman at 7:45 AM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not to muddy the waters, but here's a discussion with an avian toxicologist about the recent effects of toxin accumulation in the Arctic (scroll down a bit). They're mostly talking about cumulative effects of PCBs and flame retardants, and only mention EDCs in passing but it might give some perspective on the other end of the life cycle of these chemicals.
posted by sneebler at 7:56 AM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Of the 18 toxicology journal editors who signed the editorial, only one had no known links to industry.

While there are a few people with what looks like signiifcant ties, most of those "links to industry" are pretty tenuous. If you count that way, I would have links to Phillip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Metabolife, Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis, Merck and countless others. In reality I don't have any ties to industry, but I have worked on toxicological risk assessments. Since most toxicologists study industrial products, and industry funds a lot of real research through various mechanisms, the probability of that kind of link is pretty high. Pharmaceutical companies especially are interested in toxicology if only because people will notice if their drugs are toxic and it will come back to haunt them (also for less cynical reasons).

Endocrine disruptors are a big area of research because of concerns for human health and for wildlife, but they are also a big concern for livestock producers in the agricultural industry, who also have a big stake in the toxicological risk assessments being accurate.

I absolutely do not trust the motives of "industry" in regard to public health, but a scientist working with industry does not equate to less of an interest in scientific truth.
posted by zennie at 8:08 AM on December 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


This editorial battle is a good thing, but it's important to realize that some scientists are only able to speak through their published papers. Government scientists are allowed to publish, but are explicitly not allowed to discuss how their findings might affect public policy. For years government scientists were publishing about global warming, but public policy at the time would not allow the display of a corrected temperature zone map of the US.

University scientists are often forced (by the impossibility of getting money anywhere else) to get research money from industry, and while it's quite possible to take money from industry without losing integrity, there can be an appearance of impropriety from the outside. I knew one scientist trying to help organic farmers whose attempts to keep them from wasting thousands of dollars on things like homeopathic compost teas were rebuffed because she also did research on pesticides.

There is a great need for good science journalism. Scientific terminology needs to be translated, hidden biases need to be made clear, and the significance of scientific findings to the real world need to be stated.
posted by acrasis at 8:18 AM on December 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


People who are horrified by the idea of journal editors having links to industry who probably be stunned to learn that while most basic research is supported by the federal government, a high percentage of applied research spending comes from industry. And as the federal government spends less on science research in the post-sequester environment, the percentage of research spending that comes from industry will grow, meaning there will be fewer working scientists without ties to industry.
posted by kat518 at 9:06 AM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


rough ashlar: "The old use of solvents like Freon. One crony of mine likes to point out how this via Brownian motion will slowly get into the upper atmosphere and destroy the Ozone. Usually she tosses in a lecture about how there is no natural pathway for its destruction along with how uneconomical a atmosphere scrubbing operation would be. She's got a pretty good handwave on the lack of scientific papers/government reports - but if there is truth to what is claimed the effect will happen well beyond the lifetime of anyone I know today given what I know about lifespans today."

I don't know about the entirety of "other solvents" but Freon® has a natural pathway to destruction: Combination with ozone under the presence of UV. Stratospheric levels of Freon have declined precipitately since their phase out by the Montreal protocol.
posted by Mitheral at 9:16 AM on December 1, 2013 [4 favorites]



"Of the 18 toxicology journal editors who signed the editorial, only one had no known links to industry."

Whoever made this list either lacks the most basic of understandings of how scientists work as a community, or is using it like a drunk man might use a lamp post, for support rather than illumination. A researcher at that level who honestly had no ties of any kind to industry at the kind of trivial detail they were listing would be suspicious for pretending expertise they don't have.


Yes, this.

And the framing of them as having ties to "industry" is extremely deceptive -- it makes it sound as though they have ties to the canning industry, and have a specific interest in BPA.

But all there actually is a tie to some industry, any industry, as though receiving money for drug research is so basically corrupting that you lose all objectivity about any topic, even completely unrelated ones.

It is very important that we watch out for corrupting influences in science and medicine, but this kind of hyperbole is not doing us any favors.
posted by grobstein at 9:19 AM on December 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


I don't know about the entirety of "other solvents" but Freon® has a natural pathway to destruction: Combination with ozone under the presence of UV.

Thank you. If the material was not rendered inert in the upper atmosphere then the Ozone would just keep going "POOF!".

(my memory is it takes some time/the Freon is able to destroy a number of Ozone molecules before it is rendered non-catalytic. No where has the math been produced to show the volume of propellent VS solvent to show how her concern is less of one than other ways Man will screw the pooch.)
posted by rough ashlar at 9:28 AM on December 1, 2013


If the only way to judge the neutrality of a journal is by the funding sources, and it's funded by a government grant from a government considering banning these sorts of chemicals, then *clearly* it's a biased source and should be ignored.

see I can play this game too mommy!!!
posted by eriko at 9:32 AM on December 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


People who are horrified by the idea of journal editors having links to industry who probably be stunned to learn that while most basic research is supported by the federal government, a high percentage of applied research spending comes from industry.


