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The Bitter Plastic Pill

How bisphenol A and phthalates, chemicals found in plastic, may be causing infertility


If you’re like many Americans, you’ve been told to drink more water. Many Americans carry reusable plastic water bottles with them from morning to night, whether working out at the gym or sitting at an office desk during the workday. We’re told that drinking more water will help us lose weight, keep our skin clear and give us energy. But new evidence suggests that those plastic bottles contain chemicals that may actually be harmful to health, particularly to fertility.
    Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are two types of manmade chemicals that have been getting the attention of scientists, consumers, legislators and the media in recent months, and their presence in products that we use in our daily lives, including those omnipresent water bottles, has become controversial.
“They are all around us,” says Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California at San Francisco’s National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health. “People have ubiquitous exposure to these [chemicals].”
    Bisphenol A is used in hard, clear plastics (such as baby bottles and reusable water bottles) and food and beverage can liners. The term phthalates refers to a family of chemical compounds that are used to make plastics soft and flexible, and they are used in medical tubing, IV bags, baby toys and pill coatings. Phthalates are also used to carry scent in personal care products like lotions, cosmetics and air fresheners.
In the body, phthalates can interfere with hormonal functions, especially testosterone in men and boys. They are thought to play a role in birth defects relating to formation of the male reproductive system, as well as contributing to the inability to produce a normal quantity and quality of sperm, which can lead to reduced fertility in males. Bisphenol A has also been linked to poor semen quality in men; in women, BPA acts as a weak form of estrogen that can cause early onset puberty in girls and affect reproductive system health and function. It is also thought to have a trans-generational effect, where the fetuses of pregnant women who are exposed to BPA can suffer reproductive health and fertility problems after birth and as adults.
    Infertility affects approximately 1.2 million, or 2 percent of women of reproductive age in the United States, according to a 2002 National Center for Health Statistics report.  Additionally, 7 percent of married couples in which the woman was of reproductive age (2.1 million couples) reported that they had not used contraception for 12 months and had still not had a pregnancy. These difficulties, and the growing evidence that most people have levels of these chemicals in their bodies, makes it increasingly important for consumers to be aware of the ingredients of the products they bring into their homes. And experts say that the effects of BPA and phthalates are far-reaching and should be of concern to everyone.
    “Our fates are all intertwined in this [issue of exposure to fertility compromising chemicals],” says Anne Adams, director of policy and programming for the American Fertility Association (AFA). “This is not a woman’s issue. Women may take the lead because this is what we do, but this is a universal issue.”
    Adams adds that the trans-generational aspect of BPA and phthalates’ effects on humans compounds these concerns even more.  “I might have had my children,” Adams says, “but are my children going to be able to have their children?”
    Many scientists and environmental groups agree that these chemicals pose a real danger to the public and human reproductive health, though many of the cited studies are animal-based and experts agree that more research is needed to determine the possible extent of these dangers.
    Senator Sen. Frank Lautenberg [D-NJ] introduced the Child, Worker and Consumer Safe Chemicals Act to the United States Senate in July of 2005. The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Jeffords, Boxer, Kerry, Corzine, Clinton and Kennedy. In his introduction, Lautenberg said, “My bill will establish a safety standard that each chemical on the market must meet. It shifts the burden for proving that chemicals are safe from [the] EPA to the chemical manufacturers. Under my bill, the manufacturers must provide the EPA with whatever data it needs to determine if a chemical use meets the safety standard. And the bill strengthens EPA’s authority to restrict the use of chemicals which fail to meet that standard….I believe we have a sacred duty to protect the health of infants and children.”
    The Child, Worker and Consumer Safe Chemicals Act was endorsed by the American Public Health Association and leading pediatricians at the time of its introduction. The bill never became law, though, and was cleared from the Senate books at the close of the 109th Congress.
    The controversy surrounding BPA intensified in August of 2007, when a consensus statement by 38 scientific experts on BPA was published.  The statement warned policymakers of the potential health risks posed by BPA exposure.
“The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans,” the statement reads. “Recent trends in human diseases relate to adverse effects observed in experimental animals exposed to low doses of BPA. Specific examples include: the increase in prostate and breast cancer, uro-genital abnormalities in male babies, a decline in semen quality in men, early onset of puberty in girls” and other health repercussions.
A September, 2007 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report also states that phthalates are known to interfere with testosterone production and function. Most recently, an article in the February, 2008 issue of the journal Pediatrics found that phthalate exposure is widespread in infants and that the infants’ exposure to lotion, powder and shampoo were significantly associated with increased urinary concentrations of those phthalates.
   Two months later, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed a bill that requires any children’s product manufactured, sold or distributed in California to be free of phthalates. These chemicals are still being used in a host of products manufactured and distributed elsewhere, though, and this law does not preclude phthalates from being used in products not marketed for use with children. Some industry groups continue to argue that these products have been used for years with no adverse effects.
Woodruff and Adams say that while legislation is being initiated and passed at the state level, much more needs to be done at the federal level to get BPA and phthalates out of the products we use.
“We need to change…the way we respond to these things,” Adams says. “We need corporate responsibility and a grassroots approach that’s consumer driven.”
    Woodruff echoes this point. “Since it’s not a conventional contaminant, in our air, water or food, we don’t have a good regulatory system [for it],” Woodruff says. “There’s no law that lets us go ahead and get rid of it….We need to have a comprehensive way to address these things.”

