London - Chemicals found in every home may cause breast cancer, asthma, infertility and birth defects, global health chiefs said on Tuesday.
They warn that the gender-bending compounds (EDCs, or endocrine-disrupting chemicals) used in toys, PVC flooring, car dashboards and credit cards have serious implications for health.
The international group, academic experts working under the umbrella of the United Nations environmental and health agencies UNEP and WHO, issued their findings in a paper updating a 2002 study on the potential dangers of synthetic chemicals, Reuters reports.
In the landmark report, the group suggested a ban might be needed to protect future generations. It says it is reasonable to suspect chemical substances called phthalates of harming female fertility and linked them with rising rates of childhood illnesses including leukaemia.
Also under suspicion is bisphenol A, which is found in a host of daily items including tin cans and sunglasses. The man-made compounds are thought to interfere with the natural hormones that are key to our growth, development and overall health.
The WHO said there was ‘very strong evidence’ in animals they can interfere with thyroid hormones – something that can cause brain damage, stunted intelligence, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.
For prostate cancer ‘significant evidence’ exists of a link with agricultural pesticides.
And there was some evidence linking exposure in pregnancy to weight gain in infants and children and potential links to breast cancer.
In the same report ten years ago, the UN agency said there was only ‘weak evidence ’ that gender-bending chemicals were harming human health.
Declaring the chemicals a global threat, the new report’s authors said humans and animals were exposed to hundreds of compounds, many of which have yet to be identified or properly studied. Some are inhaled in dust, others make their way into our bodies from food or simply licking our fingers.
The report stops short of saying the chemicals actually caused the illnesses but did say that in some cases, the evidence was very strong.
The team, created by a 17-year-old chemical management body called the IOMC working with a range of UN agencies, said a key problem was that manufacturers of consumer products did not identify many of their chemical components.
Consequently, the researchers said, they had only been able to look at "the tip of the iceberg". Disease risk from the use of EDCs - or what could be even more dangerous, a combination of them - "may be significantly underestimated."
The report – State of the Science of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals – is the most comprehensive of its kind because rather than focusing on one chemical or one illness, it evaluates all the evidence.
It says: ‘The diverse systems affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals likely include all hormonal systems and range from those controlling development and function of reproductive organs to the tissues and organs regulating metabolism and satiety.
‘Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility or reduced fertility, learning and memory difficulties, adult-onset diabetes or cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases.’
Worryingly, it warns the chemicals assessed so far by scientists may only be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ – and there could be many other potentially harmful compounds out there.
It cautions that the key role of hormones in the development of tissues and organs means that unborn babies and young children may be particularly vulnerable.
The report – written over two years by international experts who collated and weighted scientific studies on the topic – also states the rise in some conditions is too rapid to be blamed on genes alone.
‘The prevalence of paediatric asthma has more than doubled over the past 20 years and is now the leading cause of child hospitalisations and school absenteeism,’ it said. ‘Certain birth defects, such as those of the male reproductive organs are on the rise. The incidence of paediatric leukaemia and brain cancer have risen, as has the incidence of testicular cancer. These are stark health statistics.’
The WHO says wildlife is also at risk and calls for much more research into the chemicals and their effects – and says that there may be a case for banning or restricting them.
Dr Maria Neira, the WHO’s director for public health and environment, said: ‘The latest science shows that communities around the globe are being exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their associated risks. We all have a responsibility to protect future generations.’
Elizabeth Salter Green, of the campaign group CHEM Trust, said the EU was trying to tighten up the regulation of gender-bending chemicals but the UK was in favour of the least stringent measures.
She added: ‘This report bears testimony to the on-going failure of regulatory agencies to reduce exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals, which are implicated in the increased rates of hormone-related cancers and other diseases.
‘Thankfully, the EU is now trying to come to agreement on how to identify such hormone disrupting chemicals, so that they can be effectively regulated, but unfortunately the UK is trying to thwart this process in a bid to limit the number of chemicals that will fall under the regulatory axe.’
The Chemical Industries Association said it was important to note that naturally-occurring substances in beer, chocolate and coffee can have more powerful effects on the body’s hormones than man-made chemicals. - Daily Mail
EDCs include phthalates long used in making plastics soft and flexible. Products made from them include toys, children's dummies, perfumes and pharmaceuticals, as well as cosmetics like deodorants that are absorbed into the body.
Another is Bisphenol A, or BPA, which is used to harden plastics and is found in food and beverage containers, including some babies' bottles and the coating of food cans.
A few countries - including the United States, Canada and some European Union members - have already banned the use of some of them in certain products, especially those destined for the use of children.
Experts believe that in general, such chemicals can be absorbed into drinks and food from the containers they come in. - Reuters