Researchers: Put public health first when regulating chemicalsby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Two prominent researchers studying the impact of chemicals on fish and other animals hope enough people will become educated about the issue to push for tighter environmental regulations.
Louis Guillette, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina, and Deborah Swackhamer, who co-directs the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota, will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the St. Paul Student Center at the U of M.
During a discussion on MPR's Midmorning, both said they'd like to see government agencies take a more cautious approach to regulating chemicals that can end up in the environment, where their full impact is not yet fully understood.
Regulatory agencies in the U.S. wait until an adverse effect is documented before heavily regulating a chemical, while Europe assumes a chemical is guilty of causing adverse health effects until it's proven innocent, Swackhamer said.
"We need to push our decision makers to really reverse this attitude," she told MPR's Midmorning.
Guillette said part of the reason U.S. regulatory agencies have traditionally taken a looser attitude toward chemicals is because heavy regulation can be costly, especially if it means pulling certain products from the market.
"They're really worried about economic health," Guillete said. "I like to argue that a healthy population means a healthy workforce, which leads to a healthy economic environment."
Guillette's research began in the 1980s in Florida to learn more about alligators' reproductive cycles. What he discovered instead was that alligators in many lakes were not producing as many eggs as they should.
"Fifty percent or more were dying, and that wasn't right," he said. "We kept coming back to what they were eating or drinking."
The researchers then started finding that contaminants in the water could trick an animal's body into thinking they were estrogens or hormones.
Swackhamer's research of fish found that an egg protein usually found only in female fish was also present in many male fish that had been exposed to certain contaminants.
But even though abnormalities in fish, alligators and other wild animals has been well documented, Swackhamer and Guillette said there's still more work to be done to find exactly what's causing the abnormalities. It's likely a mixture of chemicals, which makes studying the issue more complicated.
"It's not a single chemical, and that makes it a very difficult 'who dunnit,'" Guillette said. "It's a weird complex mixture."
While the link between chemical contaminants and abnormalities is solid in laboratory animals, Guillette said similar studies can't be done on humans for ethical reasons. But there's enough information out there to be concerned, he said.
"It raises the red flag," Guillette said.
Guillette and Swackhamer said the most obvious precaution people can take is minimizing their exposure to plastic that contains phthalates and bisphenol A - both used in flexible plastics. If people avoid plastic bottles and don't microwave food in plastic containers, they're likely cutting down their exposure to those chemicals, Guillette said.
"Our bodies are designed to detoxify chemicals," he said. "Don't drive yourself crazy, but if you don't microwave in plastic, you've now limited one of your exposures."
(MPR's Tom Weber contributed to this report.)