Tag Archives: health


“Don’t put that junk on your junk”

I recently said this to my favorite cyclist when discussing that he may not want to apply chamois cream containing parabens (the junk) to his junk. Male cyclists are repeatedly applying (maybe daily, for 5-7 hours at a time) these paraben containing creams to their reproductive parts. Research is showing that maybe they should reconsider.


You may see parabens listed as “methylparaben” “propylparaben” or “butylparaben” Etc.  Don’t let that fool you; these compounds are all structurally and functionally similar compounds, each just has an additional carbon group – the methyl, propyl, or butyl.


Parabens’ alias is alkyl hydroxy benzoate, not as easily recognizable, but still present on food and cosmetic labels. You can find these parabens in hair products, skin care products, or even your salad dressing! For male cyclists, they are in most creams that are applied to the groin area to alleviate chafing against the saddle of the bike.


Studies have shown that parabens can mimic the female sex hormone estrogen (Gomez et al 2005) and in turn can act as endocrine disruptors, inhibiting “testosterone (T)-induced transcriptional activity” (Chen et al 2007). Also, “exposure of post-weaning mammals to butyl paraben adversely affects the secretion of testosterone and the function of the male reproductive system.” Similar effects can be seen with propyl paraben (Oishi 2002).


What are other potential effects of this chemical on males? Recent research has shown parabens in association with  breast cancer, though causality has not yet been established (Khanna et al 2012).  This may seem irrelevant for men unless one considers the fact that breast cancer among men is actually on the rise.


Additionally, these chemicals may reduce male fertility. Butylparaben was shown in the lab to have an adverse effect on the male mouse reproductive system in that it damaged the late steps of spermatogenesis in the testis (Oishi 2002). Similar effects can be seen for other forms of parabens. They are also suspected of affecting the mitochondria in rat testes, reducing virility (Tavares et al 2008).


Male cyclists might want to look for anti-chafe chamois creams that do not contain parabens, such as creams containing lanolin, the oil in sheep’s wool. You can even make lanolin cream in your own home, following this recipe (but make sure the lanolin you use is high quality and pesticide free).


Alternatively, one can pay closer attention to the label on chamois cream to ensure that it does not contain parabens.


If you are a cyclist, know a cyclist, or love a cyclist, please share this with them.


By: Mana Sassanpour



1. Antiandrogenic properties of parabens and other phenolic containing small molecules in personal care products. J. Chen, K.C. Ahn, N.A. Gee, S.J. Gee, B.D. Hammock, B.L. Lasley. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. Volume 221, Issue 3, 278–284, 2007.


2. Effects of propyl paraben on the male reproductive system. S. Oishi. Food and Chemical Toxicology. Volume 40, Issue 12, 1807 – 1815, 2002.


3. Estrogenic activity of cosmetic components in reporter cell lines: parabens, UV screens, and musks. E. Gomez, A. Pillon, H. Fenet, D. Rosain, M. J. Duchesne, J. C. Nicolas, P. Balaguer, C. Casellas. 
Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A 
Vol. 68, Iss. 4, 2005.


4. Male breast carcinoma: increased awareness needed. J. White, O. Kearins, D. Dodwell, K. Horgan, A.M. Hanby, V. Speirs. Breast Cancer Research. Volume 13, Issue 5, 219, 2011.


5. Organ toxicity and mechanisms: effects of butyl paraben on the male reproductive system in mice. S. Oishi. Archives of Toxicology. Volume 76, Number 7, 423-429, 2002.


6. Parabens enable suspension growth of MCF-10A immortalized, non-transformed human breast epithelial cells. S Khanna and P.D. Darbre. Journal of Applied Toxicology. doi: 10.1002/jat.2753, 2012.


7. Parabens in male infertility—Is there a mitochondrial connection? R.S. Tavares, F.C. Martins, P.J. Oliveira, J. Ramalho-Santosa, F.P. Peixoto. Reproductive Toxicology. Volume 27, Issue 1, 1-7, 2009.

Silver from nanoparticles found in plants and animals.

Synopsis by Marty Mulvihill and Wendy Hessler

Benjamin Espinasse, CEINT, Duke University
Mesocosms provided outdoor labs to study silver nanoparticles.

The silver from tiny particles used to kill microbes in clothing and other consumer goods may wind up in plants, insects and fish, according to new research. The study is the first to track how silver nanoparticles react, change and move through ecosystems, and it adds to a growing number of studies that raise concerns about their widespread use as anti-microbial agents. Researchers have not yet studied their potential effect on plants and animals.



