Q&A with Dr. Leo Trasande: Chemicals disrupting our hormones are making us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer
Register for PHAA’s In the Loop networking event on March 28
The DLSPH’s Public Health Alumni Association (PHAA) will host Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrician, professor and world-renowned researcher on March 28 at In the Loop, PHAA’s signature networking event for alumni to connect and reconnect with their peers at The Ontario Public Health Convention.
Dr. Trasande’s talk, Sicker, Fatter, Poorer, will explore how endocrine-disrupting chemicals in food, homes and personal care products impact public health. How safe it is to microwave plastic food containers? Will drinking from plastic water bottles on a daily basis affect a child’s hormones?
These are some of the questions that Dr. Trasande will address in his talk, which are relevant to public health professionals who strive to address the root causes of disease, which he says is often an environmental toxin.
DLSPH’s Director of Communications, Nicole Bodnar, spoke with Dr. Trasande about environmental toxins, how they can negatively impact public health and how to mitigate their effects.
What are endocrine disruptors?
There are 1,000 known endocrine disruptors – these are chemicals that scramble the body’s hormones – the molecular signals that are the basis for so many bodily functions, including body temperature, metabolism, salt, sugar and even sex. The evidence is greatest for four categories of chemicals:
- Pesticides used in agriculture,
- Phthalates used in cosmetics, personal care products and food packaging,
- Bisphenol, which are present in aluminum cans and thermal paper receipts, and
- Flame retardants, chemicals found in furniture, carpeting and electronics.
What impact can endocrine disruptors have on health?
Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals can result in a variety of illnesses, including lower IQs, obesity, low sperm count, birth defects, infertility, breast cancer, endometriosis, ADHD, diabetes, fibroids, testicular cancer, heart disease and autism.
Over the past decade, the evidence has grown fastest to suggest that synthetic chemicals can literally make us fatter. There are 50 such known chemicals now. The prototype chemical in this category is bisphenol A (BPA). BPA increases the size of fat cells, and disrupts a protein that protects the heart called adiponectin. As a synthetic estrogen, bisphenol-A can also impact body mass in a sex-specific way, especially during puberty.
What precautions can the general public take to prevent diseases caused by endocrine disruptors?
The good news is that there are a number of safe and simple steps that we can all take to mitigate the effects of environmental toxins, including:
- Avoiding canned food consumption,
- Say no to thermal paper receipts (which is getting easier as electronic receipts become more popular),
- Look at the number on recycling labels and limit use of plastic products with the numbers 3 (phthalates which are known to affect the male sex hormone and disrupt metabolism), 6 (styrene, a known carcinogen) and 7 (which may contain bisphenols),
- Do not microwave plastic containers – even if the label says microwave safe, the heat breaks down polymers at a microscopic level, leaching chemicals that can get into our food and ultimately our bodies, and
- Eat organic – especially leafy greens that have pesticides on the outer leaves. Organic is rapidly becoming more affordable as the organic product market share grows.
What role can public health professionals play to prevent diseases caused by endocrine disruptors?
One of the most important roles that public health and clinicians can play is to advocate for policy change and provide evidence to governments to support regulation of environmental toxins and exposures. Regulation is key, but there are some proactive steps that we can take while regulators catch up:
- Engage in safe and simple communication around environmental toxins to educate the general public,
- Provide evidence and educate manufacturers to change the way goods are produced,
- Drive consumer attention to large retailers, such as grocery stores, who can insist on their providers to eliminate chemical hazards from the materials they use. This can act as a force multiplier above and beyond the power of the individual consumer.
What role has politics played in your work in mitigating the impact of endocrine disruptors?
Environmental exposures have an enormous cost on society that should be integrated into the cost of the product to offset the financial impact of resulting disease. Disease due to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) likely cost the U.S. economy $340 billion annually, equivalent to 2.3 per cent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. This estimate is based on less than 5 per cent of EDCs, a subset of diseases due to EDCs, and a subset of costs due to diseases due to EDCs.
Clear documentation of the associated health costs of exposures will allow a transparent description of the tradeoffs involved in continuing to use these exposures. The usual argument is that the costs of safer alternatives are so great that it is not worth society’s effort to consider these alternatives, but work like this suggests that there are substantial benefits to society of prevention.
What advice would you give to someone entering the field of public health?
I have a tremendous sense of optimism and enthusiasm for the millennial generation. With the amount of energy this generation is channeling to tackle climate change, I’m confident that together we can address the second biggest environmental health challenge of our time. If we cool the climate, otherwise, we will be left with contaminated food, water and bodies, with consequences that rival those typically raised with climate change.
There’s a huge opportunity for public health professionals to significantly reduce the chemical contamination rampant in our homes, workplaces and communities.
What impact do you hope your book, Sicker, Fatter, Poorer will have?
The book is a digestible, accessible communication of the stakes involved in these exposures and serves as a call to action for our society.
I often say that 1 per cent of us are aware of these issues, yet 99 per cent of us are directly affected by a condition due to EDCs, or have a family member who is affected.
Tickets for In the Loop with Dr. Leo Trasande are $10 for alumni and $5 for students with the code ITLStudent19.