WHO, UNEP: Synthetic Chemicals Partly to Blame for Health Problems

by | Feb 20, 2013

Synthetic chemicals, untested for their disruptive effects on the hormone system, are likely at least partly to blame for a global increase in birth deformities, cancers and psychiatric diseases, but manufacturers’ lack of transparency means the problem could be even more serious, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organization.

Human health depends on a well-functioning endocrine system to regulate the release of hormones that are essential for functions such as metabolism, growth and development, sleep and mood. Some substances known as endocrine disruptors can alter the functions of this hormonal system, increasing the risk of adverse health effects. Some endocrine disrupting chemicals occur naturally, while synthetic varieties can be found in pesticides, electronics, personal care products and cosmetics. They can also be found as additives or contaminants in food, according to State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.

The UN study, which is the most comprehensive report on EDCs to date, highlights associations between EDC exposure and health problems, including the potential for such chemicals to contribute to non-descended testes in young males, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, developmental effects on the nervous system in children, attention deficit/hyperactivity in children and thyroid cancer.

However, because only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of synthetic chemicals in existence have been assessed for endocrine disrupting activity, and because many chemicals in consumer products are not identified by the manufacturer, the report authors warn that their findings may just be the “tip of the iceberg.”

The report notes that with more comprehensive assessments and better testing methods, potential disease risks could be reduced, with substantial savings to public health.

Some 17 percent of foam samples taken from couches for a study released in November by Duke University contained the flame retardant pentaBDE, which is banned in 172 countries and 12 US states and was voluntarily phased out by US manufacturers in 2005.

PentaBDE is a long-lasting chemical that over time migrates into the environment and accumulates in living organisms. Studies show that this class of chemicals can disrupt endocrine activity and affect thyroid regulation and brain development.

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