Weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out saying that the way the Feds evaluate food additives puts pregnant women and children in harm’s way. They are referring to things like artificial colors and “indirect additives” coming from packaging materials and processing contamination. But according to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) these ingredients are all-too-often “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS for short. So the AAP is now pressuring Congress to change how chemicals are evaluated and how that GRAS determination is given because the AAP concludes, based on the science, the FDA isn’t doing an adequate job of protecting pregnant women and children. You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like 12 reasons to ditch plastic kitchen utensils, and how Target covers their receipts with a chemical linked to obesity, now join us as we explore the ways the Feds determine “safe” and if that is really enough for your family.
So that begs the question–what is safe? What does that mean and how do the Feds determine the definition? According to thousands of pediatricians across the United States, the word “safe” may not really mean what you think it means when it comes to food additives. And if there are two different interpretations of “safe” who do you listen to? The Feds OR your local pediatrician? Hmmm…
The battle over the word “safe” isn’t unique. Safe is a term that is completely subjective and hard to pin down. What I feel would be “safe” for my family may differ from your interpretation of “safe.” Different countries also differ in their interpretation of “safe.” Places like the European Union operate under the “precautionary principle” whereas chemicals have to prove their innocence instead of us just assuming they are “safe” and finding out later they are not.
Now that you know the Feds have a more lackadaisical interpretation of “safe”, do you trust the ingredients they consider okay? And how confident are you in the food system in general? This is a battleground for the internet warriors of today’s time. Luckily, I find myself on the winning side.
Table of Contents
The Industry Perspective vs. the Independent Scientist Perspective–See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Test No Evil
Today the FDA and EPA have a differing perspective of “safe” than what an independent scientist or pediatrician would have. And this is what you see played out online with arguments on both sides. It’s also important to note that the Feds have been looking into the effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals and the results have been concerning. However, we may need to wait for another administration for this to cement into policy.
Over a billion dollars have been invested by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on research looking into the effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals in nature and within us. It’s pretty clear that parts per billion (which is like a drop in an Olympic sized pool) of an endocrine-disrupting chemical can cause hormonal changes in animals like infertility, cancers and birth defects. But what about humans? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started looking into it. First, they wanted to get a baseline for how much of these chemicals were inside Americans so they started testing people. They were looking at different pesticides and industrial chemicals such as phthalates & bisphenols to name a few. And then a lot of that scientific inquiry withered when the new administration took over. Two things they got rid of immediately inside the EPA when Scott Pruitt entered the scene was the word “climate change” AND a ban on a notorious endocrine disrupting pesticide (and neurotoxicant) chlorpyrifos. Both of these issues are threatening to the industry. Guess which side the new administration takes, your family or industry’s chemicals?
This is a frustration to our scientific advisor Pete Myers, a Ph.D. biologist who co-wrote best selling book Our Stolen Future with Theo Colborn and Dianne Dumanoski and then in 2003 founded Environmental Health News. Pete is passionate about biology, photography, nature and democratizing science for consumers. He’s received accolades from both the National Institutes of Health and the Endocrine Society. The Endocrine Society is the largest scientific and medical association for research scientists and physicians who are versed in scientific and medical insights about endocrinology, including endocrine disruption. Today, he’s involved in both lab work and the communication of its findings, a maverick with many talents so to speak. Pete Myers holds a doctorate in the biological sciences from the University of California, Berkeley. For a dozen years beginning in 1990, Dr. Myers served as Director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. And while at the foundation, he helped found the science of endocrine disruption close to 30 years ago with his now-late colleague Theo Colborn.
Here’s what he says are the three biggest problems with every test the EPA/FDA have ever done to identify toxic chemicals. EVERY TEST. (Spoiler Alert: They don’t know shit about what is safe vs. not safe. So when they insist something is safe, you know they’re whistling in the dark.)
First, they assume that high dose testing will tell them everything they need to know about low dose testing without doing it. So they do the high dose testing and then extrapolate what they think will happen at low doses. But they don’t actually do the test at low doses. While that works with some poisons, it emphatically doesn’t for endocrine disrupting compounds. And that’s because different genes get turned on and off at different parts of the dose response curve. What happens at low doses can be just the opposite of what happens at high doses. And because of the way they structure their tests, they never dose at the low levels that are relevant to most people’s experience. SHOCKER!