Manufacturers are putting silver nanoparticles into a growing list of consumer products despite the fact that little is known about their health or environmental impacts. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies estimates that as of 2010, more than 300 products use sliver nanoparticles as an antimicrobial agent. These items include clothing, food storage containers, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, electronics and optical devices.Silver nanoparticles are very small chunks of silver metal made up of thousands of silver atoms. They are so small that 400 million would fit in the period at the end of this sentence. A chemical coat is often added to prevent clumping and protect their silver core.The element silver discourages the growth of bacteria and other pathogens. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates silver and some related compounds as pesticides. The agency supports health and safety testing of the highly used silver nanoparticles but does not regulate their specific use.Like most nanoparticles, silver varieties have benefits and risks. Their unique size gives them properties different from both large pieces of silver and individual silver ions. As antibacterial agents, the silver nanoparticles are far more effective, cheaper and use less silver than many alternatives.Silver’s ability to kill bacteria has raised concerns that the nanomaterials may affect beneficial bacteria and the plants and animals essential to a healthy ecosystem. While it is not considered toxic to people, invertebrates and fish are far more sensitive to silver.Cell studies suggest silver affects nerve cells, while silver nanoparticles have been shown to interfere with human sperm development. It is known that fish are vulnerable to even low doses of silver, andstudies indicate that silver nanoparticles can cause malformations and death in embryos exposed to the materials (Bar-Ilan et al. 2009). Exposure to silver also affects reproduction in clams (Brown et al. 2003).Silver nanoparticles are released from products during normal use and washing. They enter the environment through wastewater, as water treatment facilities do not always remove them completely (Keagi et al. 2011).Researchers are rushing to understand what happens to nanoparticles after they are released. Initial studies suggest they can clump together to make larger particles, dissolve to release silver ions and react with oxygen and sulfur to form new types of particles.



What did they do?

Silver nanoparticles were sprayed onto soil and water in simulated terrestrial and wetland habitats to determine how the particles might change chemically, move through the ecosystems and interact with plants and animals after they get into the environment.The researchers built the habitats (called mesocosms) in open boxes and left them outside in Duke Forest – a Duke University research area in North Carolina – for 18 months. They added wetland plants typical to the southern United States. Mosquitofish and insects were accidentally introduced with the plants and soils. Other wild insects colonized the ecosystems. Many of the species completed their life cycles during the project.They regularly sampled the soil, water and fish to follow how the silver moved through the constructed environment. At the end, silver levels were analyzed in the soil, water, plants and animals – the fish, fish embryos and insects. They also measured distinct silver compounds to determine how the silver ions reacted with oxygen, sulfur and chlorine in the soils and water.Silver levels measured in the dosed plots were compared to the levels measured in the control plots where silver nanoparticles had not been applied.



What did they find?

Researchers found silver accumulated in both the terrestrial plants (up to 3 percent of the total added) and the aquatic animals.Plants growing in soil that had been dosed with nanoparticles had up to 18 parts per million silver while lower silver levels – ranging from 1 – 7 parts per million – were measured in the plants growing near the water that was dosed with the silver nanoparticles. In all cases, silver was measured in plants that started growing 6 months or more after the application of silver nanoparticles, indicating that the plants could absorb the silver from the soil.They also measured levels of silver in the fish and insects, which included mosquitofish, dragonfly larvae and midges. The mosquitofish had 20 – 30 times higher silver levels than fish in the control plots.More troubling were the high levels (10 – 20 times higher than control) of silver that passed from female mosquitofish to their developing embryos. However, the majority of the silver – about 70 percent of the total put into the systems – was recovered from the soils and the wetland sediments. In addition, for silver nanoparticles applied to the terrestrial environment, erosion and runoff carried some of the metal from the soils into the water where it mostly settled in the sediments.The silver nanoparticles reacted and changed after they were released, but differed between the terrestrial and water habitats. By the end of the study only 18 percent of the silver that was added to the water remained in the original form. The majority – 55 percent – had reacted with sulfur to form silver sulfide, while about 27 percent bound to the organic matter in the bottom sediment.Particles applied to the terrestrial environment were slightly less reactive. Forty-seven percent remained in the original form, while 52 percent reacted to form silver sulfide. These reactions happened more slowly than predicted by laboratory experiments, showing that lab studies do not always accurately predict what happens in the environment.


What does it mean?

In terrestrial soil and water, silver nanoparticles can chemically change and contaminate plants and animals with silver. Any health effects from exposures to the metal in this way are not known.The outdoor study from North Carolina is one of the first long term ones to examine how silver nanoparticles change in the environment, specifically in soils, sediments and water. It is also a first step to clarifying where the silver nanoparticles move to after they enter the environment. One surprise was that they tend to settle in the soil and in the sediments underwater.The researchers demonstrated that under realistic conditions the majority of the silver nanoparticles reacted with sulfur and oxygen, changing their structure and function. These newly created silver compounds can be more stable and less toxic than the silver nanoparticles.Over time, though, they may build up in the environment, providing relatively large quantities of silver that can be incorporated into plants and animals. These long-term reservoirs of silver in soils and sediments may lead to increased exposures. For example, silver was found in plants that started growing six months after the nanoparticles were applied.Once changed, the newly formed silver compounds migrated through the soil and water. Runoff and erosion also moved the metal compounds and the nanoparticles. Eventually, the silver was taken up by the plants, insects and fish living in the mock ecosystems.Silver also passed from the mother fish to her embryos. The transfer of contaminants from one generation to the next exposes the embryos early in development and can have long-term effects on health, reproduction and populations (Wu et al. 2010).The effects on plants and other animals in this study are still unknown. Previous research indicates silver can harm fish, clams and other aquatic species.A next step may be to determine if these exposures have any health effects on the species studied. Scientists will also need to determine the levels of silver nanoparticles released into the environment from consumer products. Initial results from a study done on socks containing silver nanoparticles show more than 50 percent of the silver escapes during the first few washings (Geranio et al. 2009). It will also be important to identify the levels of silver nanoparticles that remain intact after release and to understand plant and animal exposures.As more data become available, it may be important to evaluate which products will benefit most from having the silver nanoparticles and which ones may not be worth the risk they may pose to health and environment.(Audrey Bone, Doctoral Student, Duke University, Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program contributed to this synopsis.)


