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Looking Ahead: Hormone-Altering Chemicals Threaten Our Health, Finances and Future

Advances in science, legal action and public understanding are existential threats to today's chemical industry. Investors should pay attention.

I'm the founder and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit launched in Charlottesville, Virginia, that publishes Environmental Health News and engages in scientific research and outreach to help the public and policy makers understand that we have many opportunities to prevent diseases and disabilities that are afflicting our families, friends and neighbors today.

We can accomplish this by acting upon today's scientific understanding that chemical exposures are contributing to those problems.

I'm going to let you in on a scientific reality that is going to transform the chemical enterprise and upend today's unscientific approach to figuring out what's safe and what is not. The safe dose of one of the biggest volume chemicals in the world— bisphenol A (BPA)—will have to be reduced by at least 20,000-fold. 

This calculation is based upon data the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) obtained in an ambitious, roughly $30 million collaborative program called CLARITY-BPA. CLARITY was designed to reconcile differences between traditional regulatory science as practiced by the FDA and results obtained by independent academic scientists funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Many significant effects were observed at the lowest dose tested, including data obtained by the FDA. 

That means: Take today's FDA reference dose and divide by at least 20,000.

That's the highest exposure that would be considered safe if regulated according to existing scientific understanding. The chemical would disappear from any uses that bring it into contact with food or drinking water, human skin, or result in it evaporating into the air or melting into water.

And the same would hold for many other chemicals that disrupt hormone signaling, that is, endocrine disrupting chemicals, which have been linked to multiple health impacts including prostate cancer, breast cancer, infertility, diabetes, ADHD and autism.

Maybe not all EDCs would require a 20,000-fold reduction. Perhaps only a 1000-fold. But there are at least several hundred endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in use today that could follow this pattern. All would see greatly heightened restrictions on their uses. 

And that represents an existential threat to the chemical industry. 

Risky investments

I am not anti-chemical, nor anti-chemist. We need chemicals, including plastics, to make modern civilization work. What we need, however, is to do a much better job at designing the next generation of inherently safer materials, safer than the mix we have today, which has been deployed with far too little attention to its inherent toxicity.

I've spent a significant part of my work over the last decade helping chemists design safer chemicals. I want to help them grab market share in the booming demand for safer materials. I want to help them make money.

Some people claim that chemical regulations stifle innovation. Just the opposite is true. It will require tremendous innovation to move away from hazardous chemicals and toward materials that are safer. It can be done. The scientific knowledge we possess today about what causes chemical harm is deep and wide, so much better than what we knew when hazardous materials in widespread use today were designed. Let's use that knowledge to innovate.

What's the long-term landscape? A series of events and scientific discoveries over the last two decades are revealing that not only have long-standing chemical industry practices harmed people's health, investors taking positions in chemical companies may be exposing their wealth to unexpected and large financial risks.

These risks arise from a core reality of the business of establishing what is safe and what is not: Chemicals are not thoroughly tested—if at all—for safety before being released into the market, resulting in widespread if not universal exposure, including to highly vulnerable populations like babies still in the womb. Serious harmful effects often are not detected until decades later.

All too often, as effects are discovered the responsible party—which made the initial mistake to incorporate a poorly understood chemical in products and take them to global scale—doubles down in efforts to hide or dismiss concerns about safety, using toolkits to manufacture doubt developed by the tobacco and lead industries.

Internal memos obtained through legal discovery reveal that the companies, sometimes decades earlier, had ignored or hidden scientific evidence that raised safety concerns. Three prominent examples emerged in in the past few years alone: Monsanto/Bayer with the Roundup herbicide, Johnson & Johnson with asbestos in its talc baby powder, and 3M and DuPont with their manufacture and use of perfluorinated Teflon-related "forever" chemicals, PFAS.

Thousands of lawsuits are being heard against those companies now. Shareholder values plummet as juries reach decisions. Billions of dollars are at stake. And there will be more.

Monsanto had earned a bad rap for misbehavior with its chemicals for decades. But Johnson and Johnson, 3M and DuPont didn't. They had been widely regarded as good corporate citizens. If even they have laundry this dirty in their past, how many other companies have pursued similar practices? Unquestionably many.

Weaponized data

But with the practices so widespread, perhaps the pertinent question is, can any company within this sector be presumed innocent? It's just too common a business practice. It's standard operating procedure.

Another example: Bill Moyers' 2001 documentary Trade Secrets unveiled an early 1970s conspiracy by several seemingly respected chemical companies to hide devastating scientific discoveries about the health risks of vinyl chloride, one of the most important chemicals for the plastics industry. The conspiracy involved Conoco, BF Goodrich, Dow, Shell, Ethyl and Union Carbide, some of the founding fathers of the chemical revolution.

A new weapon against these bad practices has emerged and matured since the tobacco settlements of the late 1980s: the creation of large, searchable databases of internal documents obtained through legal discovery in lawsuits, showing what the companies knew and when they knew it, and also how they conspired with federal agencies to derail needed safety regulations. 

The two biggest databases are the Chemical Industry Documents Library at the University of California San Francisco, and ToxicDocs, a similar database of 20 million internal documents dating back as far as 1920, hosted by Columbia University and City University of New York. The UCSF library now includes a large set of documents released by the Attorney General of Minnesota upon settlement of an $850 million suit against 3M last February.

The lawsuits currently underway against Monsanto/Bayer, 3M and Johnson & Johnson will undoubtedly add additional documents that provide yet more evidence of cover-ups that commenced long ago. It already is a positive feedback loop, as new documents add to the body of evidence, which then stimulate more lawsuits.

Science of harm

Financial risks arise for chemical industry investments from a different direction as well: the advance of science demonstrating harm, and the evolution of science to determine what is safe.

The discovery of harm can be slow arriving—sometimes decades after a chemical is first put on the market—but impacts of harm can nonetheless be devastating. 

For example, 3M's and DuPont's forever chemicals (perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, which degrade very slowly in the environment, if at all) were first used in products in the 1940s. Scientific concerns about them started to appear in the 1990s, although internal documents indicate the companies had known decades earlier. Most of the concerns have been about cancer, low birth weights, immune system function and birth defects.

Last year, a science team in Italy unveiled results revealing a new, different set of adverse impacts, this time on male reproduction. They include decreased penis size, reduced sperm count and structural changes in the reproductive tract, classic signs of endocrine disruption. And the team's research confirmed that the contaminants interfere with testosterone action.

Even without the penis effect, 3M settled that $850M suit with the State of Minnesota. DuPont settled a case in West Virginia for $671 million in 2017 and this month the film Dark Watersstarring Mark Ruffalo tells the story of the company's decades-long treachery. New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York have ongoing lawsuits.

As of the end of 2019, research by the U.S. military, the Environmental Working Group and others have documented PFAS contamination in more than 400 sites around the U.S. According to one analysis, 110 million Americans have drinking water contaminated by unsafe levels of these chemicals. This estimate is likely to grow substantially with the discovery of PFAS in artificial turf and leaching therefrom into surface water, and the haphazard disposal of untold tons of artificial turf once it wears out and must be replaced.

Many other suits will unquestionably be filed. And that's just in the U.S. These chemicals have already created furors about public health in Australia and Canada.

Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.