And that's why we need to go back to a system wherein rich corporations pay lots of taxes.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:55 AM on December 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


There are real environmental problems to fight, and the people fighting them are overwhelmed enough with shit that actually exists, fuck these ghosts.

Well…you yourself said that BPA is a simple chemical. So it's actually worth getting both the science and the policy right, in this case. Sure, the issue should not be over sensationalized (really that's an intertwined problem too). But there is instructive value, on a social scale, right here with BPA—even while we claim, more with our ambitions than with proper rationality, that there are "more important" or "real" things to focus on.
posted by polymodus at 11:05 AM on December 1, 2013


We keep trying to see which corporation can make most money killing us.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:40 AM on December 1, 2013


"Most of the goods in question (with a few exceptions) could be produced without such excesses of chemical toxins- and the pressure should be in the direction of clean as possible production, not the other way."

Here's a sentence from the rebuttal, quoted above:

"Thousands of published studies have revealed health effects of EDCs on wildlife and laboratory animals, and moreover, have shown associations of EDCs with effects in humans."

So, this is about EDCs, which are "endocrine-disrupting chemicals". Among the most studied and most prevalent EDCs are the phytoestrogens. See that? There's "estrogen" right there in the name.

Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like compounds that plants produce specifically for these properties, probably as defense mechanisms. The phytoestrogens aren't really different from other EDCs, that's why they're included as EDCs. Indeed, they're much studied and you will find a not-insignificant number of "authorities" of various credibility who argue that infants should not be consume phytoestrogens.

Even though they are very common. Phytoestrogens are found in coumestans, flavones, isoflavones, and lignans.

Here are common foods with high levels of phytoestrogens: flax seed, soy beans, soy nuts, tofu, tempeh, miso paste, soy yogurt, soy protein powder, sesame seed, flax bread, multigrain bread, soy milk, hummus, garlic, mung bean sprouts, dried apricots, alfalfa sprouts, pistachios, dried dates, sunflower seed, chestnuts, olive oil, almonds, cashews, green beans.

Clearly, we need to rid ourselves of these dangerous EDCs that are being forced upon us by industry and scientists.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:36 PM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blasdelb, nowhere in that (excellent) paper you linked do I see a rejection of BPA as an endocrine-disrupting chemical.

From my reading (which I had to do from another source, because of "password protection" on the PDF) it appears that the NIEH/NTP believe that the BPA problem is serious enough that it requires organized, consortium-directed research to fill in gaps and to address potential methodology problems. This is being done to provide support for policy-making.

It's the kind of thing that I like seeing government do. I remember some of the early assertions of endocrine disruption by modern chemicals, and their sudden disappearance when it was discovered that hormones from the Pill passed through sewage treatment plants and were having a significant effect on fish in the rivers in these urbanized areas. It's not the whole story, but it's a significant part of the story.

Here's the abstract of the paper. It's very much focussed on what the outcome of the consortium will be, rather than what the outcome was:

"Background: Bisphenol A (BPA) is a high production volume chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic and is found in many consumer products. Some studies using animal models have suggested that BPA exposures may have adverse health effects. However, research gaps have precluded a full understanding of the effects of BPA in humans and engendered controversies surrounding the chemical’s potential toxicity.

Objectives: The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP) have developed an integrated, multipronged, consortium-based approach to optimize BPA-focused research investments to more effectively address data gaps and inform decision making.

Discussion: NIEHS/NTP BPA research investments made over the past 4 years include extramural research grants, establishment of a BPA Grantee Consortium, intramural research activities on BPA’s mechanisms of action, the launch of two clinical studies and an occupational study, development of a round-robin experiment to validate BPA measurements in human serum, and, in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), formation of a consortium to design and execute a chronic toxicity study of BPA in rats. The NIEHS’s new consortium-based approach has led to more integrated, collaborative efforts and should improve our ability to resolve controversies over the potential human health effects of exposures to low levels of endocrine-active agents.

Keywords: bisphenol A, consortium-based research, endocrine disruptor, low dose, NIEHS
posted by the Real Dan at 3:32 PM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think of these as dueling narratives:

Science as objective arbiter!
vs.
Science in the pocket of industry/the military/the powers that be!

