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Chemicals and Our Compromised Health

Guest Author's picture

Please welcome back guest author Dr. Joanne Perron, who joins us today to talk about the causes of - and fight against - disease caused by Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. Take care of yourselves, Pinkies...

Since I was diagnosed with pre-menopausal breast cancer over 5 years ago, and then having to shutter my OB/GYN practice, I have been seeking an answer to “Why me?” I am weary of reading one more medical study touting that breast cancer risk is reduced by following a healthy lifestyle. I had practiced living by that bible for years before my diagnosis. People would stare and remark on the strange vegetable concoctions that I’d bring for lunch. I actually liked eggplant as a kid.  No, it wasn’t my poor diet that caused the cancer. Nor am I overweight, a smoker, a drinker, a genetic carrier.

My question had me thinking about all cancers, reproductive disorders, heart disease, autoimmune disease, neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders, and diabetes. I thought about my childhood friend, Kristie, who lived 3 houses away. What caused her death from breast cancer at age 36? I thought about my numerous female patients suffering from cancer, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and, infertility. And then I began to read the emerging research. 

The in-utero environment

There is a bold, new paradigm about the origins of human disease. First proposed in 1995 by British physician, David Barker, it posits that chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes have their origins in the womb. Whatever the mother is exposed to is passed on to the fetus (that is why smoking is especially dreadful during pregnancy). A fetus in a nutritionally deprived environment will have its “thrifty” genes more active in preparation of being birthed into an equally deprived world. Then when the baby or child is exposed to a world of good n’ plenty caloric delights, it does not have the metabolic machinery to properly handle them and caloric hording occurs.  A lifetime of this can then lead to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Yes, an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise play a large role in development of these diseases, but now scientists know that the in-utero environment is just as important and likely affects development of other diseases as well. 

Contrary to romantic Victorian notions, the fetus does not float in a pristine and unsullied pool. In 2004, the Environmental Working Group collected umbilical cord blood samples from 10 newborns and found the presence of 287 industrial chemicals, many of them banned for 30 years. When first hearing about this I cried for the profound loss of sanctity. Remember the DES and thalidomide fiascos with their resultant reproductive and limb abnormalities? Fifty years ago, women were erroneously given those drugs to prevent fetal loss and unrelenting morning sickness, respectively.   The difference is that the women of 2004 weren’t intentionally given those 200 plus chemicals. The chemicals came from everyday exposure to pesticides, plastics, personal care products, furniture flame retardants, solvents, residential cleaning products, and many more.  Exposure may have occurred by ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption. Many of these chemicals have been studied by scientists and have been found to mimic hormones in lab animals causing parallel diseases to humans.  Signals from wildlife are not good either (just ask the Atrazine exposed hermaphrodite frogs).  These chemicals are called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals or EDCs and can cause genetic havoc at miniscule doses.  (Google the words and find 147,000 hits!)


EDCs are so worrisome that in June 2009 The Endocrine Society released a 30 page review of the science and a position statement dedicated to the topic. They concluded “the public may be placed at risk because critical information about potential health effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals to which Americans are exposed is being overlooked in the development of federal guidelines and regulations." And the list of EDC categories is growing. In addition to estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid imposters, a new category is called “obesogens."

I no longer ask, “Why me?” 

My focus has changed. I've realized that my mission is to translate the science and educate the public, policy makers, and my medical colleagues. My vision is for all of us to work towards improved chemical safety testing and more prudent regulatory oversight of the 84,000 chemicals that we and future generations may be exposed to. My hopes are that the deep pockets of special interests don’t overshadow precaution and that consumers begin by demanding the removal of lead in lipstick, BPA in food containers, and dangerous pesticides in our food chain. Isn’t it time for the chemical manufacturers to ask themselves if some of the products they produce do not provide better living through chemistry?

What do you think, Pinkies?  How do you keep yourself safe from household chemicals? Have you experienced health issues that you know to be caused by everyday products? Share your story!

Yours in health,

Joanne L. Perron, MD, FACOG     Pebble Beach, CA

Master’s in Public Health Leadership candidate, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Postdoctoral fellow, Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, University of California, San Francisco


TeeLee's picture

Where to begin?

