PIEDMONT -- Unlike food and pharmaceuticals, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no similar oversight of the thousands of chemicals sold in the United States.
"There are 87,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S., but we have very little information on them," said Dr. Tracey Woodruff. "Only about 200 have been tested for safety."
Woodruff, a Piedmont resident and Beach Elementary School parent, spoke to a crowd of about 50 people at the school auditorium recently about "Chemicals in Everyday Products." Woodruff is the director of UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and is a national expert on environmental chemicals and their effect on early childhood development.
"This is a very important topic," said Barbara Peters of the Piedmont League of Women Voters, which co-sponsored the event. "I think we are all interested in using products that are safe for our families."
Woodruff began her talk with an example of how regulating or banning chemicals can have an impact on wildlife.
"In the '60s and '70s, there were virtually no bald eagles in the U.S. due to the effect of DDT," Woodruff said. She said the pesticide affected the birds' reproductive cycle by causing their eggs to be so thin that the shells would crack.
"DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, and now we see bald eagles flying in the hills," Woodruff said.
She said that although air and water pollution have gone down dramatically in the past 20 years because of environmental regulations, the unregulated use of chemicals in everyday products is polluting people and causing widespread health problems, especially in children.
"We are seeing a challenge in the population, especially among children," Woodruff said. "Studies have linked chemicals with everything from childhood cancer to autism and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Kids are less healthy today than they were 20 or 30 years ago."
In addition, she said, studies have shown that puberty occurs about two years earlier in girls and boys than it did 10 years ago.
"It's essentially shortening childhood," Woodruff said. "It can't be explained by genetics."
She said that researchers have a lot more data on the impact of chemicals on the human body than they did 20 years ago because now doctors have tools to look inside the body and measure and monitor toxin levels.
Woodruff said many adverse effects from chemicals begin in utero.
"A 2011 study monitored 43 toxic chemicals in pregnant women in the U.S.," Woodruff said. "The study found DDT; phthalates (found in plastics) which are known to interrupt testosterone; PFC, which is found in Teflon and nonstick cookware and is linked to the birth of smaller babies; pesticides that have been linked to childhood leukemia; and bisphenol-A (BPA), which has been linked to a wide variety of health outcomes including breast cancer, obesity and diabetes."
She said the effects of these toxins in utero may not show up until childhood or adulthood.
"Many conditions in adults such as cancer and cardiovascular disease arise from things that happen in utero," Woodruff said.
There are things we can do on a personal and governmental level to counter the ill effects of chemicals in our lives, according to Woodruff.
"Shop organic," she said. "For example, one study tested the urine of participants on an organic, then a regular, diet. Results showed a big drop in levels of pesticide while on the organic diet."
She said don't microwave food in plastic, because essentially the plastic melts into the food; use less plastic for storage; and don't spray bugs as bug sprays are linked to leukemia in children.
"Sometimes personal choices are not enough," said Woodruff, who said her own levels of BPA are fairly high, even though she does everything right on a personal level. "Some things are beyond our control."
She said the FDA, the American Chemical Society and other groups agree that laws around chemicals need to be updated and that constituents need to lobby their representatives for change.
"Drugs are tested to make sure they work and are safe," Woodruff said. "Chemicals do not have to be tested for safety or efficacy."
She said U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died Monday, had recently introduced the "Safe Chemicals Act of 2013." It reads, in part:
"The Safe Chemicals Act of 2013 would ... give the Environmental Protection Agency the tools it needs to collect health and safety information, screen chemicals for safety, and require risk management when chemicals cannot be proven safe."
Following Woodruff's presentation, she took questions from the audience. One person wanted to know the regulations in the European Union.
"The EU controls chemicals on a 'no data, no market' basis," Woodruff said, meaning companies must submit data on their chemicals to sell them on the European market. "That effort has been going on for several years."
Another questioned what to do if you find high levels of chemicals in a child. Woodruff said there is a doctor on staff at UCSF who can answer questions and make recommendations.
"Should I throw out my couch (because it contains toxic flame retardant)?" was another question.
Woodruff said flame retardant in furniture and clothing resulted from a push by the tobacco industry in the 1970s. She said people would fall asleep on their couch with lit cigarettes.
"The tobacco industry's solution was to add more flame retardant."
In closing, Woodruff encouraged the audience to visit UCSF's website at http://prhe.ucsf.edu/prhe for more information and links to related topics -- everything from chemicals in cosmetics to related legislation.