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Concerned scientists offer to help government with oversight of toxic chemicals

Janelle Weaver, Contributor

We’re surrounded by harmful chemicals, but how much do we really know about their effect on the body? Federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), could be doing more to determine the health risk posed by environmental compounds, scientists argue in a journal commentary.

Patricia Hunt, a reproductive biologist at Washington State University, and her collaborators present these concerns in the March 4 issue of Science. In their letter, they offer to the US government the expertise of eight professional societies that represent the fields of human genetics, reproductive medicine, developmental biology and endocrinology, among others.

“It grew out of increasing frustration on the part of several of my colleagues and I about how the review process seems to handle academic research,” Hunt explains. FDA and EPA committees are not capturing the full body of evidence about the potential hazards of common substances because they rely primarily on toxicology studies to assess the safety of these compounds and devise regulatory guidelines, she says. “A lot of really good and strong research gets tossed aside in part because there isn’t the right expertise on those panels.”

Complex chemicals

Many scientists are most troubled by endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A (BPA), which mimics the female sex hormone estrogen. Exposure to everyday levels of BPA found in water bottles and other plastic containers can cause severe developmental and genetic abnormalities in animals, studies by Hunt and others have shown. “This [research] is going to provide an enormous amount of insight into what BPA actually does, and it’s going to be a complement to the long-standing practice of very careful, thorough toxicological studies,” says Scott Hawley, a geneticist at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and former president of the Genetics Society of America.

But for the time being, “government review practices are inadequate for chemicals with hormone-like actions,” the researchers assert in the article. In particular, toxicology studies may neglect long-term and dose-specific outcomes, says Kelly Mayo, an endocrinologist at Northwestern University and president of the Endocrine Society. “They’re compounds that can have effects sometimes at very low doses, yet have no apparent effects at very high doses,” he says.

Professional help

Scientific associations can supply information about how toxins affect biological processes in model organisms and attempt to relate the data to humans, Hawley says. “This is an interesting challenge that the members of our societies are ideally equipped to handle.”

The research organizations propose to help federal agencies evaluate chemicals and develop new testing procedures. “We felt that we had something to contribute and wanted to make sure that the appropriate regulatory agencies felt free to call on us for our assistance,” Hawley says.

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