I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 6, 2010

A chemical pot pourri

This is a real hodge-podge of items.

Bisphenol A

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently announced the findings of a study that found BPA in a large percentage of paper receipts it had collected.  http://ewg.org/BPA_Found_In_Receipts

Chemicals in cosmetics

Another resource EWG maintains is the Skin Deep cosmetic safety database.

http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/

Speaking of cosmetics, Annie Leonard (“The Story of Stuff”) has come out with “The Story of Cosmetics”, a look at chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products.  The Story of Stuff blog looks at the cosmetics industry’s reaction.

Learning and developmental disabilities and other diseases and conditions

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) covers a wide range of topics, from learning and developmental disabilities to the CHE Toxicant and Disease Database, a searchable database that summarizes links between chemical contaminants and approximately 180 human diseases or conditions, to the Metabolic Syndrome Discussion Group.

BP (not just oil spills)

The CHE site also includes news items like:

6 Aug Thousands sign on for $10 billion BP suit. The revelation that BP’s Texas City refinery emitted toxic benzene for more than a month has ignited a furor in the port community that has suffered its share of deadly industrial accidents and toxic spills. Houston Chronicle.

Yes, before the BP oil spill there was the BP Texas City refinery explosion.  The U.S. Chemical Safety Board conducted an investigation.  I believe that they are looking into whether these incidents show that BP fostered a culture of cutting corners.

Chemicals and depression?

Was reading Peter Kramer’s Against Depression, where he argued that depression is a true illness.  (At least that’s what I’m getting out of it.)  He makes a couple of points that struck me.  One, on p. 156 he states that there is a connection between diabetes and depression.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite a source for that.  And if true, it’s not clear which caused which.  That is, does having diabetes make it more likely that you would be depressed?  Or does depression in some way connected to the development of diabetes.  Or could diabetes and depression be caused by the same agent?  (Or some combination of the above.)

He also talks about how long-term stress can result in increased levels of corticotropin and that such stress can lead to depression and illness.  Of course, corticotropin is but one element of the neuroendocrine system.  And with many of these things, there are feedback loops that get out of whack if enough recovery time is not available.  That’s actually why some scientists have proposed that a chronic lack of sleep can cause obesity over the long haul.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer and NIOSH are looking at whether “shift work” (along with a number of chemicals) can be considered carcinogenic.

Leptin: An example of what we didn’t know

Leptin, the appetite hormone, was not discovered until 1994 (though its effects had been observed much earlier).  (Zhang Y, Proenca R, Maffei M, Barone M, Leopold L, Friedman JM (December 1994). “Positional cloning of the mouse obese gene and its human homologue”. Nature 372 (6505): 425–32. doi:10.1038/372425a0. PMID 7984236.) I mention that because chemical industry apologists seem to ignore the fact that we’ve learned a lot about the human body in the last 15-20 years.  And the more we learn, the more we discover how chemicals can mess up our systems.

Regarding leptin, I found the following using the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus service.

A National Cancer Institute fact sheet on physical activity and cancer states that “increasing physical activity may influence insulin and leptin levels and influence breast cancer prognosis.”

An EPA report, “A Decade of Children’s Environmental Health Research:  Highlights from EPA’s Science to Achieve Results Program,” cites an EPA-funded study that found that “autistic children showed higher levels of leptin (a hormone that affects the regulation of body weight, metabolism, and reproductive function, and influences the immune system) in their blood when compared to typically developing children (Ashwood et al. 2007; R829388C002).”

Citation: Ashwood P., Kwong C., Hansen R., Hertz-Picciotto I., Croen L., Krakowiak P., Walker W., Pessah I.N., and Van de Water J. 2007. “Brief report: Plasma leptin levels are elevated in autism: association with early onset phenotype?” J. Autism Dev. Disord. Advanced online publication (DOI 10.1007/s10803-006-0353-1).  Abstract

So our bodies are these incredibly complex systems.  Some chemical companies would have you believe that the stuff they make, even the synthetic chemicals that human beings have never been exposed to before, have absolutely NO effect on our health.

