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EarthTalk®

by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are endocrine disrupters, how do they make their way into my body and what can I do to avoid them?         -- Jo McGovern, Albany, NY
 
The endocrine system controls the various functions of cells, tissues and organs in our bodies through the secretion of hormones. The major glands that regulate the flow of these hormones include the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands, as well as the pancreas and reproductive glands (ovaries in women, testicles in men). A properly functioning system ensures optimum mood, growth, development, metabolism, sexual function and reproduction.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic or block the action of natural hormones. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there is no end to the tricks that endocrine disruptors can play on our bodies. These chemicals can increase the production of certain hormones, decrease the production of others, turn one hormone into another, compete with essential nutrients and more.

Some 80 million pounds of atrazine, an herbicide named on EWG’s Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors, are applied in the U.S. each year. A 2010 University of California (UC) Berkeley study found that atrazine-exposed male amphibians were feminized as a result. Ten percent of those exposed developed into females that copulated with unexposed males and produced viable eggs. “Given the overwhelming evidence of unacceptable risk, I’m quite frankly surprised that atrazine is even still in use,” said Dr. Tyrone Hayes, professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley and the study’s lead author.

Monsanto’s Roundup, a trade name for glyphosate and the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. with 250 million pounds sprayed each year, was also recently found to have hormone disrupting capabilities. Studies released in 2015 determined that Roundup decreased levels of progesterone and corticosterone, a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands. An earlier study determined that even at lower, “non-toxic” exposure levels, Roundup reduced testosterone levels. Recently it was announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will analyze the impacts of atrazine and glyphosate on 1,500 endangered plants and animals under the terms of a settlement reached with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “This settlement is the first step to reining in the widespread use of dangerous pesticides that are harming both wildlife and people,” said Brett Hartl, CBD’s endangered species policy director.

Buying organic produce and drinking filtered water can reduce your exposure to hormone-disrupting herbicides and pesticides. Another good reason to install a water filter is to remove perchlorate, a chemical that is also named on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. A 2010 study found that, in pharmacologic doses, perchlorate inhibits iodine uptake, an element needed for the production of thyroid hormones. The findings were alarming as adequate iodine intake is essential for normal neurodevelopment in infancy and childhood. While further research is needed to determine the impacts of perchlorate in the environment, the American Thyroid Association recommends that women who are planning a pregnancy or who are pregnant ingest 150 mg of iodine daily to ensure adequate iodine nutrition and to overcome the potential adverse effects of perchlorate exposure.

While it may be frightening to think about all the potential exposures to endocrine disruptors around us today, purchasing environmentally-conscious, natural-based products for you, your family and your home; eating organic, fresh, unpackaged foods and drinking filtered water from a glass container are simple ways to help keep your hormones and endocrine system in balance.

CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org; CBD, www.biologicaldiversity.org.


Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that Apple gets around U.S. labor standards and laws by outsourcing production to China?     — Josie Walsh, New York, NY

Apple isn’t the only tech giant outsourcing much of its production to Chinese manufacturers nowadays, but the sheer popularity of the California-based company’s products makes it an especially easy target for activists concerned about worker health and safety. China Labor Watch and other groups have exposed inhumane conditions at huge Chinese factories of suppliers like Foxconn and Pegatron that support many U.S.-based tech firms. Workers at these facilities, many who are underage, are often required to work 18-hour shifts and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals—but still can barely make ends meet. The problem came to a head in 2010 when journalists got word that 14 workers had committed suicide at Foxconn’s massive iPhone-assembly manufacturing facility in China.

Another issue dogging Apple’s Chinese partners is worker exposure to toxic chemicals and a higher than average incidence of leukemia among employees. Apple agreed to discontinue using two of the worst offenders, benzene and n-hexane, after the non-profit groups China Labor Watch and Green America collected upwards of 40,000 signatures from consumers demanding action from the company. But China still allows its manufacturing sector to use several other carcinogenic chemicals long outlawed in the U.S. and Europe. Repeated exposure to these substances is another threat Chinese workers have to contend with when working on the assembly line making smartphones and other tech gadgets. 

?Despite knowledge of the dangerous conditions, Apple’s Chinese suppliers rarely struggle to find workers, many of whom are willing to take the relatively high paying jobs despite the risks—especially if they are supporting loved ones at home who depend upon the extra money to survive. China’s huge population creates an infinite supply of workers, such that even a large-scale walkout would be pointless. The assembly line system gives each person a repetitive, simple job that can be taught in an hour.

For its part, Apple continues to claim they are investigating the situation and doing everything they can to ensure satisfactory working conditions. In 2010, the company revamped its supplier responsibility standards and threatened it would terminate relations with Chinese manufacturers that refuse to toe the line, and also called for new audits on all of its “final assembly” facilities in China. Two years later, Apple became the first technology company admitted to the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit that conducts independent monitoring and verification to ensure acceptable workplace standards. While this affiliation doesn’t mean Foxconn, Pegatron and other Chinese high tech suppliers are beholden to standards as stringent as U.S. labor laws, activists consider it a step in the right direction and continue to keep an eye on the situation.

Of course, whether or not Apple steps up on the issue may depend more on if consumers are willing to forego the company’s products due to worker exploitation issues. And that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, as Americans and others continue to buy iPhones, iPads and Macs as fast as Apple and its Chinese partners can produce them.

CONTACTS: Apple Supplier Responsibility, www.apple.com/supplier-responsibility; Foxconn, www.foxconn.com; Pegatron, www.pegatroncorp.com; China Labor Watch, www.chinalaborwatch.org; Green America, www.greenamerica.org; Fair Labor Association, www.fairlabor.org.



