The phrase “better living through chemistry” is a variation on an advertising campaign used by the DuPont Chemical Company1 in the mid-1930s until the early 1980s.
In 2014,2 it became the title of a “comedy” that portrays the life of a man bullied by his father and wife, and his subsequent “rebirth” through chemical use. However, the Hollywood and public relations versions of “better living through chemistry” are not the reality.
For instance, recent data from the University of California San Francisco revealed that 55 chemicals previously not found in humans were found in the bodies of pregnant women and their babies.3
Chemical-laden plastic has become such a ubiquitous part of modern-day life that is hard to imagine a world without it. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, it's a relatively new invention4 and there's still a lot we don't know about how it impacts human and environmental health.
The chemicals in plastic are intergenerational endocrine disruptors5 for which there is not enough evidence to demonstrate plastic is safe for current and future generations. These chemicals have widespread use in plastic products and are similar in nature to natural sex hormones, which earns them the designation of endocrine disruptors.
But the chemicals in plastics are just one of the enormous number of chemicals being released into the environment through human use and disposal in waste products, including human waste. For example, according to the Environmental Working Group,6 every day women in America use an average of 12 personal care products, including cosmetics, that contain up to 168 different chemicals.
And those are just the chemicals the manufacturers have told the public is in those products. Many of these are applied to the skin, which allows ingredients to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. This is only one of the ways chemicals are absorbed in the body.
For example, food can introduce chemicals in the body, either through its ingredients or through its packaging. The fast-food industry was valued at $647.7 billion in 2019 and is estimated to grow 4.6% by 2027, reaching $931.7 billion.7 Yet, despite the fact that it has been identified as a significant source of hormone-disrupting chemicals, the market continues to grow as consumer demand increases.
Scientists Find 42 ‘Mystery Chemicals’ in Pregnant Women
In the featured study, researchers8 found 109 chemicals using high-resolution mass spectrometry on blood samples from pregnant women and their babies. The study was done to develop a screening workflow for the identification and prioritization of chemical exposure in maternal and cord blood samples as a development for the future evaluation of health risks.
In a small sample of 30 women and their babies’ cord serum samples, they discovered 55 previously unreported chemicals in human blood. In addition to this, they also found 42 “mystery chemicals” with sources and uses that were unidentified by the researchers.9 The scientists wrote that the majority of the 55 compounds had “limited to no information about their sources or uses.”10
However, the source of the chemicals is believed to be from consumer products and other industrial sources, as written in a press release from the University of California.11 Since they were found in both the pregnant woman and their newborn children, evidence suggests the chemicals are able to pass across the placenta.
Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D., is a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California San Francisco and senior researcher on the study. She commented in the press release:12
“These chemicals have probably been in people for quite some time, but our technology is now helping us to identify more of them. It is alarming that we keep seeing certain chemicals travel from pregnant women to their children, which means these chemicals can be with us for generations. It’s very concerning that we are unable to identify the uses or sources of so many of these chemicals.”
Woodruff spoke to a journalist from Live Science,13 expressing her concerns that exposure during pregnancy is dangerous since it's at a vulnerable time of development, potentially leading to lifelong consequences. Two of the newly detected chemicals in the human body were polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), used in products such as pizza boxes and nonstick cookware.
Ten were plasticizers, such as phthalates, but the majority of the newly detected chemicals the researchers had no information about. Another author, Dimitri Abrahamsson, told Live Science that the number of chemicals discovered should signal a sense of “alarm,” continuing:14
“We're being exposed to chemicals that we have very little information about. And these chemicals could potentially have harmful health effects that we don't know and can't predict.”
Phthalates and Plasticizers Pose Health Dangers
Data from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health discovered 90% of the people tested from 2016 to 2017 had eight different plasticizers in their urine.15 These colorless, odorless chemicals, composed mostly of phthalates, are used to change the elasticity of materials during the manufacturing process.16
Although you can probably name shower curtains, takeout containers and storage bags as plastic products, did you know clothing, paper coffee cups, tea bags and chewing gum are also made with plastic?17 Because the chemicals are not tightly bound to the products, they can dissipate into the surrounding environment, including the food you eat and the water you drink.
While the National Toxicology Program18 believes phthalates are “reasonably considered to be a human carcinogen,” politics and regulations have allowed plastics to remain in many of the products you use today.
In addition to the passage of chemicals from mother to child, ingestion of plastic particles can start in infancy. Globally, the baby bottle industry was valued at $2.6 billion in 2018, and the plastic segment accounted for 44.1% of the overall share.19 Researchers20 found that microplastics are released from plastic baby bottles into the contents, sometimes up to 16 million plastic particles per liter.
In this study, researchers tested only the number of particles released by the bottle as they use purified water and not standard drinking water. Since standard drinking water also contains microplastics,21 this means the number may have been significantly underestimated when the bottles are used at home.
Phthalates are powerful hormone disruptors that can cause males in many species to develop feminine characteristics.22 By disrupting the endocrine system they can also increase the risk of testicular cancer, low sperm count and infertility, which researchers have found in animal species including whales, deer, otters and bears.