Truth is, despite the Environmental Defense Fund saying that we’re not guinea pigs, we all are.  (See previous post: “Tired of being a guinea pig?“)

“Would you like BPA with those fries?”

March 28, 2010

Risk factors for breast cancer – Missing one of the major ones?

Up to a third of breast cancers could be avoided (Yahoo! News)

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100325/ap_on_he_me/eu_med_avoiding_breast_cancer

European breast cancer conference in Barcelona. Carlo La Vecchia cited figures from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (website).  I couldn’t find the precise source for the figures, but perhaps they came from “Estimates of cancer incidence and mortality in Europe in 2008” (abstract only).

Conference website – http://www.ecco-org.eu/Conferences-and-Events/EBCC-7/page.aspx/840

Abstracts – http://www.ecco-org.eu/Conferences-and-Events/EBCC-7/Abstracts-online/page.aspx/2177

Or go directly to http://ex2.excerptamedica.com/ciw-10ebcc/

Type in “cancer” in the search field.  You should get 655 abstracts.

The focus of the conference was clearly on diagnosis and treatment with little to no discussion of environmental factors.  Certainly screening, diagnosis, and treatment are critical, but shouldn’t we try to prevent as much as we can?

More from the Yahoo story

Dr. Michelle Holmes of Harvard University, who has studied cancer and lifestyle factors, said people might wrongly think their chances of getting cancer depend more on their genes than their lifestyle.

“The genes have been there for thousands of years, but if cancer rates are changing in a lifetime, that doesn’t have much to do with genes,” she told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Cambridge, Mass.

Could perhaps increasing exposure to substances in the environment change rates in a lifetime?  That doesn’t have much to do with genes either.  Though if you’re being exposed to chemicals that interfered with how your genes were turned on and off before you were born, or are interfering with that now, perhaps it does.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. In Europe, there were about 421,000 new cases and nearly 90,000 deaths in 2008, the latest available figures. The United States last year saw more than 190,000 new cases and 40,000 deaths.

Tara Beaumont, a clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, a British charity, noted that three of the major risk factors for breast cancer — gender, age and family history — are clearly beyond anyone’s control.

What about environmental exposure to chemicals?

IARC, on its World Cancer Day page, notes that it has an active program in the identification of carcinogenic risks. The IARC Monographs identify environmental factors—including chemicals, complex mixtures, occupational exposures, physical and biological agents, and lifestyle factors—that can increase the risk of human cancer.

In other words, there are several other environmental factors besides lifestyle that have been identified.  See the articles below for examples of how environmental factors could be contributing to breast cancer.

While the advice to eat less and exercise more is good (in fact, given that no one really has much direct control over environmental exposures that advice is probably even more important), I find it disturbing that the major risk factors cited in news stories seem to be reduced to diet, lifestyle, gender, age, and family history (that is, genetics), leaving environment out of the picture.

Why is that?  Because it’s easier to blame cancer victims than to confront companies and industries that sell us products that release substances that can mess with our health and who continue to release carcinogens and endocrine disruptors into our air and water?  (I’ll refer you again to the TEDX site, “Prenatal Origins of Cancer” for more information on that.)

Another perspective

In a post “do patients need doctor navigators to use the internet?”, David Collins discusses a March 25 New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece titled “Untangling the Web — Patients, Doctors, and the Internet” in which the authors “expressed a lot of concerns about how the internet is putting patients in touch with a lot of questionable information about disease” and about how they thought that changes the doctor-patient relationship in an adverse way.  (While they do raise some good points about the quality of some of the information on the Internet, I tend to agree with Collins.)

The reason I’m citing that here is the following statement from his post:

When I joined cancer public health in the ’70s the medical community almost universally rejected the idea that food and nutrition had anything to do with the prevention of cancer. People who talked about a relation between nutrition and cancer were sneered at and called the “fruits and nuts” crowd. Thirty-five years later as I approached retirement I had to chuckle inwardly many times about the current enthusiasm for the view that diet and nutrition are key to the prevention of much cancer. These days ya gotta eat your greens and grains!