Read more science at Environmental Heath News.

Safer anti-coagulants: Kicking out the pig.

Synopsis by Audrey Moores and Wendy Hessler, Feb 29, 2012


An approach combining chemistry and biology improves the process to make important anti-clotting drugs known as heparins. The heparin medicines prevent dangerous blood clots from forming in veins and are needed for surgery and kidney dialysis.

The technique provides easier access to safer drugs that are now either processed from pigs and cows or synthesized in a long, costly lab process. The novel method described in the journal Science provides a realistic alternative to livestock for heparins and is likely to drop the cost of such pharmaceuticals.

The process is not yet ready for large-scale commercial use, but its product yields are impressive.



Many pharmaceutical drugs are processed from plants or animals rather than made in a laboratory. While such a strategy may seem more natural, animal-sourced drugs are susceptible to contamination.

Heparins are a family of drugs used for more than 50 years to prevent blood clots in people. These complex molecules come from three main sources. They can be collected from pig intestines or cow lungs, synthesized in a laboratory or collected from animals and then modified in a lab.

The sizes and uses of the three types vary. The animal-sourced drug is the largest. It degrades rapidly in the body and is used for kidney dialysis and surgery. The chemically-altered animal heparin and the synthetic varieties are smaller, longer-lived molecules. Patients with venous thrombosis – the tendency for blood clots to form in veins – take these to prevent the clots.

Safety is an issue with the animal-sourced heparin, the cheapest and most accessible available. In 2007, drug contamination resulted in at least 200 deaths in the United States and raised concerns over the source of heparin.

GlaxoSmithKline synthesizes the smaller-sized heparin under the brand name Arixtra. Their process requires about 50 steps and yields very low amounts of material– around 0.1 percent. As a consequence, this molecule cannot currently replace animal-based heparins for all applications because of its high price.

The risk of contamination and current cost of synthesizing heparin is driving the quest to find a more efficient and cheaper way to make heparin drugs.


What did they do?

A team of chemists from the United States applied a strategy called chemoenzymatic synthesis to fabricate the heparin molecule. The method borrows from both chemistry and biology fields.It is an attractive way to synthesize heparin medicines. The drug contamination in 2007 occurred because the heparin collected from animals had an unusual chemical structure. People became allergic and hypersensitive. These side-effects would be avoided using a chemoenzymatic system because the series of chemical and enzymatic reactions needed to produce the drug are much better controlled than those in the animal gut where many proteins can alter the drug-to-be molecule.

In this study, the researchers mimicked the process animals use to make heparins. They chemically synthesized a starting material then added enzymes that lengthened and built the whole heparin molecule. In other words, they transferred what happens in the pig gut into a beaker. This approach is superior to collecting directly from an animal because the reactions are controlled.

To see if the manufactured drugs were effective, the researchers tested them in two different ways in the lab. First, they put them with two key proteins responsible for coagulating blood. Then, they injected rabbits with them and collected the animal blood. The interactions with the proteins alone in a culture and in the blood from the rabbit were measured and compared with the activity of the commercial heparin Arixtra.


What did they find?

The researchers discovered they could produce two heparin molecules with the impressive yield of 45 and 37 percent, in 10 and 12 steps respectively. They were able to make several milligrams of the product.

The two newly synthesized heparin molecules were similar in size to as the current Arixtra drug. They also proved as active as Arixtra. The efficacy of the interaction between the drugs and coagulating proteins were similar to Arixtra.

The same was true when the newly developed heparins were tested with rabbits. The drugs interacted with the same proteins as Arixtra.


What does it mean?

A more streamlined method to make anti-coagulant drugs may provide a realistic alternative to the animal-sourced pharmaceuticals, which are susceptible to contamination. The new process also produces more heparin product in shorter time and for less money than current synthetic preparations.

This means that the newly made heparins could be used in a wider range of applications than the current synthetic heparin Arixtra, because the reduced cost may open new markets.

This technique isolated 3.5 milligrams of heparin. The obvious next step will be to scale up this process to demonstrate that it is commercially feasible. It is estimated that 10 to 20 tons of heparin drugs are sold every year in the world.

The new drugs must also be tested and properly certified before they can be used commercially. However, the preliminary results of this research effort show that these two heparin molecules should be active anti-coagulant drugs with similar properties as the most popular synthetic version on the market today.

The type of synthesis – which merges chemistry techniques and biological enzyme actions – profiled here may be transferable to the manufacture of other drugs. Read more science at Environmental Health News.

Uneven effort to simplify science.

Posted by Wim Thielemans at Jan 20, 2012 06:00 AM | Permalink

The Montreal Gazette prints 20 key points to help the public interpret chemical science but a scientist specializing in green chemistry explains why not all of them hit the mark.

In an article in the Montreal Gazette, Joe Schwarcz of McGill University lists 20 points he believes are important to address when interpreting chemistry for the public. His ideas – distilled from a year of lecturing to public audiences – touch on some very good points but also lack other key ideas.

In the article, Schwarcz welcomes criticism and comments of his personal views on the subject. My main concerns are with omissions in some of the individual points as well as a contradiction between his points.

• #2 – Everything is comprised of chemicals. Citing examples of common chemicals in nature – such as oxygen, water and kitchen salt – would have bolstered his point.