For more information:

 The American Fertility Association: www.theafa.org

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database: www.cosmeticsdatabase.com

 Women’s Health and the Environment: www.womenshealthandenvironment.org

Association of Reproductive Health Professionals: www.arhp.org

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: www.safecosmetics.org

Chapel Hill Bisphenol A Expert Panel Consensus Statement: www.environmentalhealthnews.org/newscience/2007/2007-0801bpaconsensus.pdf

Where These Chemicala Are Found and How toReduce Exposure

     Exposure through personal care products may be the most frightening thing about the issue of dangerous exposure to phthalates and BPA because these products are omnipresent in daily life. However, this is also the area that gives consumers the most control over their own exposure.
The Environmental Working Group has compiled information about companies that have voluntarily pledged to not use hazardous chemicals in their products and have rated the safety of more than 25,000 personal care products. This tool can be used to evaluate the products a consumer already owns or to help make decisions about what brands to purchase.   
“It’s not a call to panic,” Adams says. “It’s a call to be informed.” 


 Can be found in: 

• Medical tubing, IV bags, baby toys and pill coatings. Also used to convey scent in personal care products like lotions, cosmetics and air fresheners.

 To reduce exposure:

• Check ratings of personal care products on a consumer site, such as The Cosmetics Safety Database.

• Purchase toys made of wood, cloth or other natural materials.

 • Use baking soda, vinegar, ammonia, hot water, borax and other materials to clean instead of products laden with chemicals. See Women's Health and the Environment link for green cleaning suggestions.

What the experts say:

 • Consumers can buy unscented products and those that are compliant with European Union (EU) standards, as the EU has passed laws against some chemicals that the United States does not have legislation on, says Woodruff.


 Can be found in:

• BPA is used in the lining of tin cans and in hard, clear plastic, like that used in baby bottles and reusable water bottles.

 To reduce exposure:

• Do not microwave food in plastic containers or with plastic wrap. Use a paper towel or a glass or ceramic lid to cover food.

 • Use tin water bottles instead of plastic.

 • There are numbers on the bottom of many plastic containers used for food and beverages. Avoid Plastic #3 (also known as PVC or vinyl), Plastic #6 (found in Styrofoam products) and Plastic #7 (found in sport water bottles, some baby bottles, toddler drinking cups and other products).

 • Replace vinyl shower curtains with those made of natural fibers.

 What the experts say:

     Adams and other experts advise using glass containers for food and beverages instead of plastic when possible, especially when heating in a microwave. “If we buy an organic product, but it's wrapped in plastic, [BPA] can still leach into the product,” Adams says.

Published: April 06, 2008
Issue: 2008 Spring Green Issue