August 29, 2010

MAINE COMPASS: Evidence mounts linking BPA to damage of embryos

As a scheduled speaker at the Bureau of Environmental Protection hearing on Aug. 19 about the safety of bisphenol-A, I was amazed that industry lawyers could speak for 25 minutes, but citizens were limited to five minutes. I was timed out before I could speak, so I am sharing my remarks through this column.

Those of us at the hearing heard a lot of references to “science,” but very little actual science. We heard industry testify that it was not its job to protect the health of pregnant women and developing babies by naming BPA a “chemical of high concern” to be further studied under the Kid-Safe Products Act.

BPA is found everywhere in kids’ environments — from IVs in newborn nurseries to children’s toys, furniture and even baby food packaging. Evidence mounts daily suggesting damage to animal embryos and human embryos.

The mechanism of action is believed to be by turning “master genes” on and off abnormally. Heritable abnormal gene changes are epigenetic (on DNA, not in DNA). Minor molecules attached by environmental stresses affect the shape of the coiled and re-coiled spiral.

A primary focus of study for the Bureau of Environmental Protection’s  recommendations to the Legislature should be fetal growth and developmental disruptors, particularly endocrine disruptors.

BPA is an estrogen-mimic, activating all sorts of sexual and early developmental receptors, especially in fetal cells and infancy. They are strongly suspected of being linked to many of our recent epidemics of childhood cancer, as well as very prevalent adult breast and prostate cancers, massive obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, learning disorders and physical birth defects.

The cost of medical treatment, special education, family disruption and lost earning potential from autism spectrum disorders, Asperger’s or “Rain Man syndrome” and attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder runs into the tens of billions of dollars. Now one in 58 baby boys is diagnosed with behavioral defects.

Endocrine disruptors may act at almost immeasurably small trace amounts, sometimes much more powerfully than at larger concentrations, because of  stimulation, then saturation, of multiple system receptors that oppose each other.

The body has untold thousands, probably millions, of electrochemical conversations daily. Chemicals “talk” by binding to each other in very strong, but unimaginably precise, ways. Envision an electric plug with a thousand prongs that must plug in perfectly, then twists and grips even tighter like a handshake, matching as identically as a fingerprint to its mirror image.

Growing brains integrate multiple neural messages to tell the hypothalamus to release chemical factors that tell the pituitary to release endocrine hormones into the blood. These messengers tell more than 200 tissue cell types to release multiple proteins and other factors.

These turn growing cells’ intricate machinery on and off.

Fetal and organ development is like a symphony with 100,000 instruments. The brain does not just start out as a single cell dividing and growing ever larger. Proteins on cell surfaces follow minute traces of messenger chemicals, or by feeling protein surface receptors on other cell surfaces.

These cues tell them where they are and where to go, often many inches or even feet away. Even whole organs migrate around in unpredictable patterns in the embryo, but mirror patterns in related species. 

An old myth says the placenta protects the fetus. In fact, it often acts as a concentrator of toxic chemicals into fetal blood. New research on BPA suggests that the placenta in animal models concentrates them yet again, by lacking the enzyme beta-glucuronidase, which destroys it fairly quickly in the mother’s body. Cell nuclei of fetal brain cells may be exposed to levels much greater than some established legal environmental limits.

The Bureau of Environmental Protection must act now. The Federal Toxic Substances Control Act was dead on arrival in 1976, with policies ignoring major scientific advances, vague mandates and wording, massive underfunding, impossible burdens of proof and procedural hurdles, and lack of any real enforcement authority. It is stalled in a broken national legislative system where people don’t even talk to one another.

Maine must act now.

Paul Averill Liebow of Bucksport was a longtime emergency room physician at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. His activities now include membership on the Maine Medical Association public health committee, Maine Physicians for Social Responsibility board and Natural Resources Council of Maine National advisory board. He also is a representative to the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine and adviser to the Maine Cancer Support Center. E-mail to

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