• #3 – There are no dangerous or safe chemicals. I would argue there are dangerous chemicals. A highly toxic or explosive chemical always has an inherent danger associated with it, irrespective of how it is used. This is one reason industrial processes – when using these chemicals to create other chemicals or products – will make them and then immediately react them to change them into a safer product. An example would be phosgene, a gas well known for its use as a chemical weapon in World War I. Because it reacts every quickly, it is used to produce polycarbonates. These widely used polymers are in glass lenses, for example. So phosgene is made but then directly converted into a safe product by reaction with other chemicals.

• #5 – Animal studies do not necessarily reflect humans. This paints a very limited picture. It is true that animal studies do not reveal everything about how chemicals might affect people. However, they do give some important indications, especially when acute toxicity – short-term toxic effects – is concerned. Brushed over is one of the main problems with current toxicology: adults respond differently than embryos and children at various stages of development. So even within humans, important differences in toxic responses are seen.

#6 – Chemical presence does not equal risk. No, other issues matter, such as dose and those mentioned above: a person or animal and stage of life – embryo, young or adult – that is exposed to the chemical. All may respond differently.

• # 9 – Affirming there are hazardous chemicals appears to contradict point #3: There are no inherently dangerous or safe substances. Indeed, even kitchen salt can kill if taken in too high an amount. I would therefore describe “green chemistry” as replacing current chemicals with less hazardous ones.

• #16 – It is nonsense that the body can heal itself with the right natural substances. This idea should be carefully interpreted. As a scientist, I know we have a limited understanding of the human body. Maybe some day, science will help us better understand if and how naturally occurring chemicals could cure ailments. Scientific progress has a knack for proving the impossible possible.

I applaud the attempt to come up with a top 20 list of chemical science considerations for the public. While not an easy feat – and certainly one that easily draws criticism – it also generates constructive debate about important issues surrounding the public understanding of science. Read more science at Environmental Health News.

Caffeine strengthens connections between neurons in a little-known area of the brain.

NIEHS Environmental Factor – January 2012: Intramural papers of the month:

A recent study published by NIEHS scientists suggests how and where caffeine might act in the brain to increase cognitive function. Previous research shows that caffeine acts by blocking the inhibitory effects of adenosine on cyclic adenosine monophosphate AMP production in the brain. This study represents the first demonstration of long-lasting synaptic plasticity induced by in vivo exposure to caffeine, as reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.As a widely consumed stimulant, caffeine’s effects on synaptic transmission in the CA2 area of the hippocampus, where adenosine A1 receptors are highly enriched, were not known. Rats were divided into three groups and given doses equivalent to two large cups of coffee, a highly caffeinated energy drink, or a dose that exceeded most people’s daily consumption. All doses of caffeine strengthened the connections between neurons of CA2, but not in other areas of the hippocampus, a brain structure important for learning and memory.These results provide a pleasingly simple explanation for the common daily human experience. Adenosine levels increase in the brain during the day, inhibiting the production of cyclic AMP. Although these effects recover during sleep, caffeine accelerates recovery by blocking any residual adenosine action and strengthens the activity of CA2 synapses of the hippocampus. This discovery also raises exciting new questions about the role of CA2 neurons in brain function.Citation: Simons SB, Caruana DA, Zhao M, Dudek SM. 2011. Caffeine-induced synaptic potentiation in hippocampal CA2 neurons. Nat Neurosci; doi:10.1038/nn.2962 [Online 20 November 2011].

via Environmental Factor – January 2012: Intramural papers of the month.



On Wednesday November 9, 2011 UVA Green Chemistry hosted AGC’s Mana Sassanpour for a lecture and discussion on “What is Green Chemistry?”

Mana gave an overview of green chemistry, Paul Anastas and John Warner’s 12 principles of green chemistry, followed by a description of Advancing Green Chemistry’s involvement in the field.

Mana: “The discussion that followed after the lecture was phenomenal! Almost everyone who attended the lecture asked a question. I had never seen such an involved group of students!”

We started off discussing endocrine disrupting chemicals, for example: bisphenol A (BPA). What exposure level is safe? Really large amounts are harmful, but so are really tiny amounts  – the correlation is not linear. We proceeded to discuss how we could test compounds for toxicity if the correlation is not linear. This led to a discussion on general methods for testing for toxicity, what the current standards are and how we could do better. We discussed the ethical concerns around animal testing and other tools.

The students were curious to find out what some of the common sources of BPA exposure are, and were surprised to find out that it is found in many disposable water bottles and plastic containers. A concerned student then asked for advice on how to avoid BPA. The response was: don’t use plastic food containers – but if you do, definitely do not microwave food in them because that allows the BPA and other contaminants to leach into your food. Store food in glass jars instead.

The ladies in the crowd then opened a discussion on cosmetics. Like many, they had never considered the chemicals in their beauty products. We talked about how many chapsticks and lip balms have oxybenzone in them – a component that acts as a sunscreen but is also a carcinogen. Most girls in the room immediately reached for their chapsticks to look at ingredients. A hand darted up to ask me “My chapstick has 6% oxybenzone – should I throw it away?” From this topic we went on to discuss how many sunscreen components do not degrade and go into our rivers and affect the reproductive anatomy of frogs and fish. This then led to how effects on amphibians predict effects on humans.

Needless to say, the conversation was great – filled with great facts, questions, and laughs!