Dear EarthTalk: Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) really so bad for us and the environment, and given their prevalence in our food supply already, how can I avoid them?
  -- Dianne Mercurio, Richmond, VA

Unless you only buy foods that are certified organic or marked as “GMO-free,” odds are that a great deal of the food you eat contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But are you risking your health and damaging the environment by eating GMOs? Not according to Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology company that is a leading producer of GM seed. Monsanto contends that GMOs are safe to eat and that seeds with GM traits have been tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture—with no credible evidence of harm to humans or animals.

The company also points to studies that have positively assessed the safety of GMOs, including the 2010 European Commission report summarizing the results of 50 research projects addressing the safety of GMOs for the environment as well as for animal and human health. In announcing the report, the Commission stated that “there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. According to the non-profit Non-GMO Project, genetically modified crops and food items can contaminate conventional crops and foods through cross-pollination and/or contamination. Also, since many GM crops are designed to be immune to herbicides and pesticides, farmers have increased their use of various weed and bug killing chemicals to keep competition for their cash crops at bay. The resulting overuse of these chemicals has led to a rapid evolution of “super weeds” and “super bugs” that can quickly take over unmaintained or wild lands.

Given the prevalence of GMOs in our food supply already, the non-profit Just Label It believes labeling everything that contains GMOs would be a start so at least consumers can choose on their own what they put in their bodies. Some 64 countries around the world—including China, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and 28 nations in the European Union—currently require labeling on foods created with GMOs. Just Label It is one of many activist voices calling on the United States to follow suit. The group has created an online petition so everyday Americans can let the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) know that they have the right to know what’s in their food, especially when it comes to GMOs.

But until we have federal rules in place requiring labeling, concerned consumers will have to take matters into their own hands when it comes to ferreting out the GMO content of what they eat. Luckily the Non-GMO Project is helping make it easier by offering verified products the opportunity to display its “Non-GMO” symbol on their labels. Currently the group has verified some 35,000 food products across 1,900 different brands commonly available on U.S. store shelves as GMO-free, representing annual sales topping $13.5 billion. Meanwhile, Whole Foods has stepped up its support of GMO labeling by instituting a new policy of “full GMO transparency” in all of its North American stores by 2018.

Beyond just labeling, though, Whole Foods is also working with many of its suppliers to transition to ingredients from non-GMO sources altogether. Activists hope that this leadership will trickle down to mainstream grocers as well.

CONTACTS: Monsanto, www.monsanto.com; Non-GMO Project, www.nongmoproject.org; Just Label It, www.justlabelit.org; Whole Foods, www.wholefoods.com.



Dear EarthTalk: What are the health and environmental risks of using a 3D printer to make stuff?
     -- Will Nady, Pittsburgh, PA

As with most inventions, the thrill of the new has led to mass excitement surrounding 3D printing. The booming industry is expected to grow from nothing just a few years ago to some $4 billion by 2025. But some worry that our enthusiasm for 3D printing may be overshadowing some troubling health and environmental issues associated with the new technology.

3D printers heat plastic (usually a solid thermoplastic filament such as ABS or PLA) into a liquid and force it through a heated extrusion nozzle which in turn deposits it in thin layers onto a moving bed to form figures in predetermined shapes. But this process can send potentially harmful ultrafine particles (UFPs) and toxic fumes composed of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air surrounding the machinery where users can breathe them in. In industrial settings, proper ventilation systems would be required and workers would have to wear protective gear to minimize exposure to similar UFP and VOC levels—but nowadays anyone can buy or borrow a desktop 3D printer and use it at home or in school without taking any extra precautions. One study, as reported on Phys.org, equated the effects of printing a small 3D item to smoking a cigarette indoors. Effects can include nausea and headaches, particularly for those with pre-existing heart or respiratory problems.

A fully enclosed 3D printing system could mitigate exposure issues, but the major 3D printer manufacturers have yet to license the valuable patent held by one company to make this technology widely available. Until then, it’s up to users to make sure to operate desktop 3D printers in a well-ventilated area. Also, PLA, which is made from organic material such as corn starch or sugar cane, seems to be a safer choice than petroleum-based ABS as far as fumes are concerned.

Besides the health effects, 3D printing can also be problematic for the environment. For starters, the plastic in 3D print material deteriorates significantly with each use, rendering recycling out of the question at this point. Another environmental hazard of 3D printing is the clear spike in electrical energy needed for the heating process. Using heat or lasers to melt plastic costs drastically more than traditional methods. When compared to injection molding, a 3D printer consumes almost 100 times the amount of energy on average to make an equivalent item.

On the plus side, 3D printing is an “additive” technology, meaning it only uses the exact amount of plastic source material needed, so little if any is wasted. Also, 3D printed objects tend to be much lighter than their traditional counterparts; this saves money, fuel, and carbon emissions when it comes to shipping. But critics maintain that the weight savings isn’t enough to counteract the energy intensity of the 3D printing process. 

Whether we like it or not, 3D printing is here to stay, but only time will tell if the growing industry behind the phenomenon will be able to clean up its act as it enters mainstream.

CONTACTS: “Ultrafine Particle Emissions from Desktop 3D Printers,” www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231013005086; “Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments,” pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.5b04983; “How Toxic are ABS & PLA Fumes?” 3dprintingindustry.com/2015/10/28/toxic-abs-pla-fumes-3dsafety-org-inquires-vocs.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at:www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: editor@earthtalk.org 


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