UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, October 2017

UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment Supports Science-Based Decision Making

The title of a recent article by the Union of Concerned Scientists says it all: “Bringing Down the House: A Hostile Takeover of Science-Based Policymaking by Trump Appointees”. The article creates three categories for most of the Trump administration’s key appointments with responsibility for science-based policy making: the conflicted, the opposed, and the unqualified, and it raises the question, “Can we have science-based policies?”

According to a recent story in ThinkProgress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started killing grants that mention “climate change,” even when the initiatives are cutting costs, creating jobs, and saving lives.

A recent New York Times Op-Ed by Christine Todd Whitman stressed, “Policy should always be rooted in unbiased science.” UCSF is a collection of dedicated scientists, clinicians, students, and staff who share a common drive to make the world a better place by advancing health and the human condition, based on a commitment to science.

UCSF Pushes to Reduce Exposure to Toxics

A key area where UCSF has taken a leadership role is pushing the science to protect ourselves and children from exposure to toxics and unregulated chemicals. As the Environmental Working Group reported earlier this summer, “President Trump has already methodically weakened efforts to protect Americans from toxic chemicals, but things are about to get much worse…Since assuming office, Trump has reversed a ban of a pesticide linked to brain damage, delayed clean air rules designed to reduce mercury emissions, and proposed to mothball a program designed to protect farm workers from pesticides.”

It is news like this that makes you even more enthusiastic about the work of Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MP; Director of UC San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE); and previously a senior scientist and policy advisor at the US EPA.

Earlier this summer, UCSF News Center ran an article titled Toxic Exposure: Chemicals Are in Our Water, Food, Air and Furniture, Are the Chemicals We Encounter Every Day Making Us Sick? Woodruff,  is highlighted in the article. She is concerned by the concurrent rise in many health conditions, like certain cancers or childhood diseases and the fact that the environment is likely to play a role in those conditions. “Unregulated chemicals are increasing in use and are prevalent in products Americans use every day,” stressed Woodruff.

Advancing Science-Based Policy Solutions

PRHE works at the intersection of science, medicine, policy, and community. It conducts targeted research, translates scientific findings in order to expand clinical practice, and advances science-based policy solutions.

As summarized on its Website, PRHE applies respected scientific expertise to answer complex environmental health-related questions and to develop science-based policy strategies. Its work includes creating a science-based foundation for policy by evaluating, synthesizing, translating and interpreting scientific findings for relevant audiences, including policy makers, the public, patients and health affected and community groups.

As part of PRHE’s work to improve the scientific basis of decision making, it has recently published three articles of interest:

  1. Science, Estimating the Health Benefits of Environmental Regulations
  2. PLOS One, Cumulative Effects of Prenatal-exposure to Exogenous Chemicals and Psychosocial Stress on Fetal Growth
  3. Environmental Health Perspectives, Developmental PBDE Exposure and IQ/ADHD in Childhood: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Estimating the Health Benefits of Environmental Regulations

Estimating the Health Benefits of Environmental Regulations, published in Science, recommends ways to improve methods for estimating the health benefits of environmental regulations. This article explores a critical factor in policy decisions on chemicals—how the health benefits of reducing chemical exposures are (or are not) evaluated as part of benefit-cost analysis.

The article concludes that there is a big opportunity to improve current practices to incorporate better scientific methods and align with economic principles. It recommends improved approaches for assessing health effects with less-certain evidence, producing clear summary statements about the evidence, and providing dose-response relationships to quantify health risks for non-cancer health effects.

Cumulative Effects of Prenatal-exposure to Exogenous Chemicals and Psychosocial Stress on Fetal Growth

The journal PLOS ONE published research based on a systematic review of 17 human studies and 22 animal studies examining the links between chemicals, stress, and fetal development. The study found that stress may amplify health effects of toxic chemical exposure for pregnant women.

The study showed that the effects of air pollution on low birth weight were heightened when combined with stress. For more details on the link between health and climate see the article on Climate Changes Health.

As summarized in Berkeley News, “Taken individually, the adverse effects of stress or environmental chemical exposures on fetal growth are well known, yet their combined effect has not been clear…When a pregnant woman suffers from stress, she’s more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby than a non-stressed pregnant woman if both are exposed to the same toxic chemicals, according to the first study examining the combined impact of stress and environmental chemicals on fetal development.”

“It appears that stress may amplify the health effects of toxic chemical exposure, which means that for some people, toxic chemicals become more toxic,” said Woodruff.

Developmental PBDE Exposure and IQ/ADHD in Childhood: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

In the largest study of its kind to date, data from about 3,000 mother–child pairs were examined to study developmental PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) exposure and intelligence (IQ) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in childhood; the study found that every 10-fold increase in PBDE exposure during pregnancy resulted in a decrease of 3.7 IQ points in children. 