The Toxins in Baby Products (and Almost Everywhere Else)

Read original post at The Atlantic (online)

By Elizabeth Grossman

Jun 2 2011, 11:15 AM ET

Carcinogenic flame retardants were supposed to be gone by now, but, like endocrine-disrupting plasticizers, they persist

A dangerous flame retardant known as “Tris” has reappeared in products designed for babies and young children, among them car seats, changing table pads, portable crib mattresses, high chair seats, and nursing pillows. (Tris, once used in children’s sleepwear, was removed from these products in the 1970s, after it was identified as a carcinogen and a mutagen, a compound that causes genetic mutation.) Also found in these products, according to the same recent study, which appeared in Environmental Science & Technology, is another flame retardant, pentaBDE. This compound was banned in Europe in 2004, when its U.S. manufacturers voluntarily discontinued it after it was found to be environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative, and to adversely affect thyroid function and neurological development.

The study also identified new compounds whose ingredients include some of the older toxic substances—and it found all of these and other flame retardants in 80 percent of the 101 infant and children’s products tested. That these chemicals, associated with adverse health impacts including cancer and endocrine disruption, are so widespread raises serious questions about the U.S. system of chemicals management and how we evaluate product safety.

With the potential health hazards of widely used synthetic chemicals coming under increasing scrutiny, and with a growing call from medical and scientific professionals for policies that protect children from such hazards, the question of what takes the place of a threatening chemical has become increasingly important. It also prompts questions about whether it is better to substitute another chemical for the one posing problems or to redesign a product so it can achieve its desired performance, perhaps without such chemicals.

Together these flame retardants and plasticizers raise profound questions about how we think about designing new materials and the wisdom of regulating chemicals one at a time.

The brominated and chlorinated flame retardants (BFRs and CFRs) found in these children’s products offer one cautionary example. Another group of chemicals known as phthalates, used to increase the flexibility of one of the world’s most widely used plastics, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), offers another. Together, these compounds account for the vast majority of all plastics additives used worldwide.

In the case of the flame retardants used in upholstery foams, carpet backings, textiles, and hard plastic appliances and other products since the 1970s, new compounds introduced to replace the hazardous ones have in fact resembled their predecessors. The result, despite “early warnings and periodic reminders about the problematic properties of these chemicals” is a “continuing pattern of unfortunate substitution,” wrote Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, and Ake Bergman, professor of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, in Environmental Health Perspectives in October. They were introducing a statement of concern about BFRs and CFRs signed by nearly 150 scientists from 22 countries.

While cushions and electronics can function without flame retardants, PVC cannot work without plasticizers. Phthalates—oily, colorless liquids based on benzene chemistry—have been the plasticizers of choice since PVC was commercialized in the early 20th century. Without phthalates, PVC would be brittle and of limited use. In some bendable PVC products, phthalates can make up as much as 40 to 50 percent of the finished plastic—and in 2008, nearly 540 billion pounds of PVC were produced worldwide.

Phthalates are also used in other vinyl-based products, to create thin and flexible films (they’ve been used in nail polish and other cosmetics), as lubricants (hence their use in lotions), as solvents, and to extend the life of fragrances, among many other applications. They are found in everything from food packaging to insect repellant to bath and teething toys. Some phthalates have been shown in animal studies to cause birth defects, and a number of popular phthalates have been identified as endocrine disrupters that interfere with male reproductive development. Concerned, Europe restricted use of about half a dozen phthalates in 2008, and the U.S. restricted them in products intended for use by children under age 12. Similar regulations exist elsewhere, including Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. On May 4, the French National assembly voted to ban phthalates altogether, based on concerns about endocrine disruption.

Like the BFR and CFR flame retardants, phthalates are released from the materials to which they’re added. That phthalates could migrate from PVC has been known since the 1960s, when the Air Force found that this could cause problems on spacecraft and phthalates were detected leeching from plastic tubing used in blood transfusion and dairy equipment. We can take phthalates into our bodies by breathing them, ingesting them, and by absorbing them through our skin. A study published in March of this year found that when people eliminated certain packaged foods from their diets, levels of the corresponding phthalates in their urine dropped by more than 50 percent.

So with growing concerns about phthalates and increasing restrictions on their use, a search is on for alternatives—ideally non-toxic compounds that will not migrate out of the plastics. But PVC itself, even without the phthalates, raises questions about product safety. While it may be possible to find a non-toxic plasticizer, vinyl chloride, the main ingredient of PVC chloride, is a human carcinogen that also causes liver and nerve damage. PVC also poses hazards when burned, as incomplete combustion can result in dioxins, also carcinogenic compounds. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed increasing emissions standards for plants that product PVC, citing inhalation risks to people who live in communities where these manufacturing facilities are located. There are currently 17 such plants in the U.S., mostly in Louisiana and Texas.

Together these flame retardants and plasticizers raise profound questions about how we think about designing new materials and the wisdom—from an environmental health perspective—of regulating chemicals one at a time rather than by examining their characteristics and behavior. They also point to the need to look at a product’s entire lifecycle when considering its health impacts. There are many arguments to be made about the costs and benefits of using these materials, and moving away from such widely and long-used materials presents many challenges. Yet as Paul Anastas and John Warner, often considered to be the founders of green chemistry, point out, there is no reason a molecule must be hazardous to perform a particular task. To solve the kinds of problems posed by materials like PVC, “we need to design into our technologies the consequences to human health and the environment.”

Image: mbaylor/flickr

BPA: What’s the alternative?

