The Phthalate, Great American Male
This post is dedicated to Derrick Jensen, one of the best and most informative writers on industrial civilization and environmental sciences. The author of many books, including Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture, and Eros, Endgame (Volumes I & II), and What We Leave Behind. You may be familiar with other environmental authors, like Riki Ott or Bill McKibben If so, I think you’ll like Jensen’s books — any of them.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. A couple years ago I noticed that all of a sudden there were a lot more TV ads for diabetes test kits. Then came the announcement from the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, that diabetes was epidemic in America, with 14% of the population afflicted. That’s about 43 million people. I also noticed another explosion of TV ad types, also in the last few years — for erectile dysfunction products. Viagra was the first, but now there’s Cialis, Enzyte, Extenze, Pos-T-Vac (don’t even ask), Boston Clinic, National Male Medical, and LowT or low testosterone, to mention a few. A new one appeared just a couple weeks ago, called AndroGel, a testosterone gel.
What’s going on here? Are American men losing the lead in their pencils? Well, diabetes shrinks the blood capillaries and can be a factor in erectile dysfunction. Smoking can have the same effect as well. But could there be some other factor, something environmental, maybe? I decided to grab my pick and shovel and do some digging. Finding some likely suspects wasn’t hard — plastics. Actually, that’s not correct. There are chemicals added to plastics to make them softer and more pliable — Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, mostly. They’re called plasticizers, and the way they work is best described by Derrick Jensen in his book, What We Leave Behind , “by acting as a kind of lubricant between the plastic molecules.” These chemicals have a tendency to migrate to the surface; it’s called leaching. You know that lovely new car smell? You’re inhaling phthalates, used in the upholstery, dashboard, and floor mats. They come in several varieties — dibutyl phthalate, bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, and DEHP, or diethlyhexylphthalate., to name a few.
BPA and phthalates are in a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, or xenoestrogens, in that they mimic estrogen in the body. Too much, and you get an estrogen dominance, and that causes lots of problems. In women it’s a factor in breast cancer, endometriosis, uterine fibroid tumors, PMS, and infertility. In men, estrogen dominance overpowers and even disrupts testosterone production, and has been linked not only to erectile difficulties, but prostate enlargement or even cancer. When I looked for studies on all this, I was overwhelmed. “60 Minutes” did a story on phthalates in 2010, but didn’t go into its devastating effects on the reproductive systems of animals, including humans.
“Science News” online, week of April 3, 2008 (Vol. 165, #14) — a regimen of pills may explain the highest concentration of phthalates ever observed; 1200x normal. Phthalates are used in the coating of pills to control their release properties.
CBS News, May 23, 2010 — A study by Shanna Swan, epidemiologist at the University of Rochester Medical School, showed a link between phthalates and low sperm and testosterone. Dr. Howard Snyder, pediatric urologist at Childrens Hospital in Philadelphis said Swan’s findings line up with what he’s seeing in baby boys, along with an alarming increase in deformed sex organs.
In a report from “U.S. News Weekly,” Russ Hauser of Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, found sperm abnormalities with high exposure to phthalates. And a Danish study showed a relation between high phthalates in pregnant women, and feminization of infant boys, as well as underdeveloped or abnormal genitals. The International Journal of Andrology affirms that phthalates or BPA exposure in utero or as infants can make little boys act like little girls. There are even support groups of mothers of such boys.
You can find similar studies of these same effects on fish, birds, and animals with deformed sex organs, or both sex organs (hermaphroditism). What is going on here? Well, let’s look at some common items of soft plastic in our daily lives.
