Last month the Federal Drug Administration announced it would reconsider the safety of the chemical bisphenol-a (BPA), which is commonly found in food packaging and that California has already deemed toxic to reproductive health.
Two weeks later, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was updating health advisories for certain PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances more commonly known as forever chemicals, found in drinking water. Exposure to certain levels of PFAS has been linked to a decline in fertility and high blood pressure in pregnant people. And, because pregnant people drink more water than the average person, the EPA notes that they may also be at higher risk for exposure.
These recent announcements were welcomed by environmental health advocates and researchers who for decades have been sounding alarm bells about the wide-ranging health risks — including reproductive and fetal risks — posed by plastics and hundreds of other products made with these toxic chemicals.
“The drinking water standard from the EPA is really remarkable,” said Tracey Woodruff, an environmental scientist who studies the impacts toxic chemicals have on reproductive health. “It is essentially saying you shouldn’t have PFAS in your water.”
Toxic chemicals like PFAS are found in everything from menstrual products, canned foods, receipts, cosmetics, food containers, nonstick pans and many other consumer and industrial products like firefighting foam. As a result, they contaminate our food supply and leach into our water.
While there is heightened recognition by the federal government that these chemicals are a serious threat to public health, efforts to regulate them are lacking — the water advisory is not enforceable for example. This means that we will continue to be exposed to them for the foreseeable future. So what does that mean, particularly as it relates to reproductive and fetal health?
The 19th spoke with Woodruff, the director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco, to better understand these chemicals and how they may be impacting our bodies.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you explain a little bit about how people come into contact with these chemicals, such as PFAS and BPA? And what products might they be found in?
Chemicals used in products are almost completely unregulated in the United States. And so when people go to the store and they assume they are buying a product that’s safe, that is simply not true in the United States. It’s maybe true in Europe.
People who make products or plastics, their focus is, “How do I make a product that people will buy and that will function in a way that more people will buy it?” So they just use chemicals as a way to enhance their product sales.
Phthalates, which are another plastic-related chemical that’s used to make hard plastic flexible, are in toys, bottles, medical equipment, but it’s also used to convey scent, so it can be in your new car, air fresheners and personal care products.
It’s kind of shocking, because you can get exposure from so many different sources, right? If you get rid of all your exposures, the chemicals can also go away pretty quickly because they don’t hang around in your body. But because we’re exposed all the time, they’re essentially persistent, because in the United States you can measure pretty much anyone and they’re going to have a lot of these chemicals in their body.
What does your research say as it relates to BPA and PFAS exposure on maternal and fetal health?
PFAS is a developmental carcinogen. We have done a systematic review, which is the best practice for how to evaluate evidence, showing that PFOA [part of the larger group of man-made chemicals known as PFAS] can, through prenatal exposure, increase the risk of low birth weight [in] babies. It also looks like it could be related to maternal health effects; there is some evidence on preeclampsia and on gestational diabetes. It could influence fertility.
BPA is an endocrine disruptor that can influence estrogen levels. So in the state of California they have labeled it a reproductive toxin based on its effects on the female ovary. But, you know, there’s also been studies on metabolic disease like obesity and diabetes and on neurodevelopmental effects. There’s been studies looking at effects on fertility.
There’s a number of different animal and human studies showing that it affects reproductive function, and it’s shown in animal studies to affect the quality of the eggs in the ovary.
And what about reproductive health more generally? Can this impact cisgender men?
Yeah, it can impact sperm quality and sperm function. The data shows that sperm quality and function has declined over the last 50 years by 50 percent globally. It’s kind of remarkable. I mean, people are talking about the population decline of the United States. The New York Times is saying it’s because of women.
This whole thing about blaming people for these problems really just moves the spotlight from where it should be. Let’s deal with all these chemicals in all these products and make sure that they’re all safe before you go blaming people for population decline.
We know phthalates can affect male reproductive health and BPA has also been implicated, and those are just two groups of chemicals and we are exposed to hundreds of chemicals all the time.
How long have we known these contaminants, which are now very widespread, are dangerous to human health?
The companies knew in the 1950s. We have these internal documents that are in the Industry Documents Library showing that they knew that PFAS could cause birth defects and affect liver enzymes. They did not release this data to the public.
How could people limit their exposure to these chemical toxins? As you said, they’re very widespread, and seemingly everywhere. Are there things that people can do?
The government needs to address the issue. You really need a system-wide solution, because people have very little control for whether chemicals are tested. That’s really the government’s responsibility. People do have a role as an informed citizen in that area, but of course, that takes time.
In the meantime, it’s eating lower on the food chain — more fruits and vegetables. Wash your hands before meals, because chemicals do like to hang around dust. taking off your shoes before entering your house and vacuuming with a HEPA filter. Also be careful about your purchasing. Look for things with less packaging. For cleaning, you don’t need to buy a cleaning product when you can use vinegar or baking soda.