Posted by Evan Beach at Nov 12, 2010 03:30 PM | Permalink

Science News and other outlets reporting on BPA-free receipts identify for the first time a substitute chemical being used by one of the largest manufacturers of thermal paper. It has been referred to incorrectly in blogs as “bisphenol sulfonate” or “diphenyl sulfone,” but it is actually a chemical known as bisphenol S (Update, 11/15/10: 4,4′-sulfonylbisphenol). As the name indicates, it is structurally very similar to bisphenol A (BPA). And although it has not been studied as much as BPA, preliminary studies show that it shares hormone-mimicking properties as well.

In 2005, a group of Japanese scientists compared BPA and 19 other related compounds for their ability to mimic the female hormone estrogen. They tested the effects on human cells and found that bisphenol S was slightly less potent than BPA, but not by much: bisphenol S was active at 1.1 micromolar concentration, BPA at 0.63 micromolar. One micromolar is roughly equivalent to a packet of sugar in 3,000 gallons of water.

Other researchers have found that bisphenol S is much less biodegradable than BPA. In their study of eight bisphenol compounds, bisphenol S was the most persistent.

While much more is known about the effects of BPA – particularly at ultra-low doses – the existing data on bisphenol S suggests the substitution should be made with caution. Hormone-mimicking behavior and environmental persistence are intrinsic hazards that should be avoided. As the Science News story mentions, an assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program may shine more light on the matter.

EPA seeks policy shift, announces sustainability reform effort.

By Marla Cone

Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
Dec. 1, 2010

Aiming to reform its policies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has enlisted one of the biggest guns in the federal arsenal to help: The National Academy of Sciences.

On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone launched an effort to develop the so-called Green Book, a project to ensure all EPA policies are driven by sustainability.

The effort is reminiscent of the 1983 Red Book, written by the National Research Council to develop a strategy of risk assessment to guide the agency’s policies. That project triggered a dramatic shift in how the EPA developed regulations, focusing for the first time on scientifically evaluating risks to human health and the environment.

The National Research Council project was commissioned by EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and announced as part of EPA’s 40th-anniversary celebration.

Paul Anastas, EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development, said a new strategy focusing on sustainability is a necessary but challenging step in the “evolution” of the nation’s environmental laws and programs.

“This is no small shift,” he said. “This is a seismic shift in how we pursue our mission…We are under no illusion that it will happen by next Tuesday.”

EPA’s current policies and regulations are driven by statutes that oversee individual issues, such as pesticides, air pollution and drinking water contaminants. But the project by the National Research Council will develop a framework for the EPA to link all environmental issues and ensure its policies rely on sustainable use of energy, water, land and other resources.

For the initiative to succeed, it will have to incorporate a lot of diverse, often contradictory factors, such as environmental justice, economic growth, chemical exposures and energy savings.

In announcing the effort, Jackson said she wants the framework to “apply across all of the agency’s programs, policies and actions.”

Instead of just focusing on risks, if there were a new “sustainability” approach, EPA would have to incorporate a range of sustainable approaches in its solutions to problems. For example, EPA officials said a new global indoor stove initiative deals not only with air pollutants, but also climate change, deforestation and women’s health issues.

The idea is to think systemically, Anastas said. “We act in a fragmented way,” he said.

Anastas said an example of the consequences of fragmentation is that drinking water must be disinfected, but disinfection leads to byproducts in the water supply that pose health risks and must then be regulated. Similarly, growers want to increase crop yields to grow the food supply but this goal leads to overuse of farm chemicals.

The National Research Council panel will be chaired by Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a  professor of environmental and occupational health at University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Student Power: How University of California Berkeley students brought Green Chemistry to their department.

Living on Earth:  New Era, New Curriculum

GELLERMAN: For more than 60 years the chemical company DuPont promised, “Better things for better living through chemistry”. Well, these days the slogan might say: “better chemistry for better living.”

In laboratories across the country chemists are trying to come up with new formulas to make safer products. And students at many universities are learning how to do it. It’s called green chemistry. Living On Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the changes at one of the nation’s most influential chemistry departments: the University of California, Berkeley.

Environmental Health Researcher Dr. Michael Wilson (UC Berkeley)


LOBET: Two blocks from the UC Berkeley campus, Michael Wilson stands outside a garage.

WILSON: So, we’re at a very typical automotive repair shop. We have about six or eight mechanics working here with vehicles on hydraulic jacks and as you can see this is a fairly solvent-intensive process.

LOBET: Wilson is a professor of public health now, but eight years ago he was a fire fighter-paramedic, studying for his PhD here in environmental health, when he heard about the case of an injured worker.

WILSON: A young man, a 24-year old automotive mechanic, with really advanced symptoms of neurological disease. He had lost his sensory and motor function in his limbs. He had at lost his grip strength; he was in a wheelchair.

LOBET: The state health department had a hunch about what was happening to this young man.

WILSON: He was going through about eight to ten cans a days of a commercially available, break-cleaning solvent product that was formulated with hexane and acetone. And that formulation causes nerve damage.

LOBET: Wilson wondered whether this was an isolated case, so he started visiting other auto repair shops. He found 14 more mechanics with similar neurological damage just in the Bay Area. They would spray the cleaning solvent on cars, then work while the vapor evaporated, as Wilson put it, in their breathing zone.


LOBET: This toxic brake cleaner wasn’t something that had been around for years and somehow escaped the attention of California regulators. It was a new product. California officials had asked manufacturers to remove some of the hexane from their cleaner because it can turn into ozone, which burns people’s lungs and aggravates asthma. They did. And replaced it with acetone.