A peer-reviewed article published in the American Journal of Public Health23 used data from longitudinal birth cohort studies to show associations between exposure to phthalates in utero and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, lower IQ, impaired social communication, poor psychomotor development and adverse cognitive development.
EPA and FDA Responsible for Your Toxic Exposure
Woodruff and her team were able to tentatively identify some of the chemicals used in chemical libraries. However, confirmation is made by comparing them to the pure chemicals known as “analytical standards,” provided by the manufacturer. Manufacturers do not always provide the samples. Woodruff continued her statement in the press release from the University of California, saying:24
“EPA must do a better job of requiring the chemical industry to standardize its reporting of chemical compounds and uses. And they need to use their authority to ensure that we have adequate information to evaluate potential health harms and remove chemicals from the market that pose a risk.”
During the UCSF study, researchers found chemical manufacturer Solvay halted access to a chemical standard for one of their perfluorooctanoic acid compounds they have used as a replacement for those that have been phased out. The researchers had been applying this chemical standard as a comparison, looking for the presence and toxicity of the replacement chemical.25
It may seem odd that a regulated industry would have the option of withdrawing its chemical composition, but as Sharyl Attkisson from Full Measure26 revealed in an investigative report, the industry is self-regulated. When the law was passed in 1938, it was missing a section that would have given the FDA the authority to impose sanctions.
Melanie Benesh of the Environmental Working Group told Attkisson that the FDA does not have jurisdiction to recall products or “to do a systematic look at their ingredients and what their long-term effects are.”
While the FDA has no teeth, the EPA is not using its regulatory prerogative in many cases. According to their website, the EPA “gathers health, safety and exposure data; requires necessary testing; and controls human and environmental exposures for numerous chemical substances and mixtures. EPA regulates the production and distribution of commercial and industrial chemicals …”27
Yet, as I have covered in the past, the EPA has been sued for its mercury policy, allowing dental offices to continue to discharge nearly 5.1 tons of mercury each year into publicly owned water treatment plants, most of which are subsequently released into the environment.28
The EPA has also been accused of colluding with Monsanto, which you can read more about in “Evidence EPA Colluded With Monsanto to Dismiss Cancer Concerns Grows Stronger.” They have blocked warning labels about glyphosate, and they promote the use of sewage sludge, which they dubbed “biosolids.”
This sludge is spread as fertilizer on U.S. agricultural lands, golf courses, parklands and cemeteries. As described in “BioSludged,”29 biosolids can contain dioxins, pharmaceuticals, surfactants, hormones and heavy metals, as well as disease-causing pathogens.
The persistence of these toxins in the treated soil means they may be absorbed by food crops that end up on your plate. Yet, high-profile PR companies, some funded by the EPA, spin biosolids as environmentally friendly and a form of recycling.
The EPA’s Environmental Dumping Ground
According to the World Wildlife Federation,30 between 1930 and 2000, there was a 400-fold increase in the production of man-made chemicals across the world, rising from 1 million to 400 million tons each year. These man-made chemicals produce widespread environmental contamination during their manufacture, use and disposal.
Chemicals can travel vast distances through the air or water and have been found to contaminate nearly every environment and type of wildlife, including birds, alligators, polar bears and panthers. There has been a widespread decline of mink in the Great Lakes, otters in Canada and other species across North America and Western Europe.31
Experts believe it is the environmental contamination of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, which is supported by studies using laboratory mink. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) is classified by the U.S. EPA as a cancer-causing agent. It has been found in the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea.
In 1979, it was tested on monkeys and they all died within weeks. Scientists have found caimans, an alligator species native to South America, with sex reversals caused by environmental contamination from bisphenol A. The chemical was also responsible for reproductive malformations in quail and chicken embryos.
Consider Your Daily Choices
It doesn't appear that the EPA or FDA has plans to take broad steps to warn the public about dangerous environmental chemicals now or in the near future. On the contrary, in some cases, they're working with the companies to remove warning labels that could have alerted consumers to their risks, such as the incident in California where the EPA stepped in to remove warning labels about glyphosate.32
Despite scientific evidence to the contrary,33,34,35 to date the EPA continues to insist that there is “No evidence that glyphosate causes cancer in humans.”36 Governmental regulatory agencies do not appear willing to go against large manufacturers in order to protect the health of their citizens.
Instead, it's up to you to vote with your pocketbook and keep an eye on the products and services that you use. For example, one way to promote change in the cosmetic industry is to participate in tracking adverse events37 from any chemical or product you use.
Instead of buying the newest celebrity-endorsed personal care product or cosmetic, consider making your own bath and handwashing products without preservatives. Seek out safe products that are free of potentially dangerous chemicals by using the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.38
The easiest way to steer clear of glyphosate is to buy locally and organically grown food from a trusted source. For a list of ways to help reduce your exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, see “Why Your Hormones Have Been Hijacked.”