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Issue 38
, 2012
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Are common chemicals making us fat?

Source: Herald Sun, Date: , 2012

A RECENT study questioned the use of some everyday chemicals. So should we be worried? Fiona Baker presents both sides of the debate.

Yet another report has linked some everyday chemicals with increases in cancers, diabetes, obesity, falling male fertility and a number of neurological problems in both humans and animals.

In May, the European Environment Agency (EEA) released a review which made a direct connection between endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and health problems. EDCs are chemicals that interfere with the body's endocrine system, which regulates the hormones needed for all biological processes.

EDCs exist in both natural and synthetic forms. Some are used in medications such as the birth control pill, while EDCs such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are used in food packaging and plastic containers, and others are used in agricultural pesticides, lubricants and solvents.

"Scientific research gathered over the past few decades shows us that endocrine disruption is a real problem, with serious effects on wildlife and possibly people," EEA executive director Jacqueline McGlade says. "It would be prudent to take a precautionary approach to many of these chemicals until their effects are more fully understood."

Many Australian government discussion papers have acknowledged these concerns, but say the lack of definitive evidence makes it difficult to introduce bans. So should we be worried about the chemicals we are exposed to in daily life?

DON'T PANIC: Dr Paul Brent, Food Standards Australia New Zealand Chief Scientist

+ All food sold in Australia has safe packaging. "To assess whether chemicals in foods and drinks present any health and safety risks, FSANZ surveyed a range of chemicals associated with packaging materials. In 2010, we analysed 65 items packaged in glass, paper, plastic or cans for chemicals. The survey results were reassuring, with no detections of phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, semicarbazide, acrylonitrile or vinyl chloride in food samples."

+ Some studies are generating fears. "Several substances are considered to be endocrine disruptors. Soy, for example, is a much more potent endocrine disruptor or endocrine receptor binder than many other substances, especially BPA. However, dose and exposure are important factors.

"The current debate on the safety of exposure to low levels of BPA is an interesting example of a substance where the exposure is extremely low but fears have been generated by some studies.

"It is unlikely there is any risk to health. Research indicates levels of BPA found in food are in the parts per billion range. Liver enzymes are very efficient at combining with BPA, making 99.9 per cent of it non-toxic. It's excreted in the urine, so people of all ages are exposed to extremely low levels (in the range of parts per billion to parts per trillion) - it s the equivalent of taking a bucket of water out of Sydney Harbour.

"With such tiny levels of exposure to BPA, it is highly unlikely it poses any real risk."

BE WORRIED: Dr Peter Dingle, toxicologist.

+ Contamination is real. "This is a big issue which we need to take very seriously. EDCs have now permeated every part of our lives, from food to baby toys, bedding to bags. While there is growing evidence against EDCs, there is just so much we don't know and yet we are exposed to them everywhere, all of the time.

+ Evidence is mounting. "This is not the first report to link endocrine disruptors with a whole lot of illness - and it won't be the last. The increase in diabetes, obesity and cancers and the decrease in male fertility can definitely be linked to the growing prevalence of these chemicals in our lives.

"Ecological studies have shown the huge amount of damage it is doing to our ecosystems.

"Adverse reactions are happening at much lower doses than previously considered safe, and the research also shows that it is the lower-income people who are most exposed and most affected. So it is not okay for a middle-class bureaucrat to say there is nothing to worry about.

"The EDCs of today are no different to the DDT pesticides of the 1950s or the PCBs [found in paints and lubricants] in the 70s. These chemicals are introduced into our lives and later we find out how much damage they cause.

+ Australians need to use their purchasing power. "If these chemicals are allowed to continue infiltrating our lives, we need to lower our own exposure.

"Get rid of plastic. Never heat plastics in the microwave. Don't store food in plastics and use glass where possible."

A scientist undertaking research into the effects of EDCs on human health admits she has replaced her plastic food receptacles (thought to be a source of EDCs) with glass.
Dr Dianna Magliano, a senior epidemiologist at Melbourne's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, says, "It may all turn out that the current exposure levels pose no real dangers to humans, but I have seen the results of studies on what these chemicals do to worms and frogs."

Magliano says the jury is still out on the impact these chemicals are having on our lives. "While we can definitely say that smoking causes lung cancer, for example, we are still not sure about the safe levels of exposure to endocrine disruptors."