So even the experts can change their minds….

Finally, it seems that environmental factors only really get attention when there are clusters of rare cancers.

Democratic Senators Eye New EPA Role Investigating Local Cancer Clusters

Environmental Policy Alert – March 24, 2010

From InsideEPA.com’s Environmental NewsStand (pay-per-view news)

Note: The site has a one-time offer of three free articles or documents by creating a new account today.

Senate environment committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) are working on legislation that would give EPA and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) a major new role helping local health agencies investigate and address cancer clusters and communicate risks to local residents.

Press release from Sen. Bill Nelson on legislation

Nelson plans to preview testimony he’s been invited to give at next Wednesday’s hearing (my blog post on the March 17 hearing), which aims to find ways to strengthen the federal government’s hand in investigating cancer clusters, like the Acreage.

Recent Acreage blog post on Nelson’s efforts

Right now the federal Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA ) and Department of Health and Human Services ( HHS ) usually don’t get involved absent a request from a state.
“This effort is aimed at finding ways to bring in more federal resources more rapidly to help protect people, especially little children,” said Nelson, who’s also expected on Friday to announce he’s partnering with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer on new legislation to do the same.
Sen. Nelson’s testimony at Senate committee hearing on EPA and children’s environmental health

March 10, 2010

More on cortisol and stress

Came across a couple of blog posts about this topic and thought I’d share.  The author does a more complete job describing the role of cortisol in the body than I did in a previous post.

From Life and Body by Ben: Making the most of life and body
http://slicer30.wordpress.com

Ben’s focus is on the effect of cortisol on the storage of fat.  That’s necessary of course because our bodies need some fat reserves, but we all know that your body can also carry too much fat and that that can have very serious consequences for your health.  And cortisol does have other important functions that it carries out.

As I’ve noted in previous posts I’m very curious about the effects of environmental chemicals on the endocrine system in general and on hormones like cortisol in particular.

Reviewing The Endocrine Disruption Exchange‘s section on Prenatal Origins of Endocrine Disruption (links to each section are included here):

makes me wonder if there’s some sort of domino effect, some sort of cascade.

It’s clear that things like genetics, diet and nutrition, exercise and fitness, and even the stress of modern living all play a part in obesity and general health and well-being.  But having said that, the fact that those do have an effect does not preclude environmental chemicals from having an effect as well.

The problem for scientists and policymakers is that all of these factors are interwoven to some extent.  In The Optimistic Child (1995), a book about “immunizing” children from depression, Martin Seligman writes about an epidemic of depression that started in the late 50s and early 60s.  He notes that depression can have biochemical and genetic causes, then states quite matter of factly that “this epidemic is not biological.”   He states that no biochemical change has been identified that meets the time trends.

He specifically mentions fluoride in the water, ozone-layer breakdown, industrial pollution, and birth control pills as possible contributors to biochemical changes.  Instead, Seligman places the blame squarely on the “self-esteem” movement.  While I think he very well might be right about that having had a major impact, I also think that he was too quick to dismiss the effects of industrial pollution, many of which we weren’t aware of even in 1995.  For example, Our Stolen Future, which documented many of the effects of endocrine disruptors, wasn’t published until 1996.  (We also did not really take into account that children are not just smaller adults, but that childhood is a time when their bodies are growing and changing and that exposure that might not have an effect on an adult, whose body is already grown, might have subtle, yet still damaging consequences for a child.  And recent discoveries in neuroscience seem to indicate that adult brains can, surprise, surprise, still develop neurons.  Perhaps some chemicals are affecting adults’ brains, either directly or indirectly.  Perhaps many mental disorders from anxiety to depression to autism to Alzheimer’s are simply different endpoints on a multi-dimensional “spectrum” of the brain misfunctioning.)

In addition, we now know that drinking water can contain chemicals and byproducts from the drugs and pills people take, household cleaners and soaps (and other consumer products, etc., and we really have no idea how those interact with fluoride and chlorine in water.  (Well, actually, we do know that fluoride and chlorine can react with organic matter in wastewater to form toxic byproducts.)