The problem with our risk society* is that our decision making processes often assume an apolitical science when science is already political. I've been pondering the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Committee between science and society because there is a deep mistrust due to historical episodes (see DDT, nuclear accidents, thalidomide, etc) and contemporary issues (environmental justice movements, climate change's hockey stick, the EPA's determination on corn ethanol, etc) - and when we talk about specific scientific debates, it's impossible to separate the particular issue (EDCs) from the general uneasiness of how science functions in today's global neoliberalism and how it has functioned in the past. Is it possible to have a "neutral" science?

* Ulrich Beck: "Risk may be defined as a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself" (Beck, 1992: 21). "In contrast to all earlier epochs (including industrial society), the risk society is characterized essentially by a lack: the impossibility of an external attribution of hazards. In other words, risks depend on decisions, they are industrially produced and in this sense politically reflexive" (Beck, 1992: 183).
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:00 PM on December 1, 2013


So does anyone have the technical chops to answer my question above? I wasn't asking just to score rhetorical points--I'm genuinely in the dark about whether there's any potential for cumulative or other kinds of less direct effects when it comes to endocrine disruptors, and whether or not the current research models would even look at such effects (maybe there's a partial answer in the comment above about agricultural concerns over livestock health, but I'm not sure). I am utterly out of my depth in this field of science.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:14 PM on December 1, 2013


I was just thinking this morning as I was going through getting ready.

1. Why was my maxi pad container plastic? Why couldn't it be recycled cardboard?
2. Why was my milk carton plastic. Why not glass?
3. Why couldn't plastic garbage/grocery bags made out of biodegradable material?

Money spins the world around.
posted by stormpooper at 7:28 AM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


1. Yeah, you're probably right about this.
2. Compared to plastic, glass milk cartons:
  • are heavier, leading to more fuel burned
  • are breakable, leading to wasted product and infection hazards for delivery drivers and grocery stockers
  • require more energy to produce
3. It's difficult to make a bag that will fall apart on its own, but not before you want it to. Making garbage bags decompose on exposure to UV light or oxygen is possible, but won't help at the bottom of a landfill. Water's another possible trigger, but then your bag would fall apart as soon as you toss in a damp rag. So in the meantime, recycle or reuse your plastic grocery bags, or get paper.
posted by echo target at 10:35 AM on December 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Or bring reusable grocery bags. It's actually more convenient once you get set up with them, because you can use special refrigerated bags for your cold stuff and not have to rush home quite as quickly. We could easily just make it mandatory that people bring their own bags if we really wanted to force the issue. Plastic bags at the grocery are really just a convenience and a kickback for the plastics industry anyway.

Garbage bags may be trickier but I'm sure there are other workarounds.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:26 PM on December 2, 2013


So does anyone have the technical chops to answer my question above? I wasn't asking just to score rhetorical points...

OK, I can take a shot....

What about the potential for cumulative disruptive effects? Any chance industry would shell out the extra research money for exhaustive longitudinal studies if those went against their own interests? Or is there even potential for those kinds of real world effects that might not be evident in the lab or when only looking at these chemicals in isolation?

Skipping over a ton of caveats, endocrine disruptors could have cumulative toxic effects if a) they actually accumulate in the body faster than they can be excreted, or b) the effect occurs during tissue development (i.e. reproduction and childhood), or c) they cause some kind of "permanent" pathological change such as tumor growth. All ways are possible, in theory. The liver is pretty good at breaking most things down though, and the kidneys are pretty good at excreting them. Most natural non-steroid hormones have super-short half life measured in minutes, and steroid hormone half-lives are measured in hours (e.g. 15 hours for estrogen).

There is little motivation for industry to conduct comprehensive longitudinal studies. They are extremely expensive, and as far as I know they are usually publicly funded or mandated. Also, as far as I know (not being a trained toxicologist), most long-term human toxicity information is extrapolated from animal testing, histories of industrial (work) exposure, and other case studies. Hormones and their analogs can also be really difficult to study simply because we produce them endogenously and they fluctuate. Just look at the estrogen replacement therapy boondoggle... it's estrogen, it's a major hormone in half the population and major player in the fetal development of the other half, and we prescribe it for various things, but do we know all about it after conducting tons of studies? Barely, even after specifically dosing people with it in known amounts.

The last question actually gets to the point of the letter in the FPP-- but from the opposite direction. We are biochemically complex, and so is our environment. We breathe things in and out. What things? Not sure, depends. We swallow all manner of chemicals, many of which are biologically active-- even the purest organic food from the cleanest remotest place imaginable, even if you cook it. Unfortunately the best way to study the specific effect of something is to isolate it, and when you do that you are not reproducing and controlling for every variable from real life. So yes, there are plenty of effects that are not evident in the lab, but may come out in the real world due to mixing with other chemicals, personal genetics, unexpected dosage, etc. However it's hard to know what those effects are even if they are really happening.
posted by zennie at 6:09 PM on December 2, 2013


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