Food storage containers
Soft toys, shoes, balloons
Wallpaper and wall coverings
Floor mats and carpeting
Personal Care Products
Soaps and detergents
Inner lining of canned goods
Shrink wrap, as food packaging
– IV bags
Coatings on oral medications
Milk, soda, and juice containers
Grocery/produce bags (Americans use
Let’s not forget flip-flops! The feet have the largest concentration of sweat glands in the body. Bare feet in flip-flops provide a perfect delivery mechanism for BPA and phthalates. Oh, and I forgot to mention pesticides, herbicides, and lawn treatment sprays. Animals eat this stuff, then we eat the animals and also drink the cows’ milk, getting even more xenoestrogens. Oh, and don’t forget thermal paper, which is used in adding machines, cash registers, and credit card receipts. Then there’s carbonless copy paper we use in our printers. We’re handling these all the time.
How many men are affected, or afflicted, with erectile problems in the U.S.? That depends on your sources. “Medical News Today” from February 2007, says 20 million. The website Medical Express Rx, January, 2011, says 18 million. The Minnesota Men’s Health Center says 30 million! Let me see, the U.S. has about 310 million, something like one third being men. Are we talking about 3 out of every 10 American men? The world average is 1 out of 10. Why the discrepancy? Much of the underdeveloped world lacks the technology, and PBA and phthalates are banned throughout much of Europe. Just a couple of weeks ago, on March 31, 2012, the FDA denied a request to ban BPA.
What is considered a safe level? I couldn’t find the data for BPA, but Derrick Jensen, again in What We Leave Behind, p. 109, lays out a scary scenario from the extensive entry on Wikipedia. Using the measure of micrograms per kilogram of body weight, 2 mc leads to a 30% increase in prostate weight. 2.5 mc is an increased risk of breast cancer. At 10 you have an increased risk of prostate cancer. At 20 it causes damage to eggs & chromosomes. At 30 you get hyperactivity (another epidemic). 50 causes adverse neurological effects in non-human primates, and in another study it was shown to disrupt ovarian development. Do you know what the EPA considers a safe level? 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight daily.
I was also curious about how long these chemicals remain in the body. Phthalates, fortunately, don’t stay long. BPA does, though, according to “Scientific American,” January 28, 2009, building up in the body’s fat cells. Okay, what can we do about all this? Industrial civilization manufactures about one billion pounds of phthalates annually, and six billion pounds of BPA. It looks to me like we have a massive health and environmental problem that isn’t getting the attention it deserves. And this isn’t our first encounter with the nasty effects of endocrine disruptors. Remember dioxin? It was culprit in the Love Canal case in the 1970s. Then there was Agent Orange, I think you’ll recall that; the Vietnamese and our veterans are still suffering the effects of that.
So who’s in charge here? Is it a problem for the EPA or the FDA? Maybe the Department of Health & Human Services, led by Kathleen Sibelius, should know about it. Maybe they already do, but the problem is so widespread there isn’t a helluva lot that can be done, so why cause a public panic? There are a few steps you can take. By law, soft plastic containers must contain a number, denoting the kind of plastic used. I got some data from WebMD.com. Numbers 2,4, and 5 are “greener.” Stay away from #7 — that’s polycarbonate, and #3 — that’s PVC, or polyvinylchloride. But wait! Many of the water pipes into our homes are PVC, aren’t they? I checked my plastic gallon milk jug — #2. I guess that’s okay, but then I thought, well, there’s SOME kind of plasticizer is being used, isn’t it? How much do we know about THAT one? My food storage containers are #5s, but the same question arises — what kind of plasticizer DOES it use? Stay away from canned foods, especially tomato products, because the acids in tomatoes increase the leaching from the can liners. I use fabric bags for shopping, but it still feels like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.
All these studies I quoted are from the last few years; I hope many more are being done. Then what? This stuff is EVERYWHERE! There also numerous other studies tying these chemicals to obesity (still another epidemic). I wish I had some better answers, but it’s pretty hard to avoid Derrick Jensen’s conclusion that the problem is industrial civilization itself. Even if se stopped producing plastic today, plastics are going to be a part of our environment, and a part of us, for a long time. This looks to me like yet another example of the chickens of industrial civilization coming home to roost. I’m thinking of an old line from a Frank Zappa song, “And they’re plastic people . . . oh, baby, now, you’re such a drag!”