The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, about a week after a San Francisco supervisor introduced legislation that would ban all flame-retardant chemicals from furniture, baby strollers and other children’s products sold in San Francisco.

As summarized by the San Francisco Chronicle (http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Pregnant-women-s-exposure-to-flame-retardants-11731559.php), “Increased exposure among pregnant women to a class of flame-retardant chemicals found in older furniture and other everyday consumer products is linked to lower IQs in their children.”

Systematic Reviews

In a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Application of Systematic Review Methods in an Overall Strategy for Evaluating Low-Dose Toxicity from Endocrine Active Chemicals, NAS used systematic reviews to evaluate two case-studies: 1) PBDEs and neurodevelopmental outcomes; and 2) Prenatal phthalates exposures and male reproductive effects. NAS concludes that both chemicals are presumed hazards to humans, due to effects on intelligence for PBDEs and to reproductive toxicity for the phthalate DEHP.

In addition, NAS used PRHE’s PBDE systematic review as the basis for human evidence, saying it is a model for a high-quality method with low risk of bias. The report also finds that chemical exposures people experience daily are linked to risks of adverse health effects and that animal studies are predictive of such health effects.

PRHE introduced systematic reviews in 2009 because it brings the consistency and transparency needed in chemical evaluations. Systematic review methods can save both lives and money by using the existing data to better understand the health implications of ongoing environmental chemical exposures in the US population. NAS’s independent investigations demonstrate they are feasible and an improvement to interpreting the science.

Protecting Your Family From Toxics

As summarized in UCSF News, here are some recommendations from the PRHE for reducing your exposure to toxins:

Use nontoxic personal care products: Many such products contain ingredients that can harm reproductive health, but safer options are available.

Choose safer home improvement products:  Many paints, glues and flooring materials release toxic chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) long after you complete a project. Ask for VOC-free and water-based products.

Mop and dust often:  Toxic substances like lead, pesticides and flame retardants are present in household dust. Use a wet mop or wet cloth to regularly clean floors and flat surfaces.

Clean with nontoxic products:  It is easy and cheap to make effective, nontoxic cleaners with common ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.

Remove your shoes inside:  Outdoor shoes can carry toxic chemicals into your home.

Don’t dry-clean your clothes:  Many dry cleaners use toxic chemicals. Hand-wash delicate clothes or ask your dry cleaner to use water instead of chemicals.

Avoid pesticides and herbicides:  Toxic chemicals used to kill insects, rodents, weeds, bacteria, mold and other noxious animals and plants can also harm your health.

Select flame-retardant-free foam products:  Crib mattresses, nap mats and other upholstered products can contain flame-retardants, which can harm health and affect a child’s brain. Instead, select foam products labeled as “flame-retardant-free” or tagged as compliant with TB-117-2013.

Avoid toxics in your food and water:  Whenever possible, eat organic food to reduce your exposure to pesticides. If you can’t buy organic produce, choose the fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue and avoid the most contaminated ones.

Limit foods high in animal fat:  Many toxic substances build up in animal fat.

Use less plastic:  Choose glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers for food. Don’t use plastic containers for hot foods or drinks and use glass instead of plastic in the microwave, because heat makes plastic release chemicals.

Avoid lead exposure:  Any home built before 1978 may have lead paint. There may also be lead in household dust and garden soil.

Keep mercury out of your diet, home and garbage:  Eat fish with lower levels of mercury. Replace your mercury thermometer with a digital one. Don’t throw items containing mercury (such as old thermometers or compact fluorescent bulbs) in the trash.

Avoid canned foods and beverages:  Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. This limits your exposure to BPA, a toxic substance used in the lining of most cans.

Get the Word Out
Here are some social media posts we encourage you to post:

•    Flame retardants found in furniture, household products can damage kid’s IQ—says largest review of research to date on PBDEs. Policymakers, take note! #PBDEs #chemicals #HealthNotToxics https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp1632/
•    Despite bans, PBDE flame retardants pose continued risk to children’s IQ. Clearly not the time to roll back environmental health protections.  #childrenshealth #IQ #PBDEs #HealthNotToxics https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/ehp1632/
•    Flame retardants found in furniture, household products can damage kids’ IQ says largest review of research to date on #PBDEs. #chemicals #HealthNotToxicshttp://bit.ly/2vv4fLA
• Dead but not gone—despite bans, #PBDE flame retardants pose ongoing threats to kids’ #IQ. #childrenshealth #HealthNotToxics http://bit.ly/2vv4fLA