Rachel's Democracy & Health News #876  [Printer-friendly version]
October 12, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Evidence is piling up to show that many
chemicals can cause serious illnesses, which then can be passed on to
our children and grandchildren.]

By Peter Montague

New evidence is flooding in to suggest that many industrial chemicals
are more dangerous than previously understood. During the 1990s, it
came as a surprise that many industrial chemicals can interfere with
the hormone systems of many species, including humans. Hormones are
chemicals that circulate in the blood stream at very low levels (parts
per billion, and in some cases parts per trillion), acting like
switches, turning on and off bodily processes. From the moment of
conception throughout the remainder of life, our growth, development
and even many kinds of behavior are controlled by hormones.

Now new evidence is piling up to show that some of these
hormone-related changes can be passed from one generation to the next
by a mechanism that remains poorly understood, called epigenetics.

Until very recently scientists had thought that inherited traits
always involved genetic mutations -- physical changes in the sequence
of nucleotides that make up the DNA molecule itself. Now they know
that there is a "second genetic code" that somehow influences the way
genes operate, and that by some poorly-understood mechanism can be
passed along to successive generations.

Medical scientists hope to take advantage of the new science of
epigenetics to manipulate the behavior of genes for beneficial
purposes. But the dark side of this new understanding is that stress,
smoking, and pollution can cause epigenetic changes -- including many
serious diseases like cancer and kidney disease -- that apparently can
be passed along to one's children and even grandchildren. For example,
Dutch women who went hungry during World War II gave birth to small
babies. These babies, in turn, gave birth to small babies even though
they themselves had plenty to eat. "It changes the whole way we think
about inheritance," says Dr. Moshe Szyf at McGill University in

Just last month professor Michael Skinner at Washington State
University in Spokane announced results of laboratory experiments
showing that environmental pollution could permanently reprogram the
genetic traits of a family line of rodents, creating a legacy of
sickness. This research "highlights the long-term dangers from
environmental pollution," professor Skinner said. Dr. Skinner showed
that a single exposure to a toxic chemical in the womb could produce a
sick litter of offspring, which in turn could produce its own sick
offspring. "It's a new way to think about disease," Dr. Skinner said.

"A human analogy would be if your grandmother was exposed to an
environmental toxicant during mid-gestation, you may develop a disease
state even though you never had direct exposure, and you may pass it
on to your great-grandchildren," Skinner said.

"It introduces the concept of responsibility into genetics," says Dr.
Szyf. As a recent story in the Toronto Globe & Mail summarized,
"Epigenetics may revolutionize medicine, said Dr. Szyf, and it also
could change the way we think about daily decisions like whether or
not to order fries with a meal, or to go for a walk or to stay in
front of the television. You aren't eating and exercising for
yourself, but for your lineage."

On average, 1800 new chemicals are registered with the federal
government each year and about 750 of these find their way into
products, all with hardly any testing for health or environmental

Brominated flame retardants, phthalates, bisphenol-A, PFOA (related to
the manufacture of Teflon) are the toxins that have gained our
attention at the moment. By working overtime for 10 or 15 years in the
traditional environmentalist way, we may be able to ban a half-dozen
of them. But during that 10 or 15 years, the chemical industry (and
the federal EPA) will have introduced somewhere between 7,000 and
10,000 new chemicals into commerce, almost entirely untested. This
destructive merry-go-round is accelerating.

Faced with evidence of harm, governments tend to respond initially by
conducting "risk assessments" to show there is no problem. The main
function of risk assessment is to make chemical problems disappear,
almost like magic. As EPA's first administrator, William Ruckelshaus,
reminded us, "We should remember that risk assessment data can be like
the captured spy: If you torture it long enough, it will tell you
anything you want to know."

So the bad news about chemical contamination is steadily mounting,
while the number of new chemicals is steadily increasing. As we have
been reporting regularly in Rachel's Precaution Reporter, the
European Union has responded to this situation by trying to enact a
new law called REACH, which requires that chemicals be tested before
they can be sold. As they say in Europe, "No data, no market." The
U.S. and European chemical industries -- and the White House -- have
been working overtime to subvert the European effort to enact REACH.
But now it looks as though REACH -- in one form or other -- will
become law soon. It will be binding on any corporations that want to
sell chemicals in Europe, including firms based in the U.S.