The high cost of endocrine disrupting chemicals on male reproductive health
A new report, The Cost of Inaction (pdf), has been published by the Nordic Council of Ministers in an effort to promote regulatory action to get endocrine disrupting chemicals out of the products consumers use every day. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that act like our own hormones -- the same hormones that so delicately balance our growth, sexuality, and other significant functions.
The report looks at a few key health effects, including testicular cancer, infertility, a deformation of the penis known medically as hypospadias, and cryptorchidism (undescended testicles).
The numbers in the report really don't matter so much. Industry may criticize high 'intangible' costs and other the assumptions underpinning the models. NGOs will point to a paragraph in the report itself which notes that
if the costs related to all effects of exposure to endocrine disruptors (i.e. effects in wildlife, increased occurrence of other hormonally-related cancers (e.g. breast- and prostate cancer), behavioral changes, metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes and suppression of the immune system) were included, the total costs related to endocrine disruptors would be substantially higher.
What matters are the trends being observed in society. For example, the rate at which boys are born with one or both testicles missing from the scrotum has increased from 2% to 9% in the past 50 years in Denmark. Perhaps more tellingly, studies of recent immigrants find that the first generation has risks of reproductive health issues similar to those in the country of origin; but in the second generation, the risks approximate the rates in their new home country. Such rapid changes cannot be explained by pre-existing genetic conditions, but look like influences of environmental conditions.
Peter Smith, the executive director for product stewardship at Europe's chemical industry association CEFIC told the Guardian: "The link between exposure to a chemical and an illness has not been shown in many cases. The authors themselves say they have some trouble with causality." Industry has used this argument to delay action on endocrine disruptors for years, in spite of calls for the use of the precautionary principle and the obligations in Europe for suppliers to prove safety before they are allowed to sell their products.
It is also a defense that is easy to use: proving negative effects as a direct link to any specific chemical requires years of expensive study. But in the face of the statistics and trends suggesting that hormone-mimicking chemicals affect our health, we should go into better safe than sorry mode. Five suspected endocrine disruptors widely used in consumer products are:
- diethyl phthalate (DEP);
- bisphenol A (BPA);
- tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA);
- octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC).
You can expect more to be added to the list, as the regulators tune into the concerns and expect companies to take their heads out of the sand and start looking closely for the chemicals that mimic important messengers in the human body, acting like trojan horses to deliver a toxic blow out of proportion to the doses to which we are exposed.
Avoiding these chemicals in the products you buy offers a good start to forcing manufacturers back to the path of true product stewardship. Even that may pose difficulties. Endocrine disrupting chemicals often are not 'hazardous' according to traditional definitions of toxicity or carcinogenicity, and therefore escape traditional regulations prohibiting dangerous chemicals in many products or requiring labeling.