WILSON: Why is it that a known neurotoxic solvent was used under completely uncontrolled conditions by workers across the state of California?

A typical fume hood. Some departments are remodeling their labs with fewer of these hoods. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)


LOBET: On campus, Mike Wilson says, he found himself in the precarious position of wanting to change a profession he was just entering.

WILSON: Our field has typically been about measuring the extent of the damage, and I became interested in the next level of question which was: Why are we creating these occupational and environmental health hazards in the first place? Don’t we have the have the talent and the resources to create safer chemicals and safer products from the beginning?

LOBET: These questions led Wilson to the field of green chemistry. Established by Paul Anastas and John Warner in the 1990s, it’s the emerging field that looks at where chemicals end up in people and the environment, and advocates safer substances. Next, Wilson began talking with the university chemistry department.

WILSON: What we found here at the Berkeley campus was that chemistry education hadn’t really changed much in the last 30-40 years.

LOBET: Not too long after, Wilson met a new chemistry grad student who’d arrived at the university. Marty Mulvihill and Mike Wilson had something in common—call it a public interest approach.

MULVIHILL: While I was here, it was really important to me not only that I do research, but that I reach out to my community and think about the ways that chemists specifically could influence society. Like, we use a lot of resources from society—chemistry is a very resource intensive thing—like, how do we give back?

LOBET: With this kind of community orientation it was natural that the first thing Mulvihill did when he got to Berkeley was start organizing other chemistry grad students.

MULVIHILL: The name of that group was actually Chemists for Peace, which turned out to be far too controversial for a place like Berkeley. I mean, there’s like that perception that Berkeley is an activist-oriented thing, but when you look at chemistry, anything that even appears political is not widely accepted.

So, we produced a lot of coffee mugs, people generally liked that we were around, but it never really took hold.

Dr. Marty Mulvihill stands at a traditional hood. Some school are trying to reduce the need for vapor hoods by using more benign substances. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

LOBET: It dawned on Mulvihill that he needed to be speaking science to scientists. So he and a core of other grad students organized their own seminar series.

They got a grant from the Dow chemical company, and brought in top thinkers in green chemistry: John Warner, Paul Anastas, Terry Collins. At first Mulvihill says, the Chemistry department wouldn’t even give them a room to meet in, but gradually the students prevailed.

MULVIHILL: I can remember the evening it happened. The dean had just come in. I think it was his first, maybe his second year. The graduate seminar was going on and John Warner, one of the fathers, one of the guys who wrote the original book on green chemistry, had agreed to come to campus and give a talk. And the Dean actually showed up to that talk. Not only show up for the talk, but he came out to dinner afterwards, and it was so fun to watch as the Dean and John Warner, so it’s Dean Rich Mathies and John Warner interacted and all of a sudden I realized, now it is bigger than me.

LOBET: To really appreciate the significance of what’s happening at Berkeley and other campuses around the country, you have to understand just how remote health concerns have been for most chemists. This area of science is toxicology: the study of the adverse affects of chemical, and also physical and biological agents on living things.

MULVIHILL: A traditional chemistry training doesn’t teach you a lot about the fate of things. You learn a lot about how to make it, and how to make it cheaply and efficiently- that’s all part of the traditional science training. Where they end up, what their possible effects are on human health and the environment, that just traditionally hasn’t been part of a chemistry education.

Alison Narayan is a fifth year organic chemist and organizer of the student-led green chemistry seminar at Berkeley (Photo: UC Berkeley)

NARAYAN: We’re working with these chemicals all the time but we don’t necessarily know how toxic they are. Or if they are toxic, like what their mode of action is, or why they are harmful to you.

LOBET: That’s Alison Narayan, another organizer of the student-run seminar series. Narayan is a fifth year organic chemist, making entirely new compounds.

NARAYAN: Really how we are trained is to focus on the reactivity of the chemicals and developing new reactions and new ways to build things, not necessarily even evaluating the performance of those materials or the toxicity of those materials.

LOBET: Narayan says she’s been surprised by the lack of toxicology training in her chemistry education. And environmental health scientist Michael Wilson says it seemed strange to him too.

WILSON: The fact is that in the United States you can earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and a PhD in chemistry at the universities and colleges across the United States and never demonstrate a basic understanding of how chemicals affect human health or the environment. And, so, are we surprised than toxic materials are finding their way into consumer products that are widely available on the market? We probably shouldn’t be.

LOBET: And Wilson says chemists aren’t the only scientists who have not paid much attention to toxicology. Amazingly, even public health experts often aren’t trained in it.

WILSON: So we are seeing a transformation in the school of public health embracing this idea of green chemistry, where, up to now, our job has really been about identifying, measuring characterizing the extent of the problem. It’s simply no longer possible for us in public and environmental health to clean the mess up at the end of the pipe. We have to design chemicals, we have to design products in ways they don’t show up in human blood, and in breast milk, and in hazardous waste sites, and in groundwater.

LOBET: The first big signs of changes taking place at Berkeley, besides the student-organized seminar, happened last summer. For the first time, the university offered its entry-level chemistry course with the option of a single lab section that was green.


LOBET: On this day, second-year students Swetha Akella and Michael Poon are doing a practice run through one of the new labs.