As someone who has only just begun to eliminate chemicals from my daily life, I sometimes find it overwhelming to know where to make the best cuts. Does anyone have a really succinct site that offers tips and suggested chemical-free products in an easy-to-follow format?

I'm one who likes to do a lot of research and price comparison, so simply buying everything from (the sometimes pricey) Whole Foods market is not my style, without knowing that the investment I am making is a sound one. Any suggestions are welcome. There is a LOT of info online but I find it difficult to sort through it all for lack of time.


Bodine Boling's picture

just, exactly.

I am so sorry to hear about your cancer. I sincerely, sincerely hope that you are able to beat it completely.

And your post has addressed and expounded on exactly what I am most afraid of.

I'm 27 and live in Brooklyn, and I have been working to pull chemicals out of my life as much as possible for the past six months. I started using the oil cleansing method, and got rid of my old cleansers and moisturizers (www.theoilcleansingmethod.com), and stopped using shampoo and conditioner in favor of baking soda and apple cider vinegar rinses (http://simplemom.net/how-to-clean-your-hair-without-shampoo). My only body moisturizer now is unrefined coconut oil. My make-up is mineral-based. I use a sunscreen every day that is an organic, barrier style (although it contains vitamin A, so now I need to find a new one...) My household cleansers are organic and plant-based, and my mop cleans with only steam. I keep my distance from plastics in general and store my cleansing oils in glass.

My hair and skin have never looked better, which is remarkable, and I'm saving a lot of money, but I still feel like a conspiracy theorist when I talk to people about it. My husband and I would like to get pregnant in the near future, and it matters to me, so much, that we be as minimally pounded by toxins as possible, especially in the face of this overloaded and polluted city and whatever our bodies have already stored. Something I find remarkable is that in my tough cookie circle of friends, there seems to be a reluctance to thinking that the regulation of beauty products/cleansers/make-up is lax, or corrupt, or ceding to interests. And I feel helpless in the face of how big a deal this is, and how little most people care. I wish there was a more aggressive and more obvious call to action.

If you think of one, or a way I could help you, please let me know. :)

Dana Theus's picture



Thanks for writing this. Its really scary to think about, but it makes so much sense. When I look at the nature of my kid's illnesses compared to my own at their age, it makes all the sense in the world. Thanks for doing the good work you're doing and please keep us posted!

Anonymous's picture

Chemicals and cancer

All of this makes sense.
In my house we use as few cleaning chemicals as possible, opting for Bon Ami, baking soda, or nothing in the case of laundry softener, rinse aid for the dishwasher and Febreeze, or scented room 'fresheners'. Our body soap is a plain, clear bar from Whole Foods, it has a lot of glycerin in it. Also, the plainest unscented lotions work best for us, such as Kiss My Face for sensitive skin.

I damp mop with water, mostly because the pets often eat bits off the floor. But if I do use a cleaner it's a tiny bit of liquid dish soap, followed by a water and vinegar rinse.

We don't microwave any plastics, and in fact are switching to storing leftovers in glass mason jars and reheating things on the stove as much as possible rather than use the microwave, but old habits die hard. A spray bottle with water and dish soap kills ants in the kitchen by drying out their exoskeletons rather than spray official bug killer.

I wonder about the sun block but the only sort I found that has the fewest chemical ingredients is from Australia and is prohibitively expensive. And I've recently stopped coloring my hair, I'm getting to like having my hair be more indicative of my age.

The list goes on and on, we need to look closer at the things we put on our bodies, on our clothes, dishes and in our home environments as well as in our mouths.

It will be an amazing day when corporations stop selling items that they know can harm animals, including human animals, instead of only thinking to make money at any cost.

Another component of my healthy body theory, especially for women, is to get things off their chests. In my experience, women take emotional issues to heart and if not resolved, can manifest into a physical problem. We worry about darn near everything and too many seem to make it a lifes work (are you listening mom?). Any number of things could help, self expression such as art, or dance can up the quality of a persons life tremendously and move energy that might otherwise remain stagnant. For more stubborn issues, talk therapies, hypnosis, Reiki, EFT, etc., can be helpful to get them moved, and healed. After all, there is a heart underneath our left breasts, and we are figuratively 'holding' stress there. What goes on in the mind is just as important as what goes into the body.

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