So here’s are some hypotheses.  Could industrial chemicals have had neurological effects that directly caused an increase in depression (and other mental disorders)?  Could they have affected people’s bodies such that their endocrine systems got out of whack (that, I believe, is the technical term ;-)  )?

Could they have affected the production of cortisol, such that people’s bodies started storing more fat?  Did the resulting imbalance in the endocrine and immune systems start making people more susceptible to stress thereby compounding the problem?  Or are increased cortisol levels the byproduct of some of these processes?  And are some chemicals affecting the ability of the blood-brain barrier to keep certain chemicals out of our brains?

And, going back to Seligman, he argues fairly persuasively (I haven’t finished the book yet), that depression is caused by “learned helplessness.”  Learned helplessness is, according to Seligman, a strong predictor of depression.

Which makes me wonder, what were people’s reactions when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in 1962?  You’ve just found out that the world in which you live is being contaminated by chemicals from industrial plants, pesticides, etc.  Wouldn’t you feel rather helpless?  This is not to say that such information should be kept from us.  Without knowing we can’t make informed choices.

Most people would, I think, agree that there’s some connection between mind and brain, between brain and body.

Aside: While looking for info on Silent Spring, I stumbled across the website for the Silent Spring Institute.  The institute’s mission is to identify and break the links between the environment and women’s health, especially breast cancer.

Interestingly, when I checked out the American Cancer Society’s site, there is no obvious link to anything about causes from exposure to chemicals in the environment.  It seems to be primarily about screening, diagnosis, and treatment.  This is not to say that screening and treatment aren’t important, but why not try to reduce or prevent the occurrence of cancer in the first place?  (The cynical answer is, there’s no profit in that.  More on that in another post.)

With respect to the difference between treatment and prevention (whether it be with respect to a disease or pollution), I am reminded of a story I heard—more of a parable really—many years ago.

A tribe that lived along a river.  One day they found a body floating down the river next to their village.  The tribe members were saddened and decided they would respectfully bury the body.  The next week another body floated down the river.  Again they buried the body.  A few days later, another.  And pretty soon they would sometimes find two or more bodies and hardly a day went by that they didn’t find at least one body.  The tribe became very good at building coffins and digging graves, but it never occurred to them that perhaps they should find out why bodies were floating down the river in the first place.

While we do know the causes of many cancers (and for those for which we do know some of the causes doesn’t mean we know all of the causes), we know a lt more than we did just fifteen years ago.  But we just don’t know enough yet to pinpoint the exact causes of all cancers or diseases or disorders.  Well, scientists are researching that, but that’s not something most of us can do.  Do what can we do?  I guess I’d say the take-away lesson of all of this is, do what you can now to get in shape and to reduce stress.

One of the examples of small steps that Robert Maurer describes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life is of a woman who knew she needed to get more exercise and to eat better, but found the idea of committing to half an hour several times a week too overwhelming.  The step he suggested to her that finally got her started on the way to being in shape was that she simply march in front of the television one minute a day.

March 2, 2010

Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009

Important legislation authorizing the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct a research program on endocrine disruption was introduced in the 111th Congress this past December.

Title: A bill to amend the Public Health Service Act to authorize the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct a research program on endocrine disruption, to prevent and reduce the production of, and exposure to, chemicals that can undermine the development of children before they are born and cause lifelong impairment to their health and function, and for other purposes.

Both versions of the bill were introduced on Dec. 3, 2009, and were referred to committees in their respective chambers.

The bill has been endorsed by The Endocrine Society and the American Medical Association.

Here’s a bill status widget from OpenCongress.org:

S.2828 Feed-icon-10x10

Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009

  • Introduced: December 02, 2009
  • Status: Introduced
  • Next step: Senate Passes
  • Latest action: Sponsor introductory remarks on measure. (CR S12324)
  • Sponsor: Sen. John Kerry [D, MA]
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