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Bill would let federal health researchers ban certain chemicals

By William Hudson, CNN
Each generation of children is exposed to more chemicals in the womb.
Each generation of children is exposed to more chemicals in the womb.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Under the bill, the director of a federal health institute would select a panel of experts
  • They could ban up to 10 chemicals a year; the ban would take effect after two years
  • The bill targets endocrine-disrupting chemicals
  • Rep. Jim Moran and Sen. John Kerry plan to introduce the bill this month

Editor's note: In his ongoing Toxic America investigation, Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is uncovering the health effects of chemicals and other pollutants in our environment.

(CNN) -- A new bill could alter the landscape of chemical regulation in the United States by empowering researchers to take swift action against the most potentially harmful chemicals in use today.

The bill, to be introduced later this month, would give the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and a panel of experts selected by the director, the power to ban up to 10 chemicals from commerce each year by categorizing them as being of high concern.

Those chemicals would become unlawful to use 24 months after receiving that designation.

Among the chemicals that could be subject to a ban is bisphenol A, or BPA, a hormone-disrupting substance widely used in plastics that has been the target of controversy in recent months.

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The bill is to be introduced by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, later this month.

The fate of the legislation, though, is far from certain. It will have to make its way through committee in both the Republican-controlled House and the Senate, where Democrats have a small majority.

CNN received an advance copy of the bill*, called the Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Exposure Elimination Act of 2011, which has a self-executing statute under which the listing of high concern by the NIEHS automatically would outlaw the chemical or class of chemicals, and would require each regulatory agency to take action to prohibit the chemical.

*Editor's note: This is an advanced draft of the bill. It could change before being introduced.

If the bill were to become law, the NIEHS, a part of the National Institutes of Health, could have chemicals outlawed much sooner than otherwise possible.

It represents a dramatic change in approach to regulating chemicals and points both to the frustrations many have with the glacial pace of regulatory agencies and to the mounting scientific evidence available to scientists at the National Institutes of Health indicting endocrine-disrupting chemicals in some of the developed world's gravest health problems.

The chemicals, which can be either naturally occurring or artificial, are found in everyday products like detergents, flame retardants, foods and cosmetics. Researchers have found they interfere with the function of hormones and could adversely affect human health.

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NIEHS conducts original research into this class of chemicals, and funds additional research at laboratories across the country. Their scientists are widely considered to be most familiar with the latest research, but while they can inform the regulatory agencies, they have no regulatory power.

This bill would change that.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, will be introducing the bill with John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, later this month.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, will be introducing the bill with John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, later this month.

Research into endocrine-disrupting chemicals began when biologists started noticing bizarre reproductive problems in many wildlife populations. One of the most famous examples from the 1970s, DDT, accumulated at higher and higher concentrations up the food chain, nearly driving the bald eagle, which preys on large fish and other birds, to extinction.

Adult bald eagles didn't immediately die from DDT, but the chemical affected their ability to produce healthy offspring. That's what many fear is happening to humans too, as we sit at the top of our food chain and expose ourselves to many types of endocrine disruptors, like BPA, through the products we use every day. In addition to plastics, BPA is also found in the lining of canned foods.

For regular poisons, a higher dose correlates directly with greater toxicity, but endocrine disrupting chemicals may be counter-intuitively more potent at lower levels, even infinitesimally low levels, according to the Endocrine Society, the world's largest organization of endocrinologists.

That poses a problem for the Environmental Protection Agency's screening tests, which are based on traditional toxicology and cannot detect the low-dose effects of chemicals on the endocrine system, said Frederick vom Saal, a member of the Endocrine Society.

And the effects can show up years later, too, like the higher rates of infertility and cancer in the children of women who were prescribed DES, also an endocrine disruptor, during pregnancy.

We are almost like a third world country when it comes to regulating chemicals.
--Frederick vom Saal

Congress charged the EPA in 1996 with setting up a program to screen for endocrine disrupting chemicals. The Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program has been created, but by 2009 the EPA had still not tested any chemicals for their endocrine-disrupting effects.

But 2009 was a watershed year.

The Endocrine Society released its first-ever "scientific statement," which systematically laid out the evidence against endocrine disrupting chemicals and called for more research into their role on human health, and the adoption of a so-called "precautionary principle," where human exposure to chemicals is reduced if their effects are not properly understood.

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Also in 2009, Linda Birnbaum, a senior adviser at the EPA, left the agency and became the director of the NIEHS, the very position that would hold the power to outlaw up to 10 chemicals a year for 10 years. If this bill passes, she will have swifter regulatory powers at the NIEHS than ever possible at the EPA.

Birnbaum's office said the NIEHS does not comment on pending legislation.

In December 2009, a bill was introduced in Congress to establish better interagency research on endocrine disrupting chemicals -- the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009, which the Endocrine Society fully supported.

Kerry also introduced the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009 into the Senate.
Kerry also introduced the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009 into the Senate.

That bill, also introduced by Moran and Kerry, sketched out a terrifying narrative, in which once-rare disorders like autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and obesity have become commonplace in the developed world. Many researchers suggest these disorders are due to widespread use of synthetic chemicals that mimic and disrupt the delicate function of hormones like estrogen and testosterone in the human body.

"These disorders began to increase noticeably at the population level in the early 1970s when the first generation exposed in the womb to post-World War II synthetic chemicals reached maturity. Prior to 1950, these disorders were rare, which rules out the influence of inherited disorders," begins the 2009 bill.

"Today, among the fourth generation of children exposed in the womb, one in three children and one in two minority children will develop diabetes; one in six children is born with neurological damage; one in 100 children has an autism spectrum disorder and among boys the occurrence is one in 58; one in 125 boys is born with hypospadias, a condition where the urethra does not open at the end of the penis."

Just this week a new study found that environmental factors play a much bigger role in causing autism spectrum disorders than previously thought.

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"It's not so easy to make the connections in humans because we live so long and are exposed to so many things across our lifetime that trying to link a single compound to a disease state is hard," says Andrea Gore, who researches neural endocrine disruptors.

"On the other hand, I think that what we've learned from animal studies, and from cell lines and mathematical modeling is that many of these mechanisms are the way things work in humans, too."

The bill is expected to meet strong opposition from chemical manufacturers.

In 2009 and 2010, the American Chemistry Council, representing the largest chemical manufacturers, spent $10.25 million lobbying on the Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009 and other chemical legislation, according to lobbying disclosure forms compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics at the request of CNN.

CropLife America, a trade association of companies making pesticides and other chemicals used in agriculture, spent $2.88 million lobbying on the 2009 bill and similar legislation.

The bill never made it out of committee.

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The American Chemistry Council says it has no comment on legislation it has not seen. But in a written statement, it said chemicals like BPA have been shown to be safe.

"BPA is one of the most thoroughly tested chemicals used today and has a safety track record of 50 years," it said. The council also pointed out that government regulatory agencies "have declared that BPA is safe for use in many applications."

Vom Saal says that's based on junk science, reminiscent of how the tobacco industry defended smoking cigarettes.

"BPA is a good example of a situation where there's this huge disconnect between literally hundreds and hundreds of studies done both by people in the government and in the academic side," vom Saal said, "and then a small number of studies done by corporations where 100% of the corporate studies say this chemical is safe."

If industry can mitigate a chemical's pathway into humans, for example by preventing it from leeching into food, the bill would allow its use in commerce, even if it had been determined to be of high concern.

"We are almost like a third world country when it comes to regulating chemicals," vom Saal said. "It's very difficult for people interested in the public's health to understand how does this become a political, partisan, issue when people on both sides have family that are showing diseases related to these chemicals. What is going on here?"

 
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