Our Stolen Future

A year ago I read a book called Our Stolen Future, by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. The title conveys the book’s underlying message that the hormones in our environment will continue to wreak havoc on our reproductive systems, making it harder for us to conceive healthy offspring, and endangering the future of the species. Reading this book is what motivated me to write this blog. I kept learning new facts that made me think, “Everybody needs to know this!” Therefore I hope that you will continue to read these articles and pass on what you learn to others. I believe that it is through shifting consumer sentiment (such as demanding BPA-free baby bottles) that we can affect the greatest changes in our environment.

There were many shocking anecdotes in this book, but none as eye-opening as this direct evidence that some plastics can add dangerous levels of estrogen to human cells.

In 1987 at Tufts Medical School, Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein had been studying for two years why cells multiply, an issue crucial to solving the mystery of cancer, a condition in which cells over-multiply. They were running their tests with a strain of human breast cancer cells that multiply in the presence of estrogen. When estrogen is added to these cells in a lab dish, the cells multiply. The pair kept conditions in the lab pure as to isolate the causes of the cell growth. For two years, they had no problems. In 1987, Sonnenschein looked in the microscope at an experiment he had done identically hundreds of times, and saw that whether he had added estrogen or not, the breast cancer cells in each of his samples had begun to multiply like crazy.

They spent 4 months examining every step of their experiment and could not come up with anything that had been done differently.  Eliminating every possible variable until nothing was left but the lab tubes, they switched brands of tubes and finally found that the cancer cells stopped multiplying. It appeared that the plastic tubes they had been using were biologically active. They realized then that this must be a problem that extended far beyond their lab.

It turned out that Corning, the maker of the lab tubes, had recently changed the plastic resin to make the tubes less brittle, but had not changed the catalog number, leading the scientists to believe they were still ordering the same exact product. When they inquired about the new chemical make-up of the tubes, they were told it was a “trade secret.”

Two years later, they were able to reverse engineer the make-up of the tube to find the offending chemical. It was p-nonylphenol, one of a family of synthetic chemicals known as alkylphenols, often added to plastic to make it less breakable. This was the first report that a widely used chemical may act to disrupt hormones.

At the same time, David Feldman and his team at the medical school at Stanford University were experimenting with estrogen sensitive cells and found that his lab equipment was active as an estrogenic contaminant. This time, the culprit in the plastic was bisphenol-A, or BPA. They found that BPA in the magnitude of only two to five parts per billion was enough to affect the cells in the lab.

These effects were discovered in 1989, yet only in the past few years has BPA been removed from most of the plastic baby bottles sold in this country, and it still exists in much of our food packaging, with no requirements of disclosure. As shown above, there are also other hormone disrupting chemicals that the general public is not aware of in the plastics we encounter every day. At Sprout, we suggest eating fresh, unpackaged food and storing your food in stainless steel or glass containers whenever possible. Do this for your children, for their children, and for the ability of their children to have children of their own.