Second year students Michael Poon, Max Babicz and Swetha Akella help refine one of the new green lab experiments. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

POON: What she’s actually trying to do find the concentration of the dyes in the drinks to see how much we are consuming. Red 40 is very common in a lot of consumables. Because the amount of dye is very small, to get a measurable amount you have to boil off the water, and that increases the percentage of dyes in the sample. This is Sunkist and Hawaiian Punch.

AKELLA: I think the thing that really appeals to me is the practicality, because a lot of times you do a lab where you find, like, a concentration and you just like, forget about it afterwards. But when you do like, the sunscreen lab, or this lab, you really think about it the next time you put on sunscreen or the next time you decide to drink a soda.

LOBET: Poon points out, it’s not just a question of lab subject matter.

POON: I think it is a really important to think about where your actions are leading. If you pour something down a drain, where does it go? Think about that, and what needs to be done to process that to clean it up, to make it so that that water is usable again.

LOBET: A review of class evaluations from students who took that first green chemistry lab in the summer shows a lot of enthusiasm. Chantelle Khambholja was won of those freshmen.

KHAMBHOLJA: Well, our first lab section was on biofuels. And, in the first lab we went through and looked at the effects of biofuel on germination of seeds to measure ecotoxicity. In the second lab, we actually synthesized our own biodiesel, which was awesome, and in the third lab, we measured the amount of energy produced when it was burned.

LOBET: This fall term, the Berkeley Chemistry department converted all of the introductory lab sections into green chemistry labs. Berkeley chemistry lecturer Michelle Douskey oversees teaching assistants for the introductory classes. She says traditional chemistry curricula have been too focused on memorization. She’s trying to change that. The overlay of green chemistry, she says, will make content even more relevant for students who are already asking these questions.

DOUSKEY: The students are really curious about personal care products. What is in their water bottle? Is there lead in the paint in my really old apartment? And, all of these are chemistry problems.

Dr. Michelle Douskey lectures in chemistry at Berkeley. (Photo: Scott Olson)

LOBET: A typical curriculum or text, Douskey says, might devote one problem to someone concerned about lead in drinking water, then move on to the next problem.

DOUSKEY: Maybe if we look at lead in paint, we might look at it from many different angles. We might revisit it throughout the semester. Is it going to stay in the paint or not? If it get’s in the dust then where does it go? Then there’s all of that chemistry stuff like how do I even detect for lead in paint? So that’s how we wrap in things like, well, light interacts with matter and we have certain instruments that help us to put some numbers on these things. So, I kind of feel like the green chemistry perspective is going to allow us to tell a more complete story. It was like we were telling part of a story before, you know, ‘oh well, you don’t need to know where this came from.’

LOBET: That idea, of teaching the whole story, has been central at the University of Oregon for more than a decade. As a leader in green chemistry, it’s taught two hundred chemistry faculty from around the country in annual week-long workshops. That gives U of O assistant department head Julie Haack a clear view of the changes at Berkeley.

HAACK: I think the changes that are happening at Berkeley are an incredible validation of this approach.

LOBET: A validation because of Berkeley’s heft and reach. Each year, 24 hundred incoming students will be learning their most basic chemistry principles …green.

HAACK: I think the impact is huge. These are the future decision makers in our society and what we’ve seen, once the students are armed with the tools of green chemistry, they really become empowered to participate in the solutions of finding more sustainable products and processes.

LOBET: If chemist Alison Narayan is any indication, the changes will be broad, from the mundane to the profound.

NARAYAN: So it does make me think about the way I do chemistry, for example reducing the amount of waste you have. We actually had a discussion last night in our research group meeting about reusing test tubes. So, we use lots of test tubes and then usually when we’re done with these, we just throw them away. So in my spare time when I am in my hood working up reactions, or on the bus on my way to lab, I find myself thinking about what else could you make that from? Instead of using this commodity chemical from petroleum, what else could you make that from? So it does, it does color the way I think about things and the type of daydreaming that I do.

LOBET: Berkeley has now opened a center for green chemistry. It’s planning a new graduate course in the spring. And it will be offer a new green chemistry emphasis that students may choose and that shows up like a minor on their transcripts. All these changes have not escaped the notice of the chemical industry, says Mike Wilson.

WILSON: These are discussions that strike at the very heart of the chemical enterprise, the things that we are writing about and the things that we are teaching have enormous influence for some of the largest industry groups and the largest companies in the world. And they certainly have an interest in influencing what we do here, and so we have had to be very careful, because we certainly want these companies to embrace the idea of green chemistry, not as a green wash, as a fundamental element of their corporate mission. But we also have to be independent in the way that we conduct our work, so there is an inherent tension there that we work with almost every day.

LOBET: That tension may be stronger at Berkeley, where the changes in chemistry teaching have implications for chemical policy across California. But the shift to green chemistry at universities around the country seems clear. Again, Julie Haack of the University of Oregon.

HAACK: Our goal is that green chemistry will just become the way chemistry is taught. And, pretty soon green chemistry will disappear and it will just become the way chemistry is done.

LOBET: At Berkeley professors say the goal is to turn out the next generation of not just chemists, but writers, politicians, and attorneys who can understand the consequences of the way things are made. For Living On Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.

Related links:
Green Chemistry Education Network at U of O
Database of curriculum material for educators GEMS — Greener Education Materials
Green Chemistry Community
Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry
U Mass Center for Green Chemistry
Yale Center for Green Chemistry
Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry
American Chemical Society Green Chemistry
EPA Green Chemistry Education Site