Pete has written multiple scientific (and peer-reviewed) papers on this. You can find two of them here and here. And when he published the second one the country’s top toxicologist, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences wrote an editorial concluding that this should be the general expectation for endocrine disrupting compounds. Should low dose testing be considered? I guess it depends on what your interpretation of “safe” is. If you don’t want to know, don’t test. If you don’t test low doses, you definitely won’t understand their impacts.
Second, when they test pesticides, they only test the active ingredient. They aren’t looking at our real world exposure of a complete formulation, just certain ingredients inside. And that is also completely absurd. It’s like testing the tomatoes in a spaghetti sauce but missing the oils, herbs, and other ingredients. Refusing to test the entire formulation means they don’t know how it’s reacting with your body as it’s sold or applied. The actual product contains a complex mixture of other chemicals that are included specifically to make the active ingredient more toxic. And it’s not just pesticides that have this problem. We live in a soup of nasties that can interact in ways that dramatically make the mixture more dangerous than just one chemical. Is this toxic soup safe? I guess it depends on what your interpretation of “safe” is. If you don’t want to know, don’t test the products the way families experience them in their homes.
Third, the tests they use are way out of date. The Feds rely on antiquated testing compared to the tools that independent scientists use when examining toxicity. Here’s Pete’s analogy–Imagine you’re an FDA employee and you’ve just seen photographs in National Geographic of distant galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. You’ve never seen anything like it. So what do you do? You grab your binoculars and go into your backyard at night, look up toward the stars, and see nothing like those photographs. You don’t see anything so you conclude the photographs are FAKE NEWS. One of the crude tests the EPA and FDA use was actually developed in the 1930s. In case they didn’t know, medical science has advanced a lot since 1935. Their tests are totally insensitive to what we need to know about endocrine disrupting chemicals. To determine what is “safe” you need to use modern medical tools. Not surprisingly, they aren’t finding anything, so they are able to say “no danger here!” But does that mean they are right? I guess this depends on what your interpretation of “safe” is.
But Doesn’t “Dose Make The Poison?” Well, Yes, But Also No.
The Feds are relying on the concepts of a man who died in the year 1541. Paracelsus was the father of toxicology and it’s not uncommon for his theory to reign supreme as a basis for toxicological inquiry at the Federal level. He stated, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.” In other words, anything can be a poison but the dose determines just how poisonous it is. But this is simply not true in the world of hormones. Endocrinologists know that chemicals that behave like hormones don’t follow this rule of thumb created in the 1500s. Only looking for disease in large amounts can hide things that happen at smaller amounts. And when these outcomes are not predictable, you have a problem when chemicals sneak in that are harmful at smaller levels.
Here’s one quick example. A high dose of several different estrogenic chemicals causes weight loss. Low doses cause morbid obesity. Put that in your “dose makes the poison” pipe and smoke it.
Hormonally active ingredients are understood when it comes to pharmaceuticals, but not when evaluating chemicals in commerce. Some pharmaceuticals drugs operate in the same way with only parts per billion in the active ingredients. Cialis is an example of a male enhancement drug that delivers an active ingredient in parts per billion and yet, works. That’s the equivalent of a few drops in an Olympic sized pool. If we followed the rule “dose equals the poison” then Cialis is impossible. (Irony: It was approved by the FDA.) Similar hormone-disrupting chemicals have been found in our food while decades of research points to this being a BAD idea.
Finding High Levels of Glyphosate In Children’s Breakfast Foods Is Problematic Even If It’s In Parts Per Billion (PPB)
Recently, these types of chemicals are also coming up in the news. Weeks ago the Environmental Working Group did a study finding high levels of glyphosate herbicide in children’s iconic breakfasts foods like Cheerios and Quaker Oats. And I was asked by Fox Good Day LA to come on and describe what was happening to breakfast foods.
This is something that the public obviously cares about. And my feeling is most people are starting to have a lack of confidence in how the Feds evaluate chemicals. It’s about time, people! Not only are they agreeing with the American Academy of Pediatrics, but they are wondering about potential collusion by industry. Recent documents unearthed during discovery proceedings from the Dewayne Johnson vs. Monsanto trial have underlined the possibility of chemicals in commerce getting a pass without proper scrutiny. These documents from the recent $289 MILLION Monsanto judgment have pointed to Monsanto hiding evidence of harm, colluding with government officials, and relying on laboratories that were later found to be faulty. Following the judgment, the world started reacting. Sri Lanka has decided to take Monsanto to court, Vietnam has demanded Monsanto pay for Agent Orange victims flooding their healthcare system, and additional countries are halting its sale of glyphosate. There are now over 8,000 lawsuits against Monsanto following the Monsanto judgment.
Does All This Collusion, Fakery, Out of Date Science Upset You? Well, There is Something You Can Do About It.
At this moment, we must remember that consumers can also act as judge and jury. When a brand is caught with dangerous levels of pesticides (*ahem Cheerios & Quaker Oats*) and uses the defense of being “within the FDA’s allowable limits”, this does not breed confidence in our food industry. Why? Well, the levels considered safe by the FDA suck, to be blunt. With food companies essentially harboring pesticide fugitives within their ingredients, consumers can choose to support one brand over another. When consumers act as the judge and jury they can pass over brands aiding and abetting glyphosate for ones they believe are safer. This is what the food industry is already starting to see–a growth in brands “free from” chemicals they don’t like. The iconic food giants of the past will have to change their tune to earn respect back. That’s America baby! Your real vote happens every day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
And We Should Start Voting With Our Dollar Immediately Because Of The Real Costs of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals–An Annual $340 BILLION Tax on Your Lifestyle
It’s estimated that over $340 BILLION is spent by Americans on medical costs and loss of wages due to the impacts of hormone-disrupting chemicals. That amount was actually quite conservative because it only includes chemicals that we know a lot about. With over 86,000 chemicals in commerce, only a sliver of that has actually been studied. But the chemicals that have been studied are linked to some of the most common modern diseases like anxiety and depression, weight gain, hyperactivity in children, early puberty in girls, degraded sperm quality, infertility, Autism, increases in allergies, and end of life diseases like cancer.
But there is a reason why all this is happening and it has to do with a lack of communication.
One of the founders of green chemistry, a scientist by the name of John Warner, reminds us that “modern-day chemists don’t actually take classes in toxicology, endocrine disruption and environmental science. Because this is missing from their training, they essentially do not use these concepts when designing new materials.” And that’s what happens with emerging science—it takes time to get integrated into the mainstream curriculum
The field of toxicology itself is not without emerging change. Toxicologists don’t take classes that would demonstrate hormones can be impactful in natural settings at very small amounts. No wonder they are opposed to the idea. Change is happening too quickly around them. But the science of endocrine disruption is starting to gain broad acceptance, including by the National Institutes of Health that has spent over ONE BILLION in federal tax dollars studying its effects on our planet and to us.
According to John Warner, if the future is in green chemistry, wouldn’t it be beneficial for this education to already become part of the curriculum when becoming a chemist? John Warner is an optimistic scientist who thinks that idea is a no-brainer. His research center, the Warner Babcock Laboratory, is an example of the possibility of making a living off of green chemistry. This is one of the impediments to entering–some people just don’t think there is money in it to support a family. But now is the most exciting time to be part of green chemistry. As consumers are directing brands to think differently, John Warner is consulting for tons of major players. He also thinks he can change this generation of science through teaching children to recognize the importance of green chemistry. His wife started a nonprofit called Beyond Benign to improve access to green chemistry for children in school and at home. This resource has classroom curriculums for teachers and homeschoolers. Let’s hope this next generation finds a better way to work with Mother Nature. And as John Warner keeps working in his lab on hundreds of solutions, let’s hope his next one chips away at antiquated hormone-disrupting chemicals we are exposed to today.
Pete Myers is also optimistic. “If we stop using chemicals linked to hormone disruption, we will wind up with healthier people!”
I’m with maverick scientists Pete